Okay, let’s talk about movies. I love movies. I love making movies and I love, even more, watching movies. I’m a dyed-in-the-wool cinephiliac. In fact, the weirder and more off-beat the better, as far as I’m concerned. Which is why I can’t begin to tell you how excited I was to discover that Netflix had added Millennium – the late 80s time travel paradox flick starring a fading folk singer, a former Charlie’s Angel and a retired television police captain – to its list of streamable rebound classics.
Needless to say, I had to give it a replay and I’m glad I did. This rad sci-fi thriller from the Greed Decade is a classic, even if you’ve never actually heard of it. For one thing, it has a smart – though not always smartly written – script and one of the most epic openings of a science fiction movie ever shot. The kind that might make an ordinary, sane person never want to fly the friendly skies again.
It also has Cheryl Ladd looking fierce in a bleached Flock of Seagulls up-do and wearing the latest from the Ghostbusters fashion line. Ladd plays a time-travelling glamazon agent named Louise Baltimore, who is in the service of a metal tube-bound council of freaks living in a toxic environment and surrounded by tattooed mutants some 1000 years in the future (hence the title). It’s something like what you might expect if Clive Barker and Terry Gilliam had a cinematic baby together.
Baltimore is also in possession of a groovy Dr. Who purse, which seems to operate via the same principals as a sonic screwdriver. Not just with car doors and escalators but also with hair, when a quick fluff during a hastily made first date is needed. Very convenient.
Hot on Baltimore’s heels is Kris Kristofferson, looking his craggy Marlboro Man best in that brief moment when he was actually kind of hot – you know, just before he got crotchety and menacing in movies like Lone Star and Blade. In this one, he’s the handsome hero Bill Smith, an NTSB investigator-with-a-hunch, who is smart, capable, a work-a-holic and the only survivor of a horrific airline disaster back in the 60s. It’s his job to investigate a horrific airline collision in which the clues don’t quite add up.
He’s also, apparently, something of a legend to the sad, dying race struggling to survive in 2989. Louise can’t take her eyes off him the second time she meets him, which is actually the first for him, but you’ll just have to watch the movie to figure out how that works. She “recognizes him from ancient pictures” and is instantly awed by him. We never really figure out why he has such a mystique about him, but he’s smart, capable and a work-a-holic and the only survivor of a horrific airline disaster back in the 60s, so we’re willing to give him the benefit of the doubt.
Rounding out the cast is Hill Street Blues‘ Daniel J. Travanti doing his best befuddled John Lithgow impression as Dr. Arnold Mayer, a university professor with a lot of inexplicable clout, who spends the entire movie invading every top secret crash site and popping in on closed military meetings, to ask crackpot questions and make Kristofferson glower menacingly. He also gives a memorable dissertation during one of these encounters in which he basically encapsulates the entire plot of the movie, without actually alarming anybody in the room OR the future time patrol tuning in on his diatribe.
No seriously, this guy’s got it all figured out, but nobody seems to take him seriously, not even the CIA or FBI which, in any other movie, would have been dogging him and forcing him to drink copiously, sweat profusely and swear continuously about government conspiracies. In other words, he ain’t no trope. How he gets away with what he does remains a mystery, but the fact that we don’t have to roll our eyes and whisper under our breath, “oh, he’s THAT guy” is reason enough to appreciate the character. He keeps the momentum going in a story that could otherwise have gotten bogged down in technobabble.
As time travel adventures go, Millennium has everything. A camp premise that isn’t completely ridiculous, a gruff-but-loveable egghead hero, a smokin’ hot ingénue on a mission, and such quaint 80s cinematic fodder as telephones with cords, characters smoking while in a restaurant and robots with human features. It’s even directed by the guy who helmed Logan’s Run and the Martian Chronicles – the one starring Rock Hudson. No shit!
It also includes an appropriately bombastic score, when necessary, but there’s also plenty of synth pop cheese and even a moment when you’ll be sure you just flipped the channel to a Hallmark Channel Rom Com. Just don’t get me started on the Richard Clayderman closing credit music. Pure 80s cheese whiz from a tube. I would suggest turning the volume down at this point and playing something by Human League or the Thompson Twins. Or, hell, even Klaus Nomi. Anything is better.
Also, just for the record. If I had a glowing blue temporal gateway connected to a Time Lord’s fashionable color-coordinated sonic satchel, I might be a little more careful about where I leave my tools of the trade. And I’m pretty sure it would take more than Kris Kristofferson in his Marlboro years to rate as “the best thing in a thousand years.” But then again, nobody wants to watch a time travel movie in which everything goes according to plan and a television sex symbol turns her nose up at the gruffly loveable hero. Right?
Though this “review” may make the movie sound trite and dated, believe me when I say the smart writing helps it overcome 80s mawkishness. Millennium actually has a fascinating and well thought-out concept, with occasionally pulpy and memorable dialog straight out of Analog or Amazing Science Fiction. Which should really come as no surprise considering sci-fi legend John Varley, one of the masters of the form, wrote both the screenplay and the short story upon which it was based.
I say occasionally, because the problem here is, whereas Mr. Varley is more than adept at creating germane and scientifically problematic situations that don’t stretch the limits of conceivability and credulity, he is not quite so masterful at scripting romance. That’s where the dialog tends to wander into dopey Sam Spade territory, where hyper masculine heroes bed strong mouthy women for no other reason than to prove how masculine they are. Case in point:
Bill: The first rule is: Never sleep with anyone who’s crazier than you are. I don’t know if you’re crazier, but you’re right up there on the top 10 of my weird list, lady.
Louise: If you knew me better, I’d be number one.
Yes, those lines sound like they could have dropped from the lips of Bogie and Bacall, but considering they’re spoken AFTER the ugly-bumping session in question, while our hero and his mysterious time-travelling hook up are still lying in bed enjoying the afterglow, maybe just a little inexpedient?
Again, considering Varley is one of the more notable literate geeks of the genre, who has won every major award given to science fiction writers and thus probably doesn’t get laid much, it’s not really surprising. Like most of the male writers of science fiction, Varley doesn’t really worry overmuch about the hows and whyfores of dating etiquette, so much as throwing his characters together for a little of the good stuff that makes adolescent readers run for the toilet paper when those hot, close nights makes them feel funny in the pants area. I call it the Lucas effect, after the worst romance dialogist of all time, George Lucas.
Primer it isn’t, but in a world populated by such well-received time turds as Time Rider, The Lake House or Hot Tub Time Machine, Millennium delivers the goods and, thus, should rate higher in the cinematic chronosphere. So, if you have a fascination with time travel, like I do, and can get past the occasionally corny dialog and score to explore the fascinating chronological concepts being posited by a true master of the form, you’re in for a treat. Or, you could just watch Logan’s Run again. Your call.