DVD MOVIE REVIEW: Battlestar Galactica: “The Plan” (2009)

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If you’ve ever wondered why it is that I always end up with the short straw around here, and end up reviewing the RDM Galactica, a show I’ve loved and been betrayed by, well, so have I. It’s not particularly germane to the review itself, but as this is probably my last opportunity to explain, the bottom line is this: As an 11 year old, I was obsessive about the original Galactica. I dreaded the remake, and hated the pilot for reasons that I still think are valid. Our Own Republibot 2.0, however, raved about the series every week during its first season, and cajoled me to watch it. I hated it, but to its credit, I hated it a bit less every week, and by “Kobol’s Last Gleaming, part 1” I loved the show. I was as obsessive about it as I was about the original up through the middle of Season 3, when, as most people will agree, the show began to drift creatively. Of course by then, I was invested in it, and followed it dutifully through the next 30 to 35 episodes (shown randomly over seemingly a decade of airtime), even though it was apparent they were putting less and less in to it, and I was getting less and less out of it.

Still, I soldiered on: They had a plan, they’d redeem themselves. I’ve seen this happen before: Babylon 5 seriously lost its footing in Season 5, but did manage to pull itself out in the end, even if it took half a year to get there. BSG would do likewise, right? Right? And Krusty’s gonna’ come and smite our enemies, right? Right? Right, Lise?

Well, it turns out that my faith was misplaced, and all that “God” stuff (Which was kind of fascinating in the early stages) ended up being just the grandest Deus Ex Machina ending in the long and completely inglorious history of television. But of course by then I was stuck reviewing the show because of my raving love for it during it’s middle sequence, and because my fellow Republibots refused to do it.

In the end, however, I don’t blame society: I blame R2.

Again, that’s got nothing to do with the review itself, but I thank you for letting me vent. Now, on to the matter at hand:

PLAY BY PLAY

We start out with The Brothers Cavil (Played by Dean Stockwell and Dean Stockwell) about to get executed via a Galactica Launch Tube ( “Lay Down Your Burdens, Part 2” the Season 2 Finale). We then flash back to Caprica, ten months earlier, a few days before the fall. The Cavils are plotting the final attack, and reveal that they’re doing all this because (A) Humans are a threat and even if they weren’t, Cavil just hates ‘em, and (B) Cavil wants an apology from his creators, the Final Five. He’s stranded them sans their real memories in various places on the Colonies so that they might learn of our depravity, and once they’re destroyed, they’ll repent of their love of humanity, and admit Cavil was right all along. One Cavil decides to head back to the Colonies to talk to Ellen Tigh in the moments leading up to the end. We also see the infamous scene of #6 and Baltar in the Riverwalk district of Caprica Caprica, and when he leaves and she says to someone “It’s about time you got here,” we *finally* see who she’s talking to. No huge surprise, it’s a Cavil.

We get brief shots of the Final Five going about their sleeper-lives, Ellen at a stripper club on Picon (Does she own it? Does she work there? Is she a hooker? Is she just the creepy middle-aged swinger she appears to be? What?), Tory Foster yacking on a cellphone driving to work, and Sam Anders in the mountains on “High Altitude Training” with the Caprica City Buccaneers. There’s a “Simon” with him. The attack comes and fails to kill any of ‘em.

Rescue Raptors start showing up: Cavil and Ellen get on one, Tory gets on another. Evidently these make it back to the Galactica, though how is never explained, and these are clearly not FROM the Galactica in the first place. We see some higgledy piggaldy in various location - on Scorpia, a Simon is fleeing carrying a small girl, a Six - “Shelly Godfrey” - is on a passenger liner, etc. There’s also a Hispanic lady named O’Neil who manages to make it to the fleet, seeking her husband and daughter.

We jump ahead to the events of “33”, when the models in the fleet meet in secret in the Galactica’s chapel, and discuss ways to disable said fleet until their brothers get there. Galactica Cavil reveals that there’s a sleeper on board, there’s a 6 who’s a hooker, and of course the “Shelly Godfrey” 6. Leoben is told to hack in to military communications so Cavil can get some intel. We get some stock footage of Lucy Lawless, but she’s not actually in the story. There’s a really funny scene involving the #5 or "Aaron Doral" model who reveals that he’s just terrible with even the concept of infiltration. (“Well, [the other one of me’s] jacket was burgundy, and this one is teal”). Sensing he’s useless, Cavil tells him to become a human bomb. (“They call it a ‘suicide vest’ but I think that undersells all the murder that goes along with it.”)

