Michael Anderson picked up the directorial reins of time-travel tale Millennium after it had gone through numerous hands, and screenwriter John Varley’s perseverance and ultimate chagrin, over the course of a decade of development hell. The finished feature, equipped with C-list leads (Kris Kristofferson and Cheryl Ladd were hardly dynamite at the beginning of the ’80s let alone the close, so one assumes untold swathes of names turned it down first), came out at the end of August 1989 in the US, the traditional late summer dumping ground for unloved projects, where it failed to even dent the Top Ten. It’s a picture with an arresting premise, one that front-ends its apparent literacy regarding the theoretical complexities of time travel. Which makes it all the more disappointing that it proceeds to fall apart so resoundingly as it proceeds and progressively ignores all its groundwork.
Watching Millennium, one can’t help but think of some of the more extreme conspiracy theories regarding Malaysian Airlines Flight MH370 (the ones regarding it actually being actually spirited away by mysterious forces). More specifically, the abduction, replacement of passengers’ bodies and subsequent return is redolent of the theory that Flight 370 was “repackaged” and ended up as Flight MH17 downed in the Ukraine. Despite the dubious merits of the movie as a whole, the premise of Millennium remains a consistently evocative one; when Lost first arrived this was a movie that instantly came to mind for many (well, those who had seen it), and one could easily imagine it reworked for an episode of Fringe, or indeed forming the basis of an entirely new JJ Abrams TV show.
I’m sure John Varley would be pleased to see it done right. He commented, “I ended up writing it six times. There were four different directors, and each time a new director came in I went over the whole thing with him and rewrote it. Each new director had his own ideas, and sometimes you’d gain something from that, but each time something’s always lost in the process, so that by the time it went in front of the cameras, a lot of the vision was lost.”
The parts of the finished movie Varley thought were okay were pretty much those involving the present-day material with Kristofferson’s crash investigator Bill Smith as he learns of the anomalies surrounding the crashed Boeing 747. The flight recorder reveals the flight engineer exclaiming of the passengers “They’re dead! All of them! They’re burned up!” before the crash. And then there are the watches that tell the time in reverse. And what is physicist Dr Arnold Mayer (Daniel J Travanti) doing at the site and why is he asking all these strange questions, “looking for the inexplicable”?
Varely didn’t like the future material, relating to those responsible for the anomalies (It didn’t really hang together. A lot of it didn’t make sense.”). He’s right, partly. Millennium only really falls apart when it starts to reveal its inner workings, but there’s good elements mixed in with this mess of a future too.
Since Varley, who furnished the screenplay, washes his hands of the movie’s problems, one ends up looking to Michael Anderson, and it’s fairly easy to believe the blame rests with him. Charitably, he was a journeyman, with scores for The Dambusters and Around the World in 80 Days (in that it was garlanded with Best Picture, rather than because it was a particularly good movie) and a run of disappointments in the ’70s including Orca, Logan’s Run (I know, it has its stalwart defenders, mostly Jenny Agutter fans) and Doc Savage: Man of Bronze (I wish Shane Black would hurry up and get started on his remake). Anderson’s work on Millennium is serviceable but bland, which rather reflects his choice of leads. The most curious aspect is that a picture with such an arresting idea behind it should be end up so profoundly mediocre.
For example, there’s inventiveness on display in the narrative structure, such that the first time Louise Baltimore (Ladd) meets Smith is the second time he has met her. Yet their relationship is as utterly devoid of spark or chemistry as you’d expect from Kristofferson and Ladd (and the picture devotes far too much time to this aspect, rather than getting to grips with the main thrust of the story). Then there’s Mayer’s impressively persuasive lecture on why “It’s the possibility of paradoxes that make most people rule out time travel by human beings”. But not movie studios making movies that are never able to coherently get to grips with these paradoxes, it seems.
The future society we see is falling apart (a millennium away, hence Louise’s enormously corny “You’re the best thing in a thousand years, Bill”), where humanity has succumbed to invasive pollution, increasing incapacity and an inability to reproduce. Some of the imagery is quite striking (the spokesperson for the ruling Council resembles a piece of plastic surgery out of Gilliam’s Brazil, while Sherman the Robot has a tantalisingly flesh and blood aspect), even if the future never looks anything other than a single set, but the whys and wherefores are, as Varley suggests, mangled and borderline incoherent. Defenders will claim all the answers are in Varley’s short story and novelisation, but that doesn’t help the picture as a stand-alone entity.
