MGM // 2009 // 436 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // February 26th, 2010
The only mission is survival.
"We are on a ship, but we have no idea where we are in relation to earth."
A highly-trained team of soldiers and scientists (along with a handful of honored guests) are forced to evacuate their research base when it comes under attack. Their only option of escape is to step through the Stargate (for those unfamiliar with this franchise, a Stargate is a mysterious portal of sorts) on board the research base. Everyone is indeed evacuated safely, but unfortunately they've been sent a long, long, long, long way from home...millions of light years away from Earth, in fact. The group finds itself on an ancient starship that was created hundreds of thousands of years ago by some beings now known as "The Ancients." The ship's name is Destiny, and it is in severe disrepair. Many of the ship's life support functions are broken or breaking down, making it a considerable challenge just to survive from day to day. However, the ship seems to have a mind of its own, and it makes stops from time to time to allow the crew members to use the Stargate to dial nearby planets containing resources needed for the survival of the ship and the people on board.
The Destiny is commanded by Col. Everett Young (Louis Ferreira, Starship Troopers), a tough but sympathetic leader who attempts to approach each situation with level-headed calm. His unofficial second-in-command is Matthew Scott (Brian J. Smith, Hate Crime), a young soldier who also tends to prefer a no-nonsense approach. Young and Scott find themselves clashing frequently with Dr. Nicholas Rush (Robert Carlyle, The Full Monty), a scientist who holds the heavy responsibility of figuring out just how to get home. Rush unquestionably has the most brilliant mind on the ship, but many suspect him of having rather self-absorbed motivations (including the suspicion that he would rather not get home anytime soon).
One of the most unlikely members of the crew is Eli Wallace (David Blue, The Comebacks), a 20-something slacker who found himself recruited to work with Dr. Rush after unlocking a nearly-unsolvable puzzle encrypted within a video game. Eli tends to approach matters in a more jovial manner, which appeals to some and grates on others. He has a secret crush on Chloe Armstrong (Elyse Levesque, Unthinkable), a senator's daughter who finds herself alone after her father is killed during one of the tougher moments aboard the Destiny.
The ten episodes (well, they're divided a little unevenly but it's basically ten) are spread across two Blu-ray discs:
* Air, Parts 1 and 2
* Air, Part 3
* Air -- Extended Version
I've always had trouble getting into the world of Stargate. I found the 1994 Roland Emmerich film to be little more than a silly diversion, and despite several attempts, I could never manage to get into either Stargate: SG-1 or Stargate: Atlantis. Even so, I'm a sucker for good sci-fi, and I was intrigued when I heard that Stargate Universe (or SGU: Stargate Universe or SGU or Stargate SGU or whatever the hell its official title is supposed to be) would be taking the franchise in a new direction that would be accessible to newcomers. Translation: Stargate was going to remold itself to resemble the new version of Battlestar Galactica as much as possible. This was a source of great disappointment for many Stargate fans out there, who mourned their beloved franchise turning into some sort of "grim 'n' gritty" BSG knock-off. On the other hand, there were people like yours truly who thought that Battlestar Galactica was awesome and were hungry for an engaging space drama to fill that void (apologies to Caprica, which is an intriguing show but an entirely different beast than BSG).
It's only fair that you know my own feelings on the matter, because the show certainly seems to have generated some sharply divided opinions that have everything to do with what shows each individual was a fan of before this one came along. That said, my as-objective-as-possible perspective is this: SGU is not as good as BSG, but it's a dramatically compelling program that has gotten off to a very solid start and has planted some seeds that could allow the show to grow considerably (or not).
The show was created by franchise veterans Robert C. Cooper and Brad Wright, both of whom have done a surprisingly good job of managing to create an accessible program that still manages to remain faithful to the established Stargate mythology. The BSG influence can be felt in almost every area, both in positive and negative ways: this Stargate is grim, character-driven stuff that accentuates murky issues of personal conflict more than fantastical tales of adventure. The argument can be made (and has been made) that SGU is perhaps too humorless and moody for its own good, but it's a credit to all involved that both the plotting and the characters manage to be quite convincing and involving.
