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Hipster Holy Grail: Beyond the Rising Moon (1987) / Outerworld (2007)

The Hipster Holy Grail is my ongoing quest to review an obscure movie before it becomes cool to talk about it. Good, bad, doesn't matter.  It just has to be at least 10 years old and have less than 1,000 ratings on IMDb. This week, I watched....

The Short Bit for People Who Don't Like to Read Reviews

There is some excellent filmmaking going on in Beyond the Rising Moon.  Knowing that it was a low-budget, independent production from the eighties - before such a thing was trendy - really helps to contextualize what you'll see and makes it look all the more impressive.  So, it deserves a watch for that reason.  On the other hand... it's kind of dull.  With few deviations from tropes that had been explored in science-fiction for years even before 1987, there's just not enough to make me want to revisit it time and time again.

My Rating: 3.5 / 5

The Plot Summary

The movie takes place at some unclear time in the distant future.  We open in the office of Takashi Kuriyama (Ron Ikejiri), the CEO of a massive intergalactic conglomerate.  His right-hand man, John Moesby (Michael Mack), briefs him on some recent intel that their spies / researchers have uncovered.  This briefing is basically the movie's way of sneaking in some voiceover narration without actually committing.

Long story short, there was an alien species called the "Tesseran" that was far more technologically advanced than humans.  Many years ago, one of their ships was abandoned in deep space and we discovered it.  That discovery in turn led us to create various new technologies, including faster-than-light space travel.

Now, another derelict Tesseran spacecraft has been discovered on a remote planet.  Somebody was going to lay a claim to the salvage rights, but he died shortly after placing a beacon on the planet.  The specific location has been encoded on a disc of some sort.  A rival corporation has possession of the disc and is going to file the necessary salvage paperwork in a few days.

Riveting, huh?  I mean, we started with FTL space travel, and now we're discussing intergalactic salvage rights.  Sigh.

Anyway, Moesby wants permission to send somebody to steal the data so that Kuriyama's company can get to the Tesseran ship first and claim it.  Kuriyama gives him the greenlight, so now we cut to the protagonist of the movie: Pentan (Tracy Davis).

Pentan is a... thing.  The plot description to the movie says she's a cyborg, but in the movie itself they refer to her as genetically-designed.  Throughout the film, she acts vaguely robot-like, suppressing virtually all emotions.  And she constantly makes a point about how she doesn't understand what normal humans want or how to interact with them.  That could be because she's a robot, or it could be because all her formative years were spent in a lab training for warfare and hacking and she never developed social skills.

Since she was designed and/or created by Kuriyama's company, they treat her as property and make it clear that her role is that of a tool.  Moesby has a brief scene with her where he gives some more clumsy exposition about her background.  We also get to see a kill-switch type device that he has, which kinda looks like a red camera.  If he pushes a button on it, it'll trigger an implant inside Pentan's brain and cause her to hemorrhage to death within three days.

Naturally, Pentan doesn't care much for being a puppet that does whatever Kuriyama and Moesby tell her to do.  She yearns for total independence and makes a point of exactly that as she listens to Moesby's instructions.  He basically laughs in her face and tells her to keep dreaming, then leaves.

Then, in a plot twist that nobody at Kuriyama could possibly have seen coming, Pentan disobeys her superiors.  She beats up the guys from the rival company who have the coordinates, takes their data, and goes on the run.  Moesby activates the kill switch and starts gathering resources to chase her.

Pentan's first step is to find a ship so she can get off the planet.  Later in the movie she says something about "researching" the specific ship she wants, but the way it actually plays out right now is that she goes to a spaceport and stumbles across Harold Brickman (Hans Bachmann).  Brickman is a down-on-his-luck pilot with a hefty debt to a local loan shark.  Said loan shark has sent a couple goons after him, and they start beating on Brickman right around the time Pentan shows up.  Pentan fights off the goons and sends them away, then tells Brickman she wants to hire him at a cost of $8,000, which is apparently a ton of money in this universe.

I mean, don't get me wrong, $8,000 is a ton of money if you're in the middle class or less.  My life would be made significantly easier if I got $8,000 tax-free all of a sudden.  I just have a hard time believing that if I went a hundred years into the future that $8,000 would do much more than buy a Coke.

Anyway, Brickman accepts her offer and they have a chat for a little bit about what Pentan's up to.  She keeps a tight lip on her motives, but she's charming enough that Brickman decides to chauffeur her, anyway.  He goes to get some rest.

The next morning, Moesby shows up in front of Brickman's ship with a couple of Kuriyama goons, who are decked out in intimidating battle armor.  Moesby demands that Pentan surrender, so she kills both of his goons in a matter of seconds. Then Moesby has a quiet, "Shit, I forgot she's a super-soldier" moment and says, "I'll be back later.  Don't go anywhere."  So, he leaves.

Brickman's more than a little surprised to see that Pentan is a brutal killing machine, but he forgives her pretty easily.  They hop on board and take off for deep space.

