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New from Shout! Factory: SCI-FI MOVIE MARATHON

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The venerable Shout! Factory has released another four-film, budget-priced "Movie Marathon" package on the heels of their excellent "Action-Packed Movie Marathon" from a few months back.  This time, however, the results are mixed at best.  They were upfront well before the release with the fact that three of the four films in this sci-fi package were being presented in cropped, 1.33 full frame transfers, which is really inexcusable at this point in time.  But, those are the materials they got for these titles in their licensing deal with MGM and that's the best with which they had to work.  It's just unfortunate that a genuine cult movie like ELIMINATORS is finally represented on DVD, and it looks like little more than a slightly cleaned-up VHS transfer.  Shout! Factory is run by people who love these movies, and if they say that's what they had at their disposal, then that's what they had.  You can't knock 'em all out of the park, and they've done enough great things for cult movie preservation that they can certainly get a pass for an occasional flubbed, second-rate job like this one.  With a list price of $9.99 for four movies (no extras, not even trailers), it comes out to about $2.50 per flick, so when it's all put in perspective, I guess it's not that bad.



Disc 1 offers 1991's ARENA and 1986's ELIMINATORS, a double feature showcasing the collaborative efforts of Empire Pictures fixtures Peter Manoogian, Danny Bilson, and Paul DeMeo.  Manoogian directed several films for Empire (including 1987's high-rise mayhem gem ENEMY TERRITORY), and these two were penned by the TRANCERS writing team of Bilson (father of THE O.C.'s Rachel Bilson) and DeMeo, who would go on to script Disney's THE ROCKETEER (1991), produce the CBS superhero series THE FLASH, and create the UPN series THE SENTINEL.  On the merits of TRANCERS alone, Bilson & DeMeo are a cult duo deserving of far more attention and employment than they've received.  The pair haven't scripted a feature since THE ROCKETEER.  They spent much of the last decade writing and designing video games, and got a story credit on this year's COMPANY OF HEROES, a WWII vehicle with Tom Sizemore and Vinnie Jones that went straight to DVD, as it starred Tom Sizemore and Vinnie Jones.  Disc 2 presents a pair of one-and-done big-screen directing efforts from screenwriters who should've avoided the urge to get behind the camera:  Cannon's forgotten 1986 post-nuke effort AMERICA 3000 and the 1987 Australian TERMINATOR-inspired THE TIME GUARDIAN.


ARENA
(US - 1991)

Completed in 1988, ARENA was one of several shelved Empire titles that were left in limbo went the company began its late '80s collapse.  Trans-World Entertainment acquired it but it ended up going straight to video stores in the fall of 1991.  Bilson and DeMeo's script is built on the interesting concept of taking the kind of 1930s Warner Bros. boxing programmer like KID GALAHAD and putting it in a futuristic setting on a space station where humans and alien creatures battle in high stakes, one-on-one battles.  Steve Armstrong (daytime soap star Paul Satterfield) is a gifted arena fighter but only does it to settle a debt with galactic crime kingpin Rogor (Marc Alaimo).  With his four-armed sidekick Shorty (Hamilton Camp) and tough-as-nails trainer Quinn (Claudia Christian) in his corner, Steve naturally makes it through the tournament, past opponents like a human-sized mutant grasshopper, to face Rogor's ultimate fighter, the alien warrior Horn (Michael Deak).  Every boxing movie cliché is here, from the montages to the pep talks to the antagonist's moll (Shari Shattuck as Jade) seducing the hero, but despite the fun setting and the potential, ARENA is never as lively, campy, or goofy as it should be.  Shot at Empire's Rome studio (and featuring a rare on-camera role for gravelly-voiced expat dubbing vet Robert Spafford), ARENA looks cheap, perhaps intentionally so, and has some OK creature designs by the likes of John Buechler and Screaming Mad George, but despite some occasional amusing bits, it just never kicks into gear, largely because the bland Satterfield is a complete charisma vacuum.  The film's minor cult following is due largely to the presence of several future stars of popular '90s syndicated sci-fi TV series: Christian went on to co-star on BABYLON 5, and Alaimo and Armin Shimerman (as Rogor's aptly-named flunky Weezil) would reunite on STAR TREK: DEEP SPACE NINE.  Worth seeing for Empire completists and Shimerman stalkers, but Shout! might've been better off nixing ARENA and including Bilson & DeMeo's much better ZONE TROOPERS (1986) on this set.  (PG-13, 94 mins)


