Just this month William Shatner’s 2002 feature