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Science Fiction DVD Feature

From KRULL to ENEMY MINE, an Aisle Seat Round-Up of Otherworldly Sagas Newly Available on DVD!

By Andy Dursin

Science fiction/fantasy and DVD go together like peanut butter and jelly (or fluff, depending on what universe you happen to be from!). The combination of razor-sharp transfers and digital sound on DVD, mixed with the kinds of special FX-intensive extravaganzas that the genre can turn out, have already resulted in some of the finest releases of the format (obvious titles like "The Matrix" come immediately to mind).

It should come as no great surprise, then, that the DVD revolution has enabled several studios to not only continue turning out solid new packages for recent sci-fi flicks, but also dust off more archival titles that once might have been considered as cutting edge in their day as the next wave of "Matrix" sequels are now.

So, without further delay, here's a totally out-of-this world rundown on the latest, greatest, and not-so- greatest sci-fi thrillers available on DVD here in the USA÷


RED PLANET. Warner, $24.98.

WHAT IT IS: The second of last year's two "let's go to Mars" movies, this action-oriented effort stars Val Kilmer, Carrie-Ann Moss, Tom Sizemore, Benjamin Bratt, and Terence Stamp as members of a NASA team sent to the Red Planet to compile a study for possible colonization. After Brian DePalma's alternately (unintentionally) hilarious and strangely optimistic "Mission to Mars" fared adequately at the box-office last spring (counting Ennio Morricone's fine score as one of its sole virtues), Warner Bros. decided to hold off releasing this equally expensive entry until November -- where it quickly became one of the costliest flops of last year.

ANDY SAYS: But it's pretty entertaining, all things considered. Director Antony Hoffman apparently had his hands full working with feuding co-stars Kilmer and Sizemore (who reportedly didn't want to be in the same shots with one another), not to mention a rewrite prone script (credited to Chuck "Darkman" Pfarrer and Jonathan Lemkin). But as a B-grade sci-fi adventure, "Red Planet" has some neat special effects, a fairly exciting second hour, and a fun conclusion. Graeme Revell's effective score, mixing operatic choruses with synths and weird instrumentation, also helps out, even as the movie leaps from one episodic problem to the next for our protagonists. "Robinson Crusoe on Mars" this isn't, but it's not that bad, either.

DVD TRANSFER AND SOUND: The 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack is a gas, with constant use of the discreet surround channels and lots of overpowering subwoofer effects. The 2.35 transfer, with its red-tinted Mars sequences, is superb but will fare best on better monitors (make sure you have your S-Video line properly connected!) due to the intense color.

SPECIAL FEATURES: With an unhappy set and a disappointing financial performance, perhaps it's no surprise that there are no interviews or commentary tracks to be found here -- though the absence of a theatrical trailer IS quite odd, given Warner's routine inclusion of such features. However, some 15 minutes of deleted scenes are included, several involving Stamp's character, with others that clarify the movie's mishandled flashback sequences. A few of these scenes interestingly show Peter Suschitzky's cinematography of the Mars sequences before they were color-corrected in post-production.

BOTTOM LINE: If you survived "Mission to Mars" and still are up for another trip into outer-space, "Red Planet" manages to touch upon the existential, quasi-religious overtones of the D ePalma mess without turning into an outer-space treatise on "It's a Small World After All." The script could have been better, but this is a surprisingly entertaining ride given its bad box-office rep and a perfect DVD on the audio and visual end of things. Film rating: **1/2 (of four)


ENEMY MINE. Fox, $24.98.

WHAT IT IS: Wolfgang Petersen's acclaimed 1985 sci-fi fantasy pits stranded human Dennis Quaid and alien rival Lou Gossett, Jr. on a desolate planet in the midst of a war-torn galaxy. Elements of "Hell in the Pacific" and numerous story elements from Byron Haskin's underrated "Robinson Crusoe on Mars" make their way into former Starlog writer Ed Khmara's script, which is elevated by Petersen's direction and two great lead performances into one of the better genre films of the '80s.