 

ELIMINATORS
(US - 1986)

Manoogian, Bilson, and De Meo first teamed on this engagingly silly sci-fi actioner that, like TRANCERS, has aspirations well beyond its budget.  The basic summary is that a ragtag group of heroes joins forces to stop Abbott Reeves (Roy Dotrice), a time-traveling, megalomaniacal madman who wants to change the course of world history by going back to rule ancient Rome.  One of his creations is Mandroid (Patrick Reynolds), a military pilot shot down in action and transformed into a cyborg with an accompanying tank-like mobile unit.  When Reeves tries to decommission him, the Mandroid escapes and finds Dr. Nora Hunter (Denise Crosby, around the same time she appeared in Black Sabbath's "No Stranger to Love" video and a year before STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION), who created the android technology used to assemble him and is unaware that Reeves is using it for evil purposes.  Nora, along with her helpful pet-like robot S.P.O.T., decides to accompany Mandroid to deep into Mexico to find his secret underground jungle lair and they hire cynical river guide Harry Fontana (Andrew Prine) to guide them.  Some time later, the three meet up with ninja Kuji (Conan Lee), the son of Reeves' sympathetic assistant, who was killed for trying to help Mandroid escape.  The quartet battles rival boatmen in the employ of Reeves, plus some Neanderthals brought back by Reeves during one of his time-traveling excursions. 



After a clunky opening, ELIMINATORS finds a nice groove and gets much better as it proceeds, even if takes too long to get all of the heroes together (Lee doesn't even appear until a little over an hour in).  One element of ELIMINATORS that's a bit ahead of its time is the way the film often becomes a sort-of meta-commentary on itself, usually in the form of Fontana's disbelief at the lunacy happening around him ("What is this, some kinda goddamn comic book?  We got robots, we got cavemen, we got kung fu!").  One of the more ambitious productions of Empire's glory days, ELIMINATORS isn't always successful (the first half could use some tightening), but it hits a lot more than it misses, and really gets a nice momentum going in its last third.  ELIMINATORS could've benefitted from a decent restoration--or at least presented in its proper aspect ratio--and really deserves its own special edition release with a commentary track from the filmmakers.  Shortly after co-starring in this, Reynolds, grandson of R.J. Reynolds and eventual black sheep of the Reynolds tobacco family, would quit acting to denounce the family business and become a prominent anti-smoking activist.  (PG, 96 mins)


AMERICA 3000
(US - 1986)

I haven't seen everything released by Cannon, but I've seen enough to make the judgment call that AMERICA 3000 could very well be the worst film they ever made.  The lone directorial effort from DEATH WISH II screenwriter David Engelbach, AMERICA 3000 takes place in post-nuke Colorado, 900 years after the end of civilization.  The world is once again in caveman times, and ruled by women, who are known as "tiaras," with men--aka "seeders" if they're well-hung or "machos" if they're slaves--the subservient class.  Nomadic warrior Corbus (Chuck Wagner, fresh off the title role on the short-lived NBC series AUTOMAN) has taught himself to read from an old childrens book he found and tries to lead the machos and seeders into a fight for equality that's actually supported by Tiara leader Vena (Laurene Landon), who reluctantly took charge upon the passing of her beloved Tiara mother (Camilla Sparv, the only somewhat big name in the cast, and she's dead by the 15-minute mark).  Vena doesn't have the support of her underlings, namely her jealous sister Lakella (Victoria Barrett), who leads a revolt against her.  I think AMERICA 3000 is trying to be a comedy, but it's so painfully unfunny that it's hard to tell.  Engelbach makes some half-hearted attempts at political satire--the voiceover narration of Corbus' brother, played by William Wallace, mentions a "Camp Reagan," with the caveat "I never figured out what 'Reagan' meant," and Corbus finds the underground bunker of the US President, still in pristine condition after 900 years with a functioning boombox and an arcade version of Centipede, and watches a video tape that convinces him that he is the "Pres-ee-dent" as he pronounces it--but he just has nothing to say and his sole purpose seems to be to make this as gratingly annoying as possible. The constant use of the film's own specific post-nuke slang (tiaras, seeders, machos, "woggos" for crazy, "hot eats" for food, "scan-it" for seeing), makes for maddening dialogue like "You're machos, but I'm a free man.  You hungry?  We've got hot eats, scan-it?" that would make it hard to follow the plot if there was one.



