Two 1980’s science fiction efforts from the ‘eighties: Millennium is an expensive book adaptation with Kris Kristofferson and Cheryl Ladd navigating a time travel story about body snatchers from the future. R.O.T.O.R is direct to video and strictly from hunger. Oh, the agony… However, both films surely have lessons to teach the budding filmmaker who thinks moviemaking is easy.
Street Date February 23, 2016 / 26.99
Scream Factory plumbs the depths of the MGM library, which includes not only the holdings of United Artists, Orion and the old American-International Pictures, but also an alphabet soup of smaller outfits that were bought up in the 1990s. The independent productions seen on this Scream Factory Blu-ray double bill give us two kinds of science fiction properties. One is an expensive Canadian production with a big star, and the other is a micro-budgeted copycat effort that barely achieves watch-ability.
1977 / 1:85 widescreen / 106 min.
Starring Kris Kristofferson, Cheryl Ladd, Daniel J. Travanti, Robert Joy, Lloyd Bochner, Brent Carver, David McIlwraith, Maury Chaykin, Al Waxman, Lawrence Dane, Thomas Hauff.
Cinematography Rene Ohashi
Original Music Eric N. Robertson
Written by John Varley from his short story Air Raid
Produced by Douglas Leiterman, Bruce McNall
Directed by Michael Anderson
Something called ‘First Millennium Partnership’ either initiated or inherited the feature film project to turn John Varley’s short story “Air Raid” into a movie. Varley transformed his 1977 story into a 1983 novel, but that was after it was already being promoted. The eventual 1989 Fox release Millennium would appear to be an excellent example of a promising idea killed by committee. We applaud Varley’s success, as his novel became popular and won a number of literary prizes. But the movie is pretty much a mess compromised by ‘commercial’ elements. The idea of a future society traveling back to ours in time machines, saw expression in classy art films by Chris Marker (La Jetée) and Alain Resnais (Je t’aime, je t’aime)) as well as the marvelous but under-produced sci-fi turnip Terror from the Year 5000 (1958), and any number of Outer Limits and Twilight Zone episodes.
The basic idea of Millennium makes sense. In a standard post-apocalyptic future, our planet and humanity have been ruined by atomic wars. By generating wormhole time portals in the space-time continuum (someone cue Lisa Simpson here), the future folk are snatching humans from our time to replenish the species with undamaged 1989 chromosomes. But they can’t simply kidnap random people because the slightest change results in a Ray Bradbury-butterfly Effect that is felt in the future as a frightening ‘Time Quake.’ So trained ‘snatch teams’ from the future instead tele-time-port themselves back to passenger aircraft that are about to crash. They replace everyone on board with specially-prepared pre-burned substitute bodies. The real people find themselves in a distant future, and the planes crash with identifiable corpses on board. The future gets fresh genetic material, and the future isn’t affected because the stolen people would have died anyway.
We don’t see how the burned bodies are created (are they grown from pods, hm?) and in fact, when we see the substitution take place, the bodies aren’t actually burned. The story instead starts extremely well, with a major crash investigation after two jets collide and come down. The recreation of a crash site is magnificently realized. NTSB investigator Bill Smith (Kris Kristofferson) is confused by a voice on the cockpit voice recorder in which, moments before the crash (and any fire), a flight officer shouts that all the passengers are burned up. Smith also finds a strange metallic device among the wreckage debris. In the middle of his investigation he’s picked up and bedded by the gorgeous Louise Baltimore (Cheryl Ladd of Charlie’s Angels). She tries to get him to play hooky from work, and then suddenly disappears. Confused by the strange device (which also disappeared), Bill contacts scientist and NTSB critic Arnold Mayer (Daniel J. Travanti of TV’s Hill Street Blues), and finds that Mayer has part of one of the devices that he pulled from a wreck years before… in fact, the very same crash on which Bill Smith, as a child, was the only survivor. Bill remembers a stewardess from that experience, and suddenly realizes that she looked just like the mysterious Louise.
That’s the interesting part ofMillennium. Louise is of course a ‘snatch team’ member, dispatched with other special future citizens through time portals to do the body snatching. But the clumsy snatchers have left not one but two of the devices behind: gun-like ‘zappers’ used to immobilize the passengers to be snatched. If the zappers are not recovered, a ‘Time Quake’ will destroy the future reality ‘like an atomic bomb,’ whatever that means.
