Science Fiction & Fantasy Reviews (Page 1)

19 Reviews
A Dark and Scary Place

The Animatrix (2003)

Produced by Larry and Andy Wachowski

Warner Home Video

June 2003

Before viewing The Animatrix I had assumed it was an animated version of the original groundbreaking SF film. Thankfully, it avoids falling into that trap, instead opting to tell separate stories set in and around the world of The Matrix. To give credence and an added authenticity to the project, The Animatrix is produced by Larry and Andy Wachowski, creators and directors of the film trilogy. The first four of nine segments are also written by the successful partnership.

First up is
Final Flight of the Osiris. This is entirely computer generated, and the superb quality and attention to detail is almost worth the money alone. Remember the "I know kung fu" training sequence from the first instalment? This begins with a sensual samurai sword fight, before we're thrust into a high-speed chase aboard the Osiris. The crew are forced to flee when they witness giant drilling machines attempting to bore through the surface to the human refuge. In an original twist, the mission is a disaster, and they are unable to issue a warning.

There is a dark and downbeat atmosphere to most of the stories here, which in this instance is as it should be; major turning points in life and the consequences of war seldom have a happy theme. And talking of war,
The Second Renaissance Part I & II shows the events surrounding the war with the machines, created by man. After one robot kills and becomes a martyr, political 'do-gooders' decide that machines have rights too. The robots construct their own city, and their economy threatens that of the humans so severely that man launches an attack on the city, with devastating reprisals.

There are some serious images here, not seen in animation outside of Manga and Pink Floyd's
The Wall. During riot scenes a woman's clothes are ripped off and she is violently clubbed, revealing a robot body beneath her outwardly human appearance. Robot bodies are bulldozed into a mass grave, a particularly poignant depiction after news stories in recent years from war-torn countries.

Whereas
Renaissance is a mix of Japanese anime and CGI, Kid's Story is animated using a modern comic book style, with quick cuts and streaks successfully creating effective flowing movement. A new slant is put on an early scene in The Matrix. A high school boy is receiving answers to his questions via computer, but then the agents arrive for him. An escape is attempted via skateboard, and the boy is obliged to take a literal leap of faith.

In
Program an ancient Japanese combat simulation proves to be a fight for survival when a friend appears to turn rogue. World Record is a strange one. A runner, attempting to beat his own best time, sustains a serious injury and briefly wakes up in the real world. The machines put him under again, but the athlete appears to suspect a new enlightenment.

Beyond is one of the best here. A girl loses her cat and traces it to a run-down and abandoned warehouse building, which the local kids insist is haunted. A broken lightbulb flashes on and off, it rains perpetually on one part of the building, and in one area the kids have fun in an antigravity field. The anomalies are a glitch in the Matrix program. An imposing truck arrives with a cleanup team.

A Detective Story is an anime version of film noir, with a private eye being tricked into tracking down a top hacker known as Trinity. If there is one example here which lets the side down slightly, it's Matriculated, wherein a group of humans attempt to capture and convert machines to their way of thinking. A good idea in principle; however, the virtual reality-like program utilised is just an excuse for some smart-arse kaleidoscopic computer animation running around, which lasts far too long.

Over all,
The Animatrix is an original concept and an exceptional package. With extras including director commentaries, making-of documentaries on each segment, biographical profiles, a video game trailer, a documentary on anime, and DVD-ROM features, it's well worth anyone's interest. And the sound quality takes some beating.

Verdict: 9 out of 10

(Review originally written by Ty Power for sci-fi-online 2003)

The Chronicles of Riddick: Dark Fury (2004)

Starring: Vin Diesel (Voice)

Directed by Peter Chung

Written by David Twohy & Brett Matthews

Universal Pictures

August 2004

Riddick, Jack and holy man Imam are the sole survivors of the events which took place in Pitch Black. Now they find themselves intercepted by a mercenary ship. After a brief fight the three are captured and brought before the Lady Chillingsworth, a fanatic collector. She has hundreds of bodies in a state of suspended paralysis, all set in different positions like works of art. All of them are killers, and she wants Riddick as the main exhibit. However, she never sees the individuals in action, so cannot resist putting Riddick and the two others in an arena to fight a couple of tentacled aliens. Escaping after a surprise victory, the trio are hunted by everything the Lady Chillingsworth has in her force. One such fighter is her number two. Has Riddick met his match?...

The idea of Dark Fury is to cash in on... I mean, bridge the gap between Pitch Black and the new live action feature The Chronicles of Riddick, in terms of characterisation and continuity. This is achieved by means of a rather short animated film which mixes the techniques of computer imagery for spacecraft and backgrounds with the traditional hand-drawn style for the characters. It has the overall effect of a below average Japanese Manga.

David Twohy and the film company Universal have wasted no time here in jumping on
The Matrix bandwagon by turning Pitch Black, or more precisely the character of Riddick, into a franchise. However, whilst The Animatrix was a first class collection of original shorts showcasing the various talents of writers and animators, Dark Fury merely comes across as a convenient excuse to advertise the new computer game and new movie, as well as whatever else they can think of to promote.

The story itself is a basic run-around, with nothing really being done with the potentially exciting concept of a collector of killers. Although the actors from
Pitch Black provide the voices for the main players, nothing is pushed in the way of characterisation. Aside from Jack killing for the first time, the trio simply go through the (slow) motions. Don't get me wrong; the animation is very good, but the plot is derisory and the 30-something minutes length is an insult to potential film-fan purchasers. It leaves you wondering why they didn't make something better or nothing at all.

Extras include the
Making of Dark Fury, Dark Fury Animatic (watch the film in rough images/storyboards/sketches etc.), Peter Chung - Into the Mind of the Animator, A View into the Light (brief talks about the new movie), Escape From Butcher Bay games trailer, and a trailer for the animated Van Helsing film. This may sound a lot, but aside from the animatic it all amounts to a handful of minutes. The truth is I feel cheated, and I'm certain many others will feel similarly.

Verdict: 4 out of 10

(Review originally written by Ty Power for sci-fi-online 2004) 

Dark Star (1974) - Hyperdrive Edition

Directed by John carpenter

Screenplay by John Carpenter & Dan O'Bannon

Starring: Brian Narelle, Dan O'Bannan, Dre Pahich & Cal Kuniholm

Fabulous Films

February 2011

Bombed out in space with a spaced out bomb! Talby, Doolittle, Pinback and Boiler comprises the remaining crew of the Dark Star, a deep space craft which clears the way for human colonisation. The mission is to blow-up unstable planets with ‘smart bombs’, of which there are twenty. The men have been together for so long that they are unkempt and pretty much uncaring. Talby dreams of seeing the ultra-rare Phoenix Asteroid, Doolittle misses his surfboard, and Pinback is actually an imposter. When an asteroid storm causes damage to the automated systems, the intelligent Bomb 20 arms itself and begins a countdown to disaster. The answer might lie with Commander Powell, but Commander Powell is dead and in the cryogenic freezer after his seat mechanism exploded. Time is fast running out, but Powell’s memory isn’t what it was when he was alive...

In 2004 the 30th Anniversary Special Edition emerged, nicely packaged and presented on a single disc, but with very little extras. Seven years has passed since then, and so an updated version of Dark Star is well overdue. This release is over two discs, and incorporates more than three hours of additional features. The film has been sourced from a new 16 x 9 35mm transfer, with frame by frame digital restoration of the video master to vastly improve the resulting picture. The soundtrack has also been digitally enhanced and restored to Dolby 5.1.

Sticking with the extras, disc 2 is entirely taken up by
Let There Be Light: The Odyssey of Dark Star, an almost 2-hour length documentary which explores the four year journey from conception to theatrical release. With John Carpenter’s main partner on this project, Dan O’Bannon, sadly no longer with us, you would expect there to be a lot of Carpenter material. Although the documentary is very thorough, the vast majority of the reminiscenses and anecdotes are told by O’Bannon’s widow and Brian Narelle, who played Lt Doolittle. There are audio recordings from an old Carpenter interview, but there are no accompanying pictures of the man himself, and the recording is subtitled due to the sub-standard quality. Dark Star was first released in 1974, 37 years ago, so I suppose like any old film it becomes increasingly difficult to find people to dig for recollections. Plus the fact that some people just don’t want to be reminded of their past.

The biggest disappointment, extras-wise, is that there is no audio commentary to accompany the film by John Carpenter. For a huge Carpenter fan like myself this is a major oversight. I find his other film commentaries highly entertaining He is not afraid to be self-deprecating and tell his audience what didn’t work, and there is normally a great deal of insight and information surrounding the process of filmmaking. They really should have made it worth JC’s time, as it would have rounded off an almost perfect release. Having said that, there is a plethora of other extras crammed on to disc 1: A lengthy interview with Brian Narelle (Doolittle); the final interview with Dan O’Bannon; a commentary by super fan Andrew Gilchrist; a 3-D guide to the
Dark Star ship; a written intro by Dan O’Bannon; Trivia; the original film trailer; and the highlight for me, a lengthy interview with SF writer Alan Dean Foster. Foster novelised Dark Star whilst still a new writer. He is my personal favourite SF writer, and I have read nearly all of his books. It’s nice to hear him recount how he was invited to the premier of the film, and had a burger across the road afterward with John Carpenter, sharing dreams of success which were literally just around the corner.

