Movies Till Dawn: Truth is Stranger Than Science Fiction

Star Trek: Picard” (2020, CBS Home Video/Paramount Home Video) Sir Patrick Stewart reprises his role as former “Enterprise” captain Jean-Luc Picard in this CBS All Access series. I will confess that I never watched “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” which introduced Picard (and made Stewart a household name in the States), so I can’t say how “Picard” stacks up against its source material. But Stewart brings his considerable gravitas as an older, more rueful version of his stalwart character (a working knowledge of the previous series and the “TNG” feature films does help in regard to understanding why Picard left the space business, and why he’s returned), the new characters – chief among them, the always excellent Alison Pill and Michelle Hurd – mix well with guest turns by “TNG” vets like Brent Spiner and Jeri Ryan, and the signature thematic issues addressed by all “Trek” titles are well considered and effectively dramatized here. The CBS/Paramount Blu-ray set includes commentary on two episodes which showcases the remarkable and diverse talent behind the scenes: author/showrunner Michael Chabon, producers Alex Kurtzman, Akiva Goldsman, and Kirsten Beyer on the premiere episode and Kurtzman, Beyer and co-writer Jenny Lumet on the “Children of Mars,” an episodes of CBS’s “Short Treks” streaming vignette series. Most of them are also present on several making-of featurettes regarding special effects, makeup, and casting.

Genesis II/Planet Earth” (1973/1974, Warner Archives Collection) Speaking of “Trek,” here are two pilots from original series creator Gene Roddenberry, both concerning the state of our world in the aftermath of an apocalypse. In “Genesis,” Alex Cord plays Dylan Hunt, a NASA scientist who goes into suspended animation in 1979 and awakens in 2133 to find two civilizations – one science-oriented, the other warlike mutants – fighting over the ruins of American. John Saxon plays a more action-oriented Hunt in “Earth,” which isn’t a sequel, but rather an altogether new take, with the science and mutant civilizations now pitted against a third: a militant matriarchy where men are enslaved. Both pilots showcase Roddenberry’s strengths (and shortcomings) in using science fiction to address social/political issues: as with “Trek,” the ideas are intriguing, but occasionally run afoul of purple-pulpy dialogue and male/female characters. Still, for “Trek” completists, both are entertaining documents that showcase Roddenberry’s boundless energy (after both pilots failed, he reworked them for another pilot, “Strange New World,” before they were folded into a posthumous series, “Andromeda”). LA Plays Itself devotees will also note the use of UC Irvine and Riverside as futuristic locations; Warner Archives’ Blu-ray bundles both films on a single Blu-ray.

Thank you to Warner Archives for providing this free Blu-ray for review.

The Last Starfighter” (1984, Arrow Video) Trailer park handyman Lance Guest‘s talent for racking up high scores on the “Starfighter” video game attracts the attention of its designer (Robert Preston), who is actually a recruiter for an extraterrestrial army seeking heroes to battle a very real alien menace. Well-loved fantasy was among the first theatrical features to use computer graphics for its special visual effects (the legendary Ron Cobb designed the various and elaborate spacecraft), but avoids the antiseptic feel of “Tron” by virtue of its script by Jonathan R. Betuel and direction by John Carpenter associate Nick Castle, both of whom have an innate feel for small-town life and authentic-sounding teenage dialogue. The cast helps immeasurably: Preston turns on the “Music Man” charm to winning effect, but Guest handles both the heroics and broad comedy with ease, and they’re well supported by Catherine Mary Stewart (Guest’s girlfriend) and Dan O’Herlihy (under layers of makeup). The effects may look primitive by current standards, but current young viewers will undoubtedly respond to the wish fulfillment aspect of living out your favorite game. Arrow’s remastered Blu-ray offers three commentary tracks – Guest and his son, Castle and Cobb, and podcaster Mike White – with numerous interviews (Stewart, Beutel) and making-of featurettes, both new and vintage.

Silent Running” (1972, Arrow Video) In a future scenario that seems to summarize the outgoing administration’s perspective on nature and conservation, botanist Bruce Dern discovers that his care of the world’s last specimens of plant life, which orbit the planet Saturn in colossal geodesic domes, has been canceled, and decides to take radical action. Mixing a ’60s counterculture vibe with a decidedly downbeat ’70s-era tone, director Douglas Trumbull – special effects supervisor for “2001” and “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” – winds up with a technically beautiful and often thoughtful film, but also one with a fairly ponderous message about ecology that sits awkwardly with the gentle humor of Dern interacting with three adorable service robots (played by bilateral amputees). Viewers should also be forewarned that the finale, along with songs by Joan Baez, goes for broke in the heartstring-pulling department, and remains effective in that regard. Arrow’s Blu-ray includes affectionate commentary by Trumbull and Dern (both of whom are also featured in several standalone interviews), as well as a vintage making-of featurette that details the colossal sets (a decommissioned aircraft carrier and a hangar at Van Nuys Airport) and operation of the robots, and isolated tracks for Peter “PDQ Bach” Schickele’s score and Baez’s songs.

And: Miguel Llanso‘s doggedly eccentric future freakout “Jesus Shows You the Way to the Highway” (2019) arrives on Blu-ray in a loaded limited edition from Arrow Video. You can read my initial reaction here, but it bears repeating that if you ever wanted to see Jesus and Batman take on Joseph Stalin in cyberspace, here’s where you can find that action. Arrow’s two-disc Blu-ray includes Llanos’ previous film, “Crumbs,” as well as several shorts and appreciative commentary and visual essays.

About Paul Gaita

Paul Gaita lives in Sherman Oaks, California with his lovely wife and daughter. He has written for The Los Angeles Times, LA Weekly, Variety and Merry Jane, among many other publications, and was a home video reviewer for from 1998 to 2014. He has also interviewed countless entertainment figures, but his favorites remain Elmore Leonard, Ray Bradbury, and George Newall, who created both "Schoolhouse Rock" and the Hai Karate aftershave commercials. He once shared a Thanksgiving dinner with celebrity astrologer Joyce Jillson and regrettably, still owes the late character actor Charles Napier a dollar.
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