Friday, December 01, 2006


J. Madison Wright reads to brother John Corbett in Joe Dante's THE OSIRIS CHRONICLES, also known as THE WARLORD: BATTLE FOR THE GALAXY.

In addition to the excellent work he's done in feature films over the years, Joe Dante has also put in a lot of time on television projects. In addition to his recent lauded work for MASTERS OF HORROR, he directed two episodes of AMAZING STORIES (one of them, "The Greibble," gave him the opportunity of working with Hayley Mills and is a must-see for fans of Rob Bottin's work); one episode of the 1980s TWILIGHT ZONE revival ("The Shadow Man," in which he paid hommage to Mario Bava's BARON BLOOD); an offbeat Western story for the limited run Showtime series PICTURE WINDOWS (featuring Ron Perlman and Kathleen Quinlan -- "but the real fun was Brian Keith," says Joe); a pair of stories for the Fox Network series NIGHT VISIONS (neither of which was edited with his input); several episodes of EERIE, INDIANA (on which he also served as creative consultant); and, for my money, the two funniest episodes of POLICE SQUAD! ("Ring of Fear" and "Testimony of Evil," which features Leslie Nielsen going undercover as a nightclub entertainer and performing a riotous version of "I've Got A Lot of Livin' To Do"). For some reason, the IMDb doesn't credit Joe (or anyone) with directing these episodes, but his name's on them and Dick Miller's in one of them.

Dante's feature work for television is some of his most interesting. RUNAWAY DAUGHTERS, his in-name-only remake of a 1957 AIP film, was made for the Showtime limited series REBEL HIGHWAY in 1994. It's been awhile since I've seen it, but I remember it best for its delightful cameos by a grinning Roger Corman and his wife Julie, presiding over a backyard barbecue, and an inversion-of-sorts that allowed his stalwart supporting actor Dick Miller to essentially take the film's unofficial lead role for a change. It was sneaked out on DVD last year by Dimension Pictures, as was Jonathan Kaplan's REFORM SCHOOL GIRL, another title in the DRIVE-IN CLASSICS series.

THE SECOND CIVIL WAR, scripted by Canadian writer-director Martyn Burke (THE LAST CHASE) was made for HBO in 1997 and turns up the volume on the political shadings that became more pronounced in his 1993 feature MATINEE. THE SECOND CIVIL WAR was sneaked out on DVD by HBO in the fall of 2005, without Dante being notified. He regrets this as he considers the film one of his best and because he has in his possession a half-hour or so of deleted scenes that the disc could have used. I've seen the deleted scenes (which lend valuable delineation to Joanna Cassidy's character in particular) and plan to write about them, and the disc, in an upcoming VIDEO WATCHDOG. The film is also notable for the casting of the late Phil Hartman, who was killed by his wife two months prior to the release of his final theatrical feature, Joe Dante's SMALL SOLDIERS.

Dick Miller cameos as a futuristic junk peddler in THE OSIRIS CHRONICLES.

Perhaps Dante's most obscure television feature, and one well worth seeing, is the one broadcast under the title THE WARLORD: BATTLE FOR THE GALAXY on UPN (United Paramount Network) in January 1998. If you happened to miss it -- and frankly, I don't know anyone who caught it, as Joe's name was probably not featured in any on-air or print advertising -- your only way of seeing it is to score a pressing of the Hong Kong laserdisc (Paramount CIC Video, PL1297) that was issued under the title THE OSIRIS CHRONICLES. (I'm told there was also a German DVD under that title, but it no longer seems to be available.)

Scripted by novelist Caleb Carr (THE ALIENIST), THE OSIRIS CHRONICLES was the pilot for a science fiction series that never happened. This sticky little fact hobbles the film's resurrection value, as the movie only exists to introduce a group of characters and to set up a series of adventures that the interested viewer will never see. The film is set on the planet Caliban 6 in the year 2391, some three hundred years after the people of Earth began to desert their overcrowded planet and colonize the worlds in other star systems. John Corbett stars as Justin Thorpe, an outlaw abandoned by his parents as a youngster and left to fend for himself and his younger sister Nova (J. Madison Wright). They enjoy a close relationship, with the bookish Nova teaching her somewhat illiterate elder brother to read the classics of literature. The story takes off when Justin discovers that Nova has been kidnapped by a group of ruthless aliens, who insist that she accompanied them willingly. Justin doesn't buy this, and his only hope of getting her back is ruin a carefully mended relationship with his planet's warlord Heenoc Xian (John Pyper-Ferguson) by plundering his spoils, and acquiring a starship that he manages with the help of Nova's 15 year-old best friend Maggi (Elizabeth Harnois) and her grandfather General Sorenson (Rod Taylor, in his first substantial screen performance since the 1970s, excellent in a role that Christopher Lee accepted, then had to turn down because of tax reasons).