The future unfortunately looks like a bad episode of TV’s Buck Rogers from the late ’70s, with weak optical effects — lots of glowing force fields and roto-scoped silhouettes — to show the time portal. At one point an entire plane is yanked into the future for a few minutes, which makes us ask why sending snatch teams back is necessary at all.
The man in charge is Coventry (Brent Carver) a mutated cripple in a wheelchair. He and Louise trade terrible small talk quips with Sherman (Robert Joy), a curious robotic man who looks like a cross between Jack Haley’s Tin Man and Superman comics’ Bizarro. Everybody talks in pure exposition mode, as if a ‘time travel for dummies’ summary of the sci-fi premise had been chopped up and divided between them. How best to explain the expository chat? They lecture to the unseen audience, rather than conduct anything like reasonable conversations between themselves. It’s like having surgeons in the middle of a heart transplant scene telling each other that blood is pumped around the body. Or a submarine commander reminding his chief engineer that they must turn off the motor, so that enemy destroyers can’t pick it up on their audio detectors. Add the infantile Disney-fied robot man and the silly chit-chat jokes, and the sci-fi thrills are D.O.A..
Meanwhile, in the present, Kris Kristofferson maintains his dignity by playing everything straight. Cheryl Ladd’s Louise is supposed to be awkward in her pickup approach, but the direction by Michael Anderson (of the terrible Logan’s Run) makes her look like an idiot. The script has Louise, disguised as a stewardess, interrupt a group of experts as they listen to the cockpit voice recordings for the first time. But nobody screams for her to get the hell out, because they’re all ‘mesmerized by her stunning appearance.’ The best the film can to do make Louise seem special is to give her what to me looks like a David Bowie haircut. Cheryl Ladd remained a busy actress but this role had to be setback to her career.
Daniel Travanti’s Dr. Ayers is given ridiculous dialogue. Remember the scientist in the odd sci-fi classic Invaders from Mars, who, based on nothing at all, theorizes the exact truth about a Martian invasion, the existence of ‘mutants,’ etc.? Based on the possession of one futuristic artifact, Dr. Ayers makes a speech to the U.N. that spells out the exact nature of the time-travel kidnappings. He could have proved that the time travel hanky-panky is real by letting the government examine the zapper in his possession, but (insert John Belushi howl) no-o-o-o-o-o.
Michael Anderson was not the director to turn Millennium into a gem; when he made a good movie in the past, the script and production were usually unbreakable. The show has a few effective moments but is otherwise an expensive-looking head-shaker, one of those pictures that convinces us that nobody was in control, or that every investor came forward to say things like, ‘add a sex scene,’ ‘add a funny car driving scene,’ or, ‘make sure we show nothing unpleasant, like burned bodies.’ That’s my best guess. I’m sure that some investor was upset that they wouldn’t be able to sell the show to the airlines, for in-flight showings.
An interesting alternate ‘international’ ending is included as an extra. It basically has Bill and Louise pass through an escape time portal with all the present-day kidnappees, where they end up naked and embracing before an optically added sunset. I understand that in the book, the future humans transport the rescued humans to a distant planet more habitable than our devastated world. The movie doesn’t spell this out. Coventry and Louise at first believe that she cannot pass through the portal with Bill, but we aren’t told why. Sherman tells her to go, and sends her off with one of the worst kiss-off lines in sci-fi, one of those, This is not the beginning of the end, but the end of the beginning” groaners. Seeing as how she’s nude and gorgeous, Louise looks perfectly happy with Bill in the unexplained paradise. In the book, I believe, she’s actually as much of a warped mutation as Coventry or Sherman, but has been augmented with a fake skin and robot leg to pass for healthy during her snatch missions. That at least explains why she supposedly can’t go to paradise with Bill, but it doesn’t explain how he can have sex with her (the best in his life!) without at least getting a clue that she’s a cyborg. In college, I could always tell when I was having sex with a mutant, robot or Young Republican. Millennium was rated PG-13; was the longer ending saved for the international cut because of the discreet nudity? Jeez, there’s an entire casual sex scene earlier in the picture.
The trailer on the disc presents the wormhole shot seen only in the international version’s ending, but nothing that looks like it had to be filmed in Kauai, Hawaii, which is mentioned as a location in the credits.
1987 / 1:78 widescreen / 90 min.
Starring Margaret Trigg, Richard Gesswein, Jayne Smith, James Cole, Stan Moore, Nanette Kuczek.
