Sunday, February 17, 2013

The Super-Reality of Sensurround!

From time to time, I plan to use this space to repurpose film reviews I wrote for several local independent newspapers during the previous decade:

THE OCTOPUS: 1999-2000
THE PAPER: 2003-2004
THE HUB: 2005-2006

During my tenure as a professional (re: paid) film critic, I wrote about both new releases and cult classics. The date provided below is the date the newspaper issue containing the review hit the streets.

This review has been slightly edited from the original published piece.

Running Time 2:19
Rated PG
Directed by Richard A. Colla and Alan J. Levi
Stars Lorne Greene, Richard Hatch, Dirk Benedict, Jane Seymour
Originally published June 9, 2006

Okay, so who remembers Sensurround? Anyone who saw Universal’s star-studded action epics of the 1970s undoubtedly recalls his heart racing and his ears bleeding from the Sensurround process, which the studio introduced with the release of the disaster film EARTHQUAKE in 1974.

Basically, the Sensurround gimmick consisted of several additional subwoofers, including two very large ones in the rear, installed in the theater that emitted powerful low-frequency vibrations that caused the audience to rumble in their seats during Earthquake’s massive destruction sequences. Although EARTHQUAKE was a big moneymaker, Universal only used Sensurround on a handful of later films, probably because of the extra expense to the theater owners who had to buy and install the special speakers. Among the other Sensurround spectaculars were ROLLERCOASTER, MIDWAY, and BATTLESTAR GALACTICA.

But wait…wasn’t BATTLESTAR GALACTICA a television series? Well, yes, it was, but the 1978 pilot episode was so pricey (the most expensive ever filmed to that date) that Universal sought to quickly recoup some of the cost by releasing it theatrically. It played in Canada before the pilot’s American telecast on September 17, 1978, but not in U.S. theaters until May 1979—after the series’ final ABC airing. Since Universal was asking audiences to buy a ticket for something they had already seen for free on TV, the Sensurround gimmick was added to spice up the presentation, providing the many spaceship battles and explosions with a visceral oomph a small TV speaker couldn’t.

The theatrical film was released in a 125-minute version that was cut down and featured additional footage not seen in the 148-minute TV pilot, which ABC aired in a three-hour Sunday-night timeslot. Neither is the version I’m reviewing, which is included in Universal’s BATTLESTAR GALACTICA: THE COMPLETE EPIC SERIES DVD set. This 139-minute cut includes even more previously unseen scenes, particularly one played by actress Maren Jensen (DEADLY BLESSING) mostly in the nude that certainly would have spiced up the PG theatrical release.

Executive producer Glen A. Larson’s script is thematically ambitious, if somewhat light in details and occasionally in logic. A sneak attack by an army of sleek robot warriors called Cylons destroys virtually all of mankind living on the Twelve Colonies. What few humans survive pack into whatever spacefaring vehicles can be cobbled together and head into the universe in search of a mythical 13th colony, known in legends as the planet Earth. Leading the “ragtag fugitive fleet” is the last remaining battlestar, an enormous military spaceship called the Galactica, which is led by the authoritative Commander Adama (BONANZA patriarch Lorne Greene).

In order to stock up on fuel and supplies for the humans’ long trek across the galaxy, the Galactica sends three of its best combat pilots—serious Apollo (Richard Hatch, just off THE STREETS OF SAN FRANCISCO), Adama’s son; wisecracking, cigar-smoking Starbuck (Dirk Benedict, previously on the shortlived CHOPPER ONE); and trusty Boomer (Herbert Jefferson, Jr.)—to scout a planet called Carillon, which is said to be rich in food and water. It’s also inhabited by a reptilian species called Ovions, which have, unbeknownst to the Galactica, entered into an agreement with the Cylons, which lie patiently in wait.

Larson also introduces several more characters who would become important to the Galactica mythos, including journalist Serina (Jane Seymour, later DR. QUINN, MEDICINE WOMAN), who became Apollo’s love interest; her young son Boxey (Noah Hathaway); traitor Baltar (the delicious John Colicos); Adama’s exotically gorgeous daughter Athena (Jensen); prostitute Cassiopeia (Laurette Spang); Adama’s dignified second-in-command Tigh (Terry Carter); corrupt councilman Uri (Ray Milland); and, as much as we’d like to forget it, Boxey’s robot pet, a “daggit” named Muffit.

Before BATTLESTAR GALACTICA could be released, Universal battled a lawsuit initiated by 20th Century-Fox, which claimed that the property was a ripoff of Star Wars. Which it was. However, it was hardly the only film project to be highly influenced by George Lucas’ blockbuster, and the suit was settled out of court. (Universal was really wearing down lawyers in those days, getting the Italian production GREAT WHITE barred from U.S. theaters as a ripoff of JAWS.)

In some ways, BATTLESTAR GALACTICA equals its illegitimate parent. John Dykstra, who orchestrated STAR WARS’ Oscar-winning visual effects, did such a wonderful job creating BATTLESTAR GALACTICA’s elaborate models, dogfights, and matte work on a TV-sized palette that he earned a producer credit. Stu Phillips’ marvelous score, performed by the Los Angeles Philharmonic, provides a sense of majesty that few other television shows have matched. And Richard A. Colla, who receives sole directorial credit, is a far better director than Lucas.

ABC fired Colla (ZIG ZAG) midway through the expansive 69-day shoot and replaced him with episodic TV journeyman Alan J. Levi (BLOOD SONG). The network feared Colla’s approach was too cinematic, shooting too few close-ups for ABC’s tastes and spending too much time setting up elaborate camera moves and lighting effects. Of course, it is precisely Colla’s attention to detail and quality that sets the pilot apart from the disappointing and childish TV series that followed. The style Colla set was ignored by series directors and ABC, which thought of BATTLESTAR GALACTICA as a mere kiddie show—which is exactly what they got, unfortunately.

Awash in affecting dramatic scenes of tragedy, terrorism, and mass destruction, but still propelled by a grand sense of optimism, hope, and humanity, BATTLESTAR GALACTICA is as relevant now as it was in 1978.

1 comment:

Andy said...

I loved this show in syndication as a kid and got the DVD box when it came ten years back. There is such a stylistic difference between the pilot and what followed, like you said. I didn't realize when I was a kid that virtually all of Dykstra's effects shots were filmed for the pilot and then repurposed ad nauseum by ABC to save money for the next 20-odd episodes. Great write up.