We weave in a somewhat perfunctory fashion in and out of the episodes of the first season, seeing all these characters do what it is we already know they did, but with a bit more backstory. For a while, it’s fun seeing Cavil giving them their marching orders, and having minor, forgotten mysteries (such as the “Disappearance” of Shelly Godfrey) explained, and yet it goes on too long, eventually. We see Leoben’s obsession with Kara start, too.

We get a bit more originality on Caprica, with Anders becoming the reluctant leader of a band of freedom fighters, and actually having some unexpected success. Eventually, another Brother Cavil infiltrates his group, at first intent on killing everyone, but then more and more interested to see what Anders will do. Simon grows increasingly annoyed by this, but it’s sort of fun seeing their early, semi-disastrous hit-and-run attacks, and their shock at realizing Cylons now look like humans.

There’s some neat character moments between Anders and Caprica Cavil as they bond. At first, Cavil is simply hoping to get something like an apology for humanity from Anders, but Anders is too meat-and-potatoes for philosophical discussions, and whenever Cavil lobs off an esoteric observation (“I don’t believe this is a punishment from the gods, but perhaps the Cylons have replaced the gods?”), Sam seems a bit confused by it, and fires back with something like “Wow, that’s trippy.” And yet, over the course of the movie, something changes between them. In the end, Caprica Cavil hears Ander’s confession - what’s eating him up is his own feelings of inadequacy - and then tries to turn it around. In the end, there’s a very well played, quiet moment where Cavil asks Anders if he can ever forgive the Cylons for what they’ve done, and although he’s not entirely aware he’s doing it at the time, it’s a really neat moment of Priest asking absolution from a penitent.

Very cool. Probably the kind of thing that plays better if you're Catholic, but still very cool.

Also cool, but less effective, is the relationship between Cavil and Sharon. He can turn her ‘sleeper’ programming off at will, which he does several times to give her new orders. She resists in both personas from the outset, though this does give us some neat moments immediately prior to the start of “Water” that work well, it goes on too long, and ultimately squanders most of its potential. The early scenes of this arc are good, though.

Meanwhile, back in the Fleet, the pretty Hispanic lady has met up with Simon, her husband. Cavil comes a’courtin’, and threatens to out Simon or kill his family if he doesn’t play along. We get an entirely gratuitous sex scene as a precursor to Simon killing himself, rather than harm his wife and adopted daughter. Cavil turns to sex with Prostitute 6 and booze to calm his annoyance that all his plans keep going awry. Eventually, Starbuck’s return outs the now-dead Simon as a skin job, and this devastates the pretty, occasionally naked Hispanic lady. She’s the one that puts the idea of swan-diving off the upper decks of the hangar bay into Chief Tyrol's mind. Ultimately he seeks counseling from the very same Cavil who’s been orchestrating the various Cylons in the fleet.

There’s also a subplot of a kid who keeps hanging around Cavil, until Cavil gets annoyed with him.

After Starbuck leads the rescue mission back to Caprica and Rescues Anders, both Cavils are outed, and Caprica Cavil gives their new message of truce. We then get a long, very well done split-screen conversation between the two of them discussing how their views have changed over time. Galactica Cavil’s time among the humans has made him hate them all the more, whereas Caprica Cavil’s time with Anders has made him grow to kind of grudgingly like them. There’s some funny, petulant moments between them (“I’m going to have you boxed!”) and then a moment of touching solidarity and fear before the end comes. We hear Cavil’s rant about how stupid a mortal body is, and how he wants to be a machine as their bodies drift through the fleet.

The End.