Cinematography Glenn Roland
Film Editor Doug Bryan
Original Music David Adam Newman
Written by Cullen Blaine, Budd Lewis
Produced by Cullen Blaine, Richard Gesswein, Budd Lewis
Directed by Cullen Blaine
A movie granted a U.S. ‘video premiere’ in 1988, R.O.T.O.R. is an inert rip-off of the genre-shaking classic RoboCop, that must have gone into production as soon as the Paul Verhoeven picture reached the screens. The distributor was Manson International but the producers appear to be a triumvirate of Texas moviemakers. The star Richard Gesswein is awful and everything about the movie is amateurish, from the drum machine music score to the non-action action scenes to the two or three country western songs that pop up, for no reason, as filler behind padded montages of the hero brushing his teeth or driving in his pickup truck.
The story doesn’t begin to live up to the image on its dynamic poster (used for the disc cover) that itself seems traced from another source, maybe one of the Mad Max movies. Cowboy scientist Coldyron (Richard Gesswein) runs a robotics company that’s building R.O.T.O.R. (Robotic Officer Tactical Operation Research), a robot cop to hold off the expected onslaught of crime in the future. Coldyron shows some men a video of a ‘combat chassis’ performing martial arts moves. He’s then pressured by a Dallas official to finish R.O.T.O.R. in 30 days, so that the grafters in the city government will have something to show for the millions they’ve embezzled. Coldyron needs the four years he contracted for, so he quits. A new lab manager does what the official wants, and R.O.T.O.R. accidentally becomes operational on its own volition. The robot is working with prime directives planned for twenty-five years in the future (2012), when it is predicted that cops will need to act as judges and executioners as well. R.O.T.O.R. goes on a rampage, killing people for minor infractions of the law. He shoots a driver and spends the rest of the night and morning pursuing the man’s girlfriend, seeking to execute her as ‘an accessory.’ Coldyron meets Dr. Steele at the airport and together they try to outwit R.O.T.O.R. and put him out of commission. But he’s very difficult to destroy.
I’ve had to make promos of awful Cannon releases that never really were released, oddball pickup pictures that looked like bad jokes, or minimal productions finished to fulfill a contract. R.O.T.O.R. is worse. It is painful to watch. Although the cinematography is competent there are no attractive shots or competent effects. The R.O.T.O.R. robot is a guy with a mustache wearing a leather motorcycle outfit and a helmet with a dark visor. He walks like a muscleman and makes snarling faces. His only weakness is loud car horns, although other loud noises don’t bother him. The one technical effect is an amateurish, crudely animated stop motion robot ‘skeleton.’ The R.O.T.O.R. insignia has been crudely added to windows and a motorcycle; we can tell when the robot is going to destroy a ticket booth because it’s revealed as a flimsy mockup before he approaches it. Dr. Steele is a woman, but is also a martial arts expert. She also looks like a man dressed up as a woman, but with a really clean shave. Nothing is explained.
The audio appears to be post-dubbed, poorly; characters speak when their lips don’t move and vice-versa. The dialogue consists of excruciatingly awful attempts at hardboiled tough talk, which the filmmakers mistakenly think is clever. The ninety-minute ordeal of watching the movie serves only to convince would-be moviemakers that good work can’t be done without filmmaking talent and a decent script idea. Compared to R.O.T.O.R., Mesa of Lost Women is cinematic bliss, The Astounding She Monster a bouquet of brilliance, and The Beast of Yucca Flats an incisive look at the human condition. Do you need me to draw you a picture?
Scream Factory’s Blu-ray double bill of Millennium and R.O.T.O.R. are very good HD encodings of these sci-fi offerings from the 1980s. Millennium has entertainment value, what with its attractive leading players and interesting premise. R.O.T.O.R. is pretty much a wash. It would seem to have been chosen because it’s in color. The MGM library still contains worthwhile, if not classic, fantasy and sci-fi films not yet out on Blu-ray, and some that are not even out on home video. I mentioned a few at the end of my review of Curse of the Faceless Man.
Millennium and R.O.T.O.R.
Blu-ray Double Bill rates:
Movie: Millennium: Fair ++ , R.O.T.O.R.: Poor
Video: Very Good
Sound: Very Good
Supplements: trailers, Alternate ending for Millennium
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly?
Yes; Subtitles: English
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
Reviewed: February 18, 2016
Text © Copyright 2016 Glenn Erickson