Skip to main content

There's going to be a paradox if you don't make those planes crash.

Millennium
(1989)

(SPOILERS) Michael Anderson picked up the directorial reins of time travel tale Millennium after it had gone through numerous hands, and screenwriter John Varley’s perseverance and ultimate chagrin, over the course of a decade of development hell. The finished feature, equipped with C-list leads (Kris Kristofferson and Cheryl Ladd were hardly dynamite at the beginning of the ‘80s let alone the close, so one assumes untold swathes of names turned it down first), came out at the end of August 1989 in the US, the traditional late summer dumping ground for unloved projects, where it failed to even dent the Top 10. It’s a picture with an arresting premise, one that front-ends its apparent literacy regarding the theoretical complexities of time travel. Which makes it all the more disappointing that it proceeds to fall apart so resoundingly as it proceeds and progressively ignores all its groundwork.


Watching Millennium, one can’t help but think of some of the more extreme conspiracy theories regarding Malaysian Airlines Flight MH370 (the ones regarding it actually being actually spirited away by mysterious forces). More specifically, the abduction, replacement of passengers’ bodies and subsequent return is redolent of the theory that Flight 370 was “repackaged” and ended up as Flight MH17 downed in the Ukraine. Despite the dubious merits of the movie as a whole, the premise of Millennium remains a consistently evocative one; when Lost first arrived this was a movie that instantly came to mind for many (well, those who had seen it), and one could easily imagine it reworked for an episode of Fringe, or indeed forming the basis of an entirely new JJ Abrams TV show.


I’m sure John Varley would be pleased to see it done right. He commented, "I ended up writing it six times. There were four different directors, and each time a new director came in I went over the whole thing with him and rewrote it. Each new director had his own ideas, and sometimes you'd gain something from that, but each time something's always lost in the process, so that by the time it went in front of the cameras, a lot of the vision was lost."


The parts of the finished movie Varley thought were okay were pretty much those involving the present day material with Kristofferson’s crash investigator Bill Smith as he learns of the anomalies surrounding the crashed Boeing 747. The flight recorder reveals the flight engineer exclaiming of the passengers “They’re dead! All of them! They’re burned up!before the crash. And then there are the watches that tell the time in reverse. And what is physicist Dr Arnold Mayer (Daniel J Travanti) doing at the site and why is he asking all these strange questions, “looking for the inexplicable”?


Varely didn’t like the future material, relating to those responsible for the anomalies (It didn't really hang together. A lot of it didn't make sense."). He’s right, partly. Millennium only really falls apart when it starts to reveal its inner workings, but there’s good elements mixed in with this mess of a future too.


Since Varley, who furnished the screenplay, washes his hands of the movie’s problems, one ends up looking to Michael Anderson, and it’s fairly easy to believe the blame rests with him. Charitably, he was a journeyman, with scores for The Dambusters and Around the World in 80 Days (in that it was garlanded with Best Picture, rather than because it was a particularly good movie) and a run of disappointments in the ‘70s including Orca, Logan’s Run (I know, it has its stalwart defenders, mostly Jenny Agutter fans) and Doc Savage: Man of Bronze (I wish Shane Black would hurry up and get started on his remake). Anderson’s work on Millennium is serviceable but bland, which rather reflects his choice of leads. The most curious aspect is that a picture with such an arresting idea behind it should be end up so profoundly mediocre.


For example, there’s inventiveness on display in the narrative structure, such that the first time Louise Baltimore (Ladd) meets Smith is the second time he has met her. Yet their relationship is as utterly devoid of spark or chemistry as you’d expect from Kristofferson and Ladd (and the picture devotes far too much time to this aspect, rather than getting to grips with the main thrust of the story). Then there’s Mayer’s impressively persuasive lecture on why “It’s the possibility of paradoxes that make most people rule out time travel by human beings”. But not movie studios making movies that are never able to coherently get to grips with these paradoxes, it seems.