With a long-arc plot that very closely resembles that of BSG ("We're desperate survivors traveling through space attempting to figure out how to get to Earth,"), the program deftly balances the big-picture stuff with more episodic challenges, as one conflict after another rises that the crew of the Destiny must find a way to deal with. One of my favorite episodes is "Light," which offers a very moving tale about how the crew responds when they learn that the ship is headed straight into a star (which will almost certainly mean death for all but a handful of people who will be permitted to leave in a small shuttle). It's not much of a spoiler to tell you that they find a way out of the situation (c'mon, it's not like they were going to kill off the bulk of the cast a few episodes in), but the human behavior captured in this episode is particularly fascinating and affecting. It's the first real demonstration of just how good this show has the potential to be. Also noteworthy: the first two hours of "Air," the fiendishly clever "Time," the touchingly low-key "Life" and the tension-filled "Justice."
The key performances go a long way toward selling the program, as the show is blessed with a small handful of genuinely terrific actors. The unquestionable star of the show for me is Robert Carlyle as Dr. Rush, the least predictable and most intriguing character in SGU. Carlyle does a masterful job in terms of subtly exploring the character's tormented genius, giving us a lot to contemplate without ever revealing all of Rush's cards. Louis Ferreira (aka Justin Louis) serves as a satisfactory Commander Adama surrogate, bringing an excellent sense of gravitas to his scenes. The youthful David Blue initially seems a tad conventional, but that changes as the show progresses and Eli becomes the show's moral center. Recognizable faces like Ming-Na (ER) and Lou Diamond Phillips (La Bamba) have been featured prominently in the promotional materials for the show, but frankly neither actor is given much of interest to do during these episodes (though Phillips is involved in the single funniest moment contained in this set...you'll know when you see it).
Stargate Universe looks flat-out terrific on Blu-ray, despite the fact that the show frequently takes on an intentionally drab look. It follows the BSG approach of shooting things in that, "gritty, realistic," way with handheld cameras and dour lighting. Even so, the program contains quite a few visually spectacular moments that just leap off the screen (consider those gorgeous exterior shots of the ship, or the bright dazzle during the climactic moments of "Light"). Detail is strong, blacks are rich and deep, shading is excellent, flesh tones are reasonably accurate. There's also considerably less grain than most episodes of BSG, though there's no evidence of artificial tampering. Audio is just as good, particularly in terms of Joel Goldsmith's strong scoring (which is flat-out room-rattling at times, particularly during "Air" and "Light"). Sound design is nuanced and immersive, while dialogue is clean and clear. A great mix overall.
Supplements on the set are simultaneously exhaustive and exasperating. On the positive side, we have audio commentaries for every single episodes. On the negative side, many of the commentaries feature some of the younger cast members (who tend to be pretty distracted and giggly, often failing to provide much substance). A good rule-of-thumb is to stick to commentaries that feature at least one director or producer, as they tend to steer the conversation in a more substantial direction (the track featuring Cooper, Andy Mikata and Mark Savela on "Air, Parts 1 and 2" is a particularly strong entry). Elsewhere, each disc contains an "Destiny SML Star Map & Log," which is an interactive map that allows you to access a plethora of 2-5 minute featurettes on a wide variety of subjects. Though a lot of material can be found, it takes an awful lot of clicking and navigating to watch it all (alas, no "Play All" option is available). Finally, you get some "Kino Video Diaries," which are basically extended versions of scenes contained within the show.
Frankly, the "realistic" new direction of the show occasionally clashes with the fact that this is still a Stargate series. All the talk of aliens and Ancients may have been perfectly natural before, but somehow it seems a little weird in the context of this particular show (a fact the producers seem to recognize, as the only aliens actually seen during these episodes are little sand-like organisms...who knows when or if we'll actually see grown men in goofy make-up appear). In addition, SGU has a tendency to slip into dullness on occasion, with episodes like "Air, Part 3" (which spotlights a long slog through a desert planet) offering a lot of scenes that feel like little more than filler. Finally, there are simply too many peripheral characters that seem indistinct and poorly-defined. Hopefully future episodes will allow us to get to know and understand some of these folks a little better.
However, my biggest complaint with this set is the cost. The set retails for $70, which is a flat-out insane price for just over 7 hours of television spread across two Blu-ray discs. I'm not a big fan of half-season sets to begin with, much less half-season sets that cost nearly as much as full-season sets. By all means wait until the price drops on this collection before purchasing it (some online retailers are selling it for around $40, which still seems awfully high).
Price issues aside, Stargate Universe 1.0 offers a very good half-season of one of the more promising new sci-fi (or should that be Syfy?) shows of recent years. At the very least you should consider a rental, as it looks and sounds terrific in hi-def. Here's hoping the show continues to build on the potential demonstrated in this first batch of episodes.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.78:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 436 Minutes
Release Year: 2009
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Episode Commentaries
* Video Diaries