Saturday, June 19, 2010

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Seventh Moon (2008)

Eduardo Sanchez, one of the co-directors of 1999's landmark The Blair Witch Project, returns to the horror genre with 2008's Seventh Moon, a dazzling and effective roller-coaster ride that wastes not a single breath, a single frame.

The skillfully-crafted Seventh Moon actually adopts some of the Blair Witch's specific story points and famous techniques, including the pervasive (and controversial) use of unsteadicam/shaky-cam.

The important point, however, is that Seventh Moon successfully generates and develops a consuming, throat-tightening sense of fear that endures right up until the final, catharsis-inducing frames: a montage of the (welcome) sunrise after a long, harrowing, moonlit night.

Seventh Moon is the tale of young newlyweds Yul (Tim Chiou) and Melissa (Amy Smart), who are honeymooning in China. After a busy day at a street festival, the couple's Chinese tour guide drives the exhausted and inebriated newlyweds to meet Yul's family. They fall asleep during the ride, however, and when Melissa awakens, it is night and the guide confesses that he is "lost;" that the roads in this rural part of China are "very tricky."

The guide goes off in the impenetrable darkness to find help and directions...and then promptly disappears, leaving Melissa and Yul to fend for themselves in unfamiliar terrain. The locals, they soon learn, believe in the story of the Seventh Moon, a time when "hungry ghosts" walk the Earth in search of offerings. This is the one night a year in which "the Gates of Hell are open."

Long story short, the local villagers believe that if they leave "live" offerings outside their doors, the hungry ghosts will not come calling for them. Mel and Yul attempt to flee from the small cluster of houses, driving away in the guide's car...but a feral, fast-moving, white-skinned creature crosses their path and runs them off the road. Before long, Yul and Mel are on the run, pursued by a hunting group of these ferocious creatures...

Like The Blair Witch Project, Seventh Moon involves young people of some arrogance (early on, Yul teases and cajoles his Chinese guide about a T-shirt). The movie also focuses on the truth/fiction of a local legend (the legend of the Seventh Moon rather than Burkittsville's Blair Witch). And, after a wilderness chase, some of the action occurs at a mysterious, isolated house in the woods (not Rustin Parr's this time). Also like The Blair Witch Project, the movie plays on the deep fear of being lost -- with literally nowhere to turn -- and the shaky camerawork ultimately becomes so frenetic that, almost by itself, it forges a borderline sense of hysteria.

But where The Blair Witch Project gazed meaningfully at the artificial barriers we construct (barriers like media) to insulate ourselves from unpleasant facts/reality, Seventh Moon offers a more heroic portrait of mankind.

Some viewers have apparently asked what's "the point" of all the terror in Seventh Moon (not necessarily a pertinent question in the genre, actually...), but the movie does have a point. The narrative concerns marriage, and specifically the idea that sometimes there is no other option than to sacrifice yourself for your loved one. The character in Seventh Moon who at first appears weak is the one who ultimately proves strong; the one who broaches that sacrifice. The movie's last view of that character is legitimately haunting.

Much of Seventh Moon's drama arises from this crucible of the newly-married couple. At first, they bicker relentlessly. "You should have paid more attention to where we were going," Mel accuses Yul at one point. As for Yul, he's stubborn and slow to accept the reality of the horrific situation. In the end, however, both characters cowboy up, and cast-off recriminations for heroic action. And, in harrowing fashion, that action takes the form of a pitch-black excursion into an underworld, into the "nest" of the creatures in a subterranean cave.

One of the newlyweds broaches this shadowy Hell with nothing but the light from a cell phone, and the lengthy sequence makes for a nail-biting bit of suspense. Again, I've read some genre reviewers complaining that these moments are under lit, and that you can't make out enough detail.

I disagree wholeheartedly with that assessment: the low light and the brief excursions into total blackness only enhance the movie's already-keen sense of creeping uncertainty and the terror of an unfamiliar terrain. This isn't supposed to be The Waltons, it's supposed to be a scary movie that plays on your fears. One of those fears, one of our basic human fears, is fear of the dark.

