(View From The Couch is a weekly column that reviews what's new on Blu-ray and DVD. Ratings are on a four-star scale.)
GRAVITY (2013). To listen to some overzealous scribes tell it, when Gravity was initially released in theaters, writer-director Alfonso Cuarón's film was so much the "game-changing" masterpiece that it almost made 2001: A Space Odyssey look as feeble as Plan 9 from Outer Space by comparison. Well, no. To be frank, it's not even Cuarón's best picture, not with Y Tu Mamá También and Children of Men on his resume. Yet what it lacks in sociopolitical heft and laser-point characterizations it makes up for in sheer visual spectacle. Working with director of photography Emmanuel Lubezski and a crack FX team to create a you-are-there environment, Cuarón puts us in the company of rookie rocketeer Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) and veteran astronaut Matt Kowalski (George Clooney), members of the Explorer space shuttle crew. Their patch-up mission is going as planned until debris from a destroyed Russian satellite cripples the shuttle and kills everyone else. Stone is a panicky mess as she's free-floating through space with her oxygen supply running perilously low; that leaves it to Kowalski to devise a plan that will allow them to safely return to Earth. Lubezski, who should have won an Oscar years ago (credits include Sleepy Hollow and The Tree of Life), copped the first of his two consecutive awards for this picture (the second was for last year's Birdman), and with good reason: All of the visuals are so staggering, so awe-inspiring, that they bring up thoughts of the existence of God (or not; take your pick), the mysteries of the universe and the fatal beauty of everything that surrounds us. While the sparse screenplay by Cuarón and his son Jonás Cuarón will strike some as suitably thrifty and others as appallingly threadbare, there's no denying it sports a few moldy conventions. Still, Gravity is an absorbing movie that looked incredible in IMAX 3-D, and while the home theater experience doesn't quite compare, it's nevertheless a gorgeous production on Blu-ray. Of course, one of the measures of a truly great movie is that it retains its appeal no matter what the viewing conditions; that's why Star Wars and Jaws continue to be endlessly discussed after three-and-a-half decades and why Avatar, the top-grossing movie of all time, is now largely ignored after a mere six years. Stripped of its bells and whistles, will Gravity stand the test of time? It's impossible to predict, but never mind: The present is our primary concern, and this eye-popper of a movie is well worth viewing. Nominated for 10 Academy Awards (including Best Picture), this won seven, including Best Director for Cuarón and a half-dozen for various technical achievements.
Gravity has been re-released on Blu-ray in the limited Diamond Luxe Edition. New extras include a Silent Space version of the film (basically, without music) and a piece on space films through the decades; extras carried over from the previous home edition include a nine-part making-of feature and Jonás Cuarón's short film Aningaaq.
INTERSTELLAR (2014). Let's get the sound issue out of the way. At my advance screening of Interstellar before the picture opened theatrically, the sound was often wretched beyond measure, with Hans Zimmer's booming score drowning out the dialogue and an obnoxious droning sound functioning as so many nails across a chalkboard. The mystery loomed: Was the disastrous sound mix the fault of the theater — thus, an isolated incident – or the fault of writer-director Christopher Nolan, who reportedly oversaw the soundtrack to the last detail — therefore, a widespread debacle? Upon the film's subsequent release, complaints about the aural assault popped up all across the country, with Nolan taking credit/blame for the unique mix and many filmgoers claiming that there was no audio problem anyway. So has this detail been fixed for the picture's home release? In a word, no. But despite this lingering problem — and home viewing at least presents the welcome option of on-screen subtitles — do see this movie. It's deeply flawed but also wholly absorbing, and it marks Nolan as one of our most ambitious, go-for-broke directors, unafraid to attempt Sistine Chapel ceilings while his fellow filmmakers are working with Crayolas. To be sure, Interstellar is no cosmic masterpiece like 2001: A Space Odyssey, but when a movie can for whatever reason be mentioned in the same breath as Kubrick's landmark undertaking without inciting giggles, then clearly there's something noteworthy afoot. Set in a near future when a dusty, ravaged Earth seems unlikely to sustain another full generation of humans, Interstellar casts Matthew McConaughey as Cooper, a former NASA pilot and present-day farmer recruited by NASA's Professor Brand (Michael Caine) for a potentially planet-saving mission that will keep him in space for years, maybe forever. Despite a running time that ends just shy of three hours, Interstellar never drags — a testament to Nolan's ability to keep us glued to his quietly unfolding tale. It turns out to be a strange, fitful trip, far flung in its scientific pursuits but down to earth with a potent family tale. Jessica Chastain pops up during the second half, and her character allows the story to unfold in interesting ways. So, too, does the arrival of Matt Damon as a space pioneer; the sequences involving his remarkably complex character are among the film's finest. And if some of the science seems suspect, it easily falls into the realm of suspension of disbelief — certainly as much as 2001's star child, or a man who dresses like a bat, for that matter. Nominated for five Academy Awards, this won for Best Visual Effects.
