Ever since I started my No Sacred Cows column, people have accused me of a bias against movies and of being mean. Ah, how little they know me. See, you think I’ve been nitpicky and mean to good movies? You think I’ve just watched those films so many times that I’ve sucked the joy out of them and replaced it with gripe? Well, you might be right, but here’s what I do to a bad movie. The movie of this special edition of No Sacred Cows is 2001’s Epoch, directed by Matt Codd (a director so unheard of that he doesn’t even have a Wikipedia page), and starring a list of people you’ve probably never heard of, but have seen, a lot, in bit parts or other bad movies.
Seriously, have you ever heard of David Keith? He’s best known to geeks as the father in Firestarter, but to real people as the sidekick in An Officer and a Gentleman. Doesn’t ring any bells, huh? How about Brian Thompson? Oh, you’ve seen him. He plays every third bad guy, from two different Buffy villains (Luke and The Judge) to the guy that Arnold stole his clothes from in Terminator to the main villain Cobra (yes, the guy with the knife) and The Order. Ryan O’Neal gets second billing, and you should know him… but from the get go it’s clear he’s phoning this in. This movie was a paycheck for the father of Academy Award winning moppet Tatum.
Anyway, enough about the lack of talent in the cast and on to the show. Ever know from the very first moment of a movie that it’s going to suck? Well, Epoch opens with a shot of space and words appear on the screen, words written by Phillip Roth who is, this film to the contrary, one of the most well-respected and genuinely brilliant writers of his generation and thus ought to have known better. Those words are “Earth 4 Billion Years Ago” and then the “Artifact” crashes into a liquid blue-gray ocean under stormy skies. Tiny problem. Four billion years ago was the Late Bombardment period when Earth was being continuously smacked by rocks and the planet’s surface was covered in volcanic activity. Following that, the planet was an amino acid rich soup with ammonium seas and methane atmosphere until water and oxygen showed up in concentrations rich enough to cause lightning storms, which converted the ammonia and methane into ozone, oxygen, water, and nitrogen… all of which came about as a result of photosynthesis about 3.5 billion years ago. So… off by half a billion years or so… at least they got the order of magnitude right. But maybe astrophysics and paleo-geology aren’t Roth’s strong suit.
Then we jump to the modern day, and skipping some unimportant stuff about a kid dying in Bhutan, a strange electrical tremor in the ground, and the blacking out of the entire eastern hemisphere, we cut to the main character, played by David Keith. He’s revealed to be sick, dying of what we later learn is ALS within 12 months. At that moment I think, dollars to donuts, he’ll be cured by the end of the movie. As he’s leaving his doctor’s office, which for unknowable reasons is in some backwater village in Mexico… because, you know, American medical institutions know nothing about Lou Gerrig’s Disease… he gets pistol whipped by offensive and pointless mexican stereotypes, but its okay because within a couple of hours all he sports is a bandage, no bruising visible… a white bandage without any visible blood. And for those keeping score, it’s never changed and when it’s removed a day later, there’s no sign of any blood or grime on the bandage at all. Yes, it’s that kind of movie.
Still, it gets worse. We’re informed, through clumsy and stilted dialogue that the MC, who’s name, I kid you not, I kept forgetting between scenes, it’s that forgettable… hold on, I’ll google it… Mason Rand… right… I’ll try and remember, can “elucidate any technology within 24 hours” and is an expert at “figuring out how to decommission” such technology. Is that the correct use of the word Elucidate? I’m pretty sure it’s not, but (like the director) I can’t be arsed to actually look it up. And how much experience does Rand have with 4 billion year old alien technology and “Decommissioning” it. Oh, and this piece of vital information comes to us via Mason being told of his own skills by Dr. KC Czaban (played by Stephanie Niznik, a D-List bit player who in no way possesses the acting chops to carry even this role). Really? She’s telling him what his own skills are. Oy. Oh, and she’s the love interest. We find this out at the end when they kiss… because apparently if there’s a man and a woman in a movie together, they have to fall in love by the end… or something.
