Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The Trancers Trilogy

One of the better-known creations to issue forth from the Full Moon movie mill is the Trancer series. With six installments so far, it's a series that started out as a time-travel themed sci-fi/pulp action effort that veered into fantasy territory after the first three, and then tried to recapture its sci-fi roots with the sixth, and so far final, installment in the series.

I'm a sucker for time travel stories, so the first three Trancer films rank among my very favorite of the Full Moon movies (even if the original "Trancers" film technically pre-dates Band's creation of the Full Moon label). It's also a fact that the first three are pretty decent films all around. They form a nice trilogy, and the films that follow really don't compare to them, story-wise or quality-wise.

Trancers (aka "Future Cop") (1985)
Starring: Tim Thomerson, Helen Hunt and Michael Stefani
Director: Charles Band
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

Just as the toughest cop in Angel City of 2247, Jack Deth (Thomerson) wipes out the last diciple of Whistler (Stefani), a powerful psychic and cult-leader who turned his followers into homicidal zombies, he learns that Whistler has fled some 250 years into the past... to 1985 where he is hunting and killing the ancestors of those who thwarted his plans of domination. Whistler plans to change history and only Jack Deth can stop him by following him back into the past, and do what he does best: Hunt trancers.

"Trancers" is a fun sci-fi flick that should be counted among Band's finest efforts. classics. It doesn't have any of the weird puppets and miniatures that would soon become hallmarks of Band's films, but it has a well-crafted script with lots of creative ideas and a plot that zips along at a lightning-fast pace yet still leaves time for character development that adds depth to the proceedings, and his other trademark--a mix of slightly off-kilter humor that's tinged with horror.

The success of the film is also, naturally, due in no small part to excellent performances by Tim Thomerson and Helen Hunt, who both take their first turn as stars in this picture. Thomerson is great as the hardboiled future cop who finds himself out of his element and forced to rely on help from Hunt's character, a liberated woman who had just wrapped up a one-night stand with the ancestor whose body Jack Deth's consciousness ends up inhabiting. Hunt is equally excellent asthe strong-willed Lena who won't be told what to do by anyone. While Thomerson is every bit the leading man as a fullblown movie star, his roots as a stand-up comedian and character actor stands him in good stead as he forms what is first an uneasy partnership with Hunt's character. Hunt's comedic timing that would help make "Mad About You" such a successful series is also on full display here, even as she comfortably fits into the role of an action-adventure sci-fi movie sidekick.

With everything else it has going for it, we can add the fact that it's a time travel movie to the mix. I love time-travel stories, and I think this one is particularly fun as it has an unusual method of time travel--minds/consciences can be sent back in time to inhabit the physical forms of direct ancestors. Some of the other theories of time travel are a bit shakey, but it all makes sense on the comic-book universe level that the film's world exists on.

"Trancers" is an entertaining little film that sees its stars and its director doing some of their most interesting work. It's worth checking out if you're in the mood for some light, spirited sci-fi action.

Trancers II: The Return of Jack Deth (aka "Future Cop II") (1991)
Starring: Tim Thomerson, Megan Ward, Helen Hunt, Biff Manard, Sonny Carl Davis, Richard Lynch, Martine Beswick, and Jeffrey Combs
Director: Charles Band
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

Stranded in the 20th century, time-traveler Jack Deth (Thomerson) has made a new life for himself and married a lovely, strongwiled woman named Lena (Hunt)... which will some day make Jack his own great- great- great-grandfather. His new peaceful life is thrown into chaos when another time traveler returns to the past, hunting a villain from the future who is using an environmental action group as a front for creating deadly, zombie-like supersoldiers known as Trancers. This time traveler happens to be Jack's wife from the future (Ward), who had been dead for several years when he was sent into the past.

The main thrust of "Trancers II" is a fairly run-of-the-mill low-budget action film with a few sci-fi trappings that sees Jack Deth fighting and ultimately defeating a hoard of zombie-fied bad guys led by Dr. Wardo, another time traveler from Jack's original time period. It's not a bad story, but it's a somewhat predictable retread of the story from the first movie.

The film, however, is very interesting if you like time travel adventures, because of the tangled histories of two characters--they are present at the same point 300 years in their past, but one is seven years ahead of the other in their personal timelines and he knows the other characters future. He knows that she is actually already dead and that when she goes home, she will be murdered by trancer cultists. This wrinkle adds much to the film and makes the akward situation Jack is in of having to deal with two different wives--one of whom he can't tell that he remarried because he's actually a widower--a very interesting one. Jack's marital problems are played mostly for laughs in the film, but the details that brought it about are both fascinating and tragic.

