MILLENNIUM (1989)/R.O.T.O.R. (1989)
Directors: Michael Anderson, Cullen Blaine
Scream Factory/Shout! Factory

The grade Z drive-in double feature no one has been asking for! Shout! Factory's Scream Factory line has released, on Blu-ray, MILLENNIUM and R.O.T.O.R. on a single disc double feature. 1989's sci-fi time traveling/airplane disaster mash-up MILLENNIUM, from David Begelman's Gladden Entertainment (released by 20th Century-Fox), was directed by Michael Anderson and stars Kris Kristofferson and Cheryl Ladd. 1988's R.O.T.O.R., from Manson International and WestWind Pictures, was written and directed by a guy who did some innocuous TV cartoons, and it stars some people. There are certainly fans of marginal 1980s exploitation misfires out there...but one will have to try hard here to find the dross amid all the dross. Barely any extras for these otherwise fairly nice MPEG-4 AVC Video 1080p HD 1.85:1 Blu-ray transfers.

Above the skies of Minneapolis, a Boeing 747 cruises towards its destination before suddenly hitting a mis-routed DC-10 in mid-air. No one in first class, coach or business class is saved from the doomed flight. While buying business class tickets will provide an enjoyable experience while on the plane, the flight in Millennium was doomed. With this business class ticket you ended up where everyone else did. As the plane plummets towards the ground, Captain Vern Rockwell (Lawrence Dane, SCANNERS, HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO ME) sends First Officer Ron Kennedy (Thomas Hauff, C.A.T. SQUAD, MOTHER NIGHT) back to check on the plane’s damage, only to have Kennedy frantically rush back, screaming that all the passengers are already dead — burned beyond recognition. Both planes crash, with a total of 643 passengers and crew dead. On the ground, National Transportation Safety Board investigator Bill Smith (Kris Kristofferson, A STAR IS BORN, BLADE) is stymied by two strange facts: the “black box” recording of Kennedy claiming the passengers were burned when there was no fire prior to the crash, and several recovered digital watches...all running backwards in time. Even more incredible is the hot sex he has on day freaking one with mysterious flight attendant Louise Baltimore (Cheryl Ladd, TV’s CHARLIE’S ANGELS, PURPLE HEARTS), a seeming headcase who wants him to abandon the just-started investigation and leave with her on a vacation.

And even more incredible is Smith’s discovery of a futuristic little “stunner” gun amid all the wreckage gathered in an airplane hangar, a “stunner” gun that accidentally zaps him, forcing Louise to materialize out of thin air — and from a thousand years in the future — to try and retrieve it. You see...Louise is actually a time traveler from Earth’s future, a polluted Earth populated by rotting, impotent humans who can’t reproduce. So, Earth’s “Council,” the planet’s ruling group that are slowly decomposing in giant test tubes, are going back in time and snatching people off soon-to-crash airplanes. Duplicate dead bodies are recreated and substituted for the passengers, and the healthy humans are put in a suspended state, awaiting their “second chance” at repopulating Earth’s future (so much for predestination or God or free will or karma or bad luck...). Only...every time Louise screws up, like letting Bill find that lost “stunner,” a paradox in the time-continuum is created, with a resulting “time quake” blasting forward that may alter the present future...or future past...or the third person past participle. Oh, and another thing: time travel involves “temporal censorship,” which means Louise can’t remember what she did in previous missions, so she doesn’t remember that in the future she’s going to have to go back to the past again to seduce Bill again in the future for the first time to not stop the investigation again for the first time to end it. For the sake of the future. Physicist and plane crash groupie Dr. Arnold Mayer (Daniel J. Travanti, TV’s GIDGET, HILL STREET BLUES) knows something is up (he’s got a “stunner,” too, from a 1963 plane crash), but since nobody is sleeping with him, he’ll have to hope that an increasingly overwrought Smith works it all out.