And now to the film itself. This should be on every Carpenter/O’Bannon fan or historical film collector’s shopping list. As far as the casual mainstream viewer (or even SF fan) goes, you’ll be sorely disappointed if you’re expecting a big Hollywood production with spectacular stunts and special effects. This began as a student project while John Carpenter was still at film school. With help he was determined to see it through to a theatrical release. Even then it took four years, primarily because he kept running out of money. Consequentially, it was released on a shoestring budget. The film has been described as a parody of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, but present day parodies are blatant comedies. This is closer to dark humour; it’s quirky but there are no laugh-out-loud moments, except perhaps the celebrated feeding the alien sequence. I tend to regard this as a valuable piece of nostalgia. It’s highly entertaining without being exciting. Of course John Carpenter went on to great things, such as
Halloween, Escape From New York, Assault on Precinct 13, The Thing, and many others. But let’s not forget where he came from.

This is the most comprehensive release of
Dark Star thus far. The Blu-ray version, released shortly after, sacrifices the excellent Alan Dean Foster interview with an alternative version of the film (so that we have a Director's Cut and the Theatrical Release). The picture is phenominally crisp and there are nice menus.

Verdict: 8 out of 10

(Review originally written by Ty Power for sci-fi-online 2011)

Dark Star (1974) - 30th Anniversary Special Edition

Directed by John Carpenter

Screenplay by John Carpenter & Dan O'Bannon

Starring: Brian Narelle, Dan O'Bannan, Dre Pahich & Cal Kuniholm

Fabulous Films & Fremantle Home Entertainment

April 2004

Four men crew the deep space scout ship Dark Star, their mission to seek out unstable planets and destroy them to prepare the way for future colonisation...

Although they have aged only three years, they have been in space for 20; each man has become unkempt, lethargic and bored. Talby spends all his time in the dome staring at the stars and dreaming about the beauty of the Phoenix Asteroid, which is said to glow with colours; Doolittle was a good surfer back on Earth and misses his board more than anything; and Pinback reveals in his computer diaries that he is really Bill Fruge, a Fuel Maintenance Technician who just happened to try on the other man's suit. Boiler simply keeps his head down and gets on with his job, hoping for better things.

However, a succession of events conspire to spiral out of control and they all go to hell in a handbasket. Communications Lazer No. 7 is damaged when the ship passes through an asteroid storm, causing Bomb 20 to exit its bay on two separate occasions. It is ordered back the first time by the men and subsequently persuaded by the ship's computer. Possessing an individual intelligent personality the Bomb becomes increasingly frustrated. When the crew comes to legitimately drop the bomb it will not release due to an accidental short circuit caused by the escaped alien (more of that in a moment). The countdown begins and, with only 14 minutes remaining, Doolittle visits the cryogenic unit to ask the advice of the dead Commander Powell. However, Powell is isolated and forgetful, so Doolittle is reduced to leaving the ship to argue the great questions of life with the bomb. The forgotten Talby is sucked out into space whilst examining the damaged lazer, resulting in a conclusion which borrows equally from Marvel Comics'
The Silver Surfer and Ray Bradbury's Kaleidoscope.

As a long-time admirer of John Carpenter's work, I could bore you within an inch of your life with a multitude of fascinating behind-the-scenes information. But rather than allow you to escape entirely you might be interested to know that he and Dan O'Bannon wrote the script whilst still at film school. The product took well over three years to complete, due to money and distribution problems, but still only cost $60,000. Wigs and false facial hairs were utilised to cover the changes to the actors' appearance over that time. Much of the work was produced by the duo themselves; whilst Carpenter wrote, scored, produced and directed, O'Bannon wrote, handled the film editing, production design and special effects supervision, as well as playing the part of Pinback.

Yes, it looks a little cheap, but aside from the abundance of seventies hair it's not as dated as you might think. Special effects are kept to a minimum, and a sense of apathetic realism is generated by downplaying the acting. None of the characters become excited about anything that happens, even when their very lives are in danger; they are well past emotions and into paranoia.

Anyone who has already seen this film will surely agree that, apart from the finale, the outstanding set piece scene is when Pinback goes to feed the alien. The beachball-like creature with webbed and clawed feet escapes the holding area and leads Pinback a merry dance through the ship and into the lift shaft where it almost succeeds in getting the man killed.

You would have to be a fool not to realise this is a black comedy, but as the trailer on this disc proves
Dark Star was incorrectly promoted as a straightforward science fiction action/thriller, inviting inevitable comparisons with 2001: A Space Odyssey when they are as different as chalk and cheese.

Dark Star was obviously a labour of love for Carpenter and O'Bannon. Deep belief in the product and its deserved niche in the marketplace sustained them through nearly four years of trying, when it might have been easier on several occasions to cut their losses and run. But after Carpenter's Academy Award for best short subject won for The Resurrection of Bronco Billy, he might well have gained a reputation as a failure with a short attention span. After all, how could he expect the film executives to have faith in him had he possessed no confidence in his own abilities? Instead of that, Carpenter earned much respect as a genius of the low-budget flick, going from strength to strength with Assault on Precinct 13, Halloween and Escape From New York. O'Bannon himself went on to script Alien and handle the on-screen graphics for Star Wars.

Extras on this disc are sparse. As well as the original theatrical release of the film and the 1974 extended film version (which contains only a couple of additional scenes), there are bibliographies for John Carpenter, Dan O'Bannon, Brian Narelle and Jack Harris, a picture gallery and the aforementioned trailer. A serious omission from the release is a Carpenter commentary, which normally makes for great listening on his other DVDs. As this is called a "Special Edition" we could also have done with some interviews about the making of the production.

In conclusion then: if you have a dark sense of humour you might enjoy this. If you're a fan of Carpenter's early work you'll love it. Red Dwarf years before its time. Bombed-out in space with a spaced-out bomb!

Verdict: 8 out of 10

(Review originally written by Ty Power for sci-fi-online 2004)

The Day the Earth Stood Still

Starring: Michael Rennie, Patricia Neal, & Hugh Marlowe

Directed by Robert Wise

Written by Edward H North & Harry Bates

20th Century Fox

March 2003

Klaatu arrives in America in his spacecraft (like you do!) to persuade the peoples of Earth to change their violent ways or risk annihilation. With atomic power capability utilised for bomb-making, the Earth is perceived as a threat to the peace and stability of other worlds. When the world leaders fail to agree on a venue, Klaatu melts into the populace to learn a little about everyday life and opinion. He approaches a renowned professor, who agrees to collect together the leading minds on the planet. Coupled with this, Klatu organises a worldwide demonstration of power. But has he reckoned on the primitive fears of mankind?...

This is arguably the best of only a handful of classic science fiction films to emerge in the fifties. Cold war paranoia spawned a veritable hoard of tales blaming the Russians in all but name - and their own atomic testing - for even the smallest petty ills. However, The Day the Earth Stood Still (from 1951) is the only example to expose this paranoia for the foolish and dangerous fright-mongering it truly is, and to leave the audience with a feeling of positive hope for the future. Even so, it takes threats on a massive scale to force the leaders of the world to consider change on a global scale. Who can blame poor Klaatu; if you were shot on your arrival and suffered worse before your exit, wouldn't you resort to threats to get your message across? Sometimes you have to talk to people in the only language they can understand.

The main strength of this picture is its simplicity of style, which lifts it well above period films of its ilk and ensures that it still stands up well today. It's a straightforward story intelligently realised.

Michael Rennie's portrayal of the visitor Klaatu is beautifully understated. He looks and fundamentally acts the same as other men, and yet he is subtly different. The odd comment here and there threatens to betray him, but he never seeks to hide his true feelings and the fact that the citizens of Earth are gearing towards their own destruction.
Everybody is suspicious of their own shadow; when Klaatu first makes his appearance as Mr Carpenter at the boarding house, even the boy Bobby believes him to be a government agent searching for the alien.

Also wisely kept simple are the special effects which, particularly in this era, can make or break the project. The spacecraft as it approaches its landing point is shown as a disc of light, and the model shot of the touchdown is filmed in distance overhead perspective. The saucer set and its extending ramp are impressive, and GORT, the robot guardian, is mainly kept to longshots and extreme close-ups, rendering its presence large and oppressive.

The movie is full of defining moments, such as Klaatu completing complicated mathematical equations on a blackboard as a way of gaining the professor's attention. There is the poignant visit to a military graveyard, and the scene where the boy persuades Mr Carpenter (Klaatu) to take him to see the spacecraft. Not realising his companion is the ship's operator, Bobby asks about propulsion. A man in the crowd overhears Klaatu's "hypothetical" explanation and ridicules him, to the amusement of others close-by. The fact that nothing is actively played for laughs or is overtly ridiculous, means this film succeeds on all levels. It is undeniably a genre classic.

There's some nice dvd extras: Commentaries, Remastering Comparisons, Theatrical Trailer, and Movie Tone News of the time, reporting on the multi-nation Japanese peace alliance. This might very well have gained maximum points, but the sound quality could have been better, and the Region 1 version contains a making-of documentary, curiously absent from this release. But don't let these quibbles turn you off.

