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I should probably preface this review of Kenneth Johnson’s “V” by saying that “V” made me love science fiction. In fact, while I had seen science fiction movies and TV before, I never really had much interest in it. That is, until “V.” The mini series first aired so long ago (1983, to be precise) that it seems like another lifetime. I was a little pup at the time, but even then I knew I was witnessing greatness. In every respect, “V” was a seminal work, and (although I hate to use this phrase) changed my life completely with its powerful storytelling, its wonderful narrative, and its combination of human drama and thrilling action.
By now everyone knows the premise of “V” even if they have never seen it. That’s because the mini series’ whole premise (a technologically superior alien race arrives for a hostile takeover of Earth’s resources) was redone in the Hollywood blockbuster movie “Independence Day.” Unlike “Independence Day” though, the aliens in “V” — called “Visitors” — appears in human form and claims to be friendly. In return for simple materials that Earth has in abundance, the Visitors will share their own superior technology and medicine. It turns out the Visitors are not the good Samaritans they claim to be — or even human-like in appearance, for that matter. The aliens are actually lizard in appearance and are here to steal Earth’s water as well as using its human population as — gasp — a food source!
The greatest asset of “V” is that it’s all one man’s vision, and it’s a masterfully rendered vision at that. Writer/director Kenneth Johnson is in full control here, and give us a TV mini series that is a present allegory to the rise of the Third Reich, Hitler, and the Nazi party in Germany, only disguised as sci-fi. The mini series starts out with a bang and never lets up. The aliens arrive quickly and ominously in their 3-mile wide ships and hovers over the major cities of the world (again, think “Independence Day”). Soon, humans and Visitors have bonded and the Visitors are sending their people to Earth to “help” humans in their everyday life. Or are they?
Marc Singer (“The Beastmaster”) as Mike Donovan, a cameraman who suspects that the Visitors might have an ulterior motive, leads the mammoth cast. Like all mini series of epic scale, “V” has a wealth of speaking characters, and the series, clocking in at over 196 minutes sans commercials, has all the time it needs to develop each and every single character, giving everyone a distinctive personality. There’s Eleanor (Neva Patterson), Donovan’s ambitious and cold mother who becomes a collaborator with the Visitors; Faye Grant as a med student who becomes the leader of the human resistance despite all of her natural instincts to just run and hide; and Diana (Jane Badler), the beautiful but very dangerous (not to mention sadistic and cunning) leader of the Visitors.
Besides individual characters, “V” also focuses on whole families. One, the Bernsteins, really focuses in on Kenneth’s allegory to the rise of Nazi Germany. The Bernsteins are a Jewish family, with a son who wants to be a Visitor, a grandfather who remembers the concentration camps, and the middle generation that struggles to survive the coming fire. While some characterization seems forced and sometimes too stilted, when taken as a whole with “V’s” grand scheme, they all work.
If there is one thing that will make “V” stand out in a negative light (for those wishing to deride it, that is) it may be the 1983-era special effects. While the shuttlecraft scenes are obviously bluescreen, and the motherships are all matte painting, Kenneth uses a lot of creative camerawork to hide much of the film’s (and the film industry’s) still burgeoning sfx technology. So don’t expect George Lucas-like cgi here, because even George Lucas didn’t have “George Lucas-like cgi” back in 1983. But where it lacks in breathtaking effects, “V” more than makes up with a stunning story, excellent and multi-faceted characters, and an intelligent screenplay that never takes the easy road out.
Even the Visitors aren’t all bad. Some are actually very nice and unaware of their leader’s intent to rape Earth of her resources and use her population as food. As the mini series progresses, there is a very real sense of growth for all the characters, humans and aliens. Not an easy thing to do considering just how many characters there is.
Even considered as a straight science fiction film, “V” is a monumental achievement. Considered as a straight drama about the facets of being human — from greed to ambition to paranoia to rising to one’s potential — “V” succeeds in spades. It’s a supremely intelligent story about aliens and flying motherships that nevertheless manages to be very, very human.
Kenneth Johnson (director) / Kenneth Johnson (screenplay)
CAST: Jane Badler …. Diana
Michael Durrell …. Robert Maxwell
Faye Grant …. Dr. Juliet Parrish
David Packer …. Daniel Bernstein
Neva Patterson …. Eleanor Dupres
Tommy Petersen …. Josh Brooks
Marc Singer …. Mike Donovan