Western Film WTF: Oblivion (1994)


A satiric mash-up between Westerns and science fiction films, this is directed and acted so broadly as to become genuinely bizarre.

by Max Sparber

"Oblivion" is another film from Charles Band, who previously gave us the odd and fitfully enjoyable "Pet Shop," and "odd and fitfully enjoyable" seems to be his brand. While it's not all that uncommon to take the genre of the Western and adapt it to science fiction — "Star Trek" was pitched as "Wagon Train" in space, after all — this film takes the idea and makes it unexpectedly literal.

The film is set on an alien planet that looks and behaves very much like a cinematic Western, but with cyborgs, alien creatures, and space blasters. The script, by the notably cranky comics author Peter David, presumes this conceit to be comic, although it probably doesn't need to be.

Nonetheless, he set out to script a daffy semi-satire of Westerns, in which a lizard-man and his cohorts take over a space Western town and murder the marshal, then generally create chaos until the marshal's son shows up, wrestles with his own pacifism, and finally decides to restore law and order. In a lot of ways, it is "Destry Rides Again," but, you know, with a lizard-man.

The film is cheap-looking but in an enjoyable way — it looks like the deliberately artificial sets of a New Wave music video, and was obviously shot on a backlot. in fact, It was lensed in Bucharest: Charles Band helped build a studio there called Castel Film Studios with a permanent Western town, which is where the stately Civil War film "Cold Mountain" was lensed, but remains a favorite for low-budget, weirdo Westerns, including "Phantom Town," "Aliens in the Wild, Wild West," and "Dead in Tombstone," so we can expect to return to this set. If I ever end up in Romania, I'm going to try to get a tour of it. 

David wrote an entertainingly goofball script that is somewhat undermined by being over-directed by Sam Irvin, a filmmaker whose taste tends toward the too-broad (he was also responsible for "Elvira's Haunted Hills," a film that seems like it would be impossible to direct too broadly; somehow he did it. However, it is exactly this broadness that places this film in the Western Film WTF category; it might have been an interesting but otherwise unmemorable Weird Western, but it goes so far over the top as to become a genuine oddity.

So actors tend to mug a lot in this film, including a few notable talents from television: George Takei plays the town doctor and Julie Newmar plays the local madame, and both go large with their performances. Takei is saddled with frequent, unfunny "Star Trek" references, while Newman is occasionally given Catwoman-style dialogue, and they deliver their lines as though worried the audience might not get the references, which is the wrong choice.

The film does feature a few enjoyable performances, including Andrew Divoff as the lizard man. He's completely hidden under makeup, and yet somehow manages to provide a sprightly, eccentric take on a villain, as though he found the whole experience of villainy to be a camp pleasure and needed to communicate that he was tickled by the naughtiness of it all. He has a gang of Western types around him, including a leather-clad woman with a whip, a thickheaded mountain man, and a Zorro type who seems to think he is in a Flamenco performance. 

They are all overbroad, as is the way of the film, but the leather-clad woman, named Lash, is especially egregious. Played by Musetta Vander, who was also in "Wild Wild West" as well as being one of the sirens in "O Brother Where Art Thou." Her impulse as a performer seems to be to look for the nearest piece of scenery and chew on it, and she does so with uninhibited gusto here, turning in a performance that bypasses overacting into something approaching performance art. She's the main character in the 1996 sequel to this film, "Oblivion 2: Backlash," which I suppose I will have to see now.

The film's leads are a bit bland, with Richard Joseph Paul as the marshal's son and Jackie Swanson as his love interest. I don't know much about Paul, but Swanson was perfectly delightful in a recurring role on "Cheers," so I can only assume both actors decided everybody else was just doing to much and they needed to provide some contrast. 

The film has some enjoyable supporting performances, including soul singer Issac Hayes as a bartender, the enormous Carel Struycken as a somewhat supernatural mortician, and Meg Foster as a cyborg deputy, which is the sort of role Foster, with her inhumanly blue eyes, should always have been given. 

There is also a Native American character, played drolly by Jimmie F. Skaggs. In practice he is a space alien and not an actual Native American, but I still find myself uncomfortable with the fact that the character is played by a white man. I just don't have any patience for redface anymore, even in fantasy.

If we can conceive of a planet where giant night scorpions will occasionally devour cast members, we can conceive of casting Native Americans in our movies. And I know this is a film from 1994, but "Predator" came out in 1987 and somehow managed to cast Cherokee and Seminole actor Sonny Landham as a Native American who battles a space alien. Hell, Billy Drago, who was party Chiricahua Apache and who had been doing both Westerns and supernatural films for more than a decade, was likely available and in budget.

Come on, filmmakers. If you're going to go off the beaten path with a Western, go off the beaten path. There's nothing surprising about casting a White man as an Indian. The only WTF to be had is that it was being done at all in 1994, and, unfortunately, is still being done.


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