ANDY SAYS: I always liked this movie from the time I watched it as a kid back in '85, and I'm glad to say the picture holds up quite well. The tremendous make-up design (by Chris Walas) for Gossett's extraterrestrial fighter is one of the best make-ups of any era, and Maurice Jarre's powerful score ranks as one of his finest later works. Many genre observers have noted the obvious similarities between this and "Robinson Crusoe on Mars," but it's a perfect, '80s counterpart to that equally under-appreciated '60s picture.

TRANSFER AND SOUND: Be forewarned; there are major problems with at least one of the audio tracks on the DVD. There's a 4.0 Dolby Digital mix that seems to have amplified dialogue and sound effects, but this over-processing has been done at the expense of the music, which sounds muffled and actually "clips" during the end credits. It's a good thing that Fox included the original 2.0 Dolby Surround mix -- which has more bass and a much stronger music presence -- as a preferable alternative. The 2.35 transfer seems to have come from a different print than the Fox letterboxed laserdisc from a few years ago (Khamara is credited as "Ed" in one print and "Edward" in the other), but the framing is more or less identical and looks fine. DVD

SPECIAL FEATURES: Just a theatrical trailer and less than a handful of stills -- which is quite disappointing since the movie began shooting in Iceland with Richard Loncrane as director, before Fox (at great expense) pulled the plug and Petersen took over, making stylistic and artistic changes in the process. Obviously there are good stories to be found there, but those will have to wait for another release.

BOTTOM LINE: A strong, excellent piece of sci-fi that, unlike a lot of '80s genre efforts, hasn't dated much at all. The performances and characters are more important than the artistic design and FX work, and because of that, "Enemy Mine" deservedly remains a favorite of many viewers. ***1/2


KRULL. Columbia TriStar, $24.98.

WHAT IT IS: An expensive attempt by Columbia to cash-in on the then red-hot genre, this 1983 Saturday matinee effort is more like a semi-futuristic Errol Flynn-swashbuckler than a rip-off of "Star Wars." Ken "Marco Polo" Marshall essays Colwyn, the dashing prince who has to save his Princess-in-distress (a dubbed Lysette Anthony) from the clutches of an evil Beast whose minions have taken over the planet of Krull. With his band of merry men -- er, fellow soldiers -- Colwyn sets off on a journey to find rescue his love, even though as many monsters and beasts as you could have packed on the Pinewood Studios soundstage stand in his way.

ANDY SAYS: Nobody is going to mistake "Krull" as a classic, but there IS something infectious about the romanticism present in Peter Yates' film. You get an epic quest, plenty of effects, superb cinematography (again by Peter Suschitzky), and a basic, fairy tale premise that -- try as the movie might to get in its own way -- will prove perfectly entertaining to kids of all ages. The performances aren't anything spectacular (be on the lookout for young Liam Neeson), but this glossy production is tough to dislike -- and is capped by one of James Horner's all-time best scores, back in the days when he wrote primarily original works, at that!

TRANSFER AND SOUND: Being a Columbia title, it won't surprise most viewers that the 2.35 transfer is gorgeous, colorful, and perfectly framed, exhibiting only the slightest presence of grain from time-to-time. The 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack is nothing extraordinary but it's a step up from the 2.0 original Dolby Stereo mix, which is also included here. DVD

SPECIAL FEATURES: Yes, "Krull" fans, your ship has come in! (By the way, isn't it great when someone producing a DVD is obviously a big aficionado of the film, and goes the distance to include a handful of supplements for a movie you wouldn't ordinarily expect to find on DVD in the first place?). An audio commentary with director Peter Yates, editor Ray Lovejoy, and stars Marshall and Anthony (who is quite vocal about her vocals being dubbed by American Lindsay Crouse!), sheds light on all aspects of the film's production, but perhaps just as enlightening is another audio track, which features the reading of an entire Cinefantastique article on the making of the film! At just under an hour, this is a terrific, surprise bonus on-hand here. Even more surprising, though, is the inclusion of the Marvel Comics adaptation of the movie -- a 38-minute, filmed video of the comic book, featuring music and dialogue! Throw in the original featurette (narrated by none other than Tom Bosley himself), theatrical trailer (underscored with John Barry compositions), four photo galleries, and full production notes, and you have one of the best supplements of the year so far.