Much of Seventh Moon is as suspenseful as that dimly lit scene, actually. There's a scene early on during which Yul and Melissa became trapped and surrounded in their damaged car. The ferocious, frenetic monsters attack en masse, and the couple is left with no recourse but to rip out a back seat and seek (brief) sanctuary in the tight confines of the car trunk. The action is so intense that the shots virtually bleed into each other, a flurry of images that suggest unmatched velocity and violence.

The shaky-cam approach -- which also is often derided by many -- makes you feel like you're right in the thick of the action (not unlike the outstanding [REC][2007]. It's a different approach to visualization, to be sure, but not one nearly so easy to forge as it looks. Sanchez uses this style exquisitely, much as he did in The Blair Witch, and gives the movie a cinema verite, spontaneous atmosphere that heightens the aura of stark, inescapable terror. At times, when highlighting the action involving the creatures in particular, Sanchez knowingly goes out of focus (another quality of the cinema verite school), and denies us the very details our eyes covet. This choice of visual approach maintains the mystery of the monsters' appearance. The ghouls never become so familiar that they lose the capacity to scare you.

Good horror, frankly, is often very much about this idea; about denying the audience the very things it seeks: a good, long view at that thing lurking in the dark, for instance.

In Seventh Moon -- a low budget film -- Sanchez makes the absolute most of his lighting and camera work to deny viewers any morsel of comfort, either visual or narrative. The film also moves at a blazing pace, denying us the time to process entirely what we have witnessed.

Like Tobe Hooper's The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Seventh Moon is all about showing just enough to frighten us...and then artfully pulling back,and permitting our minds to do the heavy lifting and imagine the rest. In my opinion, good horror movies should sow discomfort any way they can. They don't necessarily need to feature expensive make-up or special effects.

I admired Seventh Moon because it gets about its ghoulish business with a ruthless sense of efficiency. It dispenses with explanations and certainties and gets right to the matter at hand: an all-night descent into Hell itself.

Friday, June 18, 2010

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes (1984)

First things first. Director Hugh Hudson's cinematic follow-up to his Oscar-winning Chariots of Fire (1981), Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes (1984) is not particularly faithful to the events depicted in his source material, Edgar Rice Burrough's 1914 novel, Tarzan of the Apes.

For instance, in the 27-million dollar movie adaptation, Tarzan (Christopher Lambert) does not meet Jane Porter (Andie MacDowell) in the jungle; nor return for her later in the United States; in Baltimore and then Wisconsin, specifically.

The film also largely omits Tarzan's varied (sometimes playful) interactions with a local village/tribe in Africa, plus his attempts to learn to read English himself.

And the film's climax -- in which Tarzan returns to the jungle, leaving Jane behind (ostensibly forever...) -- is also not exactly canonical; though it can certainly be rationalized in movie terms, since everyone involved in the production was no doubt thinking/hoping "sequel."

Importantly, however, Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes, does, in very welcome fashion, get at the human "truth" of the popular, often-told Tarzan story. Specifically, the film offers a realistic and believable excavation of that which Burroughs first imagined: the story of an orphaned human boy raised by apes in the wild, and his interactions with so-called human civilization.

If the Richard Donner Superman: The Movie of 1978 was all about "you'll believe a man can fly," then this careful, painstaking iteration of Tarzan is, perhaps, "you'll believe a man can swing on a vine."

And actually, that's no small achievement.

Over the long decades, the silver screen Tarzan has been involved in the hunt for gold (Tarzan's Secret Treasure [1941]), battled Nazis (Tarzan Triumphs [1943]) and faced down evil cults (Tarzan and the Leopard Woman [1946]). By deliberate contrast, Greystoke is a back-to-basics approach, focusing on the man and his identity rather than the pulp-styled enemies or cliffhanger challenges the character so often faces.

Crafted with meticulous care -- with great actors, gorgeous locations and Rick Baker's still-impressive ape make-up -- Greystoke was widely welcomed in theaters in 1984 as "one of the best movies" of the year. Joseph Gelmis wrote in Newsday (March 30, 1984, page 7) that it is a "serious movie, a thinking man's Tarzan. It is also ravishingly beautiful, provocative" and "profoundly moving."