Invest in a copy now, or your world will be annihilated.

Verdict: 9 out of 10

(Review originally written by Ty Power for sci-fi-online 2003) 

Death Race 2000 (1975)

Starring: David Carradine & Sylvester Stallone

Directed by Paul Bartel

Screenplay by Robert Thom & Charles B. Griffith

Universal Pictures UK

September 2006

In the totalitarian future setting of the year 2000, Mr President has given the people the national sport of the Transcontinental Road Race. The five main contenders are Calamity Jane Kelly - Queen of the Road - in The Bull ("My fans can wish me all the luck they like; if my luck with my lovers gets any better I'll miss the race entirely."); Swastika Sweetheart - Matilda The Hun ("Whoever named your car The Bull was only half right."); Nero The Hero - in The Lion; Machine Gun Joe ("Loved by thousands, hated by millions.); and the people's favourite, Frankenstein, who wears a half-mask to hide his horrific injuries. In this race hit and run isn't a crime, it's a national sport. There's 10 points for women, 40 points for teenagers, 70 points for toddlers under 12, and 100 points for the over 70s. But the race isn't the only concern for the drivers. Mrs Payne, leader of the Army of Resistance against Mr president's state rule, tries to scupper the race. As the drivers begin to fall, Frankenstein has to beware the extreme violence of Machine Gun Joe, the scheming of his own navigator, and the attempt to kill him - in order to achieve his own ultimate objective...

This is a film that can be appreciated on different levels, in a similar way to the camp 60s series of Batman. Although this is an 18 certificate, kids would appreciate the idea of racing drivers running over people for points (certainly they would see more violence on many computer games), but when you view this as an adult you realise the whole concept is very much tongue-in-cheek. There's some terrific black humour which is as humorous now as it would have been then. More so, in fact, because it has a great sense of nostalgia attached. Euthanasia Day at the Geriatrics Hospital is a wonderfully sick idea, especially when Frankenstein steers around them and knocks down all the watching nurses instead. There's more one-liners than you can steer a car at. Even Mr President gets in on the act when he announces that he suspects the treacherous French of the sabotage of the great race and national economy, and adds that the word sabotage was invented by the French.

At the time of this film's release, David Carradine (Frankenstein) was the star of the piece, being well-known already for playing Caine, the lead in the popular
Kung Fu series; but only a year or so later Sylvester Stallone's (Machine Gun Joe) career skyrocketed with Rocky. For contractual reasons, Stallone's name couldn't be placed above Carradine's in subsequent marketing, so they have since received joint star billing for the film. The budget for Death Race 2000 was around the $300,000 mark, which was pitifully low for the time. However, surprisingly, there are no real shortcomings translated to the screen. Shakespeare it's not, but it's quirky, it's fun, and it's unarguably one of the best products to come out of the Roger Corman stable. This is an adult, live-action Wacky Races. Enjoy it in the spirit it was meant.  Extras include an Interview with Producer Roger Corman, Trailers, Posters Gallery, and Biographies.

Verdict: 7 out of 10

(Review originally written by Ty Power for sci-fi-online 2006)

Equilibrium (2002)

Starring: Christopher Bale, Taye Diggs, Emily Watson and Sean Bean

Written & Directed by Kurt Wimmer

Momentum Pictures

October 2003

In a future society, where war has been avoided by the use of a feeling-repressant drug called Prozium, Neo ... I mean John Preston is a talented Grammaton Cleric (government agent) charged with the responsibility of seeking out illegal sense offenders and issuing immediate punishment. Death. After killing his own partner for reading poetry, he begins to question his own motives, Uncontrollable circumstances cause him to be late taking his dose of prozium, and once he begins to experience genuine feelings he finds there's no going back. But how can Preston survive among his own officers long enough to bring them and this totalitarian society down?...

In this modern age, there's no such thing as a totally original idea. Everything is at least partially based on a previous concept. Equilibrium is a film brought to us by the makers of Minority Report and Speed. The Minority Report connection is plain to see. There is a very Phillip K. Dick feel to this entire film, evident in the serious near-future society which is somehow twisted. This movie has also been compared much with The Matrix. The long coats, humourless faces, and excessive use of firearms and close contact fighting further confirm the fact. There is even an element of the early George Lucas book-turned-film, THX 1138, in which people are kept subdued by drugs, and physical sex and standard procreation is prohibited by law. However, there is another source that Equilibrium borrows from so heavily that I'm truly astonished no one appears to have noticed it before.

Master storyteller Ray Bradbury wrote a novel in the fifties called
Fahrenheit 451 (which is the temperature at which paper burns). This was immortalised in a marvellous film in the seventies by Francais Trauffant. The plot was that books and literature of any kind is outlawed by government. People are told what to think and are obliged to watch a set minimum amount of hours TV every day (that's law now, isn't it?). Citizens report anyone suspected of having books, and the fire brigade arrives to summarily burn them. One such fireman keeps a book out of curiosity, only to get bitten by the literary bug. He finds himself in the same situation as John Preston, except his contact with the underground isn't so cut and dried. These people recite to each other individual classics by word of mouth, so they can be passed on and not lost forever to mankind.

Okay, so there's a lot of similarities here, but
Equilibrium manages to spark its own slant of originality. There's much to appreciate in what first appears to be a blatant rip-off. Firstly, everybody wears dull colours and lives in a monochrome environment; this is a good way of displaying the general lack of emotional senses. Hidden rooms with concealed artefacts then suddenly seem blindingly bright with promise. The feelings, when displayed to us through John Preston, are subtle and so all the more potent. A sunrise, the touch of human skin, the petting of a puppy dog; all come across powerfully. For me, this film is more about the regaining of the human soul, than it ever is about the fighting. Of course, the fighting helps (there's even a shoot-em-up scene copied straight from The Matrix). It's very well choreographed, and there is even a training explanation why one skilled man can mow down hoards of machine-gun-wielding guards! I particularly liked the hand-to-hand fighting with guns at the conclusion.

It's almost ironic that this is no different to any other so-called ideal society, whose utopia must be maintained with an iron fist. The realism juxtaposes with the exaggerated fight scenes, producing a film well worth a viewing.

As far as the extras go, short seems to be the order of the day. Aside from a director's commentary and a director & producer commentary, there is only a short trailer and a series of very brief TV spots. If the behind-the-scenes feature had been at least 30 minutes duration I might have considered giving this release an extra point, but at only four minutes it hardly warrants that description at all. This is a "I did this film because it's ... er ...very good" series of quotes from the actors. It was hardly worth the effort, and a complete waste of film. My granny could have done better.

Sorry Momentum Pictures, but if you're going to add extras, do it like you mean it. Where are all the outakes, the cut or extended scenes, the biogs, the picture galleries, the in-depth interviews and demonstrations from the artistes behind the scenes? It's a good job the film is so good.

Verdict: 8 out of 10

(Review originally written by Ty Power for sci-fi-online 2003) 

Escape From New York (1981) - Special Edition

Directed by John Carpenter

Written by John Carpenter (With Nick Castle)

Starring Kurt Russell, Donald Pleasence, Lee Van Cleef, Ernest Borgnine & Harry Dean Stanton

October 2005

Snake Plisskin ("I thought you were dead!") is an ex-Special Forces war hero who is currently serving life imprisonment in a maximum security penitentiary for robbing the Federal Reserve Depository. He is offered a complete pardon in exchange for rescuing the President from New York, where his plane has crashed. New York is a walled-off prison where gangs and hardened criminals have made their own hierarchy. To ensure his co-operation Plisskin is injected with two minute capsules; if he doesn't return with the President within 22 hours the capsules will dissolve setting off fatal heat-sensing charges. The President's location tracker proves to be a false lead, and Plisskin eventually discovers via a character called "Brain" that the man has been taken by the Duke of New York, a powerful and ruthless gang leader. But Snake can be pretty ruthless himself, let down by the government he fought for he cares about nothing but his own welfare...

As a bonafide long-time admirer of John Carpenter's work this release would have to be an uncaring straightforward video transfer for me not to rave about this excellent film. Thankfully, it's better than that.

Snake Plisskin is a great character, an anti-hero who sneers at the establishment and whose quiet tones are reminiscent of Clint Eastwood. The plot, settings and lighting are near faultless, and it's amazing we have so many big names (Lee Van Cleef, Ernest Borgnine, Donald Pleasence, Harry Dean Stanton and of course Kurt Russell) in a movie budget of only $5 million.

I could wax lyrical for pages about this film and other Carpenter greats, but this review is supposed to be about the DVD release. There's some good extras, including: two commentaries (Writer/Director John Carpenter and Actor Kurt Russell, and the other is Producer Debra Hill and Production Designer Joe Alves). Carpenter himself is always interesting, entertaining and brutally honest, whereas Russell obviously enjoyed himself immensely, citing Snake Plisskin as his favourite acting part. There's the deleted scene which was to form the original opening of the film. It's the robbery itself, and although it's an exciting piece it doesn't really fit in with the rest of the story. A couple of trailers are accompanied by
Snake Bites which is a series of vignettes from throughout the film. To cap off, Return to Escape From New York is a behind the scenes featurette.