There's probably a lot of reasons there weren't many post-nuke comedies in the '80s, and AMERICA 3000 should be labeled Exhibit A.  Golan & Globus spent $2 million on this thing?  It's one of Cannon's most obscure titles and it should've stayed that way.  If they wanted a post-nuke comedy that was in the MGM library, Shout! would've been better off putting the sublimely ridiculous 1985 version of SHE with Sandahl Bergman on this set.  Unfunny, uninspired, unwatchable, and cropped to 1.33, I can't imagine anyone getting anything remotely enjoyable or entertaining out of AMERICA 3000.  Look, I love Shout! Factory, and they're doing great things, but there's so many more worthwhile things they could've resurrected.  Are there really AMERICA 3000 fans out there?  Any whose surname isn't Engelbach?  It's not even entertaining on a "so bad, it's good" level.  It's just bad.  Engelbach went on to write an early draft of 1987's OVER THE TOP that was reworked by star Sylvester Stallone, but he's been MIA since writing a few episodes of MACGYVER in the late '80s.  (PG-13, 93 mins)


THE TIME GUARDIAN
(Australia - 1987; 1989 US release)

The only film in this set presented in its proper aspect ratio (2.35:1 anamorphic), THE TIME GUARDIAN is a big-budget 1987 Australian sci-fi film that took two years to get a token US release from Hemdale in the fall of 1989.  I know I rented the VHS back then and recall thinking the film was bad, but 23 or so years on, I remembered nothing about it until this revisit.  Yep...still terrible.  There's promising ingredients:  nice-looking BLADE RUNNER-esque production design, an interesting concept, directed and co-written by Brian Hannant, who co-wrote THE ROAD WARRIOR, so he certainly knows his way around a sci-fi action movie...but THE TIME GUARDIAN never really comes together.  Here's a situation where some bonus features would be nice, as Hannant has said in the years since that interference from Hemdale and script changes that were forced on him ended up compromising the film.  It's clear that Hannant was shown the door at some point during production, since second-unit director A.J. Prowse is also credited with directing additional scenes with an entirely different crew.  Whatever drama went down behind the scenes was probably more interesting than anything that ended up onscreen, and it seemed to have a career-altering impact on the now-73-year-old Hannant:  26 years later, he has yet to direct or write another film.


Opening in the year 4039, THE TIME GUARDIAN deals with a post-apocalyptic world where armies of armored robots known as Jen-Diki have wiped out almost all of humanity.  That is, except for one domed city that has found a way to bounce back and forth through time when the Jen-Diki find them.  Two warriors--the tough-as-nails Ballard (Tom Burlinson of THE MAN FROM SNOWY RIVER) and 20th century expert Petra (Carrie Fisher, onboard to lure in the STAR WARS crowd) are sent by their leader (Dean Stockwell, who puts in a few scenes and goes off to enjoy his paid Australian vacation) to survey 1988 Australia in a daring attempt to trap the Jen-Diki and be done with them once and for all.  Petra is quickly injured and sidelined (meaning, the filmmakers probably only had Fisher for a few days) as Ballard teams up with attractive local geologist Annie (Nikki Coghill) and some aborigines to thwart the Jen-Diki.  They don't get any help from McCarthy (Tim Robertson), who seems to have graduated summa cum laude from the Brian Dennehy Academy of Small-Town Asshole Sheriffs, tossing Ballard and Annie in the slammer and messing around with their futuristic armbands, after which, of course, the Jen-Diki figure out exactly where Ballard is and launch a full-scale invasion of this small outback town, starting with the police station in a sequence that's in no way modeled on a similar one in THE TERMINATOR.  Ultimately, despite some good ideas (I liked the notion of the time-traveling city), THE TIME GUARDIAN is just too confusing, too dull, and too derivative of other, better movies (THE TERMINATOR, BLADE RUNNER, STAR TREK, and the whole subplot with the dumbass, bullying sheriff is straight out of FIRST BLOOD), and Burlinson, fine in the SNOWY RIVER films and PHAR LAP, overdoes it and isn't a very convincing jaw-clenched badass of the Schwarzenegger mold. The material is there, but judging from the apparently troubled production history, this one just feels like it got away from everyone involved.  Also featuring the maudlin closing credits tune "This Time I Know" by Rose Tattoo frontman Angry Anderson.  (PG, 88 mins)

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