You have to give credit to certain filmmakers such as Joseph Kosinski creating new sci-fi films that reflect off of the best era for sci-fi: The 1970s. Other than being the bridge between basic special effects of the 1950s and the emergence of CGI in the 1980s, the stories and aesthetic of 1970s sci-fi have been a challenge to match. Many of those stories involved post-apocalyptic views of the world that were endlessly copied into subsequent years with considerably less charm.
Yes, charm is the word. It’s not that the plots were charming, but more in the presentation of those 1970s films. Considering most of the ruins shown in said dystopian tales were done with matte paintings, it gives a nod to that lost cinematic art form. You see the style copied all the time in similar post-apocalypse stories, particularly in depiction of city ruins.
Now Kosinski’s “Oblivion” with Tom Cruise is also giving a nod to those above films with an added, stunning twist. While that twist won’t be revealed here, what 1970s sci-fi films will it give a salute to? Based on the use of a certain prominent New York City building in the film, it goes all the way back to the “Planet of the Apes” movie franchise.
And, in that regard, 1970s sci-fi may have actually started in 1968 with the first in the above film series. The final scene of Charlton Heston’s George Taylor collapsing at the half-buried sight of the Statue of Liberty on a futuristic beach was far too compelling not to be elaborated upon. There was slightly more of that underground in the sequel, “Beneath the Planet of the Apes”, right when the 1970s began.
It was the depicted ruins of “Omega Man” that took it further by 1971. One could even argue the above film did more to influence the dystopian look of 1970s sci-fi than “Apes” did. As well, nobody would have guessed a few years earlier that Charlton Heston would be the acting anchor to make these movies more compelling.
The mid 1970s were arguably the culmination of that matte painting aesthetic until 1977 changed everything with the more elaborate special effects of “Star Wars” and “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.” “Logan’s Run” in 1976 might have been the last time the dystopian tale “Oblivion” plays off of was done in the style we deem so familiar.
It doesn’t necessarily mean the un-Special Edition of “Star Wars” didn’t have its own 1970s aesthetic that’s still singular from the ensuing sequels and the prequels. What was it, though, about the sight of city ruins in matte painting form that made it look so appealing even today? Most likely it’s because matte paintings had a richness in quality nobody can duplicate on a computer.
In other words, it’s not out of the question to say matte paintings looked more real in the depiction of city ruins than CGI can. If only “Oblivion” had gone back to the same general vision, it could have given the film a timeless, artful feel on its own.
Regardless, the dystopian tale with a stunning twist for the protagonist is right back to “Omega Man” and “Soylent Green” 40+ years ago. That means “Oblivion” at least found the beating heart of a lost genre.