Much of that "profoundly moving" part arises from the considerable efforts of Christopher Lambert, an actor who is, in many ways at his absolute finest here. I also admire Johnny Weissmuller, one of Lambert's more prominent predecessors in the role of Tarzan, but Weissmuller's interpretation was a product of a different, more artificial/theatrical age in movie history. Weissmuller was a sort of muscle-bound body-builder-type, which today seems wrong for Tarzan. He was also a bit too clean-shaven and civilized to seem a believable man of the jungle.

Greystoke knowingly adopts a more natural approach, and Lambert is absolutely believable as an animalistic figure, one almost always in motion. His Tarzan is a creature of instinct, curiosity and barely-contained energy. Lambert doesn't look like a body builder, either. His Tarzan is a lean, strong man who has flourished in the wild, sustained by that which nature provides. And much of Lambert's focused performance -- the character's sense of cunning and intelligence -- arises in his penetrating eyes. Lamberts' eyes are like lasers here, targeting objects and, in an instant, assessing them as threats or non-threats. Lambert also carries all of the character's emotional pain in his eyes, and at times, this is a quite powerful choice. It's an accomplished performance.

Jack Kroll in Newsweek described Lambert's Tarzan well, (March 26, 1984, page 74), calling him "a supple, feral creature, not an overmuscled hulk, whose animal grace becomes a human virtue and whose eyes, piercing but gentle, shows a keenness and clarity that overcivilized senses have lost."

This description really nails the Tarzan persona of Greystoke. Tarzan is not a super-human "hero" in any way, though he boasts the survival skills of his adopted family, the apes. Instead, the movie finds the character's vulnerable, human core.

Much of what Greystoke dramatizes is, in effect, Tarzan's sense of powerlessness in the face of mortality. As a baby, he is unable to prevent the death of his biological parents, the noble Claytons. As a teen in the jungle, he loses his ape mother, Kala, and is again. powerless to prevent death. Finally, upon return to civilization, Tarzan loses his kindly grandfather (Ralph Richardson) and even his ape father, who has been shipped to London to be studied. Thus life for Tarzan, as depicted in this film, is but a series of terrible losses; grief experienced and re-experienced.

This viewpoint, I submit, helps to explain Tarzan's final choice to return to the jungle at the film's climax. When life is so short, when death lurks around every corner, we cling to "home," to the place that helps us remember those loved ones that we've lost. For Tarzan, that place of happier memories is the jungle.

Unlike many Tarzan adventures of the silver screen, Greystoke also focuses explicitly on the differences between man's "modern" world and the primitive ape world of the jungle. Howard Kissel, writing a review in Women's Wear Daily (March 28, 1984, page 27), noted that Burroughs' book was written "when Darwinism and its social implications were still a dominant intellectual force." He goes on to suggest that "the book was aware of man's dual nature - simultaneously primitive and civilized." Greystoke gets at this point ably. It spends a little over half its running time in the jungle, as Tarzan ascends to the leadership of a local ape tribe, and about an hour in staid England, where instinct is derided and manners are treated as a paramount consideration.

Here's the difference as I see it: In the ape world, nobody tried to control Tarzan. Or if they did..he confronted and dominated (or even killed) them. In England, Tarzan becomes a pawn of sorts, one who is supposed to "represent" something, perhaps, like the innate superiority of man over beast. "You must overturn what has happened to you," Phillippe D'Arnot (Ian Holm) suggests. at one point But Tarzan isn't interested in being a case study. He doesn't need to be "greater than the accident of his child," or a triumph of the "Imperial Science."

On the contrary, Tarzan is "what the jungle has made him" and just wants to be free As much as Tarzan loves and admires his grandfather, he knows that the land is not his to "sell" or "keep." His wisdom is different from the conventional wisdom of Darwin's England, and this also makes him a perpetual outsider.

The duality of Tarzan 's nature -- part man/part ape -- is often expressed in Greystoke through shots involving a mirror (or a reflection). "Mirror" is one of the first English words Tarzan learns, for instance. Early in the film, while sitting lakeside with another ape, he also spies his own reflection in the water and can detect, for the first time, how different he is from those around him. Later, he discovers the hut where his parents died and -- again -- gazes into a mirror, expressing a half-remembered familiarity with the alien world of human civilization.

