Wednesday, October 9, 2019

V: The Original Miniseries (1983) Review


"Humankind's last stand!"

In the realm of modern science fiction, V remains a beloved and continually-relevant concept. In fact, an entire franchise has sprung forth from the mind of writer/producer/director Kenneth Johnson. Through a variety of projects spanning two miniseries and two full television shows, not to mention a series of novels that continue the adventures, V continues to endure as a rousing ode to the human spirit.

Warner Archive has now released the complete original miniseries that started it all on Blu-ray. The two-part event, which first aired on NBC on May 1st and May 2nd, 1983, still feels like a big deal, all these years later. The new disc allows us to look back with fresh eyes, thanks to a fantastic HD widescreen transfer that conveys just how cinematic V was and is. The miniseries combines hard-hitting performances with the best '80s special effects available to tell a story that would have been just as fitting on the silver screen as it is on the small screen. With action that takes place both on the Earth and in space, V is one of the most ambitious television productions of its time, costing around 13 million dollars in 1983. When the first part of the miniseries was broadcast, 40% of the television audience that night was watching V.

A quick story summary: 50 alien motherships have descended Earth from the far reaches of space. When the "Visitors" make contact, they promise peace, growth, and understanding. They also wear some of the coolest sunglasses ever caught on film! However, it soon becomes clear that they're not friendly, and they've come for the planet's natural resources. Humanity is divided as some people are placed in concentration camps, others given jobs and duties to perform in exchange for some semblance of normality, and a few are even taken to the motherships where they will be "converted." As soon as the true intentions of hostile takeover are revealed, a small resistance forms and begins to fight back. The letter "V" seems to have multiple connotations throughout the franchise, from "Visitors" to "Victory." Might we also add a V for "Vendetta?"
The cast is as huge as would be expected from such a large project; we follow a number of characters on both sides of the war, including Marc Singer (The Beastmaster), Andrew Prine (Grizzly) Bonnie Bartlett (St. Elsewhere), Richard Lawson (Poltergeist), and Richard Herd (All the President's Men). Jane Badler basically steals the show as Diana, the beautiful-but-deadly alien deputy commander who serves as the big bad of this series. Horror and genre fans will also be thrilled to see a young Robert Englund appearing as Willie, a kind-hearted, oafish alien who doesn't fall in line with the will of his leaders. This role came one year prior to his star-making turn as Freddy Krueger in 1984's A Nightmare on Elm Street.
V is big enough (in both scope and approach) to show a wide array of character reactions. It's able to examine all the different human responses to the invasion, painting between the lines and not drawing the entire human race with too broad a brush. Some people respond by cooperating, thinking that obeying can lead to increased status with their oppressors. Some seek power. Some go underground in hiding, becoming refugees in their own towns. Kenneth Johnson draws a ton of real-world history to tell his story, and thinly-veiled though it may be, it's still effective. The World War II and holocaust comparisons between the Axis Powers and the lizard-like monsters are not exactly subtle, but they make a chilling point. Character-actor Leonardo Cimino hammers that history home, appearing as a Holocaust survivor who escaped to America years before, and who recognizes not only the threat humanity faces, but also the hypocrisy, fear, and treachery that human beings are capable of when they're put under tremendous pressure.
Fortunately, our producer, writer, and director Kenneth Johnson also realizes the importance of making all these lessons and metaphors entertaining, and we never have to wait too long for some action. V was created by NBC in response to the huge success of the three Star Wars films, intent on capturing millions of viewers. As such, V is loaded with cool space ships, laser battles, explosions, and chase scenes. Perhaps the most impressive sequence of the two-part event isn't even a science fiction element at all, but a conflict in Central America that opens the first chapter. Marc Singer is covering the crisis as a newsman, and when the jungle camp he's stationed at falls under attack, we're treated to one of the most-impressive cinematic battles this side of a Rambo film. Huge explosions, machine guns, and a fully-armed helicopter chasing down guerillas and blasting everything in sight make this not just a cut above the average '80s television production, but something fitting for one of Hollywood's finest theatrical offerings.
The production values are top notch, and the special effects, though obviously over 35 years old as of this writing, still retain a special quality. Those of us who grew up in the '70s and '80s often have a deep affection for practical special effects and model work, so there's a lot to appreciate and love about what we see here. Space ships look tangible and real, and star battles are achieved through old school techniques crafted by Lucasfilm and other ground-breaking effects houses of the day. The slimy latex prosthetics that make up the aliens may not look true-to-life, but they do give the movie a gooey, gory feeling that still can't be replicated with computers. There's a reason V has had staying power as a franchise and fan-favorite, and the wonderful balance of humanistic storytelling, alien threat, and fun special effects has an awful lot to do with why we're still talking about this event decades after it first aired.
Warner Archive's Blu-ray presentation is the new benchmark for V. The miniseries was shot on spherical 35 mm film in an open-matte format in the event that the project received a foreign theatrical release, and all that detail, grain, and color is represented on the new disc in the 16:9 widescreen image. The high-definition image just further solidifies how top-notch the quality of the production was in 1983. Each of the two parts is presented with opening and end credits, as originally aired on television, totaling nearly 200 minutes when combined. Supplement-wise, Kenneth Johnson provides an audio commentary for the entire 3 hours and 20 minutes, and there's a 24-minute vintage making-of featurette on the disc that is most-definitely a cut above the average electronic press kit. We're treated to tons of on-set footage and get to see B-roll of scenes from the production actually being filmed, as well as candid interviews with Johnson and some of the people who made the production possible during the creative process. It's informative, and very cool to have here.
V is ultimately a very humanistic story, and one that is echoed over and over again throughout our entertainment, from The Day the Earth Stood Still to Independence Day. It's a portrait of the human race and our ability to band together in the darkest of times, but it also shows a complicated humanity, with  characters reacting to trauma and danger in different ways. Kenneth Johnson seems to have human history on his mind, but he's packaged that history in a compelling, fun, and visually-impressive creature-feature package that very easy to digest. I watched both parts more or less back to back, eager to follow the characters and the story to its conclusion. Aesthetically, the early-eighties production values feel perhaps more timely than they have in recent years due to a resurgence of all things retro. The opening titles of V seem to have been at least a partial influence on the Duffer Brothers as they sought out a similar vibe for the Stranger Things titles. Here's hoping that Warner Archive will soon release Blu-rays for the 1984 sequel event miniseries, V: The Final Battle and the 1984-1985 series which ran for 19 episodes.

The story of V is a triumph for science fiction and a huge part of TV history. While certain aspects of the production very much feel straight out of 1983 (I want those sunglasses!), the ideas behind V are ageless. V allows us to view ourselves through a lens of fantasy, showing all of our hang-ups and foibles, but also presenting us as we CAN be: defiant, unified, and indomitable.


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