DVD Viewing: A Slew of Science Fiction

DVD Viewing: A Slew of Science Fiction

I doubt there is a single reader on this site who doesn’t have their top ten films. I also wouldn’t be surprised if it includes more than its share of science fiction titles. That said, here’s a recent batch of them. Enjoy.

FEATURED PICKS

THE RAY HARRYHAUSEN COLLECTIBLE GIFT SET (6 DVDs) (Sony)

• It Came From Beneath The Sea (1955)

• Earth v. The Flying Saucers (1956)

• 20 Million Miles To Earth (1957)

When most think of stop-motion master Ray Harryhausen, one usually thinks The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, Jason and the Argonauts or Clash of the Titans. All undeniable masterpieces of fantasy. What many forget is Harryhausen established himself doing sci-fi. These three films predate all the aforementioned masterworks.

Getting a 12” statuette based on 20 Million Miles is cool, but the real pleasure are the six disks that accompany it. Each is meticulously restored in original black and white, then comes with a companion with wonderfully done colorizations. They also come with commentary from the grand master himself plus tons of other extra features.

What matters though are the films weren’t lurid (or at least not totally) monster flicks featuring a guy in a gorilla suit and divers helmet. By the standards of the day they were relatively cheap, but the amount of sweat and effort Harryhausen and crew is astounding. The cautionary tales each told were as hard as one could get back in the mid-50s. These films were as profound as one could during the Eisenhower era without being red baited.

What also counts is the mastery Harryhausen has with his puppets. The giant octopus of It Came moves with incredibly lethal smoothness. The flying saucers of Earth v. have become iconic. The amount of detail Harryhausen put is amazing. Most stop motion of that day was on the Gumby level. No one matched Harryhausen until Nightmare Before Christmas.

In other words, if you love vintage science fiction-based filmmaking, this is as good as it gets. The stories hold up well…and besides, having Ymir on your book case is just too cool for words.

THE WILD WILD WEST: THE COMPLETE SERIES (CBS) (27 DVDs)

The adventures of James West and Artemus Gordon as science fiction? Would steampunk be the same without The Wild Wild West?

Probably the most original treatment of the Western genre (outside of Briscoe County naturally), this series took the oater, threw a James Bond twist to it and pushed the gadgetry level to points previously unheard of, especially for a horse opera. Each episode found Robert Conrad (West) and man-of-1000-faces Ross Martin (Gordon) going up against weapons and mad scientists the likes of Mark Twain and Jules Verne only hinted at. Their enemies were equally imaginative, especially the unforgettable Dr. Loveless (Michael Dunn). It makes one wonder if the likes of KW Jeter, Bruce Sterling, William Gibson--even the almighty Alan Moore-- watched this show when it ran from 1965-69. Their works feel like they did.

What’s especially pleasant about this series is it still has a contemporary feel to it. This is probably due to issues covered, including terrorism, chemical/biological warfare and things would be real life today. Throughout it all, Conrad and Gordon handle it all appropriately, never blinking at the latest contraption trying to thwart America’s Manifest Destiny.

This collection comes in dueling box, with all of the DVDs in two gun holsters. You not only get all four seasons wonderfully restored and with all original material, but also the two sequel movies done in 1979 and 1980. Yes, it’s a pricey set, but worth every cent. Not only for the stories, but also for its historical significance.

and here’s the rest…

CYBORG SOLDIER (Firstlook)

The super soldier on the loose is stock formula these days. The good news is this one comes has an intelligent script and competent acting from its leads, Bruce Greenwood (the future Captain Pike) and Tiffani Thiessen (90210, Saved By The Bell). The bad news is the direction is so plodding and mundane you’ll have a hard time staying awake. Great if you don’t want to take a sleeping pill.

DOCTOR WHO: The Complete Fourth Series (BBC) (6 DVDs)

Give the producers of this incarnation of Doctor Who their props. Rumors of the current Doctor, David Tennant, ending his run as the Time Lord was endemic before his official announcement. So if you’re going to go…who wouldn’t like to go out like this.

A slam bang season, you not only get a solid new companion in Donna Noble (Catherine Tate), but also a summation of everything of the Tennant/Eccleson runs. Every companion and most of the adversaries do a curtain call. The season cements the relationship of Who to its two offshoots, Torchwood and Sarah Jane Adventures. While the “three doctors” element stretches the series to its limits, it beats the horrid Peter Pan-like dénouement of Season Three by several parsecs.

As expected, this set also continues Tennant’s video diary, reviews the season, includes deleted scenes. It also has interesting side content unique to this year’s model. More important, Tennant is on the verge of putting himself as one of the popular actors to ever play the rogue Gallifreyan. If the upcoming four final specials reach the same quality as this season, he’ll have solid grounds for it.