This region 2 release has opted for the single-disc, whereas the region 1 version has two. I would advise any Carpenter fanatic like myself to go for the North American region one (if your player can handle it), because the open-out packaging is lovingly assembled and there are additional special features, including the first issue of
John Carpenter's Snake Plisskin Chronicles Comic Book, a gallery recording the making of those chronicles, three other photo galleries, and liner notes by Carpenter. Also, although this region 2 release has audio options for Dolby Digital 5.1 and 5.1 DTS, the region 1 discs look and sound remarkably more crisp.

However, having said all that, this is a perfectly fine release for the casual buyer or those watching on a recommendation. We've already been subjected to inferior copies of Carpenter's
Assault on Precinct 13 and The Fog, so anyone who hasn't seen this cult movie yet should do so now, before the folklore is damaged by another disappointing and frankly pointless remake.

Verdict: 9 out of 10

(Review originally written by Ty Power for sci-fi-online 2005)

Flash Gordon (1980)

Starring: Sam J. Jones, Melody Anderson, Max Von Sydow, Brian Blessed.

Directed by Mike Hodges

Screenplay by Lorenzo Semple Jr.

Momentum Pictures

October 2005

For no other reason than to alleviate boredom, an unknown aggressor toys with the Earth prior to its planned destruction, by directing freak weather conditions and laughing uproariously like the egotistical megalomaniac he is. American football star Flash Gordon and Dale Arden are hit by the sudden conditions, causing their pilot to be lost, and obliging Flash to crash land the light aircraft... on the laboratory of ex-NASA scientist Dr Hans Zarkov. The seemingly mad Zarkov manages to get them on his rocket which he aims at an anomaly in space he believes is attacking the Earth. They are soon arrested and taken to a palace where different races are paying fealty to Ming the Merciless, Emperor of the Universe. When Ming heartlessly kills a man, Flash disrupts the proceedings and for his troubles is sentenced to death in a gas chamber. Not a good day for anyone ... even a square-jawed hero. Can he escape and rescue the doctor from his mind conditioning and Dale from her fate as a concubine? Stay tuned, same time, same DVD to find out!...

There are two ways the making of this film could have been approached. One was to play it serious and hard-hitting, to reinvent the old comics and serials from the 1930s, the other to pay tribute to the serial's regular slices of ham and drama. With the former idea the format would have had to be spot on to succeed, but thankfully they chose the latter.

This loud and colourful tongue-in-cheek version throws an open nod and wink in homage to the black and white days of Saturday morning kids cinema, with thrills, spills and kills. The balance is just right. The characters are all played purposefully over-the-top (particularly Brian Blessed's portrayal of Prince Vultan of the Hawkmen, which is like a cross between Santa Claus and the Jolly Green Giant), and Melody Anderson's Dale Arden flits between helpless girly and action heroine. Who can forget the immortal line, "Flash, I love you, but we only have fourteen hours to save the Earth!" Believe it or not Max Von Sydow's Ming is the most intelligently understated acting, even though he's supposed to be the evil villain.

Watching this movie is like a game of Who's Who. Aside from the aforementioned, there's Timothy Dalton, Topol, and shorter appearances by Peter Wyngarde, Susan Danielle, Robbie Coltrane, Peter Duncan, and the excellent Richard O'Brien.

The accompanying soundtrack by rock giants Queen fits the mood of the piece exactly, being both quirky and dramatic. You can tell that they all fully entered into the spirit of the thing to achieve a piece which undoubtedly enhances the whole.

DVD extras include a trailer, a Mike Hodges interview, photo gallery, and an episode of the original Flash Gordon series, starring Buster Crabbe (which gives you an inkling of just how well this film has captured the mood).   I doubt very much that this is a film people will want to watch over and over, but it is great fun. All together now, "Flash! Ah, ah ..."

Verdict: 7 out of 10

(Review originally written by Ty Power for sci-fi-online 2005)

Futureworld (1976)

Starring: Peter Fonda, Blythe Danner, Arthur Hill, Yul Brynner

Director: Richard T. Heffron

Screenplay: Mayo Simon, George Schenck

Two years after the disastrous events which took place at Westworld, when state-of-the-art humanoid robots broke their programming and began killing the guests, the Delos role-playing leisure resort is re-opening, claiming all-new ultra-safe technology and new zones - one of which is Futureworld. As expected, interest from suspicious holidaymakers is low, and so to boost popularity dignitaries and selected media people are invited along with the idea of them spreading the word of their experiences. Chuck Browning is the reporter who publicised the events at Westworld and therefore destroyed the reputation of Delos. Along with TV presenter Tracy Ballard, an old flame, he arrives at the resort where he is promised access-all-areas. Suspicious to the point of paranoia it doesn’t take him long to wander from the accepted routes. In the underground tunnels linking the zones Chuck meets a technician who takes him to a restricted area. Here they discover a terrifying secret which could make or break the new Delos...

After the simple but masterful creation that was
Westworld, Futureworld tries to mix things up with kidnapping, killing and intrigue. During the first half of the film Peter Fonda’s character achieves nothing of any significance in what amounts to a tiresome run-around. Only when he meets the technician, and his faceless android friend, does the pace pick up a little. However, there’s far from enough to keep the general viewer interested. It only needs one essentially good idea, but the big secret here is a plot device which was being used in science fiction films in the forties and fifties.

It's nice to see the abandoned Westworld zone, which after all is cheaply and easily created using the backlot from any western feature. In my opinion it would have been a simple and logical notion to have the technician rebuilding the old gunslinger in his spare time and have it disrupt the Futureworld zone by killing the prominent guests. Instead of that, what do they use the remarkable and prestigious acting talents of the returning Yul Bryner for? Tracy's dream sequence wherein they dance and kiss. To say that he is woefully underused is the ultimate understatement; all I can say is I hope he got paid a lot of money.

Futureworld is pretty close to a pointless exercise. It never garnered much attention at the cinema and I can't see it gaining a retrospective DVD following (especially with no extras). The sensible option would be to package it with Westworld and allow it to hang on to its great predecessor's shirt tails.

Verdict: 4 out of 10

(Review originally written by Ty Power for sci-fi-online 2009)

John Carpenter Collection

Written & Directed by John Carpenter

Starring Jamie Lee Curtis, Kurt Russell, Donald Pleasence, Adrienne Barbeau & Others

Optimum Home Entertainment

October 2008

John Carpenter is an accomplished storyteller (writing, directing and composing the music score for the majority of his movies) and a rare talent, so the release of a collection of seven of his best projects is welcome indeed. For anybody interested in delving for the first time into the works of the great man this is a fantastic place to start.

Lt. Ethan Bishop is assigned to Precinct 13 in Anderson, which is being systematically shut- down and moved elsewhere. Only a skeleton crew of the captain, a desk sergeant and two administration women are in place. Bishop is understandably expecting a quiet night, but chaos is about to descend in a manner he could never have predicted. A handful of dangerous prisoners are being transported by bus to another location, but when one of their number falls seriously ill they are obliged to divert to the nearest police station - namely, Precinct 13...

Assault on Precinct 13 (1976) was the first of a number of films Carpenter would make with a siege theme. He also incorporated a strong woman character (Leigh, named after Leigh Brackett - the writer of Rio Bravo) which he always felt was very important.

There's an element of wry humour present, especially in the scene when the hot potato game is played to decide who goes into the sewer through a manhole cover to seek escape. This is also Carpenter's first full music score, and he produces a memorable theme said to be influenced slightly by Led Zeppelin's 'Immigrant Song' and the music from the Dirty Harry film.

This was also the first film Carpenter had total control over; something he would insist on from this point onward. The film was released to a muted response in America. The MPAA made Carpenter cut out the scene wherein the little girl is shot dead. This he did, but only in the version sent to the MPAA, thereby sneaking the film out intact.

Extras on this disc consist of a Q&A with John Carpenter & Austin 'Bishop' Stoker, a Carpenter Commentary (always worth listening to, believe me), a Photo Gallery, Trailers and the Music Score. Verdict: 8 out of 10.  

Fifteen years after the young Michael Myers brutally stabbed to death his teenage sister, Judith, Doctor Loomis - who has followed the subject's case and tried to break through to him without success - is on his way with a nurse to the sanatorium from which Myers is due to be transferred. When they arrive the compound gates are open and patients are wandering around. Fearing the worst, Loomis rushes off toward the building. The nurse is attacked and the car stolen. Michael Myers is on the loose...

Halloween
(1978) is often referred to as the granddaddy of slasher movies. This title is meant to be complimentary, but in my opinion is a little unkind considering some of the hack 'n' slash, gore-for-gore's-sake excuses for movies which emerged afterward. Admittedly, it did unknowingly set the ground rules for what was to become known as the Teen Horror Flick.

Halloween is a very stylish horror with more creepy than violent moments. There is very good use of lighting, to chilling effect. The idea of a completely silent masked psychotic killer is infinitely more frightening than, for instance, the wise-cracking Freddy Krueger, who came later.