Finally, when Tarzan courts Jane, Hudson shoots almost the entire scene inside the frame of a mirror, in a reflection. The inference is that by accepting Jane, by loving her, Tarzan fully enters the world of civilization, perhaps. There's a subtle message about human relationships here, as well. Jane loves Tarzan because he is not like the mannered buttoned-down men of the aristocracy, the men who are all around her. And yet, still, she wants to change him. As much as she admires him for what he is, she knows that in this state he is not an acceptable husband. Eventually, in a scene showcasing the nobility of women, Jane chooses Tarzan's happiness over her own.

Greystoke is made with such care and such love (from a script by Robert Towne, under a pseudonym). For example, I admire the beautiful book-end views of the jungle that open/close the film, a reminder that the life of Tarzan -- indeed all our lives -- is but a blip in the life of the Earth. The ape-suits by Rick Baker hold up remarkable well today, twenty-five years after the film's production. And the performances are particularly strong, with Lambert providing a strong, sympathetic anchor. Richardson and Holm also do great work, creating very sympathetic "father figures" for Tarzan.

But two aspects of the film may prove troubling to some. The first is a technical issue. Andie MacDowell (playing Jane) is dubbed throughout the entire film by Glenn Close. Every time the young character speaks, there's an emotional disconnect between MacDowell's youthful appearance and Close's line readings. You can just tell something is off, and this fact diminishes the relationship between Jane and Tarzan in some critical, under-the-surface fashion. American accent or no American accent, MacDowell's line readings should have stayed in the film. Americans Kevin Costner (Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves), Keanu Reeves (Bram Stoker's Dracula) and Julia Roberts (Mary Reilly) have all played British characters and were not dubbed in their roles, and MacDowell deserves the same courtesy.

Secondly, Greystoke seems to go out of its way to not include or verbalize the name "Tarzan" in relation to Lambert's character. He is called Clayton, Jack, or simply Greystoke. I understand why this decision was made. It's another attempt to distance the character from his pulpy movie past and make this film a serious, believable interpretation of the legend. But Tarzan must be can't hide his name any more than you can hide the name "Superman" or "Batman." This movie very much wants to be about who Greystoke is -- his very identity -- and yet the name Tarzan ("White Skin") is a crucial part of that identity. The movie should have taken the name back for Tarzan, not ignored it.

My feeling about Greystoke is that it is a great first movie in a franchise that, unfortunately, never arrived. The movie accomplishes the difficult task of taking Tarzan's world seriously; of making the character and his environs believable and authentic to a degree never before seen. I just wish there had been a second film in the franchise, one which captured a little more of the pulp; a little more of the adventurous spirit of the Tarzan stories we know from our pop culture. Rex Reed wrote In The New York Post (March 30, 1984, page 39) that Greystoke boasts "lavish detail," "opulent sets and splendid canvases of Scottish life on the heath" but "the second half resembles all too often a boring Masterpiece Theater production on Public Broadcasting."

I wouldn't go that far, perhaps. Greystoke is a lush and enchanting character piece that gazes at the beating heart of Tarzan. It succeeds on those grounds. But I too -- particularly as the movie rounded out its second hour -- wished for a little more excitement, a little more action. Making a Casino Royale-style introduction is one (very impressive) thing; but after a time, you also hunger for a little Quantum of Solace-adventure, to adopt the titles of another recently re-worked British franchise.

After all, what's the point of being the Lord of the Jungle if you can't rescue Jane from a few perils like quick sand, giant snakes or rampaging elephant? Right?

Greystoke remains a gorgeous and powerful movie, featuring perhaps the greatest Tarzan in film history (thanks to Christopher Lambert's performance.) Yet when its over, you do wish the movie had also let Greystoke be the Tarzan of our popular imagination, just for a while.

I also would have enjoyed, I guess I'm saying, seeing a sequel with Lambert's Tarzan...fighting Nazis, Ant-Men and unearthing golden cities..

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

SGU: "Earth" and "Time"

Yesterday on the blog here, I wrote at length about the latest arm of the Stargate franchise, SGU.

