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TYCUS

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Dennis Hopper, Peter Onorati, Finola Hughes, Chick Vennera
Director:  John Putch
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1, Dolby Surround
Video:  Standard 1:33:1
Studio:  Paramount
Features:  Trailer, Commentary Track, Talent Files
Length:  94 Minutes
Release Date:  August 29, 2000

Film **1/2

The golden rule of Hollywood:  if at first you DO succeed, try, try again.  And if you thought you’d seen the last of the global-killing asteroid movies, you were mistaken.  Armageddon grossed some $200 million plus at the domestic box office, and that’s not even counting cash from home video.  I can’t name all the films, miniseries, and made-for-TV movies that monster spawned.  Now, at long last, after a two-year wait, we have one of the smallest big space rock movies of them all; a little piece called Tycus.

Tycus borrows elements from Armageddon—that is, a few carefully chaotic scenes of destruction caused by raining fire—and a few more from that summer’s other asteroid flick, Deep Impact—namely, the moral crisis of how to decide who might be preserved and who doesn’t, and who, if anyone, has the right to make that decision.  The film starts out weakly, with a science that is way too preposterous for even science fiction, but actually grows stronger, more absorbing, and more meaningful the further it goes along, as the moral issues come into light.

The movie begins, oddly enough, with the END of the story.  Once the potential surprise that global destruction was NOT averted has been spoiled for us, the picture flashes back, and proceeds under a “how we got here” line of storytelling.

An ex-Army reporter, Jake Lowe (Onorati) gets a call from his one time photographer partner, Stan Alton (Vennera) asking for help investigating a new story.  Jake hadn’t heard from Stan since the two were busted trying to scoop a story on a possible illegal nuclear arms deal, an incident that forced him all the way down the journalistic ladder to a tabloid paper.  The new story is somehow connected with the old one.

Soon, Jake is investigating a strange mountain mining project, headed up by the quiet and mysterious Dr. Peter Crawford (Hopper).  Strange, because though plenty of digging had obviously taken place, nothing seems to have been mined.  It’s some kind of large secret base, with large storage facilities.  The nuclear warhead Jake and Stan had discovered years earlier is there as well—and more critically, it’s about to be launched!

Although the missile is firing in about six minutes, nobody is manning the control panel with the key, so Jake grabs it, and manages to elude the army of pursuers despite being on his own AND in an underground base.  Once he’s finally cornered, the whole truth is revealed.

The missile, called “Last Dance”, is aimed at an approaching comet named Tycus.  This gigantic, flaming ball of rock and gas is heading towards our moon.  If it hits, not only will the moon be destroyed, but most everything on earth will be wiped out as well from the effects of said destruction.  In the event the nuke can’t divert the comet (which we already know is the case from the film’s introduction), plan B is called Operation Archangel.  Dr. Crawford has developed in this mining space room enough to preserve a nucleus of the human race (an exact number is never mentioned).  Some will go down, but most will have to be left for death on the surface.

Once Archangel becomes the plan of operation, the moral questions begin to come into play.  We are told that Dr. Crawford published his findings about Tycus more than a decade earlier, and as is always the case in these movies, the scientific community dismissed them.  He has worked as long and hard as possible to save as many human lives as he could.  Without his work, there would not be a future for humanity at all.  But with only a limited amount of space, how can one choose who lives and who dies?  Crawford’s family is included, as well as two additional spots for each member of his team, and that’s about it.  Jake can’t believe the callousness of the act:  is Crawford playing God, by choosing who gets to survive?  It’s a charge Crawford denies.  He didn’t send the comet, he argues.  He’s merely done what he was capable of doing to insure the human race will go on.

This leads to a few potent scenes that are probably not realistic, but dramatically correct for the story.  When word gets out in the last few hours that the shelter exists, Crawford, Jake, and their families have to make the long walk to the base’s doors in the final moments, through lines of people who quietly stare at them.  None of the protagonists can even make eye contact with those they know they’re leaving behind to die.  You’d think in such a situation there’d be more panic and violence abounding, but I can’t question the power of the scene and the point it drives home.  It’s one thing to sit back and argue the ethical and logical issues of such a scenario…in fact, I was pretty much convinced that Crawford’s line of thinking, given the circumstances, was correct.  But it’s quite another to actually play out that scenario, and to stand amongst a sea of humanity that will cease to exist in a few moments, while you go on.  You never know how bitter the pill is going to be until you actually swallow it.