As with so many other marginal exploitation numbers like the Canadian co-production MILLENNIUM, its backstory turns out to be more interesting than what turned up on the screen. According to noted science fiction writer John Varley (as well as other sources), MILLENNIUM’s 10-year pre-production began when his 1977 short story, Air Raid, was optioned by powerhouse producers John Foreman and Freddie Fields for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, as a possible project for special effect whiz-turned-director Douglas Trumbull. Trumbull had struck out at the box office with Universal’s SILENT RUNNING a few years before, but with STAR WARS reigniting the space race at the major Hollywood studios, Trumbull's name still carried cache with Metro after his central involvement with Stanley Kubrick’s huge M-G-M hit, 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY. With Foreman’s clout, heavyweights Paul Newman and Jane Fonda were approached for the leads, but soon “development hell” settled in when Trumbull became persona non grata at Metro after publicly shaming the studio in 1981, when they shut down his BRAINSTORM production after lead Natalie Wood died during final shooting. With Trumbull gone, Newman and Fonda were out (if they ever were really “in” to begin with), while several directors, including Richard Rush and Randal Kleiser, were briefly attached to MILLENNIUM.

Varley continually re-wrote the script as directors came and went on the project (he even had time to novelize the screenplay in 1983), before a deal — with a significantly lowered production budget — was engineered through shameless forger/producer David Begelman’s Gladden Entertainment, with shooting to be done in Canada (for the favorable exchange rate and more importantly, to qualify for all those Canuck government tax incentives). Canadian crew components, legally required for the tax dollars, were satisfied by Canadian-based English director Michael Anderson (AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS, LOGAN’S RUN) and Cheryl Ladd (who had a Canadian passport through marriage), along with most of the tech crew. Released by 20th Century-Fox, MILLENNIUM eventually premiered here in the States on August 25th, 1989, in a limited number of theaters (486), coming in 12th that weekend at the box office, for an unimpressive $1.6 million opener (against popular holdovers like UNCLE BUCK, PARENTHOOD, THE ABYSS, WHEN HARRY MET SALLY, and LETHAL WEAPON 2). MILLENNIUM dropped to 15th the following weekend, and then quickly disappeared, eventually eking out a tiny $5 million and change total gross.

MILLENNIUM has a reputation among fans of 1980s sci-fi for being at best a cheap, dopey misfire...a verdict this reviewer can’t exactly argue against. While there seems to be a pretty cool premise at its core — or more correctly, too many intriguing ideas for its own ability to properly execute them — MILLENNIUM’s production is too chintzy and diffused to get much mileage out of it. You can tell there’s trouble right from that opening scene. It’s not that the airplane model looks shoddy or that the subsequent explosions lack some punch (considering the budget, they’re okay for 1989). Rather, it’s that first, faint alarm at seeing a potentially suspenseful scene that should be foolproof in hooking the viewer — two jet airliners hitting each other, before a crewman discovers the passengers are already, inexplicably, dead — come off so enervated and flat. Critics of MILLENNIUM often point to its obviously meager budget as one of its chief drawbacks (who knows...maybe Begelman skimmed some of it). But frankly, even if MILLENNIUM had quadrupled the cash, I’m not sure that unmistakably bland, colorless, sedate tenor that is the hallmark of so many Canadian big-screen co-productions wouldn’t still permeate MILLENNIUM. Certainly not helping matters, either, is the presence of uneven director Michael Anderson, whose chilly British reserve could occasionally be interesting, given the right context (THE QUILLER MEMORANDUM, OPERATION CROSSBOW), but more often proved a dampening element for conventional entertainments (THE WRECK OF THE MARY DEARE, THE SHOES OF THE FISHERMAN, LOGAN'S RUN, ORCA).

The built-in logical conundrums of time travel are usually reliable in piquing interest in these kinds of sci-fi outings, and MILLENNIUM is no different, with author Varley's ideas about "temporal censorship" (not being able to go back to the exact same spot one has previously visited in the past, and not remembering anything there) and his intricate central plot device (snatching soon-to-be dead people from the past to populate the future), worthy of further exploration. However, those notions are treated in such a rushed, fuzzy manner in MILLENNIUM, we never get a glimpse at the hard details that need to be worked out in our heads before we can buy the movie's emotions. Why again is everybody dying and sterile in the future? Pollution? Then why does everyone need to smoke to stay alive in the "cleaner" past? How do they re-create the dead bodies to replace the saved victims? What happens to the saved victims once they're taken to the future (it looks like they're just standing around, zonked out of their minds)? Who's "The Council," and why are they rotting in test tubes while others aren't? These big questions are just as elusive as smaller yet critical story details. How did Dr. Mayer get the "stunner" gun? Shouldn't he have been the one on the 1963 plane crash, and not Bill? Bill wouldn't remember finding a ray gun on that plane when he was a kid? And why are both Mayer and Bill so vital to the future? If we're supposed to invest anxiety over the suspense supposedly created over their peril...shouldn't we know why that peril is important? We just don't get those answers in MILLENNIUM.