I was especially impressed with the way the new Sy Fy series -- right out the "gate" (sorry...) -- seemed to improve and perfect the formula of TV space adventures.

Specifically, SGU excised the techno babble that caused people to abandon Star Trek in droves in the late nineties, avoided the self-righteous, on-the-nose commentary of the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica, and adopted and updated some of the best and most dynamic ideas from older, classic genre programs such as Star Trek, Blake's 7 and Space:1999.

All that established, it was clear the series was still finding its "space legs" (to quote Scotty) in the episodes I watched prior to my first review ("Air," "Darkness," "Light"). So I was truly, happily surprised when two of the three episodes I watched last night delivered powerfully on the series' potential, providing the young catalog with two stand-out episodes.

First up was "Water," and this one was okay, but not terrific by any means. In some sense, it seemed to rehash that which had already come before, especially in the last part of "Air:" a dangerous mission to an inhospitable planet to collect resources (this time H20), with two crew members nearly left behind as the FTL clock on the Destiny clicks down. This was a perfectly -competent installment, but I did worry a little bit that "Water" was treading...water. It wasn't groundbreaking or fresh.

But then came a show called "Earth" that absolutely gobsmacked me. I didn't mention this in my review yesterday, but one aspect of SGU that I felt worried about initially involved these "communication stones." Specifically, Destiny is equipped with a few Ancient "relics' that permit a person aboard the lost, speeding-to-the-end-of-the-universe Destiny to literally transpose him or herself with another person back on Earth. In early episodes, we saw Colonel Telford (Lou Diamond Phillips) and Colonel Young (Louis Ferrara) undergo this procedure so that Young could de-brief back at Home Base, and Telford -- in Young's body -- could assess for himself the situation on the ship.

I held my fire about the communication stones in my review yesterday because it was clearly still early in the series. But I was afraid the stones were going to prove an easy gimmick (kind of like Star Trek's holodeck) to get the men and women trapped on Destiny into earthbound, safe stories. I was concerned that the communication stones represented an easy out, an escape valve, when it was clear that life on Destiny should be a crucible for tension, anxiety and claustrophobia.

And then came "Earth" (directed by the great Ernest Dickerson...) which surprised this veteran sci-fi, space-adventure reviewer to no end. This episode brings Chloe (Elyse Levesque), Eli (David Blue) and Young back to Earth using the communication stones. Telford takes command of Destiny (in Young's body) and submits the ship to a dangerous experiment which could bring the crew home (and give Homeworld Base a ready-made Ancient ship...), while on Earth, Young (in Telford's body) visits his estranged wife and attempts to patch things up.

Young and his wife do reconcile and have sex, but something goes wrong with the communication exchange during their lovemaking, and Telford returns to his own mid-intercourse with Young's wife. Whoa!

I was stunned by this moment, a logical but entirely unexpected development of the communication stone technology, and thrilled to see a modern sci-fi series tread into real dramatic, human territory, not easy phantasmagoria with laser beams and robots. The moment is funny, shocking, and superbly well-played. Telford "awakes" in his own body to find himself making love to another man's wife; a woman who is unaware a switch has occurred.

To its everlasting credit, "Earth" followed this up with a denouement that literally made my jaw drop.

I don't want to spoil it, but the last shot of this episode is a keeper...a perfect character moment that establishes something important: Stargate SGU is playing for keeps, and playing fair with its premise and technology.
What can I say?...I just didn't expect this. I had kind of dismissed previous Stargates as fun for the kiddies...and then this happens. The creators of this show are working hard to make this Stargate different; to give this Stargate its own unique voice and tenor.

Again, it's important to note that men like Telford and Young are not the romantic ideals of old fashioned TV space operas, but real human beings, replete with flaws and foibles. And this scenario (and particularly the closing moment...) truly gets that idea transmitted. Honestly, I had wondered why Lou Diamond Phillips was playing a character back on Earth (instead of on Destiny) but now I get it; I understand. With this episode, Telford suddenly emerges as a character with real human shades, real and complex dramatic possibilities. He's not just an overly-gruff, wrong-headed military superior...he's something else. And I can't wait to see how his character develops from here...

