Monday, September 19, 2011

Lesser of two evils: Highlander 2 vs Highlander: The Source

Highlander fans (of which I'd count myself) have had a pretty rough ride with their beloved franchise over the years. I'd argue that none of the follow-ups (film and TV) have ever come close of the awesomeness of the original film. However it's a testament to how great the original film is that so many spin-offs have been created. Anyway I thought long and hard about doing a Completist Guide to the Highlander series but I thought it would be more fun to pit the two worst sequels against each other and see which one came out best. In the end, there can be only... oh nevermind.

So, in the red corner, from 1991 we have Highlander 2: The Quickening described by Roger Ebert as “the most hilariously incomprehensible movie I've seen in many a long day—a movie almost awesome in its badness. Wherever science fiction fans gather, in decades and generations to come, this film will be remembered in hushed tones as one of the immortal low points of the genre”.

And in the blue corner, from 2007 we
have Highlander: The Source (aka Highlander 5). Sadly no one of Ebert's stature reviewed this so we'll have to make do with Keith Breese of who said “The acting is uniformly terrible, the special effects are hideous, the sets are cheap and grubby, and the direction is uninspired. The film is an utter failure.”
To recap, Highlander 2 sees Connor MacLeod in the year 2024. Having defeated the last immortal The Kurgan years earlier, he's been granted mortality and is growing old. The mysterious Prize (which he mentions in the first film is like some kind of ESP - “I know what people are thinking all over the world. Presidents, diplomats, scientists. I can help them understand each other”) has helped greatly as the ozone layer has completely disintegrated and a giant shield had to be created to protect earth. Evil alien general Katana (Michael Ironside) beams himself from his planet Zeist to defeat the aging Highlander once and for all. You see, it turns out immortals are re-born beings from Zeist and MacLeod was formerly a Zeistian terrorist (very Scientology-esque). MacLeod regaining his youth and, bringing back Sean Connery's previously deceased Ramirez, sets about destroying the shield (you see the Ozone layer has recovered now) and finishing his battle with Katana.
And Highlander: The Source's muddled plot goes like this. Following the events of the previous film Endgame (presumably, there's doesn't seem to be any reference – not least Duncan's girlfriend Faith/Kate who has been unceremoniously dumped) Duncan MacLeod is living in a desolate Eastern European city in the near future. A couple of immortals have tracked down the source of immortality and Duncan bands with a group of immortals to get to the co-ordinates – an island in the middle of lake. Trying to stop them at every turn is The Guardian, a weird looking albino guy who can move at the speed of light. Along the way, friends are lost, cannibals attack them and a planetary alignment happens.

Now the first thing to note is that there's a few cuts of Highlander 2, most famously the Renegade Version – a cut released in 1995 that removes all mention to Zeist and instead places all the scenes “In the Distant Past.” So instead of characters beaming from a different planet they beam... from the past. I might as well get it out of the way – this actually makes the film make less sense. It's a pretty desperate attempt to distance themselves from the alien stuff and retcon the film to better fit the mood (though not the chronology) of the TV show. But why the hell do people in the past have all this technology? How much in the past is it? 3000 BC? 50000 BC? Why are all the captions so vague - “In the Distant Past” or “Somewhere Over the Atlantic”???

Now Highlander 2 has
the disadvantage of directly following the original film which has one of the most airtight film endings of all time. The original Highlander sets up all the rules of the series – immortals have secretly lived among us for years, the instinctively fight each other in sword battles, when one is decapitates their power transfers to the nearest immortal giving him greater strength, when the last remain they will gather and fight until the last one. And that's where is ends, MacLeod kills the last immortal and become mortal so he can live his life out with Brenda. Where the heck do you go from there? Well the writers and director decided to set it in the future. They decided if MacLeod can grow old, he'll grow old.
So the film starts with Christopher Lambert under a ton of make-up. The original also ended with MacLeod saying he could solve the world's problems by helping scientists and politicians to work together. Now in the original film this was just some warm glow-y new age off-hand remark. Probably added to the script to make MacLeod's Prize seem nobel award for a life of violence. So they decide MacLeod should tackle the major issue of the early 90s Global Warming and the slow disintegration of the Ozone layer. But of course he doesn't solve it quick enough – it kills his beloved Brenda first – then he works with scientists to build a shield to cover the earth. Okay, this is all pretty ham-fisted but I guess on some level it does make sense.