Blu-ray extras include the Science Channel special The Science of Interstellar; various featurettes on the film's sets and effects; a piece on Zimmer's score; a look at the Iceland location shooting; and a short on the robot characters TARS and CASE. The Blu-ray Combo Pack also contains a collectible IMAX film cell from an actual 70MM print of the movie.
JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF THE EARTH (1959) / FIRST MEN IN THE MOON (1964). Undisputed masters in the fantasy fiction realm, Jules Verne and H.G. Wells have both been godsends for international filmmakers, as no less than 150 motion pictures have been adapted from their works. Even now in the 21st century, numerous decades after their respective deaths (Verne in 1905, Wells in 1946), their novels are still in heavy cinematic rotation: For instance, 2008 saw the release of no less than three versions of Verne's Journey to the Center of the Earth (the Brendan Fraser hit, yes, but also low-budgeters starring B.J. and the Bear's Greg Evigan and Silver Spoons' Ricky Schroder), while Wells' War of the Worlds was similarly adapted on three separate occasions in 2005 (the Tom Cruise blockbuster, yes, but also obscure takes starring Soul Man's C. Thomas Howell and, who?, Anthony Piana).
The Twilight Time label has seen fit to simultaneously release two films — one representing each writer — to Blu-ray. Interestingly, both pictures center on an eccentric scientist who discovers a new world, one by looking underneath his feet, the other by gazing above his head. Of the pair, Verne's box office hit Journey to the Center of the Earth is the superior picture, with James Mason in fine form as Sir Oliver Lindenbrook, traveling downward in the company of his protégé (Pat Boone), a rival's widow (Arlene Dahl) and an Icelandic hunk (athlete Peter Ronson in his only film appearance). The great Bernard Herrmann contributes a memorable score, and the picture is sure to stir memories of later Hollywood yarns: There's a rolling-boulder scene that almost certainly inspired Spielberg and Lucas when they initially dreamed up Raiders of the Lost Ark, and Ronson's lovable lunk Hans seems like a live-action template of Frozen's Kristoff. Journey to the Center of the Earth nabbed richly deserved Oscar nominations for Best Special Effects, Best Art Direction-Set Decoration and Best Sound, and it might have won at least one of those honors had this not been the year of the record-setting Ben-Hur (which toppled Journey in all three categories).
Journey wears its humor well, nicely dispersing it amidst the thrills; not so the adaptation of Wells' First Men in the Moon, which premiered five years after the Verne flick. An interesting framing device bookends the meat of the movie, which finds inventor Joseph Cavor (Lionel Jeffries) creating a gravity-resistant substance (no, not Flubber) that, when applied to his spaceship, allows it to rocket straight to the moon. There, Cavor and his compatriots, neighbor Arnold Bedford (Edward Judd) and Arnold's girlfriend Kate Callender (Martha Hyer), must contend with moon creatures known as Selenites as well as a particularly nasty (and large!) caterpillar. The nifty effects come courtesy of the legendary Ray Harryhausen, while the sobering twist at the end is subtly borrowed from Wells' The War from the Worlds (itself successfully brought to the screen in 1953). But the incessant comic relief, clumsy and cumbersome, too often gets in the way of a cracking good tale.
Blu-ray extras on Journey to the Center of the Earth consist of audio commentary by co-star Diane Baker and film historians Nick Redman and Steven C. Smith; the theatrical trailer; and an isolated track of Herrmann's score. Blu-ray extras on First Men in the Moon include audio commentary by the late Harryhausen (who passed away in 2013) and three-time Oscar-winning effects artist Randall William Cook (The Lord of the Rings trilogy); an introduction by Cook; and an isolated track of Laurie Johnson's score.
Journey to the Center of the Earth: ***
First Men in the Moon: **1/2
MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000: VOLUME XXXII (2015). As a Joel Hodgson fan, I used to assume that the quality of the show's host segments went down once Joel was replaced on camera by lead writer Mike Nelson. Not true: As the advent of time — and the opportunity for repeated viewings — proved, the show suffered not when Mike replaced Joel but when the insufferable trio of Pearl, Bobo and Brain Guy eventually replaced the dynamic duo of Dr. Forrester and TV's Frank. This latest box set, therefore, earns bonus points for featuring Forrester and Frank in all four included episodes, with nary a sequence hosted by Pearl and her crew (or, for that matter, the first season's god-awful Dr. Laurence Erhardt).
The 1969 space drama Marooned earned an Academy Award for its visual effects, making it the only Oscar-winning film ever to be shown on MST3K. The worst that one can say about this classy, expensive picture is that it's often slow, playing like Apollo 13 minus the excitement. That means it proved to be a poor fit for MST3K — in an interview included in the set, Frank Conniff (TV's Frank) even admits as much — and more so since the edit that Hodgson and gang tackled was a heavily butchered version renamed Space Travelers (movie made in 1969; featured on MST3K in 1992). Marooned's 134-minute running time gets mercilessly chopped down even more (60 minutes at most) to fit in the MST3K slot, leaving a disjointed picture in which NASA suits (led by Gregory Peck) attempt to rescue three astronauts (Richard Crenna, James Franciscus and Gene Hackman) stranded in space. The space travelers aboard the Satellite of Love work overtime to make with the funnies, and there are some good bits strewn throughout. The presence of David Janssen in the cast leads to the expected cracks about The Fugitive and Harry-O, and be sure to keep a lookout for Pee-wee Herman's evil twin.