Various in-jokes and names are present, including some in homage to
Psycho. Shortage of space prevents me passing-on a hundred and one fascinating facts about this film, suffice to say it's a true classic which opened to mixed reviews. As with most of his films, Carpenter proved to be a man ahead of his time. Word of mouth would make Halloween a sensation, and for twelve years the highest grossing independent film of all time. By the time news of its phenomenal success filtered through to him, Carpenter was well into his next project.

Extras on this disc consist of the
Halloween Unmasked 2000 documentary, Trailer and Bios. I'm not certain if the two-disc 25th anniversary edition is incorporated here, but it's a shame if it isn't - leastways for the always entertaining John Carpenter commentary. Verdict: 10 out of 10.

The little town of Antonio Bay is preparing for its centenary celebrations, but it has a dark secret. 100 years before, the Elizabeth Dane ship, lost in a thick bank of fog, crashed on the rocks at Spivey Point, misdirected by a campfire intended to ground the vessel. The vicar of the church discovers the diary of Father Patrick Malone when a brick falls from the wall of the vestry. The writings give credence to the possibility of the fog returning, bringing back the dead crewmen seeking revenge for cold-hearted betrayal...

Keen to follow-up Halloween with another scary tale, Carpenter borrowed a true event from the 1700s when a ship laden with gold was lured on to the rocks by the locals. The crew was drowned and the gold stolen. The Fog (1979) is therefore essentially a supernatural tale of revenge.

Jamie Lee Curtis returns to the Carpenter fold after her debut in
Halloween; this time she plays an older character and shares the credits with her mother Janet Leigh of Psycho fame. A couple of other actors from Halloween also return: Nick Castle and Nancy Loomis, and Dan O'Bannon returns from Dark Star. Oscar winner John Houseman is also in the cast, but the biggest plaudits should go to Adrienne Barbeau (Carpenter's then new wife) as the sultry-voiced Stevie Wayne, who manages just the right balance of calmness and urgency - another very strong female character. Many times Carpenter has enjoyed Hitchcock-like cameos in his movies, but in The Fog he has a brief talking park as the church handyman.

The pacing of this movie is spot on, with early shocks and scares being only part of the steady build-up to the church siege conclusion. The dead mariners from the
Elizabeth Dane are kept in darkness or backlit in the fog so that they are nearly always seen in silhouette, the active principle being that less is more. Also greatly enhancing the atmosphere is the very impressive music score, easily one of his best.  

Extras on this disc include: the documentary
Tales From the Mist and trailers. Again, where's the Carpenter commentary (available on the special edition version of The Fog DVD)?  Verdict: 9 out of 10.  

Snake Plisskin ("I thought you were dead!") is an ex-Special Forces hero who is currently serving life imprisonment in a maximum security penitentiary for robbing the Federal Reserve Depository. He is offered a complete pardon in exchange for rescuing the President from New York, where his plane has crashed. New York is a walled-off prison where gangs and hardened criminals have made their own hierarchy. To ensure his co-operation Plisskin is injected with two minute capsules; if he doesn't return with the President within 22 hours the capsules will dissolve setting off fatal heat-sensing charges. The President's location tracker proves to be a false lead, and Plisskin eventually discovers via a character called "Brain" that the man has been taken by the Duke of New York, a powerful and ruthless gang leader. But Snake can be pretty ruthless himself, let down by the government he fought for he cares about nothing but his own welfare...

Upon its release, Escape From New York (1981) went up against Raiders of the Lost Ark, but was incredibly well-received for a relatively small picture and still made the huge return of $50 million.

Snake Plisskin is a great character, an anti-hero who sneers at the establishment and whose quiet tones are reminiscent of Clint Eastwood. The plot, settings and lighting are once again near faultless, and it's amazing we have so many big names (Lee Van Cleef, Ernest Borgnine, Donald Pleasence, Harry Dean Stanton and of course Kurt Russell from Carpenter's
Elvis in his first action figure role - although Avco wanted Charles Bronson) in a movie budget reportedly between 5 and $7 million.  

Making another welcome return is Adrienne Barbeau. Nick Castle co-wrote the script with Carpenter and is mainly responsible for the low-key dark humour in the film.

A fascinating fact is that the matte painter of the movie was none other than James Cameron, later director of The Terminator, Aliens, Titanic and others.

Shooting took place through the nights between 9:00pm to 7:00am. It would be Carpenter's and Avco's most ambitious project to date.  

Extras on this disc include the Return to
Escape From New York documentary, a John Carpenter interview, trailers, a thoroughly entertaining Commentary with John Carpenter and Kurt Russell (Carpenter himself is always interesting, entertaining and brutally honest, whereas Russell obviously enjoyed himself immensely, citing Snake Plisskin as his favourite acting part), and Snake's Crime (the deleted opening scene - the robbery itself, which is an exciting piece but doesn't really fit in with the rest of the story). Verdict: 9.

JR MacReady is a helicopter pilot and part of the crew of a US Antarctic research station. When a Norwegian helicopter mysteriously crashes whilst chasing and trying to kill a dog, the station takes the animal in and allows it to wander. MacReady and others fly to the Norwegian base to find out what took place. They discover it uninhabited, bleak and cold. A huge area in the ice has been cut away to reveal part of what appears to be a spacecraft. A man-sized block of ice is taken back to the US base where it accidentally thaws out. When the dog is placed with the sled dogs they cower in fear as it erupts into a hideous creature. A flame thrower destroys it, but this is in fact a shape-shifting extraterrestrial which can take the form of any living thing. When attacked it reveals its previous forms in a sickening amalgamation of twisted body parts. From that moment on, the station becomes a hotbed of fear, panic and ultra-paranoia, as nobody knows who to trust. MacReady thinks he has the solution, but is he too late...?

Upon its general release, The Thing (1982) bombed. Cinema-goers were apparently appalled and disgusted by the hideous shape-changing scenes - missing the point entirely. E.T. had just been released and the public was not ready for Carpenter's intelligent and well-crafted monster flick after such a popular and benign alien from Spielberg. However, a few years later critics began to reassess the film, and it picked up a huge following retrospectively.

The premise of a shape-shifting creature is said to have inspired the T-100 from Cameron's
Terminator 2, particularly the scene when it loses substance and goes through one shape after another. There was also an episode of The X-Files which was heavily influenced by The Thing. Dark Horse comics published a continuation of the story, which also brought a new audience to the film. Carpenter has toyed with the idea of a sequel ever since, but in semi-retirement he's unlikely to get around to it.

The fantastic array of extras on this disc include the 80 minute
Terror Takes Shape documentary, the thoroughly entertaining (again) commentary with John Carpenter and Kurt Russell, Production Background Archive, Production Art and Storyboards, Location Design, Outtakes, Production and Post Production Notes, Cast and Filmmakers' Notes, and Cast Production Photos. Phew! Verdict: 10 out of 10.

When the last guardian of the forgotten sect, The Brotherhood of Sleep (a religious organisation kept secret even from the Vatican), dies he leaves a key to a Catholic priest. The key opens a door into the basement of an abandoned church. Inside is a large canister which appears to contain a green sludge. The priest asks a college professor of theoretic physics to investigate, and he agrees, taking along a handful of his students. They discover via an old manuscript that the canister is seven million years old and can only be opened from the inside. The substance it holds is the essence of pure evil - Satan itself, if you like. As the students attempt to study it, the sky begins to change, and hoards of mysteriously psychotic homeless people surround the building, making it a prison. The green substance begins to spread its contagion by spraying in the face of its victims - while the survivors try to barricade themselves in a room - preparatory to bringing through Satan's father, the Anti-God...

Although the eighties was awash with horror films (most of them franchises or inferior copies), thereby losing this one somewhere in the middle, Prince of Darkness (1987) was well- received by the public and most Carpenter fans. A small contingent saw this moment as the beginning of a slide in talent by the director, but I think those people simply saw this as students versus demon, missing the intelligently written script which explores anti-particles, tachyon transmissions, and differential equations - along with questions such as what is Man's place in the universe, and where does he fit in with science?

The important thing here is that Carpenter was making a film that he wanted to see - which is all any writer, director or artist of any kind can do. It is proof of his conviction in this regard to know that he turned down big-money directing jobs on
Top Gun and Fatal Attraction.

I'm led to believe there's only a trailer on this disc as extras; so where is the John Carpenter commentary which is freely available on the Momentum region 2 release? 8 out of 10.

John Nada is a homeless and jobless drifter who comes to town looking for labouring work. He finds refuge with a large destitute homeless community, but it is soon mysteriously attacked and destroyed by riot police. Most of the individuals are taken away. When Nada witnesses a similar raid on a nearby building, he waits it out before entering to look for clues as to what the purpose of the raid was. Inside he finds a pair of sunglasses which changes everything around him when he puts them on. A percentage of the population actually consists of aliens with skeletal faces, and just as importantly all advertising and media is subversive brainwashing aimed to instruct the populace with messages such as Consume, Procreate, Submit, Obey, No Independent Thought, and on the money, This Is Your God. When Nada meets Frank he has a hard time convincing him, but a scrawled message, They Live - We Sleep, convinces them that there are others who know the truth. The problem is how does this small band of rebels open the eyes of the world...?

As with Prince of Darkness, the budget for They Live (1988) was only $3 million and the shooting schedule 8 weeks. For the part of Nada Carpenter recruited experienced wrestler "Rowdy" Roddy Piper, whom he had seen at a Wrestlemania event. Taking a chance paid off, because Piper brings much more than brawn to the part.

