Saturday, 22 March 2014

Outerworld

Director: Philip J Cook
Writer: Philip J Cook
Producer: John R Ellis
Cast: Tracy Davis, Michael Mack, Hans Bachmann
Country: USA
Year of release: 1987/2004
Reviewed from: screener DVD
Official site: www.eaglefilms.com

It was rather a shock, on watching the 15-minute Making Of included on this DVD, to realise that I have had a poster for this film in my files for the past decade.

This first feature from writer/director/editor/cinematographer Philip Cook (Invader, Despiser) was filmed as Pentan (the name of the main character) and initially released as Beyond the Rising Moon before ending up as Star Quest: Beyond the Rising Moon. That’s the title on the one-sheet that I have, which I probably picked up at the AFM. Now it has become Outerworld, putting this picture into that select group of movies which can boast almost as many alternative titles as the average Jess Franco film.

But Outerworld is in many ways a different movie. The special effects have been completely revamped and Cook has used this as an opportunity to tighten up the story to the extent that this is, apparently, as much like Star Quest as Godzilla, King of the Monsters was like Gojira. (I should stress that I have never seen the previous version, I just have the poster. So I can’t make direct comparisons and can only go on what is self-evident on screen and what Cook and co say in the featurette.)

Pentan (Tracy Davis: Nemesis 2) is a genetically engineered woman constructed by the Kuriyama Corporation and trained in combat and other skills. I don’t recall any actual kickboxing and she’s not really a cyborg but this certainly leans towards KCM territory. In a clumsily scripted opening scene, corporation enforcer John Moesby (Michael Mack: Star Trek: Generations) informs head honcho Takashi Kuriyama (Ron Ikejiri) about recent Earth history, prefiguring his infodump speech with the dreaded “As you know...”

What Kuriyama-san does indeed know, but we have to be told, is that humanity has developed interstellar travel, among other things, from technology found in an alien spaceship. No other extraterrestrial artefact has ever been located, until now. A Norwegian company(!) has spotted another alien spaceship on a distant planet but has not actually landed. The first person to make planetfall will be able to claim salvage rights and will make a fortune from licensing all the new technological developments which this discovery will spawn. Naturally, Kuriyama and Moesby believe that the corporation should have that ship. (No-one at any point considers the possibility that the new spaceship will be the same as the old one and so won’t offer anything new.)

Moesby despatches Pentan to intercept two Norwegian agents and steal the briefcase containing the planet’s co-ordinates but for some reason, once she has this, she decides to make it on her own, leaving Moesby fuming on a monorail platform as Pentan waves goodbye from a carriage.

Before you can say "Millennium Falcon", Pentan finds and hires a jobbing spacefarer, Brickman (Hans Bachmann, who was in a 1985 Austrian sci-fi picture called Time Troopers) to take her where she wants to go. He is keen to depart because he is being threatened by the two most law-abiding hoodlums on the planet, who threaten that if he doesn’t come up with the money he owes them they will come and find him armed not with clubs, knives or guns but with someone from the authorities. Despite a last minute attempt by Moesby to stop them, Pentan and Brickman blast off in his nifty little red ship, the Rising Moon.

The complication in all this is that Pentan, having been artificially produced and therefore being the corporate property or Kuriyama Corp., has a doodad inside her head which Moesby has triggered which will kill her in a few days’ time. So before heading for the alien craft, she and Brickman stop off at the isolated, castle-like base of scientist Robert Thornton (Rick Foucheux: Invader) who originally created her. He somehow deactivates the doodad (rendering it a somewhat superfluous plot point). Apparently, in the original version Thornton survived after Brickman and Pentan left - but in this ‘special edition’ his castle gets blasted by Moesby and co, with him in it.

The alien spacecraft sits on a desolate plain on a distant planet. Brickman and Pentan make it first but they are swiftly followed by Moesby and Kuriyama in their impressively large craft the Promethean which carries eight small 'Tulwar' fighter craft. There is a stand-off on the surface and then a big old dogfight in space - I won’t go into too much detail. Nothing too unexpected happens - especially with two decades of other sci-fi movies inbetween this and the current state of the genre - but there is no point in my spoiling things for you folks.

At heart, Outerworld is a good, solid, unabashed slice of 1980s indie sci-fi with all the requisite whooshing spaceships and political intrigue - although noticeably there are neither aliens nor robots. And it is very 1980s, especially in the character of Pentan. With her ultra-tight jeans, ankle boots, wide-collared batwing blouse, short jacket and permed hair she looks like she stepped out of the slow bit of a Meat Loaf video.

And yet, this 1980s film now boasts 21st century special effects, giving it a frankly unique look. Wisely, Cook has retained the best of the original model effects - which are terrific - and used CGI for sequences which simply couldn’t be shot before, such as Thornton’s HQ blowing up or the climactic dogfights which originally took place in open space but now happen within the rings of a Saturn-like planet. Computers have also been used to matte newly shot moving figures into existing model shots which adds greatly to their believability and hence their integration into the live-action footage.

Without ever having seen the original version I can’t really comment on what changes have been made in the storyline and characterisation but the impression I get is that there have been a few and they’re all for the better. As for the effects, some of the CGI work does look ‘very CGI’ but it’s still pretty good for a movie made (or remade) on this sort of budget. The miniatures are superb - there are some behind the scenes shots of them in the Making Of featurette - and while it’s a shame that Cook has now apparently abandoned this technique in favour of CGI, you can’t really blame him when you consider the vast amount of work required to construct very large, very detailed miniatures.

Also in the cast are Norman Gagnon (Twilight of the Dogs, Mark Redfield’s Dr Jeckyll and Mr Hyde) who also has a bunch of behind-the-camera credits; Jon Trapnell (Ron Ford’s Alien Force and Hollywood Mortuary) and producer John Ellis whose extensive visual effects CV includes Don Dohler’s Nightbeast, JR Bookwalter’s The Dead Next Door, Subspecies IV, Witchouse, Totem, Retro Puppet Master, Voodoo Academy, Dave Parker’s The Dead Hate the Living, Python, Trancers VI and uncredited clean-up work on some big titles including Van Helsing, Daredevil and The Day After Tomorrow.

Outerworld is good fun and you can’t really ask more than that. The leads are likeable, the plot is internally consistent and there are some interesting quirks that make it stand out from the morass of the 1980s science fiction boom (I mean, why Norwegians?). Most importantly, Cook’s reworking of the film nearly 20 years later works to make it better, unlike a certain trilogy of big budget ‘special editions’ which seemed to just have new effects inserted at random irrespective of whether they added anything or not.

Cook has recently done a similar CGI update on Invader. All he needs now is a time machine to take Despiser back a few years and add some miniatures into it.

MJS rating: B

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