Season Four found Joel and the Bots suffering through three of the cheaply produced (but hugely profitable) Italian Hercules flicks from the late 50s and 1960s, and in Season Five, they finally got around to watching the one that started it all. Hercules (movie made in 1958; featured on MST3K in 1993) made an international star out of leading man Steve Reeves and launched the Italian cinema's muscle man craze that lasted approximately a decade. Joel, Crow and Tom Servo couldn't care less about this trivia, however, as they're too busy verbally tearing into the picture. The SOL team generally turn to older works in their riffing, so it's almost startling to hear them name-drop the (then) more modern likes of Heathers and A Few Good Men.
Radar Secret Service (movie made in 1950; featured on MST3K in 1993), or Gary Berghoff Goes Undercover (sez Crow), is cited in The Mystery Science Theater 3000 Amazing Colossal Episode Guide as being a difficult (read: boring) film to skewer, but it nevertheless proves to be an entertaining episode. The thrust of this film is basically that radar is awesome and can be used for anything — particularly nabbing criminals — and the SOL guys become so wrapped up in this notion that when a film's character suggests that a radar truck be destroyed, Crow et al gasp, "Blasphemer! Kill him!" Even better than the feature attraction is the preceding short: 1959's Last Clear Chance, in which a friendly — or psychotic, as per Mike and the Bots — cop explains that reckless driving and railroad crossings don't mix. In conclusion, any episode that includes a Quinn Martin Nature Preserve is a keeper.
Almost certainly an attempt to cash in on the massive success of 1970's Airport, San Francisco International (movie made in 1970; featured on MST3K in 1994) was the pilot for a TV series that lasted all of six episodes. Pernell Roberts stars as the airport supervisor (he was replaced for the series with Lloyd Bridges), while Clu Gulager plays the head of security; together, they thwart a heist and deal with a bratty kid who somehow gets an airplane off the ground. This is a particularly rich episode, invoking everything from Ingmar Bergman's The Seventh Seal to the late-70s TV show Battlestar Galactica ("At least that will never get cancelled."). And don't miss the host segments featuring Mike as Family Matters' Urkel, an impersonation adored by everyone ... well, at least until Torgo arrives on the scene.
DVD extras include introductions by Conniff; a great piece in which Conniff and Trace Beaulieu (Dr. Forrester and Crow) travel to London in 2014 to participate in a sci-fi gathering; a discussion of Marooned/Space Travelers; and a look at Joseph E. Levine, the producer-distributor behind The Graduate, The Producers, Zulu ... and Hercules.
WITHOUT A CLUE (1988). Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's brilliant sleuth Sherlock Holmes has been brought to life on numerous occasions, from the string of vintage films starring Basil Rathbone as Holmes and Nigel Bruce as Dr. Watson to the smashing BBC series featuring Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman. Even in nonsense like those Robert Downey Jr. films, Sherlock is never less than a genius, which makes the concept behind Without a Clue so much fun. Here, the razor-sharp mind belongs to John Watson (Ben Kingsley), a doctor and mystery writer who had hired an idiotic out-of-work actor named Reginald Kincaid (Michael Caine) to front as his fictional creation Sherlock Holmes. But once Holmes' reputation reaches the stratosphere and Kincaid starts to believe his own press, Watson fires the thickheaded thespian and seeks to establish himself as The Crime Doctor, a tactic that fails spectacularly. Meanwhile, Scotland Yard's Inspector Lestrade, as much of a dimwit as Kincaid, has his hands full with a case that eventually proves to be the work of criminal mastermind Moriarty (Paul Freeman, Raiders of the Lost Ark's Belloq). The role reversal proves to be an irresistible hook for a comedy, and for the most part, Without a Clue delivers on this idea, with wonderful performances by Kingsley and Caine and crackling banter by scripters Gary Murphy and Larry Strawther (Holmes: "You mean Moriarty's not trying to kill me?" Watson: "Of course not. He knows you're an idiot." Holmes: "Oh, thank God!"). After a delightful first half, the film becomes weighed down during the second part by the machinations of the routine plot thread involving Moriarty's scheme, yet it never loses its mirthful spirit. Peter Cook, who plays The Strand Magazine editor Norman Greenhough, once played Sherlock Holmes (to Dudley Moore's Dr. Watson) in the 1978 spoof The Hound of the Baskervilles, a calamity which remains the worst Holmes adaptation ever made.
The only extra on the Blu-ray is the theatrical trailer.