BOTTOM LINE: It's glossy, it's lavish, it's Krull! The movie is a rip-roaring, check-your-brain-and-enjoy-the-pretty-pictures kind of escapist fare, and Columbia has included all the trimmings in a sensational DVD, one of my favorite releases of 2001 to date. *** (**** for presentation)


ZARDOZ. Fox, $24.98.

WHAT IT IS: If you're looking for a delirious slice of '70s LSD filmmaking, this truly insane 1974 John Boorman sci-fi allegory (or is it?) manages to parade puffy Sean Connery around in a bikini as a "brutal" who wants to know more about what lies beyond in a society run by artsy intellectuals who manage to keep the ugly part of humanity away at a comfortable distance. Charlotte Rampling co-stars in a movie that's absolutely cracked in more ways than one.

ANDY SAYS: Boorman, coming off "Deliverance," delivered a movie that some felt was ahead of its time -- but now, it's just a crock of neat production design, cinematography (by Geoffrey Unsworth), and Boorman's imagination, which somehow mixes political and religious commentary with the gaudy loopiness that only a sci-fi film from the mid '70s could possibly provide (with one notable reference to "The Wizard of Oz"!). At times intriguing, at others unintentionally funny, this plays sometimes like an art-house version of "Logan's Run," with an unfocused and downright bizarre script that doesn't always make sense. Still, this movie has its admirers, who should be quite satisfied with Fox's DVD.

TRANSFER AND SOUND: The movie's Panavision cinematography, previously cropped in a washed-out CBS/Fox laserdisc from a decade ago, is here restored to its 2.35 splendor. The colors are dazzling and the print only shows its age in a few places (with only one reel, about 45 minutes in, showing some noticeable deterioration). The basic stereo soundtrack is here encoded in 3.0 Surround, but like the original laser track, doesn't have much in the way of multi-channel presence.

SPECIAL FEATURES: The theatrical trailer and a commentary track with Boorman is included, along with a handful of radio spots featuring Rod Serling! Boorman's commentary is a bit more cohesive here than his "Excalibur" talk was, and touches upon the film's budget (Connery's salary cost $200,000, which Boorman apparently paid most of himself) and trivia about the production. It's also useful when he actually discusses just what the movie is all about.

BOTTOM LINE: "Zardoz" is an acquired taste, and while the movie will prove dated and inaccessible for some, it will still entertain others with its bizarre imagery and offbeat presentation of new and well-worn "futuristic society" themes. The presentation is top-notch no matter which way you go. **1/2


ALIEN NATION. Fox, $24.98.

WHAT IT IS: This 1988 semi-futuristic cop-thriller twists that era's "buddy" formula by teaming grizzled vet James Caan with sour-milk-guzzling Mandy Patinkin, a member of a race of "Newcomers" from another world who descend upon Earth in 1995 (okay, so they were a little bit off) to find another home. A political conspiracy is uncovered after the usual "Odd Couple" rituals are paraded out by screenwriter Rockne S. O'Bannon. The franchise -- only moderately successful at the box-office -- was later parlayed into an acclaimed TV series on Fox (which ended up straying too far OFF formula at times for its own good).

ANDY SAYS: Totally predictable but entertaining nevertheless, this slick and fast-moving (90 minutes) effort gets a lot more mileage out of its lead performances than it probably has any right to. Director Graham Baker's pacing is efficient, even though the movie likely works better as a superior piece of formula action filmmaking than a sci-fi thriller. As you may know, the film was substantially re-cut (reportedly toning down Caan's prejudice towards the Newcomers) prior to its release, which resulted in Jerry Goldsmith's synth score being replaced by original work from music editor Curt Sobel and various songs. But, even that ended up working out for the best.