With sketchy scripting and desultory directing, the miscast actors are left adrift. There's zero chemistry between D-listers Kristofferson and Ladd, a fatal mistake since the central portion of the movie is their romance that supposedly will span thousands of years...a sequence, by the way, that's repeated twice in the movie, from two points of view (if I don't care about them as a couple in the first place, I won't care about them all over again, either). It's pretty bad when Kristofferson, an Oxford-educated Rhodes Scholar, a trained Army Ranger and a licensed helicopter pilot, can't convincingly portray a detail-oriented NTSB crash investigator (his laid-back, laconic on-screen image works well in Westerns, but not here). Ladd fares no better. Unable to come across as a kick-ass time traveler who would waste an innocent to protect Earth's future, a visibly stressed-out Ladd fails, too, in her romantic scenes with shoe button-eyed Kristofferson. We need to believe she'll kill (not only don't we believe she's physically capable of that...but we have no idea why she wants to save the future), and we need to believe she's conflicted in her mission when she falls for Kristofferson — which, again, we don't buy (why in god's name did they take such a gorgeous actress and inflict those ridiculous hairdos on her, from that Flock of Seagulls-inspired updo, to a ridiculously teased-out Bo Rics mall explosion. And how about easing off those orange filters — in one close-up at the restaurant she looked like a talking pumpkin). And just forget about Travanti's character. He first shows up looking like a cross between Inspector Clouseau and Jessica Fletcher, and then pops up occasionally to utter some inscrutable nonsense before he's gone for good, with us never understanding how his character was important to the story. By the time MILLENNIUM winds down, we've had a chance to fully inspect that school gymnasium "time gate" set (laughably chintzy, rather like ALIEN MEETS CARRIE'S PROM) before a final "force infinity" time quake that's rendered in the most depressingly mundane fashion possible. It's all so pallid and dreary and forgettable.

MILLENNIUM's MPEG-4 AVC Video 1080p HD 1.85:1 Blu-ray transfer looks okay. Image fine detail is reasonable (although depth is shallow the farther the camera pulls out), film grain structure is a little loose in the gauzier moments (and it looks like they used those filters quite often here). Colors — mostly cold greens and blues and browns — are okay but unimpressive, while the contrast seems a tad hot in spots. Print damage is noticeable in spots (that opening airplane shot has some marked wear). The English DTS-HD Master Audio stereo track is unremarkable, with clean dialogue and little in the way of separation effects. Optional English subtitles are included. Bonus features are slim. There's the alternate ending, featured in the international release version, that's as unintentionally hilarious as the U.S. version is blah. There's also an original trailer included.

Dallas, Texas, 1989. Society is rapidly spiraling down into chaos, and the only person that can save it is Dr. Captain Coldyron (zero credits Richard Gesswein, who was dubbed in post by Loren Bivens), a robotics specialist who, ten years before, convinced the Dallas Police Department to fund an experimental unit — Robotic Officer Tactical Operation Research — that would deliver a crime-fighting mechanical officer capable of cleaning up the cesspool that will be America's future. Unfortunately, Coldyron's superior, Division Commander Buglar (Michael Hunter, ROBOCOP, BIG BAD JOHN) is getting heat from Senator Douglas, who's worried that all the misappropriated R.O.T.O.R. funds they all stole could become public. So...Coldyron has 60 days to produce a tin man, or he's fired and very probably brought up on fraud charges. Coldyron, telling Buglar R.O.T.O.R. needs at least 25 years to develop, resigns. Unfortunately, an accident in the lab (um...a shorted out Sony Walkman) causes R.O.T.O.R. to come online, and this metal exoskeleton police officer thinks nothing of blowing away a speeder as part of his prime directive: "To Judge and Execute." So now it's up to Coldyron and um...Dr. Steele (credited as Jayne Smith...but dollars to donuts it's a dude) to track down R.O.T.O.R. and stop him from killing pretty Sony (Margaret Trigg, TV's ALIENS IN THE FAMILY).

