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Tycus
(1998)
 

Director:John Putch                                
Cast:
Dennis Hopper, Peter Onorati, Finola Hughes


Some of the special effects in the direct-to-video movie Tycus are excellent; they could easily stand up beside the best special effects in major studio movies. These excellent special effects sequences include a scene of a highway on-ramp collapsing from the force of a fallen meteorite, a shot of a Mount Ranier-like mountain exploding into a volcano, a night sequence where lava pours down past a log cabin and swallows up a vehicle - hey, wait a minute! No wonder the special effects in these scenes look so good. They were taken from the big budget movie Dante's Peak, and from looking at the end credits, these scenes were taken without permission from Universal Studios. And two other special effects scenes - one involving a meteorite and a dam, the other involving a meteorite slamming into a skyscraper at night - I'm pretty sure came from that miniseries a few years back concerning a big asteroid coming towards earth. This "borrowing" hurts Tycus in two ways: one, it's hard to generate any warm feelings to a movie that rips off footage from other movies, and two, the slickness of these "borrowed" special effects make the movie's own special effects look more cheap and cheesy than they would normally be considered.

I will admit that the special effects used to draw the approaching comet (which is the cause of the rash of earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, and other natural disasters earth is suddenly plagued by ) isn't badly done. In case you're thinking that I somehow spoiled the movie for you, don't think that way - not only does the video box tell us this, but the movie begins with the end of the movie, with Earth under bombardment from millions of meteorites the comet has caused. Since we see all of this footage once again at the actual end of the movie, one has to wonder why they tell us what happens at the end of the movie at the beginning - could it be that the makers of this movie felt their first cut wasn't long enough? Whatever the case is, it irreparably damages the rest of the movie, because much of the movie is the investigation of a mystery. Tabloid photographer Jake Lowe (Onorati) one day gets a short phone call from a friend who he thought was dead, telling him a stranger will soon deliver something to him. Getting some equipment and coordinates to somewhere in the Sierra mountains, he parachutes into the restricted area and begins his infiltration. This isn't a bad way to start off a movie, but since we are given important pieces of evidence at the beginning of the movie, we figure out what's going on long before Jake does. As an unintentional result, we get impatient with Jake and groan at his "wrong" decisions, even though we know he has no idea of what's going on.

With these strikes against you, it would be hard for a performer to stand up to all of this. Surprisingly, Onorati doesn't do that badly, considering the circumstances. Though he's involved in some (mostly minor) action scenes, his character is more of an ordinary guy than usual, and Onorati gives an amiable, easy-going performance that suits his character. It's unfortunate that we cringe through his character's "wrong" actions, and because of that, one may judge his performance unfairly. But take away the movie's opening, and one will clearly see that Onorati's actions and performance in these actions are acceptable. Dennis Hopper, unseen until near the second half of the movie (except for a small scene near the beginning), is cast in what initially seems like a strange part - an astronomer. And he sports glasses and a goatee. He actually looks pretty good, and he also manages to be credible in playing this part of the astronomer who is the ringleader of this conspiracy being held back from the public. Interestingly, he isn't a villain - at one point, Jake hotly questions Hopper's character if he ever thought of all the women and children that are going to die. It turns out Hopper's character has, and several times in the movie he gives explanation as to why his actions and plans, though initially seeming to be unfair, are actually the best choice under the circumstances that humanity has.

Though the screenplay for Tycus is overall unexciting and very padded, it actually takes the time to look at some of the moral issues that could happen in a situation like this. Though the movie reveals that the decision made by Hopper's character does have some unfair attributes, it acknowledges that maybe there could never be a solution that would be satisfactory, even if the situation was different. Some scenes near the end of the movie, involving people that have been denied help for the crisis, stick out. (These scenes are shot without dialogue, which makes them stick out even more.) It can't be denied that there are some interesting and likable things about Tycus. Unfortunately, there is much more to criticize about it. For starters, the movie makes a number of scientific errors. For example, a rocket's thrusters in real life only work long enough to get the rocket out of orbit - they would not be still burning nine hours later, or be needed to keep the rocket moving out into space! The biggest blooper is the movie trying to pass off that none of the hundreds of other astronomers noticed this approaching comet until the last minute - excuse me, but comets aren't that hard to spot, even if they are months away!

Another problem is the production values - I will admit that it seems the filmmakers tried very hard, and did find some locations to shoot that could be passed off as what they were trying to portray. However, the sets they built are incredibly cheap - a cockpit for a Hercules transport plane looks as bad as the cockpit from Plan 9 From Outer Space, the walls of a cave look like chicken wire covered with painted paper-mache, and the office of Hopper's character, in what's supposed to be an expensive complex, laughably looks like the room of a warehouse. Another result of the very low budget is in the use of footage from other productions. I don't just mean the use of special effects scenes from other productions, which is shameful enough, but other kinds of footage, which leads to some very embarrassing results. Some scenes have that Hercules transport plane flying over the Sierra countryside, but the vegetation is clearly from a country near the equator. Another scene has Jake preparing to parachute from the airplane, and is wearing a white helmet. However, when we see his figure falling towards earth and opening the parachute, the white helmet is missing. When we see Jake closely again (on the ground), his helmet is back on. Though I do agree the quality of the screenplay is more important than the quality of the production values, I firmly believe that at certain times, one must spend a minimum amount of money in order to pull off these key actions of the story in a professional way. The makers of Tycus certainly didn't, and what is worse is that their screenplay, aside from a few interesting moments, doesn't boast at least the minimum amount of quality either.

NOTE: One unusual scene in the movie, when Jake is racing home to get his wife, has him passing a home full of students. The students have put up a painted bed sheet sign exclaiming, "F--- the comet - We're staying put." Those dashes in that four-lettered word are not my censorship - that's how the word actually appears on that sign. Some cynics may accuse the filmmakers of "selling out" by not wanting to risk the loss of a television sale. But in my opinion, it's nice to know that the director is optimistic in thinking that today's youth will be careful not to offend anyone if they believe they are f---ed.


UPDATE: Steven Denton wrote in with this:

"In your review of Tycus you state that the scenes with the transport aircraft look like they are over a Tropical country, not the US Sierra.  That is correct, if you look at the side of the C-123 transport, you can read the words "Air America".  Yes these scenes are also lifted from the Mel Gibson film Air America, including the Water Buffalo by the side of the Landing strip."

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See also: The Crater Lake Monster, No Blade Of Grass, Slipstream

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