Keith David (who had appeared in
The Thing) was alongside him with Meg Foster. Mind you, Piper's profession did help when Carpenter scripted-in a seven minute alleyway brawl because he wanted to out-do The Quiet Man as the longest on-screen fight.

As with his previous film, Carpenter composed another excellent mood-enhancing music score. Releasing the film just prior to the 1988 elections was either inspired or a very lucky happenstance, because it proved to be a hit at the box office - seemingly the only Carpenter film that audiences 'got' straight away.  

An inherent message in the film about not selling-out for big financial success was not lost on Carpenter fans, who know that he has never been close to doing so. There was talk of a sequel to
They Live, titled Hypnowar, but it was never made.

Extras on this disc consist of a Making of... featurette, a Commentary with John Carpenter and Roddy Piper, and Carpenter, Piper and Meg Foster profiles. 9 out of 10.

So John Carpenter has enjoyed a successful, but sometimes uncomfortable career. But he has remained resolute and has a formidable arsenal of fine films in his canon.

If I were to choose seven films to represent his finest work, I would select those included in this set. They are strong and diverse achievements. Although the majority of extras available out there in the retail world are here to compliment the films, there are a couple of individual releases which are much more packed with special features, especially on region 1. However, this isn't a huge problem, as most avid Carpenter fans such as myself will already have these remastered films, and for those coming to John Carpenter afresh - as I said at the top of this piece - there's no better place to start than here.

Verdict: 10 out of 10

(Review originally written by Ty Power for sci-fi-online 2008)

Journey to the Far Side of the Sun (1969)

Also Known as Doppelganger

Starring: Roy Thinnes, Ian Hendry, Patrick Wymark & Ed Bishop

Directed by Robert Parrish

Story & Screenplay by Gerry & Sylvia Anderson

September 2008

European space agency EUROSEC receives pictures from a probe revealing an identical-looking Earth-like planet on the exact opposite side of the sun. Failing in their attempt to raise an expedition, they bring in the Americans. However, the American representative refuses to put forward the huge finances. Only conclusive evidence that top secret data is being smuggled out to a foreign agency convinces them all that expediency is required - on the proviso that the Americans install their own qualified astronaut. When he and an astrophysicist crash on the surface of the planet, they wake up to find themselves back at EUROSEC, with officials demanding to know why they turned back. When his colleague dies of his injuries, the American astronaut is left alone to convince others of his sanity. Countless minor differences tell him he is not where he thinks he is...

Anyone who attempts to explore the difficult subjects of time or parallel/mirrored universes is always going to inadvertently invite an endless flow of paradoxes and “what if?” scenarios. So what we have here is great material for a surreal discussion down the pub. For example, if everything is mirrored or reversed on the other planet then surely all of those people the astronaut thinks he knows would be talking backwards. The bigger question lies with the question of freedom of choice. With everybody in both their professional and private life occupying the exact same roles, it would seem to suggest the citizen’s lives are mapped out for them and each person and his/her doppelganger act in tandem.

All of that aside, from a modern casual audience viewpoint, many will find
JTTFSOTS exceedingly slow. By this stage of his career Gerry Anderson was already a household name, with Stingray, Thunderbirds and Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons under his belt - to name but a few. But he had always wanted to break into live action films, and this was his big opportunity.

Although things never really went Anderson’s way on that score,
JTTFSOTS is of particular interest to me because it is here that the initial style and development began for his next big series, UFO. Personally, I believe UFO to have been the pinnacle of Anderson’s TV achievements. It was an outstanding series of which many teasers are evident in this film. Most notably many of the actors secure regular character roles in the series, including Ed Bishop, George Sewell as well as others - although the big name draw here is Herbert Lom. The futuristic cars, the costumes (including spacesuits), the architecture and the excellent model work (which even holds up to close scrutiny today) are also very similar. Just a word also for the music, composed and performed by Anderson stalwart Barry Gray; it’s as excellent as ever (don’t expect pop songs here).

The DVD has been available in America (under its stateside name of Doppelganger) for some time now, but this is its debut release in the UK. And very welcome it is too. Fans of Gerry Anderson will no doubt lap this up, but I would also recommend any curious newcomer to this film to pick-up the
UFO box set. You won’t be disappointed.

Verdict: 7 out of 10

(Review originally written by Ty Power for sci-fi-online 2008)  

The Ultimate Matrix Collection (2004)

Starring: Keanu Reeves, Laurence Fishburne and Carrie-Anne Moss

Warner Bros

December 2004

It's what every fan of The Matrix movies want... more! More eye-opening revelations, more plugged-in discovery, more realms of bold possibility, as the trilogy that set a new standard in moviemaking now sets a new standard in DVD gift sets with The Ultimate Matrix Collection...

By now everyone's seen The Matrix, right? What do you mean "What's The Matrix?" So let's explore exactly what's on these discs.

This 10-DVD collection comes in two formats. The one I'm presently reviewing is a nicely-presented slip box incorporating five of the cardboard-type DVD cases and a detailed booklet describing by title the assembled features and breaking the films up into chapters.

In case you've been in another galaxy for the last century, the first film in the trilogy has Neo discovering that what he thinks is the real world is in fact a computer program created by machines which have humans wired-up like batteries to power their vast city.

The Matrix comes as an excellent 2-disc set. The first contains a new digital transfer of the film, a written intro by the writer/director Wachowski Brothers, and three new commentaries (one from philosophers Dr Cornel West and Ken Wilber, the other from critics Todd McCarthy of Variety, John Powers of Vogue and David Thomson, author of The New Biographical Dictionary of Film). The second disc has a feature length documentary called The Matrix Revisited, 3-hours of audio music (made up of 41 tracks) called The Music Revisited, featurettes Behind The Matrix, and Take The Red Pill, Follow the White Rabbit (containing 17 featurettes originally linked in branching to the film, CD ROM material and Web Links).

The Matrix Reloaded is also a 2-disc set. After an innovative, intelligent and thought-provoking first film, this one tries to be too clever and simply ends up complicating the situation. However, there is a number of outstanding set pieces and these alone are worth seeing the film for.

The first disc contains
The Matrix Reloaded film, with introductions and commentaries as per The Matrix. The second disc has Enter The Matrix (23 live action sequences shot for the video game, which tie-in with the overall structure of The Matrix trilogy) with Niobe and Ghost the main characters. There's also I'll Handle Them (Behind the scenes of The Great Hall sequence), The Exiles (explaining the backgrounds of the peripheral characters), Unplugged (the multiple Mr Smith fight), Teahouse Fight (where Neo is tested before seeing the Oracle), and Weblinks. The best section on this disc is Car Chase, wherein the Freeway Sequence is picked apart from concept to realisation. The motorcycle stunt woman is fearless, and the choreography and computer plotting is fascinating.

The Matrix Revolutions is the third of the trilogy, a generally action-packed but messy conclusion where the accepted exaggeration of the first two films went a little too far.

Again it's a 2-disc set for this one, with the movie and commentaries as per the first two films. Disc 2 is again packed with features.
Crew explores set construction, artists, lighting and the 2nd film unit, Hel uncovers stunts, wire work, working extras, and explosive and physical effects. Siege describes making the machines a reality, computerising sequences, storyboarding the final scene of the Mifune character, constructing the IPU mechanical fighting machine, and the new actors for this film. Super Burly Brawl plots the shooting of the last fight scenes between Neo and Smith. New Blue World is about creating Zion, on-screen graphics, and constructing a fist fight in the real world. The Aftermath describes the music composition, shooting two films back to back and coding for cutting, sound effects, and rendering the visual effects.  The Animatrix contains nine short films (see my review of last year) totalling 89 minutes, and bonus material on a single disc. There are director commentaries on four of the films. Scrolls to Screen is a nice documentary on the culture and history of Anime. Creators is a text feature on the directors and segment producers. There is also a short featurette on each of the short films. This is a great disc with some extremely diverse stories in terms of style and content.

The final 3-disc section is called
The Matrix Experience. The first disc is The Roots of The Matrix, an in-depth and surprisingly interesting documentary exploring the philosophies of the concepts covered in the trilogy. This disc also has another feature which investigates and theorises on the plausibility of the science behind the fiction.

Disc 2 contains some of the best material in this set. A long documentary called
The Burly Man Chronicles (apparently a working title for some of the shoot) covers a countdown in approximate days of the training, set building, computer rendering, planning, acting, filming and a thousand and one other tasks carried out, all in the name of making a movie (or two, as this covers the back to back films). Every area is viewed or covered in some way, but never lingers long enough to make you lose interest. Furthermore, there's 21 White Rabbit branching link featurettes with the documentary. This, more than any other feature I can think of, will astound you with just how much is involved in presenting fictional celluloid for our viewing pleasure. It is extremely big business.

The Zion Archive, the final disc for this set, is the definite weak link here. Aside from semi-interesting concept artwork and storyboards, the majority of the rest comprises of TV spots and trailers for each film in the trilogy. The Rave Reel gives us music and computer imagery resembling a sophisticated Windows Media Player, and The Matrix Online shows and describes moments from the website game.

