Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Retro Review: MILLENNIUM (1989)

(US - 1989)

One of the chintziest-looking major-studio sci-fi movies of the 1980s, MILLENNIUM spent over a decade in development before it was finally made as sloppily and ambivalently as possible. Written by John Varley and based on his short story "Air Raid," MILLENNIUM is thus far the only screenplay by the author, whose short story "Overdrawn at the Memory Bank" became a 1981 AMERICAN PLAYHOUSE episode that later ended up on MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000. MILLENNIUM was first put in pre-production as far back as 1979, with visual effects innovator Douglas Trumbull, best known for his work on 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, set to direct and Paul Newman and Jane Fonda attached to star. That fell apart, putting it in turnaround and by the time it was ultimately made in 1989, the director was Michael Anderson (AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS, LOGAN'S RUN, ORCA), with Kris Kristofferson and Cheryl Ladd starring. It's a time-jumping sci-fi would-be epic, opening with a mysterious plane crash in 1989 that's been engineered from 1000 years into the future, with the "victims" appearing to be burned to death even before the plane goes down in 1989 but actually transported to 2989 in a "timequake" for reasons that will become clear--relatively speaking--much later. Crash investigator Bill Smith (Kristofferson) finds a strange weapon--a "stunner"--amidst the wreckage, a piece of evidence left behind by Louise Baltimore (Ladd), a warrior from the future. Her mission is to stop Smith, who senses he's met Baltimore somewhere before (because, duh, he has), and Dr. Arnold Mayer (Daniel J. Travanti, his post-HILL STREET BLUES big screen career going nowhere), a nosy physicist investigating strange phenomena surrounding a series of plane crashes, from figuring out the purpose of the "stunner" and causing a paradox that will forever alter the future in a Butterfly Effect sort-of way.

MILLENNIUM has some interesting ideas along the lines of influential '80s sci-fi masterworks like THE TERMINATOR and TRANCERS, and prefigures later genre examples like 12 MONKEYS and SOURCE CODE, but the execution is somewhat lacking. The motivation for the whole "stealing people from 1000 years in the past" is never expressed very well and for a film released by 20th Century Fox, the visual effects look like something out of a corner-cutting 1970s TV show. The entire film would probably play better if it topped out at 80 minutes and came from Roger Corman's Concorde or better yet, Empire Pictures, and starred Tim Thomerson, Barbara Crampton, and Art LaFleur instead of Kristofferson, Ladd, and Travanti. Kristofferson isn't bad but he's miscast, especially if you consider that his character is, at most, a teenager in a 1963 plane crash flashback subplot, which would make Bill Smith 40 tops in 1989, with perpetually craggy 53-year-old Kristofferson not looking a day under 65. The ending is a wreck, but it's at least better than the laughable one used for the film's overseas release and included on Shout! Factory's new Blu-ray (where it's paired in a double feature set with the incredible R.O.T.O.R.), which has a nude Kristofferson and Ladd holding one another in a LIFEFORCE-style embrace as a timequake envelops them. MILLENNIUM is watchable but it could've been something more with a little care and some more money--it's hard to picture Newman and Fonda doing the movie MILLENNIUM ended up being. Shot in Toronto, it's populated by a who's who of Canadian Character Actor Hall of Famers in supporting roles, like Lloyd Bochner, Maury Chaykin, Robert Joy, Lawrence Dane, Peter Dvorsky, Gary Reineke, Michael J. Reynolds, Brent Carver, and Al Waxman. MILLENNIUM bombed in theaters, opening in the ass-end of summer on August 25, 1989 and landing in 12th place. (PG-13, 106 mins)

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