DOCTOR WHO: THE TRIAL OF A TIME LORD (BBC) (4 DVDs)

Then there was this sad season. The year is 1986, and Doctor Who was facing the biggest crisis of its run: cancellation. The then head of the BBC, Michael Grade, had a personal disliking to the series, putting Who on hiatus for 18 months before fans forced him to bring it back. The fact that Grade dated the then Doctor’s (Colin Baker) ex-wife is rumored to have something to do with it. The series was “on trial,” and head Who creators, producer Jonathan Nathan-Turner and script editor Eric Saward, used this fact for the season’s 14-episode run.

Considered one giant mega-arc divided into four parts, the run had its extreme highs as well as lows. It included killing a companion (Peri) and replacing her with one of the most annoying (Mel), a truly horrendous performance in the illustrious Brian Blessed’s career and, ultimately, killing the Doctor twice (sort of). The Master has one of his most interesting twists as a true antihero. When it ends, Grade had his final revenge. As the extra content would later point out, the only way Nathan-Turner could continue the series was by the firing of Baker. Saward would quit in disgust.

In its own way, the extra content actually outshines the episodes. It tells a fascinating story of how a successful series, one with amazing ratings for over two decades, was sabotaged by little men with huge egos. The only ones who come out truly sympathetic are Baker and Nicola Bryant (Peri). Yes, it’s must-see TV, but not for the reasons one expect.

THE 4400: The Complete Series (CBS) (15 DVDs)

Could we possibly be seeing parallel history in the making?

The 4400 made its debut in 2004, a collaboration between former Star Trek exec Rene Echevarria and Outer Limits writer Scott Peters. It posits the return of a number of human beings, ostensibly kidnapped by extraterrestrials. Thing is they came back with, oft times bizarre, powers. Mankind then learns how to replicate the process, artificially creating other powers. Next thing, it’s the superpowered not only going up against themselves, but “normal” people, too.

This is two years before Tim Kring debuted Heroes.

In the extra content, Peters discusses how 4400 did fairly well for its first two seasons, only losing steam and creative direction with its third. Anyone noticing that Heroes is having the same problems lately? Pick up this set and see for yourself. While we’re at it, maybe someone should send Kring a copy of this set just so he doesn’t repeat history.

FUTURAMA: BENDER’S GAME (Fox)

For the first time in the history Futurama, Fry finally gets to ride Leela bareback. She’s a centaur, but it wouldn’t be Futurama if there wasn’t some kind of innuendo.

Actually, it wouldn’t be Futurama if there weren’t a lot of jabs at the modern world. In this D2D release, writers David X. Cohen, Mike Rowe and Patric Verrone crossbreed Orson Scott Card with Gary Gygax, and gets us to laugh at the mutant.

The plot revolves around Mom cornering the market on dark matter (all fans know where that comes from) while Bender develops an obsession with Dungeons & Dragons. Add some JRR Tolkein for flavor. While Fry doesn’t make the best Gollum, he’s right on the money just about everywhere else. The rest of the cast is in top form, especially John DiMaggio as a totally over-the-the top RPG-crazed Bender.

This latest D2D is packed with extra content. We’re not just talking the off-the-wall commentary and expected making of docs, either. We’re talking Cohen and company publicly displaying their true geek nature. There is also the opening sequence, an incredible homage to Yellow Submarine and, lots lot more.

Most important, this series proves science fiction can be hilarious fun. We know there’s a fourth coming this Spring entitled Into the Wild Green Yonder Let’s hope there’s a fifth DVD in the future.

HANCOCK: Unrated Special Edition (Sony) (2 DVDs)

It seems Will Smith can do no wrong these days, especially when it comes to rewriting genre films to suit his personal needs.

As just about every comic book fan knows, the title character (Smith) is a super powered being whose attempts to save the world backfire the worst way possible. It doesn’t help that he’s a stone cold drunk. Then he saves the life of a PR rep, Ray Avery (Jason Batemen) who decides to reform both Hancock’s life and image. What neither Embry nor Hancock realizes is the hero and Embry’s wife, Mary (Cherize Theron), have a history, a very dark deep history. The only time the film stretches itself a bit thin is when Mary fills Hancock in on their mutual past. It’s quickly forgotten though when it’s time for the inevitable final act where our man proves what true heroism is. The final scene is also wonderfully touching.

As for the extra disk of extra content and the material that made this disk “unrated,” well it’s nothing you never saw before, and really not that shocking. One gets the feeling this film was never meant for pre-teens anyway, so what was cut out was supercilious. The rest is pretty much standard making of doc material.

Otherwise, a nice alternative view of what it takes to be a superhero. Well worth at least renting, if not owning.

JYU-OH-SEI (FUNimation) (2 DVDs)

This anime takes Golding’s Lord of the Flies and sets it in outer space. It tells the tale of a pair of twins who suddenly find themselves exiled to a prison planet where the only way to survive is to shed their veneer of civilization and become as savage as their new surroundings.

While the character design can get a tad dicey (especially around the faces), this is a solid sci-fi entry with lots of surprisingly good plot twists. Dig a copy up.