The future society we see is falling apart (a millennium away, hence Louise’s enormously corny “You’re the best thing in a thousand years, Bill”), where humanity has succumbed to invasive pollution, increasing incapacity and an inability to reproduce. Some of the imagery is quite striking (the spokesperson for the ruling Council resembles a piece of plastic surgery out of Gilliam’s Brazil, while Sherman the Robot has a tantalisingly flesh and blood aspect), even if the future never looks anything other than a single set, but the whys and wherefores are, as Varley suggests, mangled and borderline incoherent. Defenders will claim all the answers are in Varley’s short story and novelisation, but that doesn’t help the picture as a stand-alone entity.


It’s a mystery how this society comes up with the significant resources to produce the bodies used in the crash (they can “make the bodies but not souls” but their science rather selectively cannot solve problems such as fertility or the ravaged environment), and the whole subject is brushed aside almost with embarrassment. Perhaps no one wanted to address the ethical implications of their actions in a PG movie. And, while I quite like the audacity of their mid-air hijacks, it’s difficult to conceive that the problems they encounter on the 1963 and 1989 flights wouldn’t have occurred pretty much every time out. Paradoxes just will happen, and the notion that they could ever localise their intrusions has a butterfly effect-like implausibility.


Then there’s the grand plan; “I steal people from the past to send them somewhere else to start over”. Which is pretty vague. Just like the “We can only go back to a specific moment once and then never again” (is this because of potential paradoxes, or is it a built in Blinovitch Limitation Effect – see Doctor Who’s Day of the Daleks for a purpose-built rule restricting the causal disruption of time travel; elements of the passengers’ abduction also resemble the 1967 story The Faceless Ones, but with reverse intent), robot Sherman tells Louise “None of us can go. Only you”. Which breaks down to a self-imposed rule, by the sound of it (“There is no place for me where you are going”).


Why not devote themselves to improving their genetic lot and absconding there? They clearly capable of up-keeping (“pampering”) Cheryl and her colleagues so they can fulfil missions (that she has to chug away in 1989 in order to maintain her complex hydrocarbons leads one to wonder how she will survive in a presumably clean environment; the movie’s funniest moment has her throw a cigarette away, landing on who knows whom, in a crowded restaurant when Bill notes “I’ve never seen anyone eat and smoke at the same time”). And as for the revelation that she is pregnant, despite it not being possible, well, it’s a miracle!


Then there’s the business with time quakes and paradoxes potentially destroying the future; these are ideas that really ought to be manifested in a more traditional winking out of existence manner, rather than of the ploddingly literal explosive sort we see. The grip on the paradox element is also pretty slack. Self-righteous Coventry (Brent Carver) blames Bill for the destruction (“If you had left this alone, none of this would have happened”) but the same might be said of his tampering with time in the first place.


Earlier, and most bafflingly, a significant chunk of the movie is given over to Cheryl’s first meeting with Bill (the other side of his first meeting with her). This is at the behest of the Council, cogently noting that she “did go back, must go back” yet they bizarrely direct her to dissuade Bill from investigating further and preventing further paradoxes. Surely they must know this can’t succeed, because it hasn’t succeeded (Bill is still investigating after he has met her for his first time, and her second time)? Particularly if they’re always observing Bill (“And now they’re watching me. I can feel it. They can go anywhere, look anywhere”; it would be a more potent idea if their society had much heft). I suppose it could just be muddled delivery, that the Council are merely indicating Louise needs to go through the motions (by effectively prostituting herself as a distraction!), but shouldn't she be sufficiently versed in temporal theory to be told straight out that's all she'll be doing?


Kristofferson has always struck me as a snoozerific version of Jeff Bridges, and he’s in an eternal living slumber here. Ladd did well to actually make it into a feature, I guess, and full marks on her ultra-Roxette future hair (all their resources must be tied up in providing her with a steady supply of gell and hairspray). The support is much rewarding, though.


