By Anthony Popiel
When Oblivion, starring Tom Cruise, came out in theaters last year, many critics complained that the film stole plot points from classic sci-fi movies. While there are story threads in Oblivion that are blatantly burrowed from other movies like The Matrix and Blade Runner, there are also small visual nods and lines of dialogue that reference additional films. It’s my belief that director Joseph Kosinski was not simply ripping off classic stories; instead he purposefully used familiar plot points and visuals to serve as homages to the sci-fi movies that he watched as a kid. In essence, he made a movie that honors sci-fi in cinema, one that fans of the genre can appreciate. While some of the references are obvious, here are some nods to classic sci-fi in Oblivion that you may not have noticed.
King Kong – The main character of Oblivion, a technician named Jack (Tom Cruise), visits several well-known landmarks in a post-apocalyptic New York setting. One of these landmarks includes the Empire State Building, now a decrepit heap where Jack finds a stuffed gorilla in an abandoned room. The stuffed gorilla and the Empire State Building should immediately bring King Kong to mind. This allusion is apt, since the classic story of adventurers visiting a strange land to find a monster reflects Jack’s journey into the unknown world of post-apocalyptic New York.
Planet of the Apes – An allusion to a second sci-fi film about apes can be seen as Jack flies through a canyon. For a brief moment, we can see the Statue of Liberty’s torch rising out of a pile of rubble. This image brings to mind the iconic ending of Planet of the Apes when Charlton Heston discovers the Statue of Liberty buried on a beach. Like King Kong, this reference honors the “stranger in a strange land” story that both Planet of the Apes and Oblivion tell.
2001: A Space Odyssey – Jack’s job in Oblivion is to repair maintenance drones when they malfunction, and each of these drones has a similar, defining feature – a glaring red circle that functions as an eye. This red eye is a nod to one of the most famous machines in science fiction, HAL 9000 from 2001: A Space Odyssey, and serves as a clue to the audience that these drones are not as trustworthy as they may seem.
Fahrenheit 451 – Near the end of the film’s first act, Jack finds a partially burned book in a decrepit library that he takes with him. After reading the book, he becomes inspired to perform many of the daring actions that he ends up taking throughout the rest of the movie. This plot point is reminiscent of Ray Bradbury’s novel (and its film adaptation), Fahrenheit 451, which tells the story of a post-apocalyptic future when books are burned en masse. As Bradbury’s novel reminds readers of the importance of books, so Oblivion, with its bountiful references to other movies, attempts to remind audiences of the ideas and feelings that classic sci-fi can bring to theaters.
Star Wars – One of the film’s main action sequences is an aerial dogfight between Jack and three rogue drones. Most of this fight occurs as Jack and the drones fly through a vast canyon network. This setup honors one of the best examples of the pure fun and energy that sci-fi has to offer by mirroring the climatic space fight of the original Star Wars, when Luke Skywalker has to fly through a trench in the Death Star while being pursued by three enemy fighters.
Star Trek – The opening of Oblivion includes voiceover narration from Jack as he lays out how Earth became a post-apocalyptic world. At one point, he mentions that he is near the end of a five-year mission ensuring the maintenance drones are all in working order. This introduction is a clear reference to the classic Star Trek television series, particularly the scenes when Captain Kirk would read from his log to set the stage for an episode. It’s also no coincidence that both Jack and Captain Kirk are in the middle of five-year missions. While the Star Wars allusions honor the sense of adventure that sci-fi can offer, the nod to Captain Kirk and his mission is a callback to the thought-provoking ideas and concepts that Star Trek often explored.
It can be difficult to tell when a movie’s connections with other classic stories venture from respectful nods to unabashed rip-offs. It may come down to a matter of personal taste, as some fans enjoy catching references to their favorite films, while others cry foul at seeing plot devices recycled. While Oblivion doesn’t have the subtlest allusions, there are a few hidden gems like the ones I’ve called out above. If you aren’t a fan of Oblivion, I hope this list motivates you to see the film a second time to spot any references that I’ve missed. Or, at the very least, you can check out the classic sci-fi stories that inspired this film in the first place.
Anthony Popiel loves hearing and seeing stories in any artistic medium. Rather than simply saying that something is good or bad, he prefers to investigate the ideas and messages that stories communicate both subtly and overtly. He hopes to retire to The Shire one day and find somewhere quiet where he can finish his book. Follow him on Twitter @aapopiel.