But you know what doesn't really make sense - this next part. MacLeod, while watching an opera, has flashbacks of his previous life on the planet Zeist, where he was the leader of a rebellion. Yep, some how we've wandered in to Frank Herbert's Dune. Okay, so this is the explanation for immortals. They are all undesirables from the planet Zeist. They are beamed to Earth, where they gain immortality and grow from infancy until they are violently killed, at which point they stop aging. All the fighting between immortals has actually been a competition, and the last remaining immortal can choose to return to Zeist or stay on earth. Now if that isn't unbelievable enough – MacLeod was also a friend with Ramirez (Sean Connery's character from the original) and despite him dying at the hands of the Kurgan years earlier both he and Macleod took a bonding ritual on Zeist which meant that they could bring each other back from death, purely by calling each other's name.
Phew. That's a LOT of hokey backstory that's jammed into Highlander 2 to keep the plot going. I think the one that sticks out the most, more than immortals being aliens, it's Ramirez being brought back. Bringing back characters in sci-fi is done quite often – see Star Trek III: The Search for Spock – and really it's because of two reasons. One, sci-fi fans are fickle people who demand that things always remain the same and kick their toys out the prams when TV series or films upset the status quo – see when Newt and Hicks were killed off in Alien 3. The second reason is that sci-fi films often need large budgets for effects and sets. Producers need to guarantee they'll make a return so they'll stick in a couple of internationally known faces in the hope that the film will do good business around the world. That's the reason Connery came back. Not because any screenwriter thought the idea of a glowing alien bonding liquid was a good idea – it was all about the Benjamins. They could double their box office taking by having Connery's name above the poster.
Now The Source by contrast had an advantage and disadvantage. On the one hand, it was the fifth cinematic entry of the series and was designed to go direct to video. The idea that it would attract new audiences should have been jettisoned – this should be only for the hardcore elite who sat through all those episodes of the TV show (for reference, really I like to treat Endgame and The Source as spin-offs from the TV show which took place in an alternate timeline where Connor MacLeod didn't win the prize, he was just another immortal). On the other hand, it was the last grasp of a franchise that stopped feeling fresh 10-15 years earlier.
The previous movie Highlander: Endgame finished up with Duncan taking on the massively Jacob Kell and having to take Connor's head to give him the necessary power. He buries Connor's body in Scotland and returns to his previous love Kate (aka Faith). The Source however pushes the story forward with Duncan now living in an unidentified post-apocalyptic East European city in the near future (however given that ordinary mortal Joe Dawson looks about the same age, it can't be too far in the future.) Duncan gets recruited by a band of immortals, including fan favourite Methos, who think they've found the source of.... erm immortality (yep, for those sleeping at the back of the class, it ain't Zeist). Meanwhile Duncan's mortal wife Anna (yep, Kate/Faith gets roundly ditched in favour of a new character) is having visions of planetary alignment which start coming true.

The group of immortals learn that this planetary alignment happened thousands of years ago and two immortals fought a mysterious fighter “The Guardian”, a super fast, super powerful immortal, at the location of the Source. By defeating him one of them became the new Guardian while the other grew old and fat (the Elder). As the group reach the island where the Source is located they fight their way through a group of cannibals. Their immortality starts to wane as the grow closer and the Guardian starts picking them off one by one. Finally, at the Source, Duncan and the Guardian face off while the planets loom in the sky. Duncan disarms the Guardian but refuses to behead him. His noble decision causes the Guardian to explode in a white light, Duncan is lifted into the sky and we see him with Anna holding a child (note: previous Highlander movies made it clear immortals couldn't reproduce).

Now The Source didn't really have as hard a job as Highlander 2. Endgame had left it pretty open where Duncan could go. The decision was once again made to try and explain where the immortals come from. I can't blame them, it's an interesting question but perhaps one that works better without any explanation (as Sean Connery puts it in the original film “Why does the sun come up? Or are the stars just pin holes in the curtain of night, who knows?”). Still they thought it would make a good idea for a film and certainly the film does go out of it's way to mix up the traditional Highlander formula with the whole team work element, futuristic setting, supernatural bad guy etc. However when you pick it apart a lot of it is just window dressing – did it need to be a futuristic setting? Did it need a super fast villain?

Underneath it's hiding that the film is nothing more than an A to B chase plot. I admire that the film decided to do away with flashbacks but it didn't fill that space with anything else. In the past you could criticise the Highlander series of being too cautious (Highlander 3 is a near note for note replay of the original) but this film had so little continuity with the TV series and Endgame that it seemed like a different franchise. Once again the makers had to work hard to create backstory where the wasn't any and did the exact same problem as Highlander 2, tried cramming too much poorly thought out information and explaining it to the audience poorly.

