‘Millennium’ (1989): Marginal Canadian sci-fi exploiter

The grade Z drive-in double feature no one has been asking for! Shout! Factory’s Scream Factory line has released, on Blu-ray, Millennium and R.O.T.O.R. on a single disc double feature. 1989’s sci-fi time traveling/airplane disaster mash-up Millennium, from David “Here…let me endorse that check for ya!” Begelman’s Gladden Entertainment (released by 20th Century-Fox), was directed by Michael Anderson and it stars Kris Kristofferson and Cheryl Ladd. 1988’s R.O.T.O.R., from Manson International and WestWind Pictures, was written and directed by a guy who did some innocuous TV cartoons, and it stars some people. There are certainly fans of marginal 1980s exploitation misfires out there (myself included), but one will have to try hard here to find the dross amid all the, um…dross. We’ll split the review in two to make these movies seem far more important than they are, shall we?

By Paul Mavis

Above the skies of Minneapolis, a Boeing 747 cruises towards its destination before suddenly hitting a mis-routed DC-10 in mid-air. No one is saved from the doomed flight, not even those sh*ts in First Class. As the plane plummets towards the ground, Captain Vern Rockwell (Lawrence Dane, Scanners, Happy Birthday to Me, Rolling Vengeance) sends First Officer Ron Kennedy (Thomas Hauff, C.A.T. Squad, Mother Night) back to check on the plane’s damage, only to have Kennedy frantically rush back, screaming that all the passengers are already dead—burned beyond recognition. Both planes crash, with a total of 643 passengers and crew dead.

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On the ground, National Transportation Safety Board investigator Bill Smith (Kris Kristofferson, Heaven’s Gate, Blade) is stymied by two strange facts: the “black box” recording of Kennedy claiming the passengers were burned when there was no fire prior to the crash, and several recovered digital watches…all running backwards in time. Even more incredible is the hot sex he has on day freaking one with mysterious flight attendant Louise Baltimore (Cheryl Ladd, Charlie’s Angels), a seeming headcase who wants him to abandon the just-started investigation and leave with her on a vacation.

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Even more incredible is Smith’s discovery of a futuristic little “stunner” gun amid all the wreckage gathered in an airplane hangar, a “stunner” gun that accidentally zaps him, forcing Louise to materialize out of thin air—and from a thousand years in the future—to try and retrieve it. You see (SPOILERS)…Louise is actually a time traveler from Earth’s future, a polluted Earth populated by rotting, impotent humans who can’t reproduce (just like San Francisco today). So, Earth’s “Council,” the planet’s ruling group that are slowly decomposing in giant test tubes, are going back in time and snatching people off soon-to-crash airplanes. Duplicate dead bodies are recreated and substituted for the passengers, and the healthy humans are put in a suspended state, awaiting their “second chance” at repopulating Earth’s future (so much for predestination or God or free will or karma or bad luck…).

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Only…every time Louise screws up, like letting Bill find that lost “stunner,” a paradox in the time-continuum is created, with a resulting “time quake” blasting forward that may alter the present future…or future past…or the third person past participle. Oh, and another thing: time travel involves “temporal censorship,” which means Louise can’t remember what she did in previous missions, so she doesn’t remember that in the future she’s going to have to go back to the past again to seduce Bill again in the future for the first time to not stop the investigation again for the first time to end it. For the sake of the future. Physicist and plane crash groupie Dr. Arnold Mayer (Daniel J. Travanti, TV’s Gidget) knows something is up (he’s got a “stunner,” too, from a 1963 plane crash), but since nobody is sleeping with him, he’ll have to hope that an increasingly overwrought Smith works it all out.

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As with so many other marginal exploitation numbers like the Canadian co-production Millennium, its backstory turns out to be more interesting than what turned up on the screen. According to noted science fiction writer John Varley (as well as other sources), Millennium’s 10-year pre-production began when his 1977 short story, Air Raid, was optioned by powerhouse producers John Foreman and Freddie Fields for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, as a possible project for special effect whiz-turned-director Douglas Trumbull.

