Was Judge Joel Pearce fated to write this review? Would his choosing to review, say, the latest Sailor Moon disc instead have caused irreparable harm to the fabric of space-time? Can we get a miniseries out of this?
He has 5 days to stop his own murder.
Ridiculous titling choices aside, this sci-fi action miniseries makes great use of the format to deliver an intelligent thriller with high production values. A few flaws get in the way on occasion, but this is one that time travel junkies aren't going to want to pass up.
Facts of the Case
A physics professor named J.T. Neumeyer (Timothy Hutton, Ordinary People) is visiting his wife's grave with his daughter Jesse (Gage Golightly) when a mysterious case suddenly appears. It turns out to be a file containing the details of his own death, which is to take place five (5ive?) days later. He doesn't take the file too seriously—until some of the details mentioned in it suddenly start to come true. With his world crumbling around him, J.T. starts to become suspicious of the people on the file's suspect list: his girlfriend, Claudia (Kari Matchett, Angel Eyes), his brother-in-law Brad (David McIlwraith), a neurotic grad student named Carl (Hamish Linklater) and a man he has never heard of before named Roy Bremmer (Angus Macfadyen, Equilibrium). Will he be able to solve the puzzle of his own impending death in time? Is it possible to change destiny? And if so, will changing the future rupture the fabric of space-time?
>From the plot synopsis, it won't be surprising to hear that there's nothing particularly new about 5ive Days to Midnight. What I was impressed by is the script's willingness to grapple with the scientific issues involved with that kind of time travel and the dangers of changing destiny. It isn't subtle, and at times it's downright heavy-handed, but I have to admit to enjoying a good exploration of the fate vs. free will issue. This miniseries handles that debate well, because it seems to keep changing its position. At first, things seem to fall into place too cleanly for J.T. to be able to change his own destiny. As he tries anyway, he begins to believe that he will be able to save his own life, even though the scientific evidence seems to suggest that it will be either impossible or dangerous to change his fate.
Fortunately, that debate isn't the only thing going on in the series. There is also a decent whodunit (in the case a who'll-do-it, I suppose); the exploration of the various characters' motives helps a great deal in filling the running time. We get the time to explore each of these characters, and it is never certain how the series will turn out. The nice thing about the miniseries format is that a director is not limited to a running time of two hours, but also isn't expected to come up with enough content to fill a 26 episode series. The balance in this case is nice, making for several solid evenings of entertainment.
Most of the performances are better than expected. I was especially impressed with Timothy Hutton, who didn't lose his talent when he dropped off the radar a decade or two ago. As he moves from skepticism to panic, each moment of his performance feels believable. He is a good father, but not an annoyingly good father. He is intelligent, but the series doesn't try to sell him as the smartest physicist on the planet. The supporting cast is generally solid as well, with a few notable exceptions. Kari Matchett is excellent as Claudia, handling a number of emotional extremes with ease. Also decent is Randy Quaid, as the detective who reluctantly agrees to help J.T. Hamish Linklater steals many of his scenes as the nutty grad student, remaining just under the over-the-top line. Not quite as impressive was Gage Golightly, who seemed to be part of the scenery. Angus Macfadyen seems to be slumming it here, delivering his typical psychopathic performance. David McIlwraith's performance is quite silly.
Although the series has a number of strengths, it is far from perfect. The biggest problem is the editing, which involves this odd, digital undercranking/blur/slow-motion effect that is pointless and really ugly. Using it once or twice would have been all right, but it is used constantly during every single action scene. Cheap digital effects are no replacement for good filming and editing—the action of the series would have been a lot more exciting with some good filming techniques. I realize that television miniseries don't get the big budgets, but these difficulties can be overcome with some creativity. The other major problem is the end of the series. Although it didn't come out the way I expected, it wasn't because the script was really clever. It's because they tossed in one of those stupid twists that disregards logic in favor of the all-important surprise. It stands out, too, because the rest of the script is quite intelligent.
The transfer on the disc looks excellent. It is presented in its original aspect ratio, and looks far more cinematic than any television series would have a few years ago. For the most part, it could be mistaken for a large-budget Hollywood theatrical production. The colors are accurate, and there is an excellent black level. It rarely has that flat look that many television productions have, which is a good thing. It sounds good, too, with a meaty surround track that has plenty of rumbling and a wide sound stage. The dialogue is always easy to understand, and the music is generic but well-mixed. This is a great way to enjoy the series.
Lions Gate hasn't skimped on the extra features, either. There are commentary tracks on the first and last episode with director Michael Watkins and cinematographer Joel Ransom. They obviously get along really well, but there is a bit too much description and self-congratulation, and not enough detail about the development process. They often seem to think that 5ive Days to Midnight is far more ambiguous than it really is.
There are also three featurettes on the disc, covering a range of concepts. The first is called "The Formula For Design," and it discusses the creation of the various props for the series. These props did work very well throughout the series, and it was wise to point them out in the bonus features. The second featurette is called "Fractures of Time," and it covers the filming process and shutter speeds chosen during production. I understand why they made these choices, but I still don't like the end effect. The mathematical significance of shooting in fractions of frame speed means a lot to them, but we don't get to see that in the end product. We just see slow-motion blurring. All other aspects of the filming went well, though, and this featurette covers them well. The final featurette, aptly named "Proving Destiny: The Weatherby Oak Tree Stunt," focuses in on that sequence and how it was made. The sequence worked well, and it's nice to get a chance to see how it was put together.
Overall, I am quite impressed with 5ive Days to Midnight. It isn't great science fiction, but it is a well-told, slick story that fans of mysteries and the time travel conundrum will find well worth their while. It's a shame about the ending, but I still think any thriller fans will likely be satisfied with at least a rental. It's amazing what can be accomplished on television now, and the slightly longer format offers a lot more flexibility of form than a feature film does. The debate on fate and free will has been handled better elsewhere, but most viewers won't really be looking for that.
5ive Days to Midnight delivers four hours of solid entertainment, which is as much as we can ask any sci-fi television miniseries. Not guilty.
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