Now the acting is pretty atrocious in both sequels. The Highlander film and TV series as a whole have never been big on subtle performances. Highlander 2 has the slight advantage that Sean Connery and Michael Ironside seem hellbent on giving as over the top performance as possible. The Source suffers much worse with Adrian Paul looking quite weary and bored with his character (I get the sense that halfway through production he knew the film was going to bomb). Cristian Solimeno as The Guardian tries to inject his new character with a cheeky sense of humour (a little like Clancy Brown did with The Kurgan) but it kills any sense of fear we have for the character. In fact, the Guardian would have worked much better as mute character. The minor characters in both film are equally as bad though again Highlander 2 comes out a little on top – John C McGinley's evil Shield executive being particularly memorable (reportedly, in an interview he confessed that he was trying to imitate Orson Welles, which he now recognises was a terrible decision). Another terrible performance/character is Virginia Madsen's Louise Marcus, who meets Connor in a bar, witnesses him fight two alien assassins, watches him turn young and then has one of the shortest sex scenes in an alley (serious, it's like 10 seconds tops).

It's a little unfair to compare the effects of the two films. Highlander 2 obviously had a far larger budget, with some impressive (though depressing looking) sets. The Source by comparison struggled with it's budget only being able to hint at the apocalyptic landscape and forced to use Eastern European derelict buildings. I've got to say that Russell Mulcahy (director of Highlander 1 & 2) and Brett Leonard (director of Highlander: The Source) are both quite similar in a lot of ways – very visual orientated directors with backgrounds in music videos. I actually really enjoyed Leonard's earlier films Lawnmower Man and Virtuosity but The Source was a mess and he clearly floundered having to use so much cheap CGI. One of the best parts of all the films and TV series to date have been the excellent sword fighting scenes but nothing quite tops the loopy fight between Connor and Fasil in the opening scene of the original. Highlander 2's fight scenes are quite frequent and varied with Connor dispatching jetpack wielding assassins and taking on Katana himself (twice if you're watching the Renegade version as in the original the two fights were badly edited into one long fight). However all the fight scenes in Highlander 2 are also very sluggish.

By comparison you'd think I'd be far happier with
The Source with Duncan's fights against the super fast Guardian, well actually... no. The fight scenes in The Source basically look like watching a sword fight while holding down the fast forward button on the remote. This renders the whole sword fight scenes completely useless – there's no grace, no technique. I mean Adrian Paul sword fought his way through 119 episodes of the TV series, I'm going to hazard a guess that's he's pretty damn good at looking like an accomplished swordsman but super speedy fight scenes make everything too fast to keep up with. If I have a choice between watching a slow sword fight and an incomprehensibly fast one I'll always go for the former.
Finally, we get to the music, neither film really has a very memorable score. Michael Kamen's score to the original, coupled with Queen's songs made for a hard act to follow. Again, the differing budget dictates that Highlander 2 gets at least Stewart Copeland – who can be best described as providing an adequate score. George Kallis' score for The Source is equally as unremarkable – however it is at least an orchestral score. Why exactly the makers of The Source chose to include so many acoustic ballads such as this awful number and the soul version of “Who Wants to Live Forever?” that goes over the end credits, I'll never know? These pieces complete cut any sort of epicness that the series is known for. Making what is already an amateurishly assembled film worse by overlaying amateurish music.

Right, I think we know where this is all going to.

Highlander 2: The Quickening (by a whisker)
To make one incomprehensible sequel is one thing but for the same producers to make another fifteen years later is unforgivable. Both films set out to explain the secret of immortality - however ridiculous Highlander 2's Zeist plot line was, it was at least an explanation. The Source purports to explain the source but then doesn't nothing of the sort, keeping everything just as muddled as before. It might be just nostalgia speaking as I first watched Highlander 2 as a kid whereas I watched The Source as a 26 year old man. However I still think that given another 20 years The Source will still seem as horrible – a bizarre misfire of a fading franchise. As my good friend at Direct to Video Connoisseur would say “It was totally sautéed in the wrong sauce!”

Next time: The less one sided Catwoman vs Elektra


  1. Yeah, these movies were both pretty rough. I thought the TV show had some great story arcs in the middle seasons, and there was a lot of material there to mine for a movie; I don't know why they didn't go there instead, because this was just weird. And the second one, the less said about that the better.

  2. Yeah - Highlander as a film series is pretty weird. I can't think of another series that went out of its way to completely ignore it's first sequel. I'm always sort of curious where the series would have went after Highlander 2 - apparently it was meant to be set on Zeist!

  3. Agree, Highlander 2 wins, hands down. I hated The Source, I couldnt believe how bad it was! And how cheap! I hated everything about it. But part 2, The Quickening, is actually watchable, and has lots of cool moments in it even though it makes no sense.

  4. Yeah, both films make very little sense but Highlander 2 just has more fun.

    I can forgive The Source having a tiny budget but did it really need to be so boring? I mean I really had trouble staying awake during it. It's not even like it's a good film to rip apart with your friends. It's just depressing.

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