I'm sorry, but I like my robocops clean shaven. A micro-budgeted rip-off of ROBOCOP and THE TERMINATOR, R.O.T.O.R. is jaw-droppingly inept in almost all departments (only cinematographer Glen Roland, of ILSA: SHE WOLF OF THE SS fame, comes off okay with one or two nice sunsets). Directed and co-written by Cullen Blaine (tons of animated TV series like SUPER FRIENDS and THE 13 GHOSTS OF SCOOBY-DOO), with scripter Budd Lewis (TV animation like THE SMURFS and THE CARE BEARS FAMILY), what's so surprising about R.O.T.O.R. is how none of it seems even remotely as well put together as all the marginal cartoon crap these two guys worked on over the decades (they couldn't have employed some of their storyboarding experience to at least give this some flow?). Completely derivative and yet idiotically wrong-headed — if you're stealing ideas...can't you steal them correctly? — R.O.T.O.R. takes forever to get going, throwing out some liberal fascist ideas about "protecting society from itself" ("Either we control society, or it destroys us,"), in between these weird, long vanity montages of Gesswein getting up in the morning and making his coffee, or having lunch with his girlfriend. We get some chewing gum and bailing wire stop-motion approximations of R.O.T.O.R.'s exoskeleton, animation that makes early Gumby and Pokey look like Pixar, while hearing a frankly crazy exposition/lecture about its metal's molecules learning how to walk without gears (“How does the chassis animate without gears and motors?” someone asks, to which Coldyron nonsensically replies, “This chassis has been given a prime directive.” Huh?).

And then the action, if you can call it that, kicks in. How R.O.T.O.R. is finally activated isn't worth discussing...although why they initially can't make R.O.T.O.R. work is curious when Coldyron apparently has the artificial intelligence skills to create Willard (or is it W.I.L.L.A.R.D.?), a fully cognitive, sentient computer who traipses around the lab making wisecracks not even worthy of THE JETSONS's Rosie the Robot: "One of these days I'm going to quit this job." The entire last half of the movie, as R.O.T.O.R. engages in an excruciatingly slow "chase" of fleeing Trigg, is dire (my favorite idiocy is his heretofore unused, uncalled-for motorcycle — stenciled with "To Judge and Execute" on the side for god's sake — roped off in the police station parking garage like it's an exhibit at a casino...just waiting for him in 25 years). Coldyron calls Dr. Steele, the creator of R.O.T.O.R.'s exoskeleton, for help, and the two ride around engaging in dialogue exchanges that rival the best of Abbott & Costello (when Steele offers this Zen advice on how to beat R.O.T.O.R. — “To combat pure will you’ll have to use purer logic. You will have to let yourself fail. Use your failure against him. Your failure is his failure. Your weakness is his weakness. Then, and only then, can you do something," Coldyron knocks it out of the park with a simple, “Great...except I don’t know what any of that means,"). The action scenes were apparently blocked and choreographed by Mr. Magoo (the fake punches are a mile off), while the pacing, if possible, is even slower than the movie's talky first half. Lame DIRTY HARRY shoot-outs and silly EVERY WHICH WAY BUT LOOSE diner fights vie with giggle-inducing close-ups of R.O.T.O.R., pot-bellied, fat-faced and mustachioed, supposedly evoking terror in Trigg, before Blaine stages the ludicrous finale (when they put out that tiny little rope snare to catch him, before he's lassoed from about eight different impossible angles with primer cord, this reviewer hit the floor dying). Thrill-less, amateurish, and mostly downright stupid, R.O.T.O.R. is W.O.E.F.U.L..

R.O.T.O.R.'s MPEG-4 AVC Video 1080p HD 1.85:1 Blu-ray transfer is quite nice, considering the relative obscurity of the title. The original source material is relatively free of damage (interestingly, the print used here has a "Blue Steel" title card, before the original credits resume). Fine image detail isn't deep, but more than acceptable in closer shots. Grain structure falls apart a bit in the nighttime scenes, while color is generally solid with a mostly bright image. The English DTS-HD Master Audio stereo track is clean, with little if any hiss, and (unfortunately) discernable dialogue. Optional English subtitles are included. An original trailer is the only extra here. (Paul Mavis)