OBSERVATIONS

Did you ever see any of those awful Looney Tunes “Package” films from the '80s? You know the ones, like “The Looney Looney Looney Bugs Bunny Movie” ( http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0082679/ ) or “Quackbusters” ( http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0094939/ ) or “1001 Rabbit Tales” ( http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0083701/ ) or one of the half dozen or so other examples? If you’ve seen them, you’ll instantly get what I’m talking about, but if you haven’t, then I’ll explain that a “Package” film is a movie that consists almost entirely of previously-released material - cartoons in this case - with only a little bit of new footage shoehorned in to serve as a way to tie them all together in to a sloppy semblance of a narrative, and segue from one unrelated short to the next. It’s a low and cheap (literally) trick to play on the gullible, most of whom think they’re getting a new movie from their childhood heroes, but instead they just get the same crap they’ve been watching on the Bugs Bunny/Road Runner show for a generation, plus some poorly-animated interstitial crap. It’s sort of a way for studios to amortize their decades-old investments. Warners wasn’t the only studio to strip mine their soul this way, but they’re probably the most obvious about it.

“The Plan” is basically like that, only live action instead of a cartoon.

Am I being too critical here? No, I don’t think so because I said some nice things about it above, and I’ll say some nice things about it below, but regardless of how good some individual scenes may have played out, no matter how much fun it is to watch Dean Stockwell chew the scenery, there’s no real ‘inspiration’ to any of the proceedings, and ultimately it just comes across as an attempt to milk the gullible one last time off of their devotion to a dead show. I don’t want to give the impression that there’s nothing worthwhile in here, and I may be putting to fine a point on it, but the bottom line is that this is a live-action “Package” film: It’s just shy of two hours long, and only about 70% of that is “New” footage.

Thus the biggest problem this project has to overcome is its inherently low-art nature. There’s nothing lower than a “Package Film” this side of fan films.

(Curiously, this isn't even the first Galactica Package Film. When the original show got cancelled in 1979, there weren't enough episodes to syndicate it and make back the studio's money, so they ended up editing the standalone episodes together as "Movies" that were aired on UHF channels for the next several years. Man, I'd love to see those again! Clearly, "All of this has happened before and all of this will happen again" is more true than the producers realized.)

The second biggest problem is the inherent limitations that weaving in and out of the plot present for telling a story. In any tale you’re attempting to shoehorn in to a pre-existing, and completed story, you’ve got two options: (A) Tell a new story we knew nothing about, or (B) Tell us a story we already know, but in more detail. Both have their problems. Babylon 5 made a TV movie called “Thirdspace” that is set solidly in the middle of the fourth season of the show, which tells us a new story, sort of wedged in between the end of the Shadow War and the start of the War With Earth. It’s a big story, a sprawling story, a self-contained story with no consequences, and one that no one ever refers to again afterwards: In short, it’s a great big bastard of a “Why bother?” story. On the other hand, the Star Wars prequels elected to tell us a story that we pretty much knew or suspected already: Clone Wars, Emperor Takes Power, Vader Goes Bad, Democracy Destroyed, Kids Born And Put In Foster Care, oh yes, and at some point Someone Designs The Death Star And Builds It. The problem here, of course, is that they spend seven and a half hours of screen time telling us a story we pretty much already know from a couple of lines of offhand dialog in the original movies, and they don’t really add anything new or complex to justify the exercise. In the end, Episodes 1-3 likewise end up being one great big bastard of a “Why Bother?” story.

Seeing a theme developing here? Because you’re tied down by the confines of a very, very rigid series continuity, you don’t have a lot of freedom as to where you can go, though it can be done (“Fleet of Worlds” by Larry Niven was a fine example http://www.republibot.com/content/science-fiction-book-review-2-%E2%80%9... But then he went and blew it with the sequel, “Juggler of Worlds” http://www.republibot.com/content/book-review-%E2%80%9Cjuggler-worlds%E2... ) but even so, there’s a lot of stuff you can do to cast stuff in a new light, add complexity, whatever. It’s a ludicrously difficult trick to try, however, and I’m not convinced the payoff is ever really worth it.

“The Plan” more or less attempts the Star Wars route, where we’re given more detail about stuff that we already knew or suspected, which brings us to problem three: Mostly they’re answering questions that no one cares about. Even at it’s admittedly great peak, Battlestar Galactica was subjecting itself to plot erosion at a breakneck pace, so there’s a plethora of dangling threads all over the place. There’s a number of things that I’d like more information about, frankly. I’d like to know more about the Old Days on Kobol “Where the gods and man lived side by side,” and what led to them getting cast out. I’d like to know a bit more about the pre-Cylon days of the colonies. I’d like to know why their technology is clearly so far below that of their Kobolian forbearers. I’d like to know if the deleted scenes about the One Jealous God who tried to usurp the others are relevant and were cut because they were too revealing, or simply too irrelevant. I have theories about all these things, but one likes to know for sure.

