DVD Reviews for The Month (Pt. 1 of 2)
January 2001 -
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2001 MILLENNIUM SCIENCE FICTION DVD EXTRAVAGANZA!

OK, need we remind all you folks who couldn't count logically that last January 1 was not  the real Millennium - this January 1 is/was! And what better time to offer up a collection of recent Sci-Fi DVD reviews than in honor of the Millennium? So here they are:

The Lost World (1997)

This sequel joined the original as two of the top-grossing films of all time. It was the first to use the new DTS theatrical surround system and its theater shaking dinosaur stomping became an instant sonic hit with audiences. In addition to the improved soundtrack - preserved on this DVD to great effect - the sequel presented lots more dinos, more action and more special effects than the original. The story takes place four years after the disaster on the island of Jurassic Park as two different groups race against time in an effort to determine the fate of the prehistoric creatures from the island. This time attempts to exploit them for profit run amuck and the mainland is threatened. Jeff Goldblum becomes the main human character - rather a leap from his role in the first film as a sort of observer who gets to say in the end "I told you so." Actually, he just gets to encore his I told you so in a bigger way in the sequel. Quite a thriller both visually and aurally - just as much fun and excitement as the original. Excellent image quality, with very little pixelation noted.

- John Sunier

 

Pitch Black

Must admit I skipped this one in the theaters though I normally see every sci-fi flick whether good or bad. One poor review of it had scared me off. So it was pleasurable to find this a very well-done and scary film, which while employing countless bits from previous sci-fi movies melded them together in a fresh manner that kept up interest from start to finish. Plus the film's design and general looks up on the screen were terrific and extremely well captured on the DVD without any noticeable pixelation and with a wide range of light and color values. Not to mention the creative use of the surround to enhance the scariness - similar to what was done with the original Alien but even better. And this was even better in the DTS version too.

OK, we start with the usual crash of the spaceship on a strange and unknown planet. This planet has three suns and each imparts a different color to the landscape when it is high in the sky, so the film can go almost entirely blue or gold or silver for various scenes. (Reminded me of Rocketship X-M which went to reddish-tinted film when the spaceship crashed on Mars.) Only eight of the passengers and the captain survive the crash and one of the them is a convicted killer being transported to another prison by his long-time Jauvert/cop/guard. Much is made of the various characters not trusting one another, and all not trusting the convict (Diesel) who is nevertheless released due partly to his ability to see in the dark. At an upcoming time predicted by a model display found in an abandoned expedition dwelling, there will be an eclipse of all three suns. When pitch black ensues, the planet's extremely predatory flying creatures come out of their chimneys and swarm to attack any living thing. That's when the pace of the film picks up quite a bit. Great fun. Of the extras included, if you lack extra time to watch the film three times thru at one sitting, you'll find the soundtrack commentary with the director and the two actors is more interesting than the one with the producer and special effects man. The Making-Of featurette is about what you would expect, but the "Raveworld" clip is plain silly.

- John Sunier

 

The Philadelphia Experiment

There really was a Philadelphia Experiment in 1943, so the starting point for this film is science fact. It had to do with a "degaussing" experiment in which the Navy wrapped a battleship named the USS Eldridge with fields of wire through which a current was passed in an effort to conceal the ship's presence from enemy mines and perhaps even from radar. Some say it was also intended to make the ship disappear visibly by bending light in some way, and the story carries that further by having the ship disappear into a vortex in time along with two of the sailors who are deposited in l984.

The sailors fall out of the time vortex at a point in the SouthWest desert where the army is doing a similar experiment. Several chase scenes ensue since the army thinks they are spies. There are some unusual and humorous discoveries made by the sailors as they face life and technology of 41 years into their future. They commandeer the car of the Nancy Allen character and that is how she comes to be involved with one of the sailors, finally coming to believe his wild story and help him to find the reason for his predicament. Picture quality was excellent with only a little pixelation in some small details of the image, and while the 5.1 surround wasn't spectacular it aided the screen images.

- John Sunier

 

Supernova

Don't know how I missed this sci-fier either, released to theaters in l999. It deserves more attention. The medical spaceship Nightingale is on a vigil in deepest space when a call for help comes in the form of the voice of the former lover of the ship's doctor Angela Bassett. The ship makes a dangerous "dimension jump" to the moon of a distant dying planet. A shuttlecraft docks from the moon with one survivor who seems to be the former lover's son. Plus a strange glowing bullet-shaped alien object which turns out to be a superbomb intended to create a supernova and destroy the universe while rebuilding it anew. The object has strange enhancing effects on the son and one of the crew members who touch it. Spader is the replacement captain who is serving on the ship as probation from a term for drug use (shades of Pitch Black). His haunted, probing eyes will remind one of Al Pacino. Eventually the remaining crew must escape from the growing threat of the now super-powered young intruder, and finally from the approaching supernova. Can't get any more extravagant than a supernova - its the biggest bang in the universe (after the Big Bang).

