Home Video Hovel: Millennium/R.O.T.O.R., by Craig Schroeder
Shout Factory, and its subsidiary Scream Factory, tend to oscillate between two kinds of releases: under-seen or treasured films that deserve and/or need a high definition upgrade (your The Serpent and the Rainbow or They Live) and novelty films that were forgotten and should remain distant memories (such as the Sleepaway Camp franchise and any number of refurbished eighties schlock that barely earned a straight-to-VHS release). Shout Factory’s most recent release is a double-feature of two films that belong in the latter category: Millennium and R.O.T.O.R. But whereas one is an earnest failure—and not without a bit of fun—the other is an unmitigated dumpster fire, seeing a Blu-ray release only because of Shout Factory’s tendency to throw the spotlight onto some of cinema’s most shocking calamities.
Millennium is the better of the two, managing a good bit of fun and excitement until the film eventually collapses under the weight of its lofty premise and poor execution. When a commercial airline crashes, Investigator Bill Smith (Kris Kristofferson) is on the scene to find out exactly what went wrong, unaware that a group of time travelers from one thousand years in the future are pulling the strings in an elaborate scheme to save humanity from itself. When the film takes place in the present world (err….1989), it manages to milk a good deal of intrigue and mystery, but when the film eventually unravels the mystery and reveals Future-Land—a bizarre industrialized dystopian universe (featuring a great number of tawdry special effects that make Jason and the Argonauts look like Avatar) that looks like The Matrix’s Zion as designed by a small-town mechanic—it not only loses momentum but loses a great deal of credibility as a prophetic sci-fi adventure.
The strangest part of Millennium is the chemistry between Kris Kristofferson and Cheryl Ladd’s Louise Baltimore, an agent of the future sent back to 1989. They are an odd pair that work well together, elevating the film’s lackluster screenplay. Kristofferson and Ladd hit their beats with vigor and excitement that inject much needed intrigue into a screenplay that frequently stumbles and asks the audience to wait while it regains its footing.
Millennium falls apart where most time-travel movies do: trying to dissect the contradictions of time-travel. Millennium’s time travelers must abide by only one rule: avoid “paradoxes”, anything that may indicate the presence of time travelers and upend the already established timeline, possibly altering the very existence of the future. Though Millennium deserves credit for trying to get out ahead of its own time-traveling inconsistencies by addressing its “paradoxes”, the film’s timeline and narrative become so convoluted and intricate that the third act is filled with long stretches of expository dialogue that try to rationalize a timeline that’s already contradicted itself time and time again.
If the so-bad-it’s-good genre is something you subscribe to, then R.O.T.O.R. (originally titled Blue Steel, not to be confused with Kathryn Bigelow’s 1989 film of the same name) is a masterpiece worthy of a modern art museum. But, if you’re like myself and find little joy in that genre, then R.O.T.O.R. is a painful ninety minutes that leaves you as energized as the loser of a back-alley brawl.
Made in the shadow of The Terminator’s 1984 release and cobbled together for a US video release in the months before Robocop, R.O.T.O.R. is a low-budget effort to capitalize on the surge of 1980s sci-fi/action films (a fact the film itself acknowledges in perhaps its only clever line of dialogue). Directed by Cullen Blaine (the film would be Blaine’s feature debut and swan song), R.O.T.O.R. focuses on Dr. J. Bennett C. Coldyron (competing with Louise Baltimore as cinema’s dumbest character name; played by Richard Gesswein, also his feature film debut and swan song), a scientist in charge of the Dallas Police Department’s Robotic Officer Tactical Operation Research (a name clearly reverse engineered once R.O.T.O.R. was chosen by a stable of chimps as the “coolest” acronym). Coldyron’s in the process of building a perfect robotic police officer when his boss, receiving pressure from greedy politicians and higher-ups, fires him for being too slow in the development process. With Coldyron out of the picture, a R.O.T.O.R. officer is activated without being fully developed and he becomes an indiscriminate killing machine (immune to bullets but completely undone by car horns) that can only be stopped by one Dr. J. Bennett C. Coldyron.
For a film that does nothing right, it’s hard to identify R.O.T.O.R.’s most brazen offense. The pacing is audaciously slow (if we don’t see Coldyron walk to his car than how is anyone gonna know how he got there?). The dialogue is a collection of meaningless platitudes and declarative statements, wherein characters aren’t communicating as much as they’re trying to out-clever one another with bad action-flick quotes (“I’ll make more noise than two skeletons making love in a tin coffin”). But to talk about R.O.T.O.R.’s pacing and dialogue is to criticize the film’s more nuanced failures, for one need only watch any thirty seconds of the film to see what a disaster it truly is. Modeled after Roger Corman’s method of low-budget action flicks (saving all of his film’s minuscule budget’s for a final explosive showcase), Cullen Blaine manages to make an action film lacking a single action set-piece. The film’s biggest action scene is a thirty-second fight that features a man in a tear-away muscle shirt and some of the clunkiest fight choreography since Captain Kirk went toe-to-toe with Gorn, the humanoid reptile. But to single out any one part of Blaine’s terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad film is to miss the bigger point entirely: don’t watch this movie. It’s dumb and there is no fun to be had. Protest with your money and hopefully Shout Factory will release more films like The Serpent and the Rainbow and fewer films like this.