TRANSFER AND SOUND: More than any of the other Fox sci-fi DVDs, the remixed sound comes across quite well here (perhaps no surprise since this IS the most recent film of the batch). The 4.1 Surround actually has a strong presence with some subwoofer action, while the original 2.0 Dolby Stereo mix is also included. Shot in Super 35, the 2.35 transfer is excellent, marking the first time the film's theatrical aspect ratio has been available on video. DVD

SPECIAL FEATURES: The theatrical trailer, a featurette, and a brief "behind the scenes short" showing Baker working with the actors are included. These are noteworthy mainly in that some of Goldsmith's music can be heard in the featurette and trailer, where he is still credited as composing the music. After hearing Baker give one of the most tedious (and at times non-existent) commentary talks of all-time on "The Final Conflict," nobody will complain that he opted NOT to participate in a discussion here!

BOTTOM LINE: Fans of the TV show probably won't find the movie as enlightening as the series, but after being frustrated by the show's bizarre subplots, I actually found the film to be a bit more even-keeled than the series -- mixing the standard domestic situations of the characters with action fairly well. It's an entertaining, if formulaic, ride that is best viewed as a standalone piece, not in conjunction with the small- screen work that followed. **1/2


SMILLA'S SENSE OF SNOW. Fox, $24.98.

WHAT IT IS: An art-house variation on the kind of conspiracy "The X-Files" cooks up so well, director Billie August's adaptation of the Peter Hoeg international bestseller finds luminous Julia Ormond as a Greenland scientist who, stunned by the strange death of her six-year-old neighbor, stumbles upon a global conspiracy involving oil and secrets trapped under the ocean. Gabriel Byrne, Richard Harris, Robert Loggia, and Vanessa Redgrave star in this moody and compelling 1996 thriller that has just enough sci-fi in it to warrant its inclusion here.

ANDY SAYS: Whatever happened to Julia Ormond, anyway? She's lovely here, giving one of her best performances in a leisurely paced but haunting film that didn't really get the attention it deserved when it was released five years ago. The ending is formula, but the film's mix of genres (a bit of James Bond, a dash of "The X- Files," and the character-driven drama of an ensemble piece) makes it an intelligent and stylish mystery.

TRANSFER AND SOUND: Throw away the laserdisc, since Fox's DVD looks and sounds superior in every way. The 2.35 Panavision frame has been faithfully transferred here, and the 5.1 Dolby Digital sound is quietly effective, featuring an unobtrusive score by Harry Gregson-Williams and Hans Zimmer. DVD

SPECIAL FEATURES: The film's theatrical trailer and a featurette are included.

BOTTOM LINE: Solid performances, anchored by Ormond, and an involving plot make for an unusual but highly entertaining film that a lot of viewers probably missed the first time around. With the widescreen dimensions heightened by the clarity of DVD, "Smilla" is definitely a recommended view.


FRANK HERBERT'S DUNE. Artisan, $24.98.

WHAT IT IS: The international mini-series adaptation of Frank Herbert's mammoth novel sought to do more justice to its source than David Lynch's overblown 1984 box-office disaster. William Hurt leads an international cast in this expensive production, shot in Europe by the great Vittorio Storaro with plenty of special effects.

ANDY SAYS: There's not much humor, and leading man Alec Newman needs a few shots of charisma, but I still found this "Dune" to be fully involving, provided you take the time to get into it. At 265 minutes, you need some patience (and likely some familiarity with the book or, even, the Lynch movie), but it's still a ride worth taking.

TRANSFER AND SOUND: For whatever reason, the non-anamorphic 1.77 transfer -- while colorful and fairly well detailed -- isn't as eye-popping as I thought it would be. The 2.0 stereo soundtrack is OK, but nothing special. DVD

SPECIAL FEATURES: A featurette on the making of the production, an "interactive written treatise" by Storaro on his cinematography, and photo galleries are present on this 2-disc set.

BOTTOM LINE: DVD is easily the best way to get into this mini-series, with the annoying TV commercials removed and the viewer able to take the action at his/her own speed. Artisan's presentation isn't as extravagant as some expected, but the price is right and I enjoyed the production overall. ***


NEXT TIME÷Baseball season is here, and so is THE NATURAL. Plus: Columbia's LAWRENCE OF ARABIA LIMITED EDITION set! Send all emails to dursina@att.net. (And while I'm headed for the "Frozen Four" in Albany, let me just give a shout-out to the guys at Boston College. Let's Go Eagles! 1949 be damned!) OK, see you soon, everyone!


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