This is just a guess, but I wonder if the R-rate sections deleted for the theatrical showings had to do with the first realistically-treated scenes of that hot space-travel fantasy - sex in zero-gravity? Just a thought. The other special effects are nothing to sneeze at either. (Sneeze...orgasm... Never mind.) They include the complex 20-foot model of the Nightingale which matched up exactly with the computerized version in the CG department, allowing cutting between both. The ship is far from streamlined, giving the appearance of being made up of separate modules which were assembled in space. The underground mining scene on the moon was shot in a giant maintenance hanger at LA International Airport, where scenes for Starship Troopers were also shot. The compendium of deleted scenes didn't make me feel they would have contributed greatly to a better understanding of the story (as some of those deleted from Gladiator did); however the last one is certainly of interest. It's an alternate ending to the entire film, in which the villain survives but it appears the universe will not. It must have been difficult to consign the final special effects to the cutting room floor - probably the first time anyone blew up the entire universe in a film!

- John Sunier

 

Titan A.E. (2000)

This film is an animated action/adventure film reminiscent of Star Wars and Star Trek II, and has many qualities associated with children's films, ie. good guys vs. bad guys, double-crossing, altruistic behavior, moral lessons, and violence. Well, that last one maybe isn't a hallmark of kids films in the old days, but sure seems to be present in almost all of them today. An alien race has decided to rid the universe of mankind presence and launches a full scale attack on the Earth. Humans are forced to flee across the galaxy including our hero, Cale. Somewhere out in the depths of space is a spaceship that holds a secret that may help man start anew. It turns out that Cale possesses a map and the key to unlock the power of the ship. Cale teams up with an interesting group of characters in search of this ship--the Titan. Along the way come man's enemy, the Drej, who relentlessly pursue our hero in an effort to find and finally put an end to mankind.

Titan A.E. (after Earth) is full of action and excitement. Animation is done in a manner similar to An American Tale and Anastasia--that is to say fairly realistic with certain stylistic embellishments. Extra features are interesting and worthwhile. Sound and video is exemplary. The script is ok, and the rating is a little loose and figures that you know and like this type of film. The movie contains elements which will remind you of many other different films. If you look at it this way, there is almost nothing original about it, but it appears to piece together parts of various movies. However, this is not the way to view this film. Sit back, don't think too much, and just enjoy.

- Brian Bloom

 

Isaac Asimov's Nightfall

This new film must have gone straight to video because I tend to notice any new sci-fi that comes to the theaters and I haven't seen anything about it. The fact that it is not only an Asimov story but also voted the Greatest Science Fiction Story of All Time by the Sci-Fi Writers of America makes one wonder why it didn't get some media attention. Seeing it might help explain.

First, while a good story I don't see how it got named the greatest sci-fi story. Second, these are not A-team actors - Carradine sort of sleepwalks thru his part; at least his father was more animated in his mad scientist roles. Third, this is a production by low-budget B-movie mavens Roger Corman and his wife. Fourth, cinematography is a bit lax - often the main character in a shot will be slightly out of focus while the background behind them will be in perfect focus. The DVD transfer probably just preserves the contrasty and rather poor image quality of the original. That said, you've got to give the Cormans credit for low-budget ingenuity in choosing their locations for the movie. They used someplace in India and nearly all the extras in crowd scenes are Indian, with no explanation given in the plot. Various temples and Indian sculptures provide exotic evidence of a previous civilization that the present one on the planet has discovered. As in Pitch Black an eclipse is again central to this story: This planet has six suns, and every hundred years they are all eclipsed, causing the Nightfall of the title. The inhabitants have no experience with the dark since some of the suns are normally always up in their sky, and even tend to go insane in complete dark. Well, researchers at the university discover that it's time for the eclipse again and the priest caste plans to kill everyone at the university in an extreme case of the science vs. religion controversy. Also, the people burn down all the buildings because they set fires to combat the dark that comes on, causing a catastrophe. Makes for a dramatic ending for sure.