Travanti, I’m not familiar with (I never watched Hill Street Blues), but he’s great, particularly in his mysterious earlier scenes. It’s a bit bizarre that Smith is revealed as the kid aboard the 1963 flight, as everything seems to be pointing to Mayer (his obsession, how he gets hold of the stun weapon left aboard the plane). I don’t know Joy or Carver’s work either, but they also make strong impressions as robot and decayed director respectively.


Millennium can currently be seen on YouTube (with Spanish subtitles). It’s a picture with a series of really strong, arresting central ideas, and they see it through to about the halfway mark, but eventually its overtaken by the sheer passivity of its production, the inconsistency of its all-important time travel conceit, and the lack of engagement generated by the leads. But it’s never less than an interesting failure. Time travel movies very rarely stand up to even cursory inspection, but at least this one has the will to be interrogated.



Comments

Popular posts from this blog

It’ll be like living in the top drawer of a glass box.

Someone’s Watching Me! (1978) (SPOILERS) The first of a pair of TV movies John Carpenter directed in the 1970s, but Someone’s Watching Me! is more affiliated, in genre terms, to his breakout hit ( Halloween ) and reasonably successful writing job ( The Eyes of Laura Mars ) of the same year than the also-small-screen Elvis . Carpenter wrote a slew of gun-for-hire scripts during this period – some of which went on to see the twilight of day during the 1990s – so directing Someone’s Watching Me! was not a given. It’s well-enough made and has its moments of suspense, but you sorely miss a signature Carpenter theme – it was by Harry Sukman, his penultimate work, the final being Salem’s Lot – and it really does feel very TV movie-ish.

As in the hokey kids’ show guy?

A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood (2019) (SPOILERS) I don’t think Mr Rogers could have been any creepier had Kevin Spacey played him. It isn’t just the baggage Tom Hanks brings, and whether or not he’s the adrenochrome lord to the stars and/or in Guantanamo and/or dead and/or going to make a perfectly dreadful Colonel Tom Parker and an equally awful Geppetto; it’s that his performance is so constipated and mannered an imitation of Mr Rogers’ genuineness that this “biopic” takes on a fundamentally sinister turn. His every scene with a youngster isn’t so much exuding benevolent empathy as suggestive of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang ’s Child Catcher let loose in a TV studio (and again, this bodes well for Geppetto). Extend that to A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood ’s conceit, that Mr Rogers’ life is one of a sociopathic shrink milking angst from his victims/patients in order to get some kind of satiating high – a bit like a rejuvenating drug, on that score – and you have a deeply unsettli

Who’s got the Figgy Port?

Loki (2021) (SPOILERS) Can something be of redeemable value and shot through with woke (the answer is: Mad Max: Fury Road )? The two attributes certainly sound essentially irreconcilable, and Loki ’s tendencies – obviously, with new improved super-progressive Kevin Feige touting Disney’s uber-agenda – undeniably get in the way of what might have been a top-tier MCU entry from realising its full potential. But there are nevertheless solid bursts of highly engaging storytelling in the mix here, for all its less cherishable motivations. It also boasts an effortlessly commanding lead performance from Tom Hiddleston; that alone puts Loki head and shoulders above the other limited series thus far.

I'm offering you a half-share in the universe.

Doctor Who Season 8 – Worst to Best I’m not sure I’d watched Season Eight chronologically before. While I have no hesitation in placing it as the second-best Pertwee season, based on its stories, I’m not sure it pays the same dividends watched as a unit. Simply, there’s too much Master, even as Roger Delgado never gets boring to watch and the stories themselves offer sufficient variety. His presence, turning up like clockwork, is inevitably repetitive. There were no particular revelatory reassessments resulting from this visit, then, except that, taken together – and as The Directing Route extra on the Blu-ray set highlights – it’s often much more visually inventive than what would follow. And that Michael Ferguson should probably have been on permanent attachment throughout this era.