As mentioned, the moral crisis at the center of the picture is the film’s best aspect.  The film’s worst aspect is its complete lack of scientific credibility.  I have no problem with suspending disbelief for the sake of science fiction, but this movie left me with the impression that none of the filmmakers had ever read anything more prominent than a third grade science textbook! 

For starters, we’re dealing with a comet here, not an asteroid.  The possibility of an approaching asteroid escaping our notice until too late has been well documented, but comets glow, light up the sky, and leave a trail.  They can be seen from great distances with the naked eye.  We’ve always known whenever a comet has passed anywhere near the vicinity of earth, even in the days before complex telescopes and instruments.  Crawford was able to identify this comet ten years prior, so whether other top minds believed his apocalyptic theory or not, it stands to reason that the comet would at least have been marked and tracked as a prominent celestial object.  But other scientists are not as smart as Crawford.  The comet gets close enough to cause intense meteorological and geological disturbances on a world wide level, including a strange red glow in the afternoon sky, and STILL nobody knows we’ve got a comet.

And the story suffers from other illogical blunders besides the scientific ones.  When Jake is first captured snooping around the base, the guards find on him, among other things, a video camera and a global positioning device.  And they let him go!  This eventually leads to the scene I already mentioned, where Jake is able to take the arming key from the completely unmonitored control panel.  Jake gets into a few fights along the way, and these are some of the most amateurish looking examples of fisticuffs you’ll ever see.  Each one repeats the same moves, and plays like it was choreographed to a very slow metronome.

I was thankful to see Dennis Hopper cast against type in this picture.  Gone is the raging madman he’s made his career from, and in his place is a quiet, intelligent, sorrowful man whose life work has proved a blessing and a curse to him.  The other cast members are fine, if unremarkable—I personally found Peter Onorati coming across much like a poor man’s Kevin Spacey for most of the film.

Tycus is far from a waste of time, but a picture can only have so many flaws before it’s impossible to overlook them anymore.  Lack of originality made it a shaky gamble out of the starting gate, and in the end, the weight of too many inadequacies made it a struggle to reach the finish line.

Video ***1/2

I believe this film is a direct-to-video release, and as such, lack of widescreen is a non-issue.  I didn’t get the impression from viewing the disc that anything was misframed, so I’ll give it the benefit of the doubt.  As far as a full screen presentation goes, the disc looks mostly great.  Images are sharp and detailed throughout, and the coloring is exceptional, with a wide palate in use and no instances of bleeding.  From daylit scenes to darker ones, there’s no loss of detail or image compromise.  The special effects shots are very convincing looking, despite budget limitations and a hodgepodge style of creating them, and most importantly, the outer space scenes look terrific:  no shimmer, no haloes, no grain.  If not for occasional noticeable bits of dirt and debris on the print, this would almost be a reference quality full frame presentation.

Audio ***1/2

The 5.1 audio track was treated admirably here.  Though the destruction sequences (earth, moon, nuclear missile) are the busiest in terms of using the full stage of front, back and .1 channels, the film also uses the complete stage for the orchestration of the score, keeping the listening experience a full and enjoyable one.  Dialogue is clear throughout, and the picture enjoys a bit of dynamic range, though really only has a few scenes where it’s able to open up and demonstrate itself.  Overall, it’s a notch below DVD’s best available audio tracks, but still a good listen with no real complaints.

Features **1/2

The disc contains a trailer, some well researched talent files, and a good commentary track from director John Putch, who confesses up front that he’s a big fan of DVD commentaries, and this is his first one.  Putch claims to be a little nervous, but is actually a relaxed speaker with good stories to tell about making the film, starting with the limitations (it was shot in only 18 days, and with a budget less than what a single episode of most one hour TV shows get), to his relationships with the cast and crew members—even a bit of modest self depreciation when called for.  I mentioned the banal fight scenes, and he confesses they were his first ones as a director.  “If you think they suck, I won’t argue with you,” he tells us.  It’s an enjoyable track, and adds to the value of the disc.

Summary:

Tycus probably won’t be remembered much after the killer asteroid fad finally dies out once and for all.  In some ways, that’s probably a fate it deserves, but in others, it’s a shame, because it really does delve into the heart of a staggering emotional and ethical issue, and that aspect of the film really rises above the less-than-stellar parts.  In other words, it’s a picture that was true to the heart, even if the brain was mostly nowhere to be seen.