The film is further helped by decent acting all around,even if the dialogue they actors are delivering could have used some more work. Poor Megan Ward in particular delivers from pretty awful lines. The final battle also lacks a bit of punch, and Jack seems a little too eager to gun people down. If killing the wrong person changes the future, shouldn't he be more careful about who he kills? It's one thing for him to kill Trancers--they're already dead--but what about the security guards he shoots? Dr. Wardo's assistants? The body Dr. Wardo's spirit was inhabiting? He kills all these peoples, and, based on the rules of time travel the film set up, he probably did all sorts of damage to the time line.

Despite some sloppy scripting, the film is still interesting and worthwhile. Its social satire has even held up well over time and perhaps even gained more of an edge. The main villain is very Al Gore lie, and his whole organization is very reminicent of the face the modern ecological movement presents to the world. (It may be a little cult-like. If you've ever been annoyed by the hyperbolic idiocy that issues forth from the mouth of "leading environmentalists" or hypocrites like Al Gore, then Green World and its agents might amuse you.

Trancers III: Deth Lives (aka "Future Cop III") (1992)
Starring: Tim Thomerson, Melanie Smith, Andrew Robinson, Tony Pierce, Megan Ward, Helen Hunt, Stephen Macht and Dawn Ann Billings
Director: C. Courtney Joyner
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

When an unstoppable army of Trancers threatens to destroy civilization in the 23rd century, stranded time traveler Jack Deth (Thomerson) is ripped from the life he is attempting to build in 1992 and sent to 2005 to change history and stop the Trancers from even coming into existence in the first place. This mission is going to be trickier than Trancer hunt Jack has ever undertaken, as he discovers the origin of the Trancers can be traced to a top secret installation opeated by the United States Marine Corps.

"Trancers III" is darker in tone and it feels like it was shot on an even lower budget than the first two installments of the film; we don't see the Trancers dissolve after they've been killed, for example. It's also the first installment that wasn't directed by Charles Band, but instead saw its screenwriter C. Courtney Joyner also taking on the directorial duties.

These changes could possibly have added up to an inferior film, but they didn't. "Trancers III" has a more cohereent storyline than "Trancers II" and it was the first first entry in the series that wasn't directed by Charles Band himself, and the darker tone makes it feel like the stakes are higher than they've ever been before. The only humor present in this film are Jack Deth's hardboiled detective-style wisecracks and narration but they're as sharp here as they've ever been.

While the film continues to play with the notion of tangled and confused timelines that was introduced in "Trancers II", it ultimately fails to take full advantage of these concepts, doesn't provide as strong an ending as it might have had, and even undermines the time travel rules that had established the series in the first place due to what I am certain is Charles Band's desire to keep the door open for more sequels.

The mission Jack Deth undertakes in this film is to stop the Trancers before they even become a threat in the future. I doubt I'm spoiling anything by telling you that he succeeds, but, according to what we've seen in other installments, that success should have resulted in Jack never being sent back into the past to begin with as there never would have been a Whistler for him to hunt or even a reason for Jack to be a Trancer Hunter.

The perfect ending for this film would have been if it had taken the series full circle by having Philip Deth, the man whose body Jack Deth's conciousness is actually inhabiting wake up to play out the scene where Lela and Jack first met, but this time without Jack's mind in his body. Failing that, future Trancer sequels SHOULD have dealt with why Jack's future even exists, as he should have unraveled it in 2005. They don't, however, but instead go off in a more fantasy-oriented direction, jettisoning most sci-fi elements as Jack Deth ends up in a parallel dimension where magic trumps his technological toys.

"Trancers III" should have been the end-point for the series, and I recommend that you make it so. The sequels that follow are far inferior to this one (despite two being written by Peter David, author of the very funny novel "Howling Mad" and a whole host of excellent comic book series) and I think you should be left with Jack's greatest adventure as the last outing you witness, even with the imperfect ending.

(The biggest problem with the David sequels is that they are more fantasy than sci-fi, probably written the way they were, because Full Moon's production facilities were at that time located primarily in Romania and the surroundings there don't lend themselves to the urban environments that Deth had up-to-that-point existed in.)

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Thanks for sharing your opinion. I love seeing what fellow fans have to say!