Something I didn’t really wonder about was “How did Shelly Godfrey disappear at the end of the episode ‘Six Degrees of Separation?’” Nor did I wonder exactly how Leoben Conoy’s obsession with Starbuck began. I didn’t feel the need to know more about Simon. Nor did I wonder “You know, of all the possible ways Chief Tyrol could have used to kill himself, why’d he decide to jump off the top of the flight deck?” I didn’t feel the need to know what Brother Cavil was doing when he wasn’t onscreen: I just assumed he was up to something nefarious yet ineffectual, and I was right. These are not questions keeping me awake at night, and while these are not the only things The Plan dwells on, it does spend an inordinate amount of time on minutia rather than tackling Big Questions, or even attempting to plant elements in the early story that will make the whole “Mitochondrial Eve” seem anything other than overtly stupid.

Thus most of this is a waste, really.

There are some nice moments. The scene between the Chief and the pretty, occasionally naked Hispanic lady is very nice, and the moment when he realized that Boomer *should* have been able to shoot and kill Adama, but deliberately wounded him instead was very well played. The growing relationship between Caprica Cavil and Anders is neat, as is the growing distance between Caprica Simon and Cavil. The divergent development between the Cavils is neat, too, though probably overly pat and not as complex as we’d expect at this late date in a show that was so renowned for fairly dense packed scripts. We get some nice scenes of Rick Worthy as various Simons in various stages of personal development. While I never really connected with this character, I always thought he had a nice presence when he was about, and his part in this movie confirms what I’d suspected to be true: the man was criminally underused in the series.

So it’s not a total wash. I’m not convinced that what we get out of it is worth the effort, though. There’s no hiding the fact that we’re scraping the crumbs out of the bottom of the Galactica Snax bag at this point, and somewhere along the line you have to realize there’s just nothing else in there, and throw it away. I pray God that this movie is that point, but I’m sure someone else will want to do more. Edward James Olmos has made it known that he wants to do more.

Speaking of Olmos: I like him. I’ve always liked his directorial efforts, which have a different sensibility to them most other episodes of the show, and he does as good as he can here with such an iron-walled, carved-in-stone, nearly pointless script like this one. To be honest - and this *is* a compliment - I don’t think anyone other than him could have pulled this off. While there’s problems galore, none of them are really his fault, and it only works as well as it does because he’s at the helm. If anyone else tried to pull this off, it’d be a complete disaster. As it is, he puts his considerable talents to considerable use, and manages a resounding ‘meh’, but again, I attribute that to the law of diminishing returns. It’s not his fault.

The fourth major problem this production has is that it’s cheaper than hell, and it looks it. This film has been in the can for quite some time, and was made after the series wrapped production; after some of the major sets had already been stripped and/or broken down. Thus, major locations are conspicuously absent: There’s no scenes of the Control Room, of Sickbay, of Adama’s Quarters, or a half-dozen other take-’em-for-granted locations that evidently no longer existed. Thus we get a lot of hallway scenes, a lot of sequences in the Galactica’s chapel (Cavil’s headquarters), a bathroom scene or two, but try as they might, it’s hard to escape the feeling that this is all pretty threadbare stuff.

Actually, to be more clear, there *are* scenes of some of these locations, but they’re all stock footage, culled from previous episodes. For instance, we see several scenes of the control room, but they’re all scenes we’ve seen before in previous episodes. We also get a few scenes that are shot ridiculously tightly on minimalistic partial sets, in an attempt to hide the fact that the larger set no longer exists. One of the better Hanger Bay scenes is one of these. Not only are they spending a lot of time and energy telling us a more-or-less unimportant story, but they’re also spending a lot of time and energy hiding how limited their shooting options were when they made this. It’s a rough way to run a railroad, that’s for sure. Such new sets as there are seem rather cheap and fluffy. Ander’s training camp, for instance, looks particularly “Power Rangers: Ninja Force.”

