With the success of such syndicated shows as Star Trek: The Next Generation and Tales from the Crypt, Metro Goldwyn Mayer decided it was the right time to bring back its old anthology series, The Outer Limits. The one hour show would first appear on the cable network Showtime, and then be released into syndication.
All they needed was a good story – one that could handle being extended into a 90 minute movie. They found it in a George R.R. Martin novelette, “Sandkings”. The 1978 story would have to undergo some major adjustments in order to work on TV – not the least of would be that it had to work within a TV budget.
The original story is an award-winning horror tale where the protagonist is a right proper cretin who deserves everything that happens to him – but I’m not going to talk about that. Not even about how the movie is different from the story. One has to treat the movie on its own – and if you have to have read the book to understand the movie, then the movie hasn’t done it’s job.
You get to see three generations of the Bridges acting family here. Beau Bridges plays the lead, Simon Kress, a biologist studying insect-like creatures that happened to have been picked up and brought back by a Mars sample-return mission. Lloyd Bridges is his father, who clearly favored Simon’s brother – and still does. Dylan Bridges is Simon’s son, Josh. The only other cast members with any significant roles are Kim Coates, who plays Simon’s boss Dave and Helen Shaver, who plays Simon’s wife Cathy.
Kress is studying the Martian bugs at a super-secret facility. Apparently, the feds think the general public isn’t ready to learn that aliens exist. A brief panic ensues at the facility when one of the critters escapes confinement. Kress manages to find it before it gets outside, but that was still too close too call for the bosses (it wasn’t the first escape). Orders are issued to shut the project down, and put everything into storage. It’s not clear if that means the critters will be killed, but Kress is still miffed about it – he sure he was just this close to proving that they are intelligent. He manages to smuggle a batch of the eggs out on his last day (yeah, the place was really secure), and sets up a private lab for continuing his research in the old barn at his home.
Of course, his obsession gets the better of him. Turns out that it’s not so much a case of proving those fools back in the government WRONG!, but trying to prove himself worthy in the eyes of his father (who always liked his brother best). When it turns out that the “sandkings” as he calls them have split into two “camps”, each of which practically worships him, he falls off the deep end.
After blowing through the family credit cards and moving into the barn, his wife leaves him (taking their son with them). A bit of cruelty towards the sandkings leads to one of them biting him – and only worsening his madness. When his former boss comes around wondering what he’s been up to, Kress decides he’ll be the perfect sacrificial offering to his subjects. The police soon come snooping, and Kress is finally snapped back to reality (well, a little closer to it at any rate), and he blows up the barn and house hoping to destroy them all…..
Like many TV movies, the production values are very good. The story works, for the most part, the acting overall is decent, and the technical aspects are all on point. The sandkings themselves are realized through a mix of puppetry and various forms of animation, and are very well done considering the budgetary constraints of TV in the mid 1990s.
Also considering that it’s TV in the mid 1990s, you’re not going to get anything in the way of blood, gore, or intense scares. Yes, cable TV had and still has looser standards, but this version of The Outer Limits was intended for syndication on broadcast TV after its first run.
One thing I noticed watching this. When you take out the horror (the gore and violence, for the most part) from the story, what you’re left with is a tight character drama. You’ve got a scientist obsessed with his work – because he needs to prove his worth to his father more than anything else. Even his family gets put to the side as he sinks into madness.
Beau Bridges earned himself an Emmy nomination for “Outstanding Guest Actor in a Drama Series”; critics widely praised the restraint he brought to the role. It would have been far too easy for him to turn Kress into a stereotypical mad scientist villain complete with rants about those fools who never listened to him; he gives it a more believable turn as a scientist who has gotten so deep into his work that nothing else matters.
It’s a decent enough TV horror movie, and fits perfectly under the umbrella of The Outer Limits. It certainly helped launch the revived series, which ran for seven seasons.
But I still would have loved to get just one maniacal laugh from Kress……