And then... not a lot happens for the next forty minutes.

The second act is the worst part of this movie.  The opening is a little bit slow, but still interesting enough to keep you invested.  Then you see the catalyst for action when Pentan goes her own way.  And now we're at a point where they should be fighting off waves after waves of private security forces and other ruffians, and the action should keep building and getting more and more spectacular.

But it doesn't.  They just kind of drift casually into space.  Eventually they stop on another planet, either because they need to refuel or rest or whatever the case might be.  Once there they meet up with Robert Thorton (Rick Foucheux).  Thorton is the guy who Kuriyama hired to design Pentan, but he's disappointed that she's being used as a corporate assassin.  So, he's happy to give her a place to rest and shower for a night.  Then Pentan and Brickman briefly have trouble when they try to leave and they're blocked by some other ships, but it turns out Brickman's ship has laser cannons hidden on board, so Pentan just shoots them and the crisis is over.

And then they're just casually drifting in space again.  Brickman tries to start up some romance, because why the fuck not.  Pentan has cold, unemotional, stilted sex with him.  Brickman demands some tenderness and love, and Pentan shrugs and says, "Sorry, bro.  All I know is cold fucking.  I'ma take a shower."  And then you see that she sheds a single tear in the shower later.

Then... more drifting.

Finally, their ship drifts into the conclusion on that planet we've been trying to get to the whole time.  Pentan and Brickman scan the ship with some little gizmos, then go inside to check it out.  There seems to be a miniature galaxy contained within, which our leads regard with the appropriate levels of awe.  They agree that it's time to call the Intergalactic Salvage Rights Commission and file their claim.

But once they get outside, they are surrounded by ships and personnel from the Kuriyama Corporation, including Takashi himself.  There's a terse standoff and Kuriyama tells Pentan he'll give her a chance to rejoin the corporation without any punishment or apologies needed.  Brickman tries to start a fight over it, but Pentan waves him down and says she'll go back to the company.

There's a brief moment here where she coldly and robotically says something like, "The first rule of the universe is survival."  I only bring it up to point out that A) I was actually paying attention (or trying to, anyway), and B) I'm not really sure what she means?  My assumption is that Kuriyama and/or Moesby are deactivating the implant in her brain that will kill her, and that's what her line is all about, but I don't remember seeing them actually do anything.  I really needed an insert shot here of Moesby clicking an "Off" button on a remote or something.

Anyway.  Pentan goes back to one of the little combat ships Kuriyama brought with them while some of the corporate types take Brickman aside, possibly to interrogate / execute him.  Kuriyama and Moesby return to their mothership, which is docked in orbit, in order to make that all-important call to the salvage commission.  All hope seems to be lost.

But then Pentan turns traitor again.  She suddenly whips around and starts shooting up all of Kuriyama's ships, taking them out one-by-one.  They try to blast her with a nuclear device, which one of Moesby's underlings describes as being banned by a vague Neo-Geneva Convention.  But Pentan escapes the blast, then turns around and fires all her weapons on the Kuriyama mothership.  Everybody on board is killed, including Moesby and Kuriyama.

Pentan returns to the planet to wipe out the remaining forces, then lands.  She gets out of the ship and hugs Brinkman, then drops her Kuriyama-logo necklace onto the ground.  She walks away a free woman for the first time in her life.

What I Liked / Didn't Like

I think this is one of those movies that I generally liked and want to say nice things about, but I'm probably going to come across as being a nitpicky asshole instead.

There's much to love here.  The practical effects and matte paintings and spaceship miniatures are all fun.  Not all of them are believable, but even when they're clumsy and clearly fake, the feeling you get is one of charm rather than one of laziness.  The actors are decent, the set designs are good, the music is engaging.  It all builds up a terrific atmosphere that really had me hooked.

But I simply did not care for this movie's tedium.  I can forgive a slow pace when you're building up a tone or when you're focusing on some cool cinematography or neat special effects or whatever, but at a certain point you have to actually get the movie started.

The first half hour is fine.  There's a Blade Runner-lite mood while Pentan quietly ruminates on existence.  I was getting into it.  Right until Pentan and Brickman take off for the first time.  Up until then, I was thinking, "Even if it's slow, it's still giving me some neat stuff.  I don't know why the IMDb score for this is so low."

And then they get to space.  Ugh.  I've never seen a movie run this hard into a wall before.  It's like they really, really wanted to make a movie, but they used up all their best ideas up front and didn't know where to go.

Let's be clear - I don't think pure action is the only solution.  I'd have loved it if the movie did something where, say, a Kuriyama ship followed them and shot up one of their engines, and then they crash landed on another planet and had to traverse hostile terrain to find another ship at some backwater outpost, and then they had to fight off the space-locals to steal it, and then they got back into space again, but maybe their ship's oxygen unit was messed up, so then Pentan had to put on a suit and crawl out onto the hull to fix a loose panel, and while that was happening, Brickman had to dodge a bunch of space pirates, and the only way to shake them loose was to fly through an uncharacteristically dense meteor field, and then maybe, I don't know, a space octopus comes up or something.  Like, yeah, all of that would be exciting.  But the movie didn't have to do that.