They also clearly couldn’t afford the full cast. Jamie Bamber and Katee Sackoff are conspicuously absent, as are Tamhoh Penikett and Allesandro Jullianai and the lovely Kandyse McClure and Luciana Carro and Bodie Olmos and all the other prominent also-rans. (Really? They couldn’t find a way to get Bodie in this? He’s the director’s son, fer gosh sakes!). Most of these characters appear in the form of stock footage, of course, but no new scenes with them. Mary McDonnell doesn’t appear in any form whatsoever, which makes me wonder if she’s got a very good agent, or a very bad one. Lucy Lawless makes one or two brief appearances in stock footage, but is otherwise wholly absent.

Basically, we’ve got Cavil, Leoben, Simon, Aaron, Six and Eight, Anders, Tyrol, Tory, Tigh, and Ellen, Bill Adama, and that’s about it. And of these, a few are barely in it: Tory has three scenes, all in one lump, all trivial. Ellen makes a better showing, but easily shot all on one day, and mostly absent from the story. Tigh gets a couple scenes, which are good. Adama gets an appearance or two, but this is first and foremost the Cylon’s tale, so they can get away with the humans only making cameo appearances.

Continuity-wise, everything’s fine, everything’s golden. The only thing I noticed that didn’t track is that Adama’s hair tends to change length and greyness between some scenes, and of course The Chief's weight jumps up and down a lot between scenes. He is a lot stockier now than he was seven years ago (!) when they shot the pilot miniseries. That can’t be helped, though, so I’ll ignore it.

So there’s a lot of low cards in this particular hand, but they do make the best of it.

What’s surprising, then, is that so much of it works for as long as it does. Indeed, in the first act there’s a kind of giddy energy to watching the colonies fall - again - and seeing a somewhat broader picture of that. Some minor new elements are introduced: Evidently, a number of raptors from Caprica and other colonies managed to reach the Galactica before it left the system, something that’s never even been suggested before.

There’s a running gag involving a kid who’s dressed up just like the Dean Stockwell character from “The Boy With Green Hair” fifty years ago, and their interactions are…not exactly heartwarming. We do find out a bit more about the colonies - evidently they’re not all orbiting the same star as we’d previously assumed, but we’re told there are “Twelve battles around three stars.” We now know for a fact that the halves of the Cylon Base Ships can swivel independently about their axes, something that’s been suspected for a long time, but never explicitly seen. (Though there’s no explanation as to why they need to do this - it’s not like the trifoils turn in to some kind of big kill-o-zap gun when they line up or whatever). The Cylon M.I.R.V. technology is impressive. The scenes of the colonies attempting to mount a defense, and then having their Battlestars just fail was, y’know, eerie.

We also finally get to see some glimpses of the other colonies - finally! - and the orgy of destruction is much more widespread than we’ve ever been shown before. Though the colonies all show a somewhat independent sense of design - this one looks like Toronto, that one looks like Ottowa with a lot of domes - and they all explode real pretty-like, something about these scenes bugged me, so I re-watched them. Eventually I realized that the level, intensity, and color of light in all these CGIvilles is exactly the same, there’s no difference from the local star, nor from time of day. Even so, some of these scenes are kind of chilling, particularly Simon’s escape with a child.

There’s some interesting implications that are never really developed: The Cylons do appear to be specialized: Simon is always a medic, Cavil is always large and in charge, and so on. It’s implied that each of these is given over to running their own independent projects on the colonies - the Simons, for instance, are in charge of the farms - the Aaron Dorals are in charge of body disposal, and so on. It’s almost implied that the Final Five are assigned a Cylon for observation purposes, but it’s never really clear if this is intentional or accidental.

Speaking of Aaron, it’s interesting to see his demotion here. In the early episodes, he was the closest thing to an ‘authority’ amongst the revealed models. Here he’s played off as kind of a buffoon.

Grace Park grew in to a very good actress over the course of the show, and it’s interesting to see her revisit some of her earlier scenes. Likewise, Tricia Helfer is having a lot of fun here playing different iterations of the same character. There’s some stuff to like in these scenes, but it feels out of place.