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Trumbull had struck out at the box office with Universal’s Silent Running a few years before, but with Star Wars re-igniting the space race at the major Hollywood studios, special effects wizard Trumbull’s name still carried cache with Metro after his central involvement with director Stanley Kubrick’s huge M-G-M hit, 2001: A Space Odyssey.

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With Foreman’s clout, heavyweights Paul Newman and Jane Fonda were approached for the leads, but soon “development hell” settled in when Trumbull became persona non grata at Metro after publicly shaming the studio in 1981 (they shut down his production of Brainstorm after lead Natalie Wood died during final shooting, and Trumbull committed the unpardonable sin of bitching about it to the press). With Trumbull gone, Newman and Fonda were out (if they ever were really “in” to begin with…), while several directors, including Richard Rush and Randal Kleiser, were briefly attached to Millennium.

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Varley continually re-wrote the script as directors came and went on the project (he even had time to novelize the screenplay in 1983), before a deal—with a significantly lowered production budget—was engineered through shameless forger/producer David Begelman’s Gladden Entertainment. In an effort to further shave the budget, shooting was to be done in Canada (for the favorable exchange rate and more importantly, to qualify for all those Canuck government tax incentives). Canadian crew components, legally required for the tax dollars, were satisfied by Canadian-based English director Michael Anderson (Around the World in 80 Days, Logan’s Run) and Cheryl Ladd (who had a Canadian passport through marriage), along with most of the tech crew.

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Released by 20th Century-Fox, Millennium eventually premiered here in the States on August 25th, 1989. Lacking stars that might have helped put asses in the seats, it was run in a limited number of theaters (486), and come in a dismal 12th that weekend at the box office, for an unimpressive-to-say-the-least $1.6 million opener (against popular holdovers like Uncle Buck, Parenthood, The Abyss, When Harry Met Sally, and Lethal Weapon 2). Millennium dropped to 15th the following weekend, and then quickly disappeared, eventually eking out a tiny total gross of $5 million and change.

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Millennium has a reputation among fans of 1980s sci-fi for being at best a cheap, dopey misfire…a verdict this reviewer can’t exactly argue against. While there seems to be a pretty cool premise at its core—or more correctly, too many intriguing ideas for its own ability to properly execute them—Millennium’s production is too chintzy and diffused to get much mileage out of it. You can tell there’s trouble right from that opening scene. It’s not that the airplane model looks shoddy or that the subsequent explosions lack some punch (considering the budget, they’re okay for 1989). Rather, it’s that first, faint alarm at seeing a potentially suspenseful scene that should be foolproof in hooking the viewer—two jet airliners hitting each other, before a crewman discovers the passengers are already, inexplicably, dead—come off so enervated and flat.

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Critics of Millennium often point to its obviously meager budget as one of its chief drawbacks (who knows…maybe that crook Begelman skimmed some of it, which happens all the time with Hollywood producers). But frankly, even if Millennium had quadrupled the cash, I’m not sure that unmistakably bland, colorless, sedate tenor that is the hallmark of so many Canadian big-screen co-productions wouldn’t still permeate Millennium. Certainly not helping matters, either, is the presence of uneven director Michael Anderson, whose chilly British reserve could occasionally be quite interesting, given the right context (the spare, quirky The Quiller Memorandum, the polished, exciting Operation Crossbow), but more often proved a dampening element for conventional entertainments (The Wreck of the Mary Deare, The Shoes of the Fisherman, Logan’s Run, Orca).

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The built-in logical conundrums of time travel are usually reliable in piquing interest in these kinds of sci-fi outings, and Millennium is no different, with author Varley’s ideas about “temporal censorship” (not being able to go back to the exact same spot one has previously visited in the past, and not remembering anything there) and his intricate central plot device (snatching soon-to-be dead people from the past to populate the future), worthy of further exploration. However, those notions are treated in such a rushed, fuzzy manner in Millennium, we never get a glimpse at the hard details that need to be worked out in our heads before we can buy the movie’s emotions. Why again is everybody dying and sterile in the future? Pollution? Then why does everyone need to smoke to stay alive in the “cleaner” past? How do they re-create the dead bodies to replace the saved victims? What happens to the saved victims once they’re taken to the future (it looks like they’re just standing around, zonked out of their minds)? Who’s “The Council,” and why are they rotting in test tubes while others aren’t?

