A Prison of the Future. A High-Tech Hell. Built to Hold Anything…Except an Innocent Man.
A vaguely futuristic sci-fi flick gets a low-budget DVD treatment.
I suppose the first sign that I might not like Fortress came when I noticed that it was a pan and scan ONLY transfer. Yeccchh! I guess Artisan was in a hurry to join Warner and get all that praise for having the cojones to force hack-job transfers on the public, and at a higher price, too. If it were full frame, that would be one thing, but I positively despise pan and scan, which is why I converted to DVD in the first place. Sigh.
The story opens as John Brennick (Christopher Lambert) and his wife Karen Brennick (Loryn Locklin) are attempting to escape the United States, in a vaguely futuristic time where everyone gets a tattoo barcode. Though we don't find it out right away, we also learn that a woman is only allowed to have one child due to some undefined problems due to population pressures, and that any further children are subject to "confiscation." As it turns out, Karen is pregnant again, already having had one child (who tragically died). It does not take long before they are discovered and arrested, and shipped off for lengthy prison terms.
The prison in question is run by the omnipresent and plainly evil Men-Tel Corporation (when have we EVER seen a corporation that wasn't evil?) run by an intelligent supercomputer, Zed-10, and the stereotypical sadistic warden, Prison Director Poe (Kurtwood Smith). Lasers, cameras, robots, and various high-tech correctional devices abound, including the "intestinator" which goes (well, you can guess) and is used to control the inmates with pain (or even death).
John gets crammed into a cell with several other inmates, including the oddly named D-Day (Jeffrey Combs) and shortly gets into the usual fight with a thuggish inmate. The fight leads to bad blood, which only makes matters worse, until it degenerates into a fight to the death. John refuses to kill his opponent, which enrages Poe to the point where he puts John in a "mind wipe" machine for several days. Poe agrees to release John from his near-fatal mind-wipe only when Karen agrees to be his mistress and live in his quarters.
Of course, once John is back to his, ah, normal self, we move on to the next staple of the prison movie genre, the elaborate planning for an escape attempt. With some inside help from Karen, he gets access to plans for the prison, and then D-Day provides the crucial help of discovering how to extract the intestinator (in unpleasant fashion). John and his by now best friend cellmates make a break for it, looking to pick up Karen on the way.
The big-budget action escape sequence shows off some low-rent Borg knock-offs, kills off most of John's (plot) inconvenient cellmates, scrambles the cyberbrains of the all-powerful supercomputer with ludicrous ease, the sadistic warden gets his, and John rescues his wife from a horrible fate. Like you expected something else? Before the movie wraps, we get a laughable computer-possessed truck, the last cellmate becomes one with the Earth before John can take care of business and Karen has her baby. Everybody is happy (except for the dead-uns)!
The video, well, would it be too repetitive if I mention just how much I detest pan and scan? The theatrical release was 1.85:1, which is not that severe of an aspect ratio, which makes me puzzle over the decision to hack and scan. The picture is okay, but nothing beyond adequate. Colors are muted in their saturation, sharpness is merely average, and film grain is evident throughout most of the movie, as well as a fair amount of flecks of dirt and blemishes.
The audio is okay. Nothing amazing, nothing particularly horrible. I didn't notice too much directionality to the soundfield. The subwoofer is used to anchor the action scenes well, and sounds better used in this mix than in your average Dolby 2.0 mix or some of the 5.1 remasters that I have heard.
Extras are a basic package, with cast and crew bios and filmographies, a decent set of production notes, a two page insert with some additional notes, and a fair quality pan and scan trailer. All this packaged in the annoying style of keep case.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Given that this is not a Hollywood production, I can cut a film some slack if it doesn't have the typical slick production values of a modern big screen sci-fi blockbuster. That is, until they forget to get a decent screenplay and phone in the acting.
I have to laugh at the flack from the New York Times quoted on the back of the box, calling this "visionary sci-fi." Come again? How can you call a movie visionary if it utterly fails to flesh out its backstory? A lot of the major plot elements are thrown at you without any explanation about their context. What is the United States like in that time? What's the story behind the ever-present bar codes, and what exactly lies behind the one child or else rule? Men-Tel is a pretty ominous corporation, yet we get absolutely zip about it. What does it do, and why? John Brennick is apparently a massively decorated war hero in an elite unit who ended his career in disgrace, but we get only passing references to it, and have to accept them on faith.
The acting is quite disappointing. Christopher Lambert has the oddly imposing looks to be an action hero, but he just is too stiff. If you doubt me, compare his acting before he gets mind-wiped and after he recovers. Not that much different than when he was a mind-wiped zombie, if you ask me. The driving force behind his desire to escape is his wife and unborn child, but there's just not a lot of chemistry between Lambert and Loryn Locklin. She does a better job of conveying an emotional range, to the point of being convincing (unlike Lambert). Lincoln Kilpatrick is decent as the prison-wise Abraham and Jeffrey Combs is nice as the oddball tech wizard, but he is better known for his turn as Weyoun on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Kurtwood Smith is a fine actor, as seen in Robocop and currently on TV in "That '70s Show," but here he seems a bit flat. He's pretty clearly the bad guy, but you just don't get a strong taste of personality necessary to find him truly convincing. He can do much better.
I also am disappointed at the absence of any subtitles, captioning, or alternate language audio tracks. Those may not be necessary to me, but I can't help wonder why Artisan would make this disc inaccessible to every single person who doesn't speak English or who is hearing-impaired.
If cheesy sci-fi is your genre, or you don't want a movie that will demand too much brainpower, and don't detest pan and scan as much as I do, then by all means give it a rent. If you choose to buy, at least it's more reasonably priced ($25) than some bare-bones DVDs out there, but with a pan & scan transfer, I wouldn't recommend it.
Film and disc are guilty as charged, and I'd recommend that they bring a toothbrush when they appear for sentencing.
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