It’s a mystery how this society comes up with the significant resources to produce the bodies used in the crash (they can “make the bodies but not souls” but their science rather selectively cannot solve problems such as fertility or the ravaged environment), and the whole subject is brushed aside almost with embarrassment. Perhaps no one wanted to address the ethical implications of their actions in a PG movie. And, while I quite like the audacity of their mid-air hijacks, it’s difficult to conceive that the problems they encounter on the 1963 and 1989 flights wouldn’t have occurred pretty much every time out. Paradoxes just will happen, and the notion that they could ever localise their intrusions has a butterfly effect-like implausibility.
Then there’s the grand plan; “I steal people from the past to send them somewhere else to start over”. Which is pretty vague. Just like the “We can only go back to a specific moment once and then never again” (is this because of potential paradoxes, or is it a built in Blinovitch Limitation Effect – see Doctor Who’s Day of the Daleks for a purpose-built rule restricting the causal disruption of time travel; elements of the passengers’ abduction also resemble the 1967 story The Faceless Ones, but with reverse intent), robot Sherman tells Louise “None of us can go. Only you”. Which breaks down to a self-imposed rule, by the sound of it (“There is no place for me where you are going”).
Why not devote themselves to improving their genetic lot and absconding there? They clearly capable of up-keeping (“pampering”) Cheryl and her colleagues so they can fulfil missions (that she has to chug away in 1989 in order to maintain her complex hydrocarbons leads one to wonder how she will survive in a presumably clean environment; the movie’s funniest moment has her throw a cigarette away, landing on who knows whom, in a crowded restaurant when Bill notes “I’ve never seen anyone eat and smoke at the same time”). And as for the revelation that she is pregnant, despite it not being possible, well, it’s a miracle!
Then there’s the business with time quakes and paradoxes potentially destroying the future; these are ideas that really ought to be manifested in a more traditional winking out of existence manner, rather than of the ploddingly literal explosive sort we see. The grip on the paradox element is also pretty slack. Self-righteous Coventry (Brent Carver) blames Bill for the destruction (“If you had left this alone, none of this would have happened”) but the same might be said of his tampering with time in the first place.
Earlier, and most bafflingly, a significant chunk of the movie is given over to Cheryl’s first meeting with Bill (the other side of his first meeting with her). This is at the behest of the Council, cogently noting that she “did go back, must go back” yet they bizarrely direct her to dissuade Bill from investigating further and preventing further paradoxes. Surely, they must know this can’t succeed, because it hasn’t succeeded (Bill is still investigating after he has met her for his first time, and her second time)? Particularly if they’re always observing Bill (“And now they’re watching me. I can feel it. They can go anywhere, look anywhere”; it would be a more potent idea if their society had much heft). I suppose it could just be muddled delivery, that the Council are merely indicating Louise needs to go through the motions (by effectively prostituting herself as a distraction!), but shouldn’t she be sufficiently versed in temporal theory to be told straight out that’s all she’ll be doing?
Kristofferson has always struck me as a snoozerific version of Jeff Bridges, and he’s in an eternal living slumber here. Ladd did well to actually make it into a feature, I guess, and full marks on her ultra-Roxette future hair (all their resources must be tied up in providing her with a steady supply of gel and hairspray). The support is much rewarding, though.
Travanti, I’m not familiar with (I never watched Hill Street Blues), but he’s great, particularly in his mysterious earlier scenes. It’s a bit bizarre that Smith is revealed as the kid aboard the 1963 flight, as everything seems to be pointing to Mayer (his obsession, how he gets hold of the stun weapon left aboard the plane). I don’t know Joy or Carver’s work either, but they also make strong impressions as robot and decayed director respectively.
Millennium can currently be seen on YouTube. It’s a picture with a series of really strong, arresting central ideas, and they see it through to about the halfway mark, but eventually its overtaken by the sheer passivity of its production, the inconsistency of its all-important time travel conceit, and the lack of engagement generated by the leads. But it’s never less than an interesting failure. Time travel movies very rarely stand up to even cursory inspection, but at least this one has the will to be interrogated.