Anyway, a man who can “elucidate” yada yada apparently can’t tell an Army Captain from a Sergeant, despite having worked at DARPA and SKUNKWORKS, as we’re introduced to Brian Thompson’s Automata of the Hour, the apparently bipolar Captain Tower. This man is so gung-ho even his gungs are ho. Seriously, on a qualification check sheet for potential first contact military advisors, Tower hits every single nonononono on list. Is he a hot head? Yes. Is he a religious fanatic? Yes. Is he a moron? Yes. Does he know what being an Officer is all about? No. Is his initial reaction to any potentially dangerous situation to use force? Yes. How about momentary setbacks… like doors that are proving difficult to open? Yes. Does he overreact to everything? Boy Howdy! In the first 30 seconds, he says “I’m not here to think”. An actual sergeant saying that I’d buy, but an Airborne Captain? Oh, this is going to be a loooong movie.
As an aside, why the hell does every movie with military types and aliens portray the military types as monumentally overconfident of their own ability to deal with a potential threat from an alien culture that just crossed the stars to get there? Wouldn’t a crack special forces team be nervous as hell about the possible weapons on a half mile high floating spaceship? What makes any student of military history, which most officers are to some degree, not grok to the idea that aliens might have technology that’s more advanced than an M-16? I can only chalk it up to watching too much Stargate SG-1 and thinking, yeah, it makes sense for modern weapons to work better than hypertech energy weapons.
Look, this movie is dumb. I could go on, and on, and on. The dialogue is utter crap. At one point the movie’s token black guy, Dr. Solomon Holt, played by James Avery (of Fresh Prince fame) utters the line “Go with me.” Not “Come with me.” “Go with me.” Who says that, apart from, you know, Jesus or Buddha.
There’s exactly one actor in this movie who’s any good at all; James Hong plays the Chinese Ambassador and he’s spot on. He delivers every line with acerbic and dry humor bordering on rage, rage at how idiotically the Americans are handling the situation. The artifact, called the Torus, is located in Bhutan, 100 miles from the Chinese border, but the American Military has locked off access to the area and refuses to allow anyone access, including the Chinese. And to back it up, they’ve sent a nuke to blow the Torus up, rather than allow anyone else to examine it.
This movie is absolutely insulting to America by the way. The Military are insane or stupid or cowards and the President’s Advisers are just plain craven… at one point the two lead Advisers actually refuse to pick up the phone to give the President a sitrep and instead have their female assistant (who I swear is there to add a second woman to the cast, we don’t even get her last name) answer. She says, in another stroke of brilliant writing “I’m afraid they’re both unattainable”… not obtainable, attainable. Apparently, talking to your advisers when you’re the President is an achievement. I wonder how many gamerpoints it’s worth.
In the end, the purpose of the Torus is revealed. It’s god. It’s the source of life on the planet. It created the dinosaurs and when they didn’t work out it destroyed… I’m sorry… it “reterraformed” them, freezing them to death with an impenetrable cloud cover… and it’s going to do the same to us… but then we show it the power of love and it allows us to live and itself to be destroyed by the bomb… despite being shown to have matter transmat abilities (in addition to being able to heal any injury up to and including being exploded in a fiery ball when your MIG is shot down by an energy tentacle) at a range of several miles.
The worst part about Epoch is that it contains the seed of a better movie, of an actually decent story. I know this because I’ve read Rendezvous With Rama and The Authority, played Xenosaga and The Dig, and seen 2001 and Stargate. A multi-billion year old artifact that’s the source of life on Earth, is home to glowing energy octopi, and heals all wounds, even unto death, that’s the focus of growing tension between the US and China (and probably Russia and India) could have been an interesting jumping off point. A combined team works together inside, battling their own suspicions of their fellows while the governments of the world wage battles of brinksmanship, edging everyone closer to nuclear war. Meanwhile, the four armies arrayed around the Torus, stymied by their inability to kill, struggle with internal religious strife, wanton cruelty, and the ever-growing swarm of pilgrims descending from around the world to be healed or saved. That could have been a movie or mini-series worth watching.
This movie sucks. Not only does this movie suck, but it’s pretty much the reason why the SyFy network keeps making crappy SyFy movies instead of anything decent. It got more viewers than Frank Herbert’s Dune the year before. There’s even a sequel, which reunites Rand and Tower for more hijinks. Epoch: Evolution is also directed by a man with no Wikipedia page… but at least it doesn’t have Stephanie Niznik, choosing to replace her with a C-List supporting actress named Angel Boris… and Billy Dee Williams. Seriously, doesn’t David Keith’s expression (seen to the left) say it all: “They made a Sequel? WHY!?”