"Earth" also achieves much for the characters of Eli and Chloe. Having exchanged bodies with a young scientist on Earth, Eli discovers that a whole world (of women, primarily...) would open up to him if he were in, let's say, a more traditionally attractive body. Eli is already brilliant, funny, and he has a great personality...but handsome looks would complete the package for him, he learns. I found this idea fascinating, and wondered about what could happen if someone found a way not to return his or her own body. I also appreciated Chloe's journey in "Earth," her discovery that she -- literally -- "can't go home again" even if she is, actually, home.

With "Earth," SGU has traveled a significant distance towards wiping out any remaining concerns I had with the series. The writers have selected the one aspect of the series premise I worried about the most (the communication stones) and utilized it not only in an authentically surprising fashion that reveals more about characters like Telford, but -- amazingly -- given us the best episode so far using that problematic technology.

The next episode, "Time," is every bit as good as "Earth"..but completely different in tone, movement and feel. It involves the discovery of a kino (a floating, Phantasm ball-styled camera...) on a jungle planet. When the images are played back by Destiny's crew, they reveal a food-collection mission gone horribly wrong. The danger involves a deadly disease and worse, small, lizard-like predators with a penchant for chewing through human torsos.

I can only describe this episode as riveting. If "Earth" represents an unexpected twist in formula, "Time" is a confident, blistering show that captures perfectly the dangers of outer space and finds SGU right on message, re-asserting its raison d'etre. Delightfully, the character work is also uniformly strong here, with one great scene involving Eli, particularly his discussion of mortality (and the concept of oblivion). The episode also features a doom-laden atmosphere: a feeling of inevitability that grants the hour a real sense of pace and drive.

Sex, character development, philosophy and gut-busting aliens?. If SGU keeps on this track, I'm seriously going to have a new favorite space adventure here.

But certainly, considering the quality of the episodes I've watched so far, I'm going to begin blogging Season Two on a regular basis when it airs.

For me, SGU represents another important lesson (which I must re-learn from time to time.) Don't pre-judge a show, even a franchise show. Because if you do, you could miss out on something really terrific. I learned this lesson the hard way with Buffy the Vampire Slayer in the 1990s...I had to be dragged kicking and screaming into it by my wife, only to learn I was ignoring something special. Same thing with Millennium: I initially dismissed it as serial killer of the week. Not until I began paying attention did I see that Chris Carter had created another real masterpiece.

Well, SGU, I've learned my lesson (again...), and I'm boarding Destiny for the duration.

Monday, June 14, 2010

CULT TV FLASHBACK # 108: SGU: Stargate Universe (2009 - )

I should probably begin this review by informing you that I have not watched a whole lot of Stargate: SG-1 or Stargate: Atlantis.

Oh, I've sat down in front of a few episodes of each series. But I concluded on these occasions that the popular franchise just wasn't my cup of tea.

Not that the shows were poorly-done in any particular sense, only that they weren't my thing. Admittedly, this is my bias: I tend to prefer my space adventures in one of two modes: first, in the anti-establishment vein of Firefly, Farscape, Blake's 7 or even Doctor Who.

Or second, I really dig space adventures in which the characters are cut off from the establishment (from Earth, actually...), dealing with the mysteries of the galaxy without an available command structure or back-up reserves. In this light, I think of Space: 1999 or even the original Star Trek. In those programs, life and death is on the line with every last decision. There's no cavalry, for the most part, to come over the hill at the last moment.

What little I viewed of the Stargate franchise seemed to me both over-militarized and under-serious.

That may or not be a fair critical statement. It's a personal impression based on my narrow experience with the Stargate panoply.

But I have a good friend and regular reader here on the blog, Pete, who suggested that I check out SGU: Stargate Universe, the latest arm of the franchise, airing on Sy Fy. Long story short: I'm glad he recommended it to me, because, unlike the other examples of Stargate, this incarnation is indeed right up my alley.

Stargate Universe is a bit edgier, somewhat more serious in intent, and far more mysterious than what I've seen of the other Stargate series. It showcases flawed but interesting human characters instead of gun-toting, romanticized ideals. It's also -- at least from what I've seen -- not as overtly militarized in bent. There are still several military characters involved in the drama, but the show isn't all guns and salutes. Not hardly.

