Nightflyers (1987)

(1987, Rated R) Catherine Mary Stewart (Miranda), Michael Praed (Royd), John Standing (Dr. D’Branin), Lisa Blount (Audrey), Glenn Withrow (Keelor), James Avery (Darryl), Hélene Udy (Lilly), Annabel Brooks (Eliza Scott), Michael Des Barres (Jon Winderman). Music: Doug Timm. Screenplay: Robert Jaffe (based on the novella by George R. R. Martin). Director: T. C. Blake. 90 minutes.

Tags: Science Fiction, Horror, Suspense

Notable: Dark sci-fi long before George R. R. Martin became Game of Thrones; comparatively low-budget film makes good use of atmosphere and suspense to supplant glitzy special effects.

Rating: ★★★★☆

In hope of finding an alien life form known as the Volcryn, a research professor is granted a small crew for a deep-space journey. The limited budget leads to the hiring of a computer-operated freighter called the Nightflyer, whose sole crew is Royd, the captain, who appears only as a hologram. Following a trail of weak psychic energy which may be the wake of the Volcryn’s journey through the galaxy, events on-board the ship lead the research team to wonder if the greater mystery lies within the ship itself.

After 30 years, the basis of this film — Martin’s original novella — is being turned into a television series, following several of the Sacred Truths of modern series. First: The guy pitching it has proven that he can push out a series whether the material merits it or not (Game of Thrones). Second: The target audience (millennials) hasn’t heard of the original before. Third: No one will care about the original once the new thing is in place (does anyone other than me still want to enjoy the original film of WestWorld?). And fourth: We’d rather throw millions at something we think will sell rather than develop something new and original. Here endeth the cynicism; let’s talk about this delightful guilty pleasure of an original.

Part of my love of this film is due to several of the actors who I’ve enjoyed in other roles. Michael Praed brought Robin of Sherwood to life brilliantly; James Avery (“Winslow”, the original Beauty and the Beast TV series of the late 80s) is always fun to watch; John Standing (The Legacy) is one of England’s great character actors, and he shares my birthday (August 16); and Michael Des Barres, debuting in To Sir, With Love, is an actor, rock’n’roller (formerly of The Knack, “My Sharona”), and the 26th Marquis Des Barres (which should be impressive enough on its own). With only nine actors for the entire cast, they learned how to play off one another quite well.

Another factor that won my heart with this film was how well it did with what I guess to be a comparatively small budget. The brooding electronic score by Doug Timm is its own character. (Timm was age 27 when he composed it; he died two years later, during a robbery at his home.) The interior design of the ship creates a strange mixture of large spaces that also have a sense of incompleteness and claustrophobia. Special effects are actually effective rather than flashy, and they are quite inventive in various ways. (The surgical bay, which uses robot-guided laser technology to reattach severed digits, owes a small debt to Logan’s Run, in more ways than one.)

The film’s flaw, I think, is that there are a few too many questions on first glance. Director Robert Collector (Memoirs of an Invisible Man) used the pseudonym of T. C. Blake, as he left the film before post-production was completed. Perhaps there were several minutes of film that should have been left in, providing a little bit more character development and some explanations that are desperately wanted. On first viewing, no one quite gets why Winderman freaks out, what drug it is that he is taking (and why), and questions about the ship’s computer systems that I oughtn’t discuss for fear of providing spoilers. On viewing the film a second or third time, it’s easier to pick up on clues that will fill in those gaps.

Let me offer these few points that shouldn’t provide actual spoilers. Winderman is described as a “Class 10 telepath”, selected for the team because Dr. D’Branin believes that telepathy will both locate and ultimately aid in communicating with the Volcryn. Eliza Scott is introduced as his empath; she is also his lover, the not-explicitly-expressed explanation being that her emotional connection with him helps him deal with the excess of psychic detritus that he experiences simply by being around other people. The name of the drug in question is “Esperon”, based upon the term extra-sensory perception (ESP). When the focus of the story turns its focus on his character, these points may help guide you through the confusing bits.

This is one of those films that I most enjoy talking about after you’ve seen it, so that we can talk about the fine points of what clues are dropped, when, and how. Until then, you’ll have to take my word for it. You might find the pacing slow in places, and I promise that you’ll be frustrated on several occasions, wondering if you missed what just happened; you probably have, and it’s not your fault. However, if you keep going through to the end, I think you’ll find it worth the trip. As the good doctor D’Branin is fond of saying, “Think of the secrets we could unlock…”

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