"Oblivion," the sci-fi mind-bender topping the box office charts this week, is the first big popcorn movie of the season. Set in the year 2077, the film stars Tom Cruise and is notable for being an original story by director Joseph Kosinski –- not a franchise reboot or adaptation.
Original sci-fi movies are something of a commodity these days, even though it's almost impossible anymore to come up with a truly original sci-fi story. The territory has been thoroughly mapped for 100 years in cinema and a few hundred years before then in literature.
"Oblivion" doesn't break much new ground, but it does take several classic science fiction tropes and sorts them into new and interesting combinations. In fact, the film takes on a remarkable number of major genre themes, each based in real-world scientific issues and conjecture. You might say it throws in everything but the kitchen sink. Oops, wait a sec. There's a kitchen sink scene, too.
Alien invasion is among science fiction's oldest and most enduring concerns.
"Oblivion"'s alien invasion scenario borrows imagery from canonical films like Stanley Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey," contemporary special effects blockbusters like "Independence Day" and even TV's "Star Trek: The New Generation" (the Borg!). In literature, of course, aliens have been invading Earth for as long as there have been science fiction stories. One of the first was Voltaire's short story "Micromegas," which envisioned titanic aliens from Saturn and the star Sirius visiting Earth and marveling at our arrogance, relative to our size. Judgmental aliens; they're the worst.
While scientific initiatives like SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) continue to watch the skies, no alien races have invaded Earth. So far as we know.
Tom Cruise, as pilot Jack Harper, stares down a rogue drone in "Oblivion."
The most obvious cinematic predecessor of the rogue military drones in "Oblivion" are the lethal Skynet machines of the "Terminator" films. "Oblivion" also has several scenes reminiscent of the underrated 1987 freakout "RoboCop." "Oblivion" and its disobedient artillery drones are really just a variation on the robot uprising stories that have fascinated science fiction writers through the years, most notably Isaac Asimov in his "Robot" novels.
The U.S. and several other countries have unmanned military drones deployed around the world.
Artist's conception of Saturn as seen from the moon Titan.
In the world of "Oblivion," Tom Cruise's character, Jack Harper, is informed that the bulk of Earth's population has retreated to Saturn's moon Titan. The idea of off-world colonies has been explored by countless sci-fi films such as "Aliens," "Total Recall" and "Blade Runner." Space colonies are a staple of sci-fi literature as well. In Asimov's "Foundation" series, all habitable planets in the galaxy are eventually terraformed and colonized.
Titan has been cited as a possible destination for space colonies, in that it has a dense atmosphere and oceans. Oceans of liquid methane, maybe. But still.
"Oblivion" trades heavily in images of a post-apocalypse Earth.
"Oblivion" proceeds from the premise that Earth has been ravaged by a worldwide nuclear war, although it gets a little more complicated than that. In any case, there's certainly no shortage of cinematic precedence in this area. Imagery in the film recalls sequences from cult classics like "Mad Max" to the infamous TV movie "The Day After" and even video game franchises like the popular "Fallout" series. In books, apocalypse and post-apocalypse stories date all the way back to Mary Shelley and Edgar Allen Poe in the early 1800s.
"Oblivion" leverages the familiar scientific predictions about the effects of a global thermonuclear war – blasted landscapes, radiation zones, heavy weather and the destruction of most plant and animal life.
Clones are a recurring theme in science fiction films and literature.
It's hard to discuss this one without giving too much away, but yes, clones make an appearance in "Oblivion." The visuals in play recall "The Matrix" and "Star Wars" prequels, and there's even a nod to the awkward clone comedy of movies like Michael Keaton's "Multiplicity." Clones are a recurring theme in sci-fi literature, tracing back to the decanted laborers of Aldous Huxley's 1932 novel, "Brave New World."
The ethical and public policy issues around human cloning are enormous, but the technology already exists for cloning mammals. Some conspiracy-prone observers speculate that human cloning may already be underway in secret labs.
Morgan Freeman and fellow underground dwellers in "Oblivion."
With Earth's surface largely uninhabitable, the refugees in "Oblivion" live underground in a network of ruins, caves and tunnels. There are specific cinematic similarities here with the "Matrix" and "Terminator" movies, and stories of subterranean cities are found throughout both sci-fi and fantasy fiction, particularly in the works of J.R.R. Tolkein, H.G. Wells, Edgar Allen Poe and Jules Verne. You could even make the case that Dante's 14th-century epic poem "The Divine Comedy" describes a particularly infernal underground community.
Hundreds of underground complexes exist throughout the world, and many could fairly be termed cities. Montreal's Underground City -– La Ville Souterraine in French –- has more than 20 miles of tunnels connecting apartments, hotels, offices and shops.
Tom Cruise is a pilot alone and in trouble.
In its delirious second half, "Oblivion" delivers some story twists concerning yet another science fiction standby: the abandoned astronaut in peril. Without giving too much away, it's safe to say you can hear echoes of classic sci-fi films such as "Planet of the Apes" and that old standby "2001: A Space Odyssey." Sci-fi nerds will also feel some resonance here with fiction from the Space Race era, particularly the work of Russian writer Stanislaw Lem ("Solaris").
In the history of manned spaceflight missions, more than 500 people have traveled in space, with 18 known fatalities in the U.S. and Russian programs.