Warner Bros. Home Video has unleashed a plethora of science fiction films on
Blu-ray this week, seven in total, including one cult classic and three
mini-classics from the late ''70s and early ''80s that we've been eager to get a
fresh look at. Since those four all came out within five years of one
anothereach other and share a similar vibe from that particular era of sci-fi
cinema, we're focusing on those films this week. The other three -- "Frequency," "The Astronaut's Wife" and a director's cut of "Spawn" -- are not as neatly
grouped together but are out now as well if you're interested.
Now, onto the films we're looking at (in order of release year):
"Coma" (1978): After he wrote a few novels like
"The Andromeda Strain" and "The Terminal Man," but before he wrote blockbusters
like "Jurassic Park" and "Rising Sun," the late Michael Crichton tried his hand
at directing a few times, making his debut with the terrific "Westworld" (1973). His second film, "Coma," was an
adaptation of the massive best- seller by Robin Cook -- who, like Crichton, was
a doctor turned author.
In "Coma," surgical resident Susan Wheeler (Genevieve Bujold) investigates why healthy young
patients at Boston General Hospital, where she works, are falling into a coma
during routine operations. The macabre plot she discovers puts her life directly
in danger. While it's ostensibly a medical thriller, "Coma" does have a strong
sci-fi overtone to its second half, in which Susan visits the eerie, futuristic
institute where long-term coma patients are shipped. The ghoulish aspects of the
plot are crosscut with some more routine chase/stalk setpieces, and the
generally confined locations make "Coma" sometimes feel like a TV movie (a new
miniseries version is on the way, as a matter of fact). It's still a solid
medical thriller helped by strong performances from Bujold, Michael Douglas as
her boyfriend, and Rip Torn and Richard Widmark as the heavies.
"Altered States" (1980) is the one movie out of
this batch we're most excited about seeing again, and is a film ripe for
revisiting. Directed by British madman Ken Russell ("Tommy"), the film stars a
young William Hurt as a researcher who uses sensory deprivation tanks and exotic
Mexican tribal potions to unlock what he thinks are ancient hidden racial
memories in the human brain and experience the source of life itself. Instead he
regresses into more devolved and savage forms of existence as his estranged wife
(Blair Brown) tries to bring him back.
Russell's direction is more subdued and focused than usual -- except for his
wacko hallucination and transformation sequences, which is where this great U.K.
eccentric really lets his freak flag fly. Mutant religious, animal and sexual
iconography overflow the screen as we enter Hurt's mind during his experiments,
before they externalize and turn him into a vicious ape-man courtesy of makeup
legend Dick Smith. The performances are manic, and the dialogue -- from a script
by Paddy Chayefsky, which he later disowned -- is equally head-spinning.
"Altered States," like many Russell films, ultimately seems a bit overripe at
times, but its has striking imagery and effects, and it'splus the fact that it
is actually about ideas (a claim many modern sci-fi films fail to live up to).
It looks fab and more gleamingly Gothic on Blu-ray than ever, even if some of
the bluescreen work is dated.
"Outland" (1981): Yes, this is the film described
as "''High Noon' in outer space," and essentially,
that's correct: Aa lone marshal (Sean Connery) decides to take a stand against the
corrupt manager of a mining colony on the Jupiter moon of Io after the manager
feeds drugs to his workers that enhance productivity but drive some of them to
madness and death. It's an out-and-out Western in a space setting, but what a
setting: writer/director Peter Hyams ("2010") gives the colony a gritty,
claustrophobic feel that is probably pretty damn close to what this kind of
installation would look like and adds immeasurably to the movie's
Yes, you can spot the villain from halfway across the solar system and the
plot points tick off in predictable fashion, but Hyams knows how to direct
suspense and also gets solid performances from a post-Bond Connery (tough yet
vulnerable) and Frances Sternhagen as the colony's alcoholic yet steely doctor.
There's also a nice indictment of corporate policies at work, making "Outland"
an intelligent standout of the post-"Star Wars" era in sci-fi. The film has been
given a nice transfer on Blu-ray as well, and its special effects hold up
"Brainstorm" (1983): The third of our four films to
deal in corporate/scientific politics and intrigue, "Brainstorm" is sadly now
infamous as the last film to star Natalie Wood before her still-mysterious death by
drowning. Wood plays the wife of Christopher Walken's character, Michael Brace,
a scientist who has invented, with his partner Lillian Reynolds (Louise Fletcher), a device capable of recording
memories and sensory experiences. But after Fletcher's character dies, military
investors take over the project for their own purposes as BraceWalken struggles
to view the tape of Reynolds'Fletcher's final memories.
The second (and final) feature directed by special effects legend Douglas
Trumbull, who was behind the pioneering visuals of "2001: A Space Odyssey" and
"Close Encounters of the Third Kind," "Brainstorm" has some fascinating ideas
but suffers from Trumbull's inability to successfully make the jump to
all-around filmmaker (although his first directorial effort, "Silent Running,"
fares better). The movie is choppily edited and fails to settle into a cohesive
groove, while the scenes of recalled memories and sensory experiences -- while
essentially predicting virtual reality -- ironically lack visual pizzazz. Even
the climactic images of Reynolds'Fletcher's journey beyond death fail to be as
electrifying as anything Trumbull ever did for Kubrick or Spielberg.
"Brainstorm" was shot in both 35mm and 70mm (IMAX) for theatrical showings,
and the picture on the Blu-ray expands and contracts accordingly. It's
technically accurate but not necessarily the best format for home viewing.
Geeking Out On...J.J. Abrams Directing 'Star Trek' and 'Star Wars'
J.J. Abrams' 'Star Trek Into Darkness' is set to open this week, then begins the task of directing a new 'Star Wars' film for 2015. Check out this episode where Kurt argues why he's the man for the job and how it's enough already about the lens flares. Also, a few other "double dippers" in the dueling franchises as well as a few others.