So, a lot to get your teeth into then. This set is a
Matrix fanatic's dream. There's certainly a lot of attention to detail. However, I'm obliged I think to reduce my marks by a point from 9 simply because this is not a mainstream release. You would have to eat, drink and sleep - in fact, live and breathe - The Matrix to fork-out for more than 35 hours of bonus material. Nice idea though.

Verdict: 8 out of 10

(Review originally written by Ty Power for sci-fi-online 2004)

The Matrix Reloaded (2003)

Starring: Keanu Reeves, Laurence Fishburne and Carrie-Anne Moss

Warner Home Video

October 2003

In The Matrix Neo discovers that the world in which he lives is in fact an elaborate computer program. With the help of Morpheus and Trinity, he wakes up in the real world to find it effectively destroyed. The machines have won the war with mankind, but keep thousands alive as a necessary power source, human batteries. Neo and the others can be literally plugged into the Matrix and programmed with certain abilities, a la Joe 90, but the Matrix has a powerful defence mechanism; agents led by Mr Smith act as immune cells. Neo eventually learns he is "the One" of prophecy, the only human in a pocket of resistance who can combat the agents and take the first step towards fighting back against the program...

In this second instalment, the machines have located Zyon, the subterranean haven of the humans, and are drilling through from the surface. Neo, "the One", becomes more powerful as he discovers new abilities and undergoes prophetic visions. However, the agent Mr Smith has received an upgrade by the Matrix and is now much stronger and able to duplicate himself. Neo is directed by the Oracle to the Keymaker, who holds the secret to the source of the Matrix. Finally reaching the Architect, Neo learns that there has been previous versions of Zyon, each destroyed by the machines. It seems likely the same will happen again. Confronted with a Catch 22 situation of two choices, Neo decides upon another option...

I believe it is important to provide a synopsis of both films here, because The Matrix Reloaded assumes the viewer has already seen the fist instalment. Any newcomer to this three-part storyline will be completely lost by beginning here. The premise is complicated enough as it is. Ask four people what the plot of Reloaded is and the chances are you'll get four different answers. I did. This one leaves far more new questions than it does tie-up loose ends from the original film: Why didn't the sentinel machines simply follow the human ships into Zyon? Why don't the survivors in the real world simply awaken all the human batteries plugged into the Matrix? The cocoons were not well protected when Neo awoke from his in the first film. Are the twins programs written for the Matrix? Otherwise where did their unique abilities come from. All aware humans have extra abilities within the Matrix, but how did Neo come by his extraordinary gifts? Perhaps some of these questions will be answered in the last of the trilogy, but I doubt it.

The Matrix was an intelligent science fiction story with original ideas and new ways of realising them for the screen. It's almost as if the Wachowski brothers listened to the praise before dreaming-up a hyper-convoluted continuation which is just too complicated for even the most avid SF fans. So let's leave the plot behind, because this is an extremely entertaining arrangement of set pieces. The fight scenes are better than ever; the multiple Mr Smith example is itself longer than all of those featured in The Matrix. By far the biggest moment in the movie is the meticulously planned and brilliantly choreographed freeway chase, which incorporates several spectacular stunts, amazing effects and gripping martial arts. The extras documentary on this scene takes you from the script to the storyboards, a computer animation realisation, many discussions involving models, and practice runs on a mile and a half stretch of freeway literally built from scratch.

And taking of extra features, aside from the aforementioned freeway chase there is a shorter behind-the-scenes documentary, a featurette which looks at how the trilogy of films tie-in with
The Animatrix and the computer game, a blatant advertisement for The Animatrix, the making of the game Enter the Matrix, the MTV movie awards, and design and advertising inspired by The Matrix. A fair amount, granted; but do they warrant a second disc? Maybe, maybe not. The Matrix DVD release set the trend for what was to come with a veritable plethora of features and linking themes, all on a single disc (at least initially). Reloaded carries a more standard format, when it could have once again reinvented the DVD format. Or am I expecting too much?

In many ways
The Matrix is a better film than Reloaded, but the constant action scenes make this one more exciting to watch. So, my advice is to disengage your brain and enjoy the romp.

Verdict: 8 out of 10

(Review originally written by Ty Power for sci-fi-online 2003)

The Outer Limits - Season One (1963-1964)

Starring: Donald Pleasence, Martin Landau, Robert Culp, Barry Morse

Created & Produced by Leslie Stevens

Scriptwriters: Joseph Stephano, Leslie Stevens & More

32 Episodes

There is nothing wrong with your television set. Do not attempt to adjust the picture. We are controlling transmission. We will control the horizontal. We will control the vertical. For the next hour, sit quietly and we will control all you see and hear. You are about to participate in a great adventure. You are about to experience the awe and mystery which reaches from the inner mind to... The Outer Limits...

I know more than a little about the original version of The Outer Limits. Believe it or not, I'm too young to remember its first airing in 1964, but it was sporadic at best. In 1980 BBC2 showed every episode. They were out of sequence, and moved from a regular early evening slot to a late night one for no explicable reason. But I didn't care. I couldn't get enough of them. I've loved this quality anthology series ever since, and it has for years sat in my all-time top five TV programmes.

Okay, so I appreciate the show. But why is it so good? Well, first and foremost the scripts are so strong; even those considered to be weaker knock spots off other shows of this format. Although
The Outer Limits was devised by producer Leslie Stevens (he also wrote the pilot The Galaxy Being), the show's major success was undoubtedly down to Joseph Stephano, one of the best scriptwriters of his time. Not only did he write many of the best episodes, but also received co-credits for many others for his tightening of those scripts, making them compatible with the show.

The "Bear", which was what insiders called the monster of the week, was almost universally well-handled. Simple optical effects and good camerawork combined to make the creatures more threatening or otherworldly. One of the reasons why this series works so well is that everything is played straight. There is no underlying tongue-in-cheek "No, we're not convinced by the monster either!" attitude.

This first season DVD set incorporates 32 45-minute self-contained stories over eight discs (four titles on each disc). This differs slightly from the region 1 version which has been around for at least a couple of years now. That had four unlabeled two-sided discs, with only a microscopic A or B to distinguish each side. Don't expect any extras here (Isn't more than 27 hours of viewing enough, for goodness sake?!), and there is only the original mono sound. I surmise that to cleanup the picture would have significantly increased the cost of the set, but rest assured that only a couple contain minor scratches. On the whole, the picture is pretty much pristine.

If I were to list every good story it would take over this entire review, so here are just a few classic episodes. In The Zanti Misfits, a Zanti official contacts Earth saying that a penal ship will land and that they should not approach it. The area is cordoned-off, but a criminal and a runaway wife break through and end up stumbling across the craft. A Zanti creature emerges to warn them off and in the confusion the Zanti criminals make a bid for freedom. This is a well-written tale by Stephano, but the appearance of the Zanti turn it into a classic. The ant like creatures with humanoid features are creepy but make you smile at just how well they are realised.

In The Invisibles an undercover government investigator infiltrates a secret society where humans are hosts to parasitic creatures which are taking over positions of power. Again this is credited to Stephano, but shame on the producers for not crediting Robert Heinlein, because this is undoubtedly based on his novel The Puppet Masters.

In The Sixth Finger, a man volunteers to undergo a scientist's experiments in advancing man's evolution hundreds of years. He becomes much more intelligent, but to others his metamorphosis makes him so inhuman that he appears to them as a monster. Guest stars in this season include: Robert Culp (the ultimate jobbing actor), David McCallum, Martin Landau and a multitude of other faces many of whom you will recognise (Neil Hamilton, Commissioner Gordon in the camp sixties Batman series, is one of them).

In short, this is pretty near brilliant stuff. Go out and buy it. "We now return control of your television to you, until next time..."

Verdict: 10 out of 10

(Review originally written by Ty Power for sci-fi-online 2005)

The Outer Limits - Season Two (1964-1965)

Starring: William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy & Others

Created & Produced by Leslie Stevens

Written by Harlan Ellison, Clifford Simak & More

17 Episodes

There is nothing wrong with your television set. Do not attempt to adjust the picture. We are controlling transmission. We will control the horizontal. We will control the vertical. For the next hour, sit quietly and we will control all you see and hear. You are about to participate in a great adventure. You are about to experience the awe and mystery which reaches from the inner mind to... The Outer Limits...

Season two of this classic 1960s sci-fi/horror anthology series contains only around half the number of episodes of season one. The reason why we only get seventeen is because it was decided to abandon the show partway through due to reduced viewing figures. A tad short-sighted, methinks. You might say that Joseph Stephano was partly responsible for this. This superb scriptwriter and style-setter for the show had opted to leave the production at the end of season one, after being repeatedly refused permission to direct some episodes. Given today's attitudes that virtually any actor on a long-running series is given the opportunity to try their hand at directing, this is rather ironic.

The programme did suffer as a result of his missing influence. Although remaining of generally high standard, season two did wander from its original format. The music became more melodic, rather than eerie, and moral tales exploring every facet of the human condition were forgotten.