- John Sunier

 

Phantasm Obl-IV-ion (1998)

Since this is the fourth and final film in the Phantasm series most viewers (especially if they got this far), will know what this movie is about. For those not up on the Phantasm history, the basic premise is: The Tall Man, a stranger to the parts, has come to kill off humanity and leave devastation wherever he goes. Michael is somehow connected to the man and is close to finding out a way to stop him. His friend Reggie (who drives a really cool car) is trying to help him, but keeps encountering the undead along his journey. The movie does its best to give background so even the uninitiated will understand what is going on, but I still felt like I was missing something (not having seen the other films).

The film is full of neat special effects and other visuals of weird and strange objects. There are many softball sized silver globes which are apparently under the control of the Tall Man, and do his bidding including some scary blades that appear to like bare foreheads. I could describe even more of what was going on, but it would just seem confusing. Needless to say, it would make sense to watch the other three movies before seeing the finale. There is old footage (which I assume is from/ filmed at the same time as the original movie) that helps to tie everything together.

This movie seems to walk the line between good sci-fi, horror, and a B-movie. It was really interesting at first and made me want to go watch the first three films, but then seemed to fall into a silly mode that made me think that the other movies would be even "cheesier." Fans will want to watch this one anyway as it supposedly explains everything, but at the end I was really more confused than when I started. Go figure. Anyway, if you like offbeat sci-fi/ horror flicks with a little drama then you will like this film. But I'd really recommend seeing the first film in the series and then make a judgement from there. Recommended under the aforementioned conditions.

- Brian Bloom

 

Rocketship X-M (1950)

This sci-fier had a strong effect on me as a child, along with Destination Moon, which came out about the same time. It was the first post-WW II space exploration movie. I remembered major portions of this film very accurately and it was a pleasure to see it again in a beautiful transfer to DVD, which preserves the tinting of some of the scenes - such as when they land on Mars (guess what color...). The privately-financed rocket to the moon (that's why the M in its name) is thrown completely off course by an accident and ends up orbiting Mars instead. They land, traipse thru a lot of arid SouthWest U.S. landscape, and finally meet up with a band of primitive mutants who are evidently the product of an atomic war Armageddon. Two of the crew escape and head back to earth - Bridges and the woman scientist on the expedition, of course. The dramatic soundtrack music is by Ferde Grofe and some of the desert music may remind one of his Grand Canyon Suite.

- John Sunier

 

The Blob (1958)

Seeing that this 50's sci-fi classic was felt by The Criterion Collection to be worthwhile enough for their devoted attention convinced me to see the whole thing. Imagine my surprise to discover that I had seen it in its original release. It's a cult classic and the movie debut of the very young Steve McQueen, as well as of soundtrack composer Burt Bacharach. The director was only a film distributor and the crew's experience was only with religious and educational short 16mm films. The special effects were the biggest hurdle, the director explains on the commentary track that shooting the film only took a few weeks but coming up with the special effects took over six months because they hadn't figured out how to do them when they shot the original footage. Considering there was no computer graphic solution at this time, they came up with a variety of simple but effective solutions to the Blob.

At this time Hollywood was trying out many different monsters, but the Blob was different in that it wasn't exactly a "creature," - just a thing that rolled along scarfing up people, and getting larger all the time. Also, it was the only 50's monster incapable of being destroyed - at the end they just haul it to the Arctic and drop it there because it is quiescent in the cold. There's also an interesting effort here to combine the teenage delinquency movie genre with the monster movie genre. The image and sound quality of the transfer is superb, the acting isn't bad, and the only thing that shows some lack of feature-film sophistication is the lighting: Scenes outdoors at night are way overlit, with faces bathed in bright light and even with reflections of the lights on the doors of the cars.

- John Sunier

 

StarGaze - Hubble's View of the Universe

  • Studio: Alpha DVD/DVD International
  • Video: 16:9 widescreen enhanced
  • Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1, DTS 5.1, Dolby Stereo - narration in English, French, German & Spanish
  • Subtitles & Menus: English, French, German & Spanish
  • Extras: TV screen saver, Windows DVD-ROM screen saver, Web DVD features
  • Length: About 1 hr. if you don't pause or repeat
  • Rating: ****
  • You may have seen a shot or two in the newspapers or magazines of the amazing new astronomical views possible with the Hubble Space Telescope, but you ain't seen nothing yet until you view this fascinating presentation that obviously isn't sci-fi but the Real Thing. (Though many of these images seem so fantastic as to be the work of an excessively-imaginative special effects computer artist!) These are really incredible starry images with brilliant colors, depth and detail. They are accompanied by a New Age musical score in surround sound by a group called 2002. There are ten chapters dealing with different stellar configurations. A brief history of the Space Telescope begins the narrative track, which is full of good information on more than 200 different astronomical objects. Or you can just access the music without the voice and float around this spectacular universe yourself.

    - John Sunier

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