I would have been totally fine if the movie just decided to be a quiet contemplation on love and humanity and the meaning of life.  If Pentan and Brickman just had a lot of quiet conversations where he slowly got to know her better and was simultaneously in awe and afraid of what she was capable of.  That could've worked.

What we get, though, is nothing.  There are like three or four halfhearted attempts at a philosophical discussion and then a bunch of quiet shots of everybody staring slightly askew.  When Pentan and Brickman have sex, there's an actual moment of conflict where we should be able to explore her character a bit better - but Rising Moon rushes right past it.

So much of the movie hinges on your innate empathy for Pentan's situation.  While you can immediately recognize her character's subtle frailty and agony, it's not enough to sustain an hour and a half.  We need more.

Hell, you could improve the movie dramatically by just giving Pentan a quirk, like drawing little doodles or something.  And as the movie goes on, the doodles can get more elaborate and more colorful, so you have some subtle indication that there is an intrinsic spirit that's slowly being brought out the longer she gets to act independently.

But since we don't get that, Pentan never develops beyond a simple archetype.  She's always stuck being an echo of a better character.

The movie won me back a bit with an okay third act - though still not as good as the first half hour promises - so I came away from it with an appreciation for what it was trying to do.  I just can't help but complain.  Why not explore Pentan and Brinkman's relationship more?  There's a whole detour where they land on that stupid planet with Pentan's creator and nothing happens.  Who cares?  Just stay in space and play cards.  The director will save money and we'll get to know everyone better.

At the end of it all, I'm conflicted.  I think I have to give this one a recommendation, considering all of its merits.  Just not a strong recommendation.  It's more of a curiosity than a classic, and you'll have to decide if that's worth your time.

Additional Thoughts After Watching Outerworld

Twenty years after Beyond the Rising Moon was made, the director (I assume) remastered it, recut some scenes, added some CGI, and put out a new version called "Outerworld."  As a movie watcher, such an act gives me a knee-jerk feeling of disgust; nobody likes it when you Lucas a movie.  But as a writer, this kind of thing intrigues me.  I'm always talking about how some movies have potential and fall short - maybe a new edit is just what it needs to kick up a notch.

So, did Outerworld do the trick?

Hard to say.  The problem with Outerworld is that the changes that made the movie better are offset by the changes that make it worse.

A good example would be the CGI.  A lot of the sequences that were added make things clearer and give the movie some much-needed visual dynamism in places where it had been lacking.  The climactic space battle is much more interesting in that respect.  In the BtRM cut, most of the battle had to be interpreted - you'd get a nebulous cut of some miniatures flying, and then you'd cut inside Pentan's ship and see her reacting. You only know what's happening based on those reaction shots.  In Outerworld, it's totally clear to see what she's doing and where the other ships are.

Unfortunately, the CGI looks awful.  The models are rendered with almost no detail and everything looks cheap and stilted.  There's one part in particular where Pentan's ship flies through some valleys on the alien planet, and all the terrain is smooth and multi-colored like the map from a Super Nintendo era Final Fantasy game.

That's the thing about bad CGI versus bad practical effects.  Bad practical effects can still lend a movie charm and atmosphere.  Bad CGI can't.  Bad CGI just looks lazy.  CGI is an all-or-nothing thing - it either works as intended or it makes your movie crappier.

Probably the best thing about the Outerworld version is that it gives me a better appreciation for the original version.  Beyond the Rising Moon has flaws, sure, but it has a cohesive vision and sustains a clear tone throughout.  Outerworld is its generic brand knockoff - and no, it doesn't taste the same no matter how much my wallet wants me to believe it does.

How Much Hipster Cred Is It Worth?

It gets 30 points for obscurity, with only about 260 IMDb ratings as of today.  It gets the "you've probably never heard of them" ensemble bonus of 15 points the cast.  I'll give it another 10 points for all the practical effects, 5 points for relying on an obsolete version of futuristic technology for its plot, and 10 points as a recommendation bonus.

I'll also give it 10 points for overall hipstery content.  BtRM has a distinct look and feel that screams "hipster."  Not in an ironic sense, but in the "I know somebody who welds cool shit in their basement, and I belong to the exclusive club of six people who got one of their sculptures" sense.  There's a hidden gem quality to this movie, and that's the best kind of hipster feeling you can have.

I'll give it a total of 80 hipster cred out of a possible 100.

Where You Can Watch

Beyond the Rising Moon got a DVD release that contains both versions of the movie, so it's somewhat easy to find.  I saw it by renting a copy from Netflix.  Looks like somebody put it on Youtube as well, so have at it.