What's a movie star need a rocket for anyway?

The Rocketeer (1991) (SPOILERS) The Rocketeer has a fantastic poster. One of the best of the last thirty years (and while that may seem like faint praise, what with poster design being a dying art – I’m looking at you Marvel, or Amazon and the recent The Tomorrow War – it isn’t meant to be). The movie itself, however, tends towards stodge. Unremarkable pictures with a wide/cult fanbase, conditioned by childhood nostalgia, are ten-a-penny – Willow for example – and in this case, there was also a reasonably warm critical reception. But such an embrace can’t alter that Joe Johnston makes an inveterately bland, tepid movie director. His “feel” for period here got him The First Avenger: Captain America gig, a bland, tepid movie tending towards stodge. So at least he’s consistent.

By whom will this be rectified? Your ridiculously ineffectual assassins?

The X-Files 3.2: Paperclip Paperclip recovers ground after The Blessing Way stumbled slightly in its detour, and does so with some of the series’ most compelling dramatics so far. As well as more of Albert performing prayer rituals for the sick (perhaps we could spend some time with the poor guy over breakfast, or going to the movies? No, all he’s allowed is stock Native American mysticism).

Here’s Bloody Justice for you.

Laughter in Paradise (1951) (SPOILERS) The beginning of a comedic run for director-producer Mario Zampa that spanned much of the 1950s, invariably aided by writers Michael Pertwee and Jack Davies (the latter went on to pen a spate of Norman Wisdom pictures including The Early Bird , and also comedy rally classic Monte Carlo or Bust! ) As usual with these Pertwee jaunts, Laughter in Paradise boasts a sparky premise – renowned practical joker bequeaths a fortune to four relatives, on condition they complete selected tasks that tickle him – and more than enough resultant situational humour.

That’s what it’s all about. Interrupting someone’s life.

Following (1998) (SPOILERS) The Nolanverse begins here. And for someone now delivering the highest-powered movie juggernauts globally – that are not superhero or James Cameron movies – and ones intrinsically linked with the “art” of predictive programming, it’s interesting to note familiar themes of identity and limited perception of reality in this low-key, low-budget and low-running time (we won’t see much of the latter again) debut. And, naturally, non-linear storytelling. Oh, and that cool, impersonal – some might say clinical – approach to character, subject and story is also present and correct.

Damn prairie dog burrow!

Tremors (1990) (SPOILERS) I suspect the reason the horror comedy – or the sci-fi comedy, come to that – doesn’t tend to be the slam-dunk goldmine many assume it must be, is because it takes a certain sensibility to do it right. Everyone isn’t a Joe Dante or Sam Raimi, or a John Landis, John Carpenter, Edgar Wright, Christopher Landon or even a Peter Jackson or Tim Burton, and the genre is littered with financial failures, some of them very good failures (and a good number of them from the names mentioned). Tremors was one, only proving a hit on video (hence six sequels at last count). It also failed to make Ron Underwood a directing legend.

When I barked, I was enormous.

Dean Spanley (2008) (SPOILERS) There is such a profusion of average, respectable – but immaculately made – British period drama held up for instant adulation, it’s hardly surprising that, when something truly worthy of acclaim comes along, it should be singularly ignored. To be fair, Dean Spanley was well liked by critics upon its release, but its subsequent impact has proved disappointingly slight. Based on Lord Dunsany’s 1939 novella, My Talks with Dean Spanley , our narrator relates how the titular Dean’s imbibification of a moderate quantity of Imperial Tokay (“ too syrupy ”, is the conclusion reached by both members of the Fisk family regarding this Hungarian wine) precludes his recollection of a past life as a dog.  Inevitably, reviews pounced on the chance to reference Dean Spanley as a literal shaggy dog story, so I shall get that out of the way now. While the phrase is more than fitting, it serves to underrepresent how affecting the picture is when it has c