SGU dramatizes a tale of disaster and survival. A group of officers, scientists and technicians from Earth are unexpectedly forced to abandon an off-world base called Icarus following a surprise attack on the installation.

But when the group evacuates through a star gate, it returns not to Earth, but lands bumpily aboard a damaged, colossal spaceship traveling at faster-than-light velocities towards the end of the universe itself.

The man responsible for this selection of destination is the inscrutable Dr. Nicholas Rush (Robert Carlyle), who has been working for years to puzzle out the last "chevron" on the Stargate technology in hopes of discovering more about the race that constructed it: The Ancients.

So, a group of about fifty or so people -- the "wrong people" -- according to Colonel Young (Louis Ferrara) are now trapped together aboard this inhospitable vessel named Destiny. In the opening three-part episode, "Air," life-support power fails and the crew is forced to scour a desert planet for resources needed to repair the C02 scrubbers. In the second episode, "Darkness," the ship's power fails completely, and in the third, "Light," Destiny becomes trapped on an apparent collision course with an alien star. A lottery is held to see which fifteen people will board an escape shuttle, and who will be forced to remain aboard the ship as it plummets towards the sun...

Outside of the Stargate franchise, SGU is heir to a rich cinematic and television legacy of space adventuring. The series' impressive opening shot -- of the huge Destiny gliding through the void -- puts the Empire's Star Destroyer and the inaugural shot of Star Wars [1977] -- to shame. Then, in the very next shot, the opener cuts to a Ridley Scott-esque tour of quiescent interior corridors, evoking the Nostromo in Alien (1979).

The notion of boarding and deciphering a starship of alien construction reminds me of the Liberator and Terry Nation's Blake's 7. And the scenario of men and women trapped on an out-of-control "vessel" unable to control speed or trajectory made me think of Space:1999's Moonbase Alpha. For good measure, the opener also throws in some (largely unnecessary) character flashbacks that evoke the early years of Lost (2004-2010).

And did I mention that the soundtrack boasts the Far Eastern, melancholy feel of Firefly?

Despite all these familiar touchstones, SGU makes some intriguing and positive modifications on formula. For one thing, the series eschews the horrible techno-babble that scuttled late-era Star Trek (Next Gen, DS9, Voyager and Enterprise).

On those 1990s programs (which have not aged well, for the most part...), the resolution of the crisis of the week always involved a simple re-shuffling of a deck of cards. Let's re-modulate the power array to shoot a graviton pulse at this tertiary domain of subspace that will seal the space/time rift blah blah blah.

Somehow, no matter what hand the crew of the Enterprise-D, Deep Space Nine or Voyager was dealt, it always managed to pull an ace from that deck. Once or twice of course, this was fine but after a while, the cumulative effect was actually a negative statement about humanity and the supposedly-heroic Starfleet characters. They had no real resourcefulness or ingenuity of their own but they did have great technology, and simply by reshuffling the same deck every week, they could survive and flourish in the universe.

My hero and mentor, the late Johnny Byrne -- who served as story editor on the first year of Space: 1999 -- once compared late era Trek and Space: 1999 in the following way. He said that shows like Next Gen and Voyager assumed the characters already had everything they needed to succeed, whereas Space: 1999 adopted the perspective that the characters did not already have what they needed to survive.

Which approach do you think is inherently more dramatic?

And indeed, this is reason why so many episodes of Next Gen, Voyager and Enterprise feel so rote. The sense of danger is missing. In drama, when characters have everything that they need (even when separated from home base by a quadrant or two...), space adventuring just becomes a workaday job. And besides, the holodeck is open all night...

Refreshingly, SGU revives the earlier template, and adopts the perspective that the characters don't have the resources or know-how they need to survive, or, at the very least, don't yet understand how to master the technology that would permit survival to be anything approaching easy.

In other words, the Destiny may provide for all, but the crew -- again, the "wrong people" -- don't necessarily have the skill set to figure it all out. This is Johnny Byrne's Space:1999 principle applied, and applied well.