There’s a lot of unexpected, and entirely-gratuitous nudity in the film that will be edited out when it hits SyFy. I like naked ladies as much as the rest of you - actually, probably quite a bit more than the rest of you - but it seems inappropriate to suddenly incorporate a whole bunch of nudity in to a franchise that’s heretofore come as close as it can to crossing that line without going over it. It’s not making a point, it’s distracting, and it’s not even going to make the final cut, so what the hell is the point? Beyond “I’ve got a five thousand bucks to blow, how many Canadian hookers can we rent for that?” Between this and the Caprica premier, it’s almost like the slogan for the franchise could be “Battlestar Galactica: Now With Boobies!” It’s also kind of annoying that all the naked chicks (And the few dudes) are generic background characters. You don’t get to see anyone naked that you’d really *want* to see.

We get no “Boxy,” nor any mention of what became of him, alas. That’s something I had wondered about. I know they have a lot of deleted sequences involving him. They certainly could have thrown one in, but, eh. It’s not a deal breaker.

The energy of the first act doesn't really last, however, and the film quickly gives way to languishing in boring sets while characters exposit as a means of introducing the next clip. Eventually it becomes obvious they’re just killing time. At 115 minutes, this thing feels way too long by at least a half hour, maybe more. By the last third, I was fast-forwarding through all the stock clips, and I wasn’t really missing anything. Presumably the Syfy cut will be much shorter, and just as the NBC cut of the Galactica pilot miniseries from three hours to two. As the two-hour cut was way, way better than the Sci Fi Channel version, so will the Syfy cut of The Plan be way, way better than the DVD version.

And of course it’s all a fool’s errand anyway. Remember years ago when we’d all sit around debating what the Cylon’s plan was? I’m sure you came up with some good ones. I did, too. The writers never bothered to, however. “The Plan” as revealed here was simply “Kill them all.” Arguably, a part of this plan could have been “Make the final five see the error of their ways while killing all humanity,” but that’s really just a refinement more than it is anything else. We get some slight redemption when Cavil realizes that ultimately he’s not at war with the humans per se, he’s at war with Love itself, but this is too little, too late, and, paradoxically, too early. If he realizes this at some point in season 2, then why the hell hasn’t he done anything about it by Season 4? He’s not stupid, after all. Psychotic, yeah, but not stupid. Hence the raison d’etra for the entire exercise - the attempt to retcon the nonexistent Cylon “Plan” in to something plausible - is a complete failure.

While fast forwarding through some long, boring interrogation scenes between Kara and Leoben, it occurred to me that it might be kind of fun to see all this new interstitial stuff edited in to the appropriate locations in the early episodes. I wouldn’t mind watching that, and it might actually help some of them out a bit, giving everything a much bigger wheels-within-wheels feel that Galactica occasionally threatened, but never delivered on, nor does it really do so here. Then it occurred to me that sure as shootin’, some obsessive fan is probably already doing it. (And please let me see when you’re done, ok?)

So how do I judge this? Well, earlier I compared it disparagingly to a fan film, and that’s not really far off the mark: We’ve got partial sets, a partial cast, a continuity-addled script only really suited for a very small subset of people who are both OCD and not very imaginative. (Like me!) Granted, it’s an official, licenced product, and professionally made, but if we’re honest here, “Battlestar Galactica: The Plan” is only slightly less of a fan film than “Star Trek: Phase Two: World and Time Enough” is. If it were an actual fan film, I’d probably give it an “A” for its extremely clever editing, good direction, neat CGI, and fairly clever central conceit. As a *real* film, however, I have to judge it by professional standards, and while it’s competently done, there’s just no inspiration here, and no passion, and hence, ultimately, no point.

I hope this is the last BSG film. It’s just a mass of continuity porn, and while it’s not amazingly unpleasant, it is amazingly ‘why bother?’ They had a chance to introduce something that would maybe cast the ending in a more sensible light, or at least in some way redeem the last season, and they never seem to have even thought of doing so. The failure of the imagination here is disappointing, since we’re not only being shown a lot of stuff that no one cares about anyway, but it is in no way changes our perspectives on the show we’ve already seen. It is an unmistakable case of what a lot of people call “Gilding the Lilly,” but in my neck of the woods, we call that sort of thing “Polishing a Turd.”

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