Rod Taylor adds another bravura performance to his list of credits as General Sorenson.

What we have here is a subversive space opera that peels away the obligatory sci-fi lingo and metaphorizing to get at the human story underneath, which happens to be an inspired sf-reweaving of THE SEARCHERS and SPLIT IMAGE (the 1982 religious cult deprogrammer drama starring James Woods), as Justin searches for the wise child who gave meaning and hope to his life in a prison as boundless as the galaxy. Upping the ante here is the fact that the abductors, when we meet them, have a philosophy that is not so easily discounted. The Engineers, as they are called, are a peaceful if unpleasant-looking breed that have worked hard to obliterate all conflict from their way of life -- which extends to the omission of the family from their society, families being "the basic unit of all conflict." (They are still working on the problem of the conflict between the sexes.) The aliens, led by a character who resembles a more reptilian, fish-lipped George Macready, live on an invisibility-cloaked planet and have the usual plan of galactic conquest, but their aim is tied up with their ideal of achieving true galactic liberation. The viewer is thus torn between what we want to see happen for emotional reasons and what we might like to see happen philosophically, which is a more rigorously involving stance than most TV drama bothers to take. Things take an even more interesting turn when Heenoc Xian pursues Justin's ship into the danger zone in order to have his revenge upon him, only to have the two natives of Caliban 6 forced to sort out their differences so that they and their planet might survive and give them both what they want most from life. Furthermore (and here's where SPLIT IMAGE comes in), when Justin and the others find Nova, while visiting the stealth planet, they discover that she did go with the Engineers voluntarily because she had the intelligence to understand their argument and their ultimate goals. Can her rescuers persuade her of the importance of family, and how solid is their argument when the members of the rescue mission are either at odds with one another, synthetic, or involved in broken families? If sworn enemies can work as partners, perhaps anything is possible.

The leader of those icky Engineers, barring your view of The Supreme Plenum.

In a sense, THE OSIRIS CHRONICLES is the perfect link between EXPLORERS and Dante's more political later work, because it shares the same ravishing look and wide-eyed idealism about outer space as the former film, while braving a narrative tapestry that's more ambitious and politically-minded than the usual space opera. If the film has any weakness, it's that John Corbett doesn't quite earn the Captain's chair in his starship, but that might have been a subject explored or a question satisfied in subsequent episodes. This introductory chapter is dominated in many ways by Rod Taylor, the experienced officer on the bridge, who embodies not only the authority on the starship but the conscience of the science fiction genre itself, knowledgeable and appreciating his moment in time much as he did as George Wells in 1960's THE TIME MACHINE. The production values are impressive, as is the makeup and costume design; the production, in fact, received the only Emmy nomination yet attracted by a Dante film -- for hairdressing! The supporting cast is also exceptional, with Elisabeth Harnois especially good, Marjorie Monaghan striking as the android Jana, Dick Miller appearing briefly as a street peddler, and J. Madison Wright (at 12 years of age, already a TV sci-fi veteran of EARTH 2) making the perfect impression in her limited screen time of a memorable and valuable character well worth the effort of recovering. I was so impressed by the warmth and intelligence of Wright's performance, in fact, that I looked her up on the IMDb. I was initially surprised to discover that she was a fellow Cincinnatian... and then heartbroken to learn that she died under tragic circumstances earlier this year. You can read her sad story here.

Shelved for two years before it was finally aired, THE OSIRIS CHRONICLES first came to my attention in the form of the HK LD, which I managed to win on eBay. It's a standard ratio, subtitled presentation with stereo surround sound, and the subtitles cover a mostly inactive area of the frame that can be zoomboxed out for playback on widescreen sets, without hardly any disruption of the compositions. I watched it without knowing that the story is was going to tell was incomplete, which is probably the best way to go at it. It leaves the viewer with a breastful of unresolved emotions, questions and daydreams about The Show That Never Was, which is testament to how appealing this opening chapter really is. The WARLORD broadcast version reportedly had an alternate ending, I assume to make it more self-contained.

Over the years, Paramount has issued a pile of science fiction programming on DVD as high as the mountain peak of their logo. THE OSIRIS CHRONICLES is more thought-provoking than most of it, even if its grand scheme was only just begun. I hope they'll someday consider this bittersweet might-have-been for domestic DVD issue, with a director's commentary and both endings included. It's an interesting film with an equally fascinating production history worth detailing.

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