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

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

I added sixty on, and now you’re a genius.

The Avengers 4.3: The Master Minds
The Master Minds hitches its wagon to the not uncommon Avengers trope of dark deeds done under the veil of night. We previously encountered it in The Town of No Return, but Robert Banks Stewart (best known for Bergerac, but best known genre-wise for his two Tom Baker Doctor Who stories; likewise, he also penned only two teleplays for The Avengers) makes this episode more distinctive, with its mind control and spycraft, while Peter Graham Scott, in his third contribution to the show on the trot, pulls out all the stops, particularly with a highly creative climactic fight sequence that avoids the usual issue of overly-evident stunt doubles.

Exit bear, pursued by an actor.

Paddington 2 (2017)
(SPOILERS) Paddington 2 is every bit as upbeat and well-meaning as its predecessor. It also has more money thrown at it, a much better villain (an infinitely better villain) and, in terms of plotting, is more developed, offering greater variety and a more satisfying structure. Additionally, crucially, it succeeds in offering continued emotional heft and heart to the Peruvian bear’s further adventures. It isn’t, however, quite as funny.

Even suggesting such a thing sounds curmudgeonly, given the universal applause greeting the movie, but I say that having revisited the original a couple of days prior and found myself enjoying it even more than on first viewing. Writer-director Paul King and co-writer Simon Farnaby introduce a highly impressive array of set-ups with huge potential to milk their absurdity to comic ends, but don’t so much squander as frequently leave them undertapped.

Paddington’s succession of odd jobs don’t quite escalate as uproariously as they migh…

Where is the voice that said altered carbon would free us from the cells of our flesh?

Altered Carbon Season One
(SPOILERS) Well, it looks good, even if the visuals are absurdly indebted to Blade Runner. Ultimately, though, Altered Carbon is a disappointment. The adaption of Richard Morgan’s novel comes armed with a string of well-packaged concepts and futuristic vernacular (sleeves, stacks, cross-sleeves, slagged stacks, Neo-Cs), but there’s a void at its core. It singularly fails use the dependable detective story framework to explore the philosophical ramifications of its universe – except in lip service – a future where death is impermanent, and even botches the essential goal of creating interesting lead characters (the peripheral ones, however, are at least more fortunate).

He's going to emasculate our nuclear deterrent and bring the whole damn country to its knees… because of his dreams.

Dreamscape (1984)
(SPOILERS) I wasn’t really au fait with movies’ box office performance until the end of the ‘80s, so I think I had an idea that Dennis Quaid (along with Jeff Bridges) was a much bigger star than he was, just on the basis of the procession of cool movies he showed up in (The Right Stuff, Enemy Mine, Innerspace, D.O.A.) The truth was, the public resisted all attempts to make him The Next Big Thing, not that his sly-grinned, cocky persona throughout the decade would lead you to believe his dogged lack of success had any adverse effect on his mood. Dreamscape was one of his early leading-man roles, and if it’s been largely forgotten, it also inherits a welcome cult status, not only through being pulpy and inventive on a fairly meagre budget, but by being pretty good to boot. It holds up.

He mobilised the English language and sent it into battle.

Darkest Hour (2017)
(SPOILERS) Watching Joe Wright’s return to the rarefied plane of prestige – and heritage to boot – filmmaking following the execrable folly of the panned Pan, I was struck by the difference an engaged director, one who cares about his characters, makes to material. Only last week, Ridley Scott’s serviceable All the Money in the World made for a pointed illustration of strong material in the hands of someone with no such investment, unless they’re androids. Wright’s dedication to a relatable Winston Churchill ensures that, for the first hour-plus, Darkest Hour is a first-rate affair, a piece of myth-making that barely puts a foot wrong. It has that much in common with Wright’s earlier Word War II tale, Atonement. But then, like Atonement, it comes unstuck.

The aliens are not coming, just so you know.

The X-Files 11.1: My Struggle III
(SPOILERS) Good grief. Have things become so terminal for Chris Carter that he has to retcon his own crap from the previous season, rather than the (what he perceived as) crap written by others? Carter, of course, infamously pretended the apocalyptic ending of Millennium Season Two never happened, upset by the path Glen Morgan and James Wong, left to their own devices, took with his baby. Their episode was one of the greats of that often-ho-hum series, so the comedown was all the unkinder as a result. In My Struggle III, at least, Carter’s rewriting something that wasn’t very good in the first place. Only, he replaces it with something that is even worse in the second.

I'm going to open an X-file on this bran muffin.

The X-Files 11.2: This
(SPOILERS) Glen Morgan returns with a really good idea, certainly one with much more potential than his homelessness tract Home Again in Season 10, but seems to give up on its eerier implications, and worse has to bash it round the head to fit the season’s “arc”. Nevertheless, he’s on very comfortable ground with the Mulder-Scully dynamic in This, who get to spend almost the entire episode in each other’s company and might be on the best form here since the show came back, give or take a Darin.

He's a wild creature. We can't ask him to be anything else.

The Shape of Water (2017)
(SPOILERS) The faithful would have you believe it never went away, but it’s been a good decade since Guillermo del Toro’s mojo was in full effect, and his output since (or lack thereof: see the torturous wilderness years of At the Mountains of Madness and The Hobbit), reflected through the prism of his peak work Pan’s Labyrinth, bears the hallmarks of a serious qualitative tumble. He put his name to stinker TV show The Strain, returned to movies with the soulless Pacific Rim and fashioned flashy but empty gothic romance Crimson Peak (together his weakest pictures, and I’m not forgetting Mimic). The Shape of Water only seems to underline what everyone has been saying for years, albeit previously confined to his Spanish language pictures: that the smaller and more personal they are, the better. If his latest is at times a little too wilfully idiosyncratic, it’s also a movie where you can nevertheless witness it’s creator’s creativity flowing untrammelled once mo…

You’re never the same man twice.

The Man Who Haunted Himself (1970)
(SPOILERS) Roger Moore playing dual roles? It sounds like an unintentionally amusing prospect for audiences accustomed to the actor’s “Raise an eyebrow” method of acting. Consequently, this post-Saint pre-Bond role (in which he does offer some notable eyebrow acting) is more of a curiosity for the quality of Sir Rog’s performance than the out-there premise that can’t quite sustain the picture’s running time. It is telling that the same story was adapted for an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents 15 years earlier, since the uncanny idea at its core feels like a much better fit for a trim 50 minute anthology series.

Basil Dearden directs, and co-adapted the screenplay from Anthony Armstrong’s novel The Strange Case of Mr Pelham. Dearden started out with Ealing, helming several Will Hay pictures and a segment of Dead of Night (one might imagine a shortened version of this tale ending up there, or in any of the portmanteau horrors that arrived in the year…