What I admire about SGU is that, even in these early shows, there's a lot of trial and error on display, a lot of attempts that go nowhere. At one crisis point in "Darkness," I was suddenly, out-of-the-blue, reminded of the Apollo 13 incident in 1970...of people working in space to solve pressing (nay, urgent...) problems with ingenuity, grace, available resources, and luck. The series really captures this vibe well. It's something about the danger of space travel and human inspiration intertwined...and it works. It's a concept that in large part, modern space adventure series have abandoned, and it's nice to see it back at the forefront of the medium.

SGU also gets something else right, and this is crucial. By and large, SGU allows the viewer to scan the drama for subtext rather than spelling out that subtext as, well, actual text.

This was always my primary concern with the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica [2005-2009]. Not that the producers seemed more interested in telling stories about Abu Ghraib, September 11th, Al Qaeda, the Geneva Conventions and late 20th century East/West perceptions of God than tales of survival in hostile galaxy, but that they did so in such an on-the-nose, obvious fashion.

By contrast, the early episodes of SGU feature some vivid human drama, but the series isn't crushingly self-important or pretentious in the way that Galactica often was. It doesn't spoon-feed you with obvious analogs for current events. It doesn't pat viewers on the back for knowing that "go frak yourself" is the same as Dick Cheney's famous "go fuck yourself." I mean, we get it, right?

Also, the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica series was alarmingly lazy about creating the universe around its human characters. On alien planets half-way across the universe, people drove late 20th century, American-produced Humvees. This was basically an admission on the part of the producers that television can't believably do "sci fi" -- a theorem I disagree vehemently with -- and so no real imagination was afforded for the look or design of the show; to create believable alien vistas, technology or cultures. The only civilizations in all of Battlestar Galactica were humans and their creation, the human-looking Cylons.

I just find that idea...immensely depressing. Kind of like us getting to outer space and discovering that in all the cosmos, in all the stars, there are just Liberals and Conservatives, or just Muslims and Christians. As a sci-fi series taking place in the great unknown, Battlestar Galactica could dream nothing better for mankind than perpetual divisiveness and partisanship. Of course, this is an entirely valid philosophy and approach...just not one that engaged me, personally, I suppose. I could always watch the series as an adrenaline-inducing pressure worked very well in that sense. But the new BSG had no curiosity about the universe itself.

I have enjoyed what I've seen so far of Stargate SGU because it remembers that there is more in Heaven and Earth than is dreamed of in our human philosophy. The universe is a riddle; human nature is a riddle. There are mysteries and terrors in space beyond anything we can imagine. The series is actually based on a riddle itself, the mastery of an alien ship, Destiny. Why was the ship built? Where is it headed? What was its mission?

Because I am so immersed in the history, details and minutiae of sci-fi television, I often check with my barometer, my wife, Kathryn to see how she registers new programs. She watched the first disc of SGU episodes with me and, if anything, enjoyed the show even more than I did. She's no pushover. On the contrary, because she is not strictly a "sci-fi" fan, Kathryn can be cutting, even brutal, in her assessments of these programs.

One of her observations I found especially trenchant. She noted that the actors in the series seemed to have been cast for their abilities, not for their looks or youth. There are few underwear models here, in other words. The characters aren't all "smoldering" hotties in their early twenties, but real people doing their best in a difficult environment. And again, being the "wrong people," being unprepared for this journey, makes them, by and large, interesting to follow. Young clings to his military training. Rush clings to his belief that he can learn everything on Destiny...if given time, Eli clings to his sense of humor, and so on.

You can never guess what right or wrong turns a series will take as it continues down the long years, but in these early episodes, SGU is promising, dramatic and much better than I expected it would be. It hasn't dropped any land mines that may come back to haunt it (like the identity of the fifth Cylon, or the invisible tree-shaking monsters), and instead seems focused on a good concept and, so far, solid scripts.

I appreciate SGU for the same reason that I've always enjoyed original Trek and Space:1999. It's a program about Humans -- us -- trying to make our way in the stars with danger -- and opportunity -- around every turn. In each adventure, human constitution and ingenuity gets put on the table. Sometimes it fails, sometimes it succeeds in completing the task at hand. But these are programs that tell us, in every hour, that despite the failures, the sky can still be the limit.