MEET DAVE (Fox)

You’d think after Pluto Nash a smart guy like Eddie Murphy would know better. Maybe he’s just jealous of Will Smith’s success in the genre. Maybe he thought he is king of all genres. Maybe someone should whack him in the head with a shovel.

The plot is a race of aliens, led by Murphy, come to Earth in a ship made to look like…Murphy. This fish-out-of-water story falls flat on its face thank to a horrendous script and plain bad mugging for the camera, Murphy not even being the worst of the bunch there.

Let’s hope the next time someone offers Murphy a similar script, someone with more common sense puts a stop to Murphy doing it.

PRIMEVAL: Volume One (BBC) (2 DVDs)

This fresh little British sci-fi series approaches the concept of time travel in a rather unique way.

The UK is being plagued by what are called “anomalies,” i.e. portals that open the gates to various periods in the past and future. From there, the threat is simple. One is never sure what’s more dangerous: who, or what, comes through an anomaly to terrorize the present; or how the present can be changed when someone explores the past. To top it, some people get the idea this can be used to create a utopia, without any real consideration of the potential consequences.

Already a hit on BBC America. This box contains the first 13 episodes of the series. While one wishes there was a little more extra content, the qualities of the show itself makes this set a hit in my book. Here’s to more, please.

RAIN OF FIRE (Lionsgate)

This late 70s Italian B movie stars Kirk Douglas as an energy exec arrogant enough to plan a thermo-nuclear power plant in the middle of the Holy Land. From there it’s a mix of then real-time science The Omen-like horror/fantasy. Douglas is wonderfully over the top. One wishes one could say the same for the rest of the cast and the plot. For late-night viewing when you got nothing else to do.

THE SARAH JANE ADVENTURES: Complete First Season (BBC) (4 DVDs)

If anyone ever wonders why Elisabeth Sladen, aka Sarah Jane Smith, is the most beloved former Dr. Who companion, one need look no further than here. That’s not the only reason one should have this collection though.

Quite frankly, SJA is solid proof that one can create an intelligent science fiction series and aim it for pre-teens without being the slightest bit preachy or just plain stupid/silly. Can’t wait for Season 2.

SPACE CHIMPS (Fox)

The promos said this film was from an ape that gave you Shrek. Actually, it comes from a whole lot of guys who monkey’d Starz Animation’s Everyday Hero.

On the plus side, Starz theatrical animation division has lots of great and original ideas. The idea of three test apes being spam in a can to check an outer space wormhole, and what they find once on the other side, is pretty new. The quality of the round, bright and bouncy CGI is also solid, as is the voice cast. Thing is, this film is chock full of some of the most unlikable lead characters in cartoon features this year. Lead ape Ham III should look in a mirror before he calls anyone a jerk. The lead villain is as annoying as a Bravo designer reject. The little friendly alien, Kilowatt? You just want to punt its round little head into the next galaxy.

As it stands, there’s enough potential in this studio to make one want to keep an eye on Starz Animation. On the other hand, Space Chimps should’ve been aborted.

STAR TREK--THE ORIGINAL SERIES: Season Three (CBS) (7 DVDs)

As any Trekker knows, the only reason this season originally aired on NBC way back when was because of the fan response to the show’s original cancellation. After getting over 100,000 letters, the Peacock network gave Trek a reprieve.

That was about it.

Like the previously reviewed Doctor Who: Trial of a Time Lord, the third season of Star Trek: The Original Series was produced by a pack of TV execs who didn’t like to be proven wrong. In NBC’s case, this meant a slashed budget, some royally obnoxious scripting (from opener “Spock’s Brain” to season finale “Turnabout Intruder”). As the extra content would say, creator Gene Roddenberry was so upset with the abuse he left the Paramount lot and put the mess in the hands of the saintly Robert Justman.

Not that every show stunk it up. Trek still had some powerful moments, such as the episode “The Empath.” It also had the controversial kiss between William Shatner and Nichelle Nichol (and her tale of how Shatner made sure that kiss stayed in the series is a classic). This set also includes both versions of the original pilot, “The Cage,” not to forget all cut-for-syndication scenes restored.

So if you are a Trek completist, I don’t have to tell you to get this set. If you pass, no one will look badly on you either.

STORM HAWKS: SHOWDOWN IN THE SKIES (Sony) (2 DVDs)

This animated sci-fi series took a quiet shift when it jumped from its the first half of its pilot season to second. It started placing more emphasis on humor and adventure than space opera and intrigue. While it’s not bad, it’s not the wisest move either.

Actually, the humor isn’t bad when you consider the juvenile audience. The crime lord the Colonel is wonderfully greasy. There are other situations where the heroes outrageous solutions go more for a belly laugh than a gut punch.

There are still some solid battles and such, but this set left me with a craving for more such spacey swashbuckling and daring do. Next season looks like that’s solving that problem.

NEXT COLUMN: Films chock full of gratuitous nudity, extreme acts of violence, no redeeming value and lots of fun. It even has a name now. Grindhouse.

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