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These big questions are just as elusive as smaller yet critical story details. How did Dr. Mayer get the “stunner” gun? Shouldn’t he have been the one on the 1963 plane crash, and not Bill? Bill wouldn’t remember finding a ray gun on that plane when he was a kid? And why are both Mayer and Bill so vital to the future? If we’re supposed to invest anxiety over the suspense supposedly created over their peril…shouldn’t we know why that peril is important? We just don’t get those answers in Millennium.

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With sketchy scripting and desultory directing, the miscast actors are left adrift. There’s zero chemistry between D-listers Kristofferson and Ladd, a fatal mistake since the central portion of the movie is their romance that supposedly will span thousands of years…a sequence, by the way, that’s repeated twice in the movie, from two points of view (if I don’t care about them as a couple in the first place, I won’t care about them all over again, either). It’s pretty bad when Kristofferson, in actuality an Oxford-educated Rhodes Scholar, a trained Army Ranger and a licensed helicopter pilot, can’t convincingly pretend to be a detail-oriented NTSB crash investigator (his laid-back, laconic on-screen image works well in Westerns, but not here).

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Ladd fares no better. Unable to come across as a kick-ass time traveler who would waste an innocent to protect Earth’s future, a visibly stressed-out Ladd fails, too, in her romantic scenes with shoe button-eyed Kristofferson. We need to believe she’ll kill (not only don’t we believe she’s physically capable of that…but we have no idea why she wants to save the future), and we need to believe she’s conflicted in her mission when she falls for Kristofferson—which, again, we don’t buy (why in god’s name did they take such a gorgeous actress and inflict those ridiculous hairdos on her, from that Flock of Seagulls-inspired updo, to a ridiculously teased-out Bo Rics mall explosion. And how about easing off those orange filters—in one close-up at the restaurant she looked like a talking pumpkin).

And just forget about Travanti’s character. He first shows up looking like a cross between Inspector Clouseau and Jessica Fletcher, and then pops up occasionally to utter some inscrutable nonsense before he’s gone for good, with us never understanding how his character was important to the story. By the time Millennium winds down, we’ve had a chance to fully inspect that school gymnasium “time gate” set (laughably tacky and parsimonious, rather like the road show version of Alien Meets Carrie’s Prom) before a final “force infinity” time quake that’s rendered in the most depressingly mundane fashion possible. In the end (as in the beginning, or wherever we wind up in a “temporal censorship”), it’s all so pallid and dreary and forgettable.

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Since Millennium has had a rather crappy history exhibition wise (just a cheap full screen VHS release if I remember correctly), let’s look a little closer at Shout!’s Blu-ray release. Millennium‘s MPEG-4 AVC Video 1080p HD 1.85:1 Blu-ray transfer looks pretty good, considering. Image fine detail is reasonable (although depth is shallow the farther the camera pulls out), film grain structure is a little loose in the gauzier moments (and it looks like they used those filters quite often here). Colors—mostly cold greens and blues and browns—are okay but unimpressive, while the contrast seems a tad hot in spots. Print damage is noticeable in spots (that opening airplane shot has some marked wear). The English DTS-HD Master Audio stereo track is unremarkable, with clean dialogue and little in the way of separation effects. Optional English subtitles are included. Bonus features are slim. There’s the alternate ending, featured in the international release version, that’s as unintentionally hilarious (nude space coupling!) as the U.S. version is blah. There’s also an original trailer included.

PAUL MAVIS IS AN INTERNATIONALLY PUBLISHED MOVIE AND TELEVISION HISTORIAN, A MEMBER OF THE ONLINE FILM CRITICS SOCIETY, AND THE AUTHOR OF THE ESPIONAGE FILMOGRAPHY. Click to order.Read more of Paul’s film reviews here. Read Paul’s TV reviews at our sister website, Drunk TV.

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One thought on “‘Millennium’ (1989): Marginal Canadian sci-fi exploiter

  1. I thought Michael Anderson’s best, and possibly best known film, was The Dam busters. he came to Canada for God only knows what reason. Certainly not to make better movies. I guess to exploit his reputation. Just like the so-called stars of this thing. A shame, as everyone was in place for something better.

    Liked by 1 person

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