Having said that, season two does contain two classic episodes: Soldier (which was the root of James Cameron's idea for The Terminator) and Demon With a Glass Hand. Both were written by seasoned SF writer Harlan Ellison and both won the coveted Hugo Award. The former has two soldiers from the far future, bred only to hate and kill the enemy, being forced by an accident back to the past of the 1960s, where a psychologist attempts to teach one of them the concepts of love and family. In the latter, a future Earth is invaded by another race, only to discover the entire population has vanished. The answer lies with the last remaining man and his glass hand computer.

Another great episode is I, Robot, about a machine falsely placed on trial for murdering his creator. It explores whether an intelligent robot should have human rights, and is taken from an Isaac Asimov story, right down to the title. However, just like The Invisibles from season one, the original writer outrageously receives no credit. This idea has been used many times since, most notably on Star Trek: The Next Generation's The Measure of a Man, where the subject was the android officer Data. And talking of Trek, guest stars for this season included William Shatner, Robert Culp (again), and Leonard Nimoy.

While true that this set of episodes is not as strong as season one's, the divide is not as wide as you might expect. The quality remains true, so it is well worth picking yourself up a copy of this set. The retail price reflects the reduced content.

Verdict: 8 out of 10

(Review originally written by Ty Power for sci-fi-online 2005)

Pitch Black (2000)

Starring: Vin Diesel, Radha Mitchell, Cole Hauser and Keith David

Directed by David Twohy

Written by Jim & Ken Wheat

Universal Pictures

August 2004

Riddick, a dangerous convict, is being transported aboard a civilian spacecraft to a new location. The craft becomes damaged by space debris and is forced to crash land on a nearby planet. The captain and others are killed, leaving Fry and Johns in charge of a group of survivors. After a run-in with subterranean creatures, they feel safe in the knowledge that three suns will bring constant light. However, once every 22 days the suns align behind other astral bodies, creating sustained complete darkness. At first they hide away inside a construct left by the previous settlers, wiped-out by the creatures. But their sources of light cannot last forever. They need to make the journey to their wrecked craft and carry the heavy power units to an intact ship left behind by the vanished people. It seems like a suicide mission, especially when they have to rely on the multiple murderer, Riddick, who with unique implants is the only one who can see in the dark...

This film borrows from so many sources it's amazing it works at all, and is not subject to immediate derision. But work it does. You could say Pitch Black is a construct of so many ideas that the whole gives the impression it's something entirely new and original. The dangerous convict being transported comes from Con Air (a brilliant, purposeful over-the-top satire); the transported convict being relied upon for help is straight out of John Carpenter's Assault On Precinct 13 (there's that name again); and the empty settlement and dark-loving, ferocious and lightening-quick creatures must have brought an ironic smile or grimace from James Cameron in regards to his Aliens masterpiece. Even the views from the planet surface reminds me of the computer-generated terrain created for the early Planetary Traveller DVD. But who cares; nothing is totally original in this day and age.

Pitch Black made quite an impact with science fiction fans upon its cinematic release. In retrospect, the film company has seized on Vin Diesel's Riddick as the winning element, hence the Dark Fury and The Chronicles of Riddick follow-ups. But it is not the man but the look and feel of the product that wins through. This success is down to a number of factors: the low-key mood; the over-bright, sun-washed look of the planet surface; and the manner in which the creatures are kept mainly to the darkness, so you see more movement than detail, are just a few examples. A couple of things don't work. Fry's crisis of conscience is a mite overacted, and the holy man's faith in God's protection being severely tested has been portrayed in so many films that it merely induces a groan from this reviewer now.

Comparing this Special Edition version with the original DVD release, I found there were not too many differences. The widescreen and 5.1 sound are the same, the two commentaries are the same, the
Making of Pitch Black is the same, and the trailers too. What's new is an Introduction by the director, an early Scene from The Chronicles of Riddick film, a Trailer for the game Escape From Butcher Bay, the Making of the Dark Fury animated film, and The Johns Case Log (computer diaries tracking Riddick).

You would need to be a
Pitch Black fanatic to buy the DVD again for what amounts to a handful of minor extras. If you're buying the film for the first time, however, I would strongly recommend this release.

Verdict: 8 out of 10

(Review originally written by Ty Power for sci-fi-online 2004)

The Right Stuff (1983)

Starring: Sam Shepard, Scott Glenn, Dennis Quaid, Charles Frank and Ed Harris

Based on the book by Tom Wolfe

Written & Directed by Philip Kaufman

Warner Home Video

July 2003

Based on a book by Tom Wolfe, the history of aviation in America is portrayed from the later forties, with the first breaking of the sound barrier, through to the early space program. A group of elite pilots are selected to train for the Mercury project space race against the Russians, and put their lives on the line for the pride of America...

Four Academy Awards notwithstanding, whether you enjoy The Right Stuff or not depends very much on who you are, or at least where you are situated in the world. There is more than enough to appreciate if you look in the right places. The filming is undoubtedly top-notch stuff, and the presentation informs you that the piggy bank was raided for a suitable budget. But then you have the dialogue and overall feel of the thing.

In the entire history of film and TV, I don't think I've ever come across such gung-ho, self-obsessed, shameless backslapping, flag-waving, self-congratulatory Pepsi... I mean, patriotism. Oh, the puerile over-sentimentality. It felt so false. Everyone has the right to be patriotic, but this abuses the privilege. I watched it with one eye on the sick bucket, just in case. And, in the event the viewers might forget how they should be feeling whilst watching
The Right Stuff, the Bill Conti music regularly crashes in over the top with its sickly, overemotional feel good score. It made the many John Williams contributions for Steven Spielberg sound harsh in comparison. If I hadn't been so worried about further increasing my nausea, I'd have stood up and saluted.

Why couldn't Philip Kaufman just get on with telling the story without all the twee singing of its own praises? A country or individual person is measured by his actions and achievements, not his opinions of them. Here we have a veritable plethora of screen stars: Fred Ward, fondly remembered for the low budget gem,
Tremors; Lance Henriksen, the android Bishop in Aliens; Sam Shepard, Dennis Quaid, Scott Glenn - all of whom struggle not to drown in their own heroism and cheesy grins. Ed Harris, so good in James Cameron's The Abyss, plays John Glenn, the all-American blue-eyed ex-marine astronaut who can do no wrong. This he pulls off pretty well. In fact, for me the best scene of the movie is the one where his wife refuses an audience with the Vice President, and is supported wholeheartedly by Glenn via long-distance telephone.

Don't believe for one minute that I'm belittling the achievements of the real men involved in these historic events. My argument is that they were probably just doing the best they could in difficult circumstances. In this film the script has the space program and the media pour far too much syrup over the story.

For anyone with a stronger stomach than mine, this DVD package contains many extra features on a second disc, and must surely win a couple of points for its eye-catching design and attention to detail. You'll find included: a profile of the real John Glenn; commentaries by Philip Kaufman and other cast and crew; three documentaries; thirteen additional scenes; and an interactive timeline with NASA footage.

Verdict: 6 out of 10

(Review originally written by Ty Power for sci-fi-online 2003) 

Westworld (1973)

Starring: Yul Brynner, Richard Benjamin, James Brolin

Written & Directed by Michael Crichton

Delos is the ultimate theme park holiday resort. For $1000 a day customers can live out their fantasies in one of three controlled zones: Romanworld, Medieval World or Westworld - interacting with other holidaymaker role-players and state-of-the-art robots. Friends John and Peter live out the dream in Westworld... until things begin to go seriously wrong. When minor technical faults escalate, the resort robots carry out their programming with no thought or consideration to the safety of the guests. For John and Peter that means fleeing for their lives from a relentless killer gunslinger...

Here we have a movie which sets the benchmark, showing every aspiring filmmaker how it should be done. Westworld is in my top dozen films of all time, and it's easy to see why when you examine the inherent structure. It's based on a book by Michael Crichton, bestselling author of The Andromeda Strain, Jurassic Park, The Terminal Man and many others. However, a good book does not necessarily transfer smoothly to the big screen. One of the strongest attributes Westworld possesses is the fact that it works equally successfully as a western, science fiction, technological thriller, disaster movie, action adventure and, in places, feel-good light comedy - whilst maintaining an essentially genreless mainstream stance.

If I only had one word to sum-up
Westworld it would be Fun. Right from the off, we're caught up in the enthusiasm of first-timer Peter Martin, reflected in the knowing smile of his experienced friend John Blane. We soak-up the ambience of the old west in the form of course whisky in the saloon, horse riding, a shoot out with a gunfighter, the pleasures of the cathouse, a jailbreak and a bar room brawl. The scientists running operations behind the scenes are shown in brief snippets with no wasted dialogue, so as to not detract from the main events hotting up for our protagonists.

Similarly, we're kept up to speed with some events in Medieval World, and in particular a guest's fatal confrontation with the Black Knight. The escalating tension as we approach the conclusion has the same feel as the film
Duel - also from the early seventies. This is not only due to the tight script but exemplary acting. There's not a single bad word to be said about Yul Brynner's portrayal of the black-garbed robot gunslinger. It's just so powerful, and it's this performance alone which turns a good film into an excellent one. I simply cannot sing his praises enough.  To paraphrase the movie tagline: Boy, have we got a movie for you.

Verdict: 9 out of 10

(Review originally written by Ty Power for sci-fi-online 2008)