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  Specs
  • Widescreen 1.85:1
  • Dual Layer (RSDL 54.15)
  Languages
  • French: Dolby Digital Mono
  • Spanish: Dolby Digital Mono
  • German: Dolby Digital Mono
  • Italian: Dolby Digital Mono
  • English: Dolby Digital 1.1 Sensurround
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  • Cast/crew biographies
  • Production notes
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Battlestar Galactica

Universal/Sony Pictures Home Entertainment . R4 . COLOR . 124 mins . PG . PAL

  Feature
Contract

There’s more than a little irony in the fact that Glen A. Larson’s TV series-turned-movie Battlestar Galactica has made it to DVD before the long-awaited digital debut of Star Wars. For despite the latter-day protestations of Larson and the still-strong fanbase for this 1978 television series, there’s really no likelihood that Galactica would have achieved the success that it did without the instant space-hero culture generated by George Lucas’ ubiquitous sci-fi landmark.

Battlestar Galactica was, according to some reports, conceived by Larson before Star Wars ever hit theatres, but it was the release of Lucas’s soon-to-be megahit that prompted MCA and TV network ABC to ante up millions of dollars to produce the series - initially as a set of long-form telemovies, but eventually as a standard-format TV series. It ran for two seasons before being cancelled in 1979, but the fanbase was already addicted, fanatical and determined to see their favourite show back on the air. But aside from a brief return to the concept in 1980 (with different actors) that was not to be - though Galactica star Richard Hatch (no relation to the Survivor contestant!) has made a mission out of attempting a revival of the concept, even financing and producing a trailer for a potential new film, and setting up his own website (at www.battlestargalactica.com).

Here in Australia, the series was aired on television - but not until after the release of not one, but two feature films culled from episodes of the TV show. The second (Mission Galactica: The Cylon Attack) appears to have only made it to theatres outside the US, but this first film scored worldwide release to great success (it was not, though, released in the US until after the TV series had been cancelled). Of course, a TV show shot in a near-square format with mono sound was going to need a bit of a boost to attract customers. And that’s when someone at MCA remembered Sensurround, their patented obnoxious audio enhancement process that gave audiences a spinal massage in Earthquake and Rollercoaster. Both Battlestar Galactica and its “sequel” scored the Sensurround treatment, which was actually a trivial thing to apply in post-production to any movie that needed it. The only problem was that very few theatres could reproduce it.

This reviewer saw the theatrical screenings here in Melbourne of both Galactica films, which were screened in the only cinema in town that could do Sensurround - Village’s East End Cinema 1 in Bourke Street, now long demolished. Patrons queuing up for the next session looked at each other nervously as the cinema and its foyer (mostly located underground) literally shook as a menacing rumbling continually thundered around. Once in the cinema, it was perfectly clear why, too - because right in front of the first row of seating was an enormous line of subwoofer speaker enclosures, their size and ominous presence undeniable. Before the film, a quirky, ‘50s-style “warning” trailer was played to advise those with heart conditions, pregnant women and presumably those who’d indulged in substances to LEAVE THE THEATRE NOW, in a charming display of old-fashioned showmanship unrivalled to this day. The Sensurround system itself was simple - a small, Sensurround-branded black box in the projection booth simply acted as a low-pass filter, sending sub-bass to a rack of amps powering the row of subwoofers. The result was bass at a level that makes even today’s Dolby Digital movies sound tame. This, folks, was not a subtle sound process, even if it was the forerunner of what’s now a commonly used concept.

With audio action of that kind going on, the film itself didn’t matter as much - and anyway, in 1979, space stuff was perfectly fine, no-one especially caring about the acting, script and production quality. Battlestar Galactica, luckily, had a valuable asset in John Dykstra and his team (which also included future effects luminaries like Richard Edlund and Denis Muren). Dykstra, also credited as the film’s producer, employed the techniques he and his team had designed from scratch for Star Wars and put them into action on Galactica with greater confidence, and while the show (and the film) constantly re-used shots to save money, the result, at the time, was eye-popping - though the effects look very, very primitive today.

The film itself? Well, that’s another story. It may have its die-hard fans, but Battlestar Galactica has none of the resonance of the Star Wars saga, though it’s perfectly harmless fun taken at face value. The thinly-veiled Star Wars influences are legion - for example, the opening narration (read by Patrick Macnee), which mentions people who fight to survive “far, far away amongst the stars”, or the characters’ repeated comment that they “have a funny feeling about this”. Coincidence, or direct influence? The courts at the time went for the former explanation when the lawsuits started flying.

The cast includes some familiar faces, as well as some forgotten ones, all of them trying to keep a straight face with a script that’s very silly, though admittedly less blatantly silly than Lucas’ writing for the first Star Wars movie. The late Lorne Greene is suitably pouty and stony-faced as Adama, while Richard Hatch and Dirk Benedict (both of whom virtually vanished from the mainstream after the series finished) do perfectly fine impersonations of Luke Skywalker and Han Solo. Keen-eyed retro music fans will be amused to see Rick Springfield doing a brief appearance as Zac, while other well-known character actors fill out the supporting roles, including Jane Seymour as the voluptuous Serina - a woman who has been unkind enough to name her son Boxey and then complain when the kid suffers depression - which may also be because he’s started hanging around with a bad mime artist in a robot-animal suit, a creature who keeps running away directly into the path of danger, making Lucas’ C3PO instantly seem like a rocket scientist by comparison. But despite this, Serina’s started seeing Apollo, whose best friend Starbuck has jilted his lover Athena for a fling with Cassiopeia, who works as a “socialator” (err, that’s “call girl” to you) and is therefore shunned by the star-wowsers. And we haven’t even mentioned Boomer or, for that matter, the charming ‘70s bouffant hairstyles that seem to be the fashion in this part of space, or the bubble wrap (yes, really, it’s bubble wrap) that acts as “high-tech curtains” on the passenger liner Rising Star. Esteemed actors like Ray Milland and Wilfred Hyde-White can do little but look on in amusement and speak with British accents.

Oh, and we’ll be needing An Enemy to do horrible deeds that the cast can constantly gasp “my GOD!!!!!” at. Bring on… the Cylons! The Cylons are very, very, very shiny versions of the Cybermen from Dr Who, with LED powered disco eyes and a vocoder voice to match. They’re supposed to be menacing, but unfortunately, in hindsight the Cylons look and sound like a renegade dance music production crew with too much happy gas in their systems. Nevertheless, they want to wipe out the human race (a fact that their traitorous human collaborator Count Baltar hasn’t quite cottoned on to - guess what happens to him!) and they’re damn well going to do it, even if they have to re-thread that stock effects footage a third time.

Compared to the likes of the Star Trek TV series of recent years, it’s all very, very silly and visibly “tinny” despite its supposedly massive budget - and its po-faced earnestness and almost total lack of humour doesn’t help. For this reviewer there’s an undeniable sense of nostalgia present while seeing this film again - after 22 years, it’s amazing how familiar it all seems. But even though it’s a perfectly entertaining dumb evening’s viewing, it’s unlikely that Battlestar Galactica will have the same effect on modern audiences that it did in the midst of the cinematic space race of the late ‘70s.

  Video
Contract

Universal have occasionally done great things with some of the films of this vintage that they’ve issued on DVD, and for Battlestar Galactica they’ve gone back to the original film elements and transferred them afresh - though in this case, the transfer is not 16:9 enhanced, implying that it may originally have been done for laserdisc use. While the film shows both its age and its limited ambition even more clearly on DVD, this is a surprisingly good transfer, with everything rendered cleanly and with plenty of detail, colours often saturated to intense levels but at other times reflecting the slightly “dirty” beige-green of the sets used for the spaceship interiors. Make no mistake, this looks its age - but despite that, it’s a wonderfully clean transfer, with no hint of film damage or grain aside from the effects shots. Those shots are not in good shape, but it’s probable that this was how they originally looked - remember, neither special effects technology nor optical printing were up to much in 1978.

The image is framed at 1.85:1 as it was in cinemas. Obviously, this material was originally shot full-frame for TV use, but careful re-framing was done to make the material suitable for cinema release, and that’s reproduced well here.

There are no MPEG compression artefacts noticeable throughout the film - not surprising, considering the high bitrate at which it is encoded on this dual-layer disc by the ever-reliable WAMO.

It should be noted that this disc offers the film at a running time of just over 124 minutes - exactly the same time as the theatrical release and the US DVD version. In other words, this is very likely an NTSC source master that has been converted to PAL, as the usual shortened running time caused by the 25 frame-per-second speed of PAL transfers is not the case here, despite the back cover’s suggestion to the contrary.

  Audio
Contract

Like they did with their terrific DVD edition of Xanadu (still unreleased in Australia, though apparently under consideration) with its pristine rendering of that film’s original 4-track magnetic stereo sound, Universal have grabbed the analogue audio masters for Galactica as used for the Sensurround release and transferred them to DVD. And that means we have a rarity of a sound configuration - Dolby Digital 1.1 mono. The main soundtrack of the film - dialogue, effects and music - is supplied on one channel, while the .1 channel contains the original Sensurround bass track, allowing you to recreate the experience at home. Okay, so you’ll need another few thousand watts of subwoofer amplification, a half dozen extra sub-bass speakers and a structural integrity check of your lounge room to do it right, but how nice it is to have the opportunity.

The main audio is well mastered, with not a hint of distortion or other problems, and sounds surprisingly good for what is essentially a TV soundtrack.

  Extras
Contract

No extra features to speak of appear on this disc; you get some hilariously overblown production notes that are well worth reading for amusement value, and a quick run-down of the careers of the main cast. It’s a shame the infamous Sensurround “warning” trailer isn’t included as a nostalgic bonus.

  Overall  
Contract

A classic to some and a curio to many, Battlestar Galactica is a brave - or, perhaps, foolish - attempt to ride the wave of the Star Wars phenomenon that ultimately failed, though it does have its die-hard fans. Universal have served those fans well with a good-quality DVD that presents this de facto movie in its best possible light, complete with its wonderful offering of the chance to do Sensurround at home.


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      And I quote...
    "A classic to some and a curio to many..."
    - Anthony Horan
      Review Equipment
    • DVD Rom:
          Pioneer 103(s)
    • MPEG Card:
          RealMagic Hollywood Plus
    • TV:
          Panasonic - The One
    • Receiver:
          Sony STR-AV1020
    • Speakers:
          Klipsch Tangent 500
    • Surrounds:
          Jamo
    • Audio Cables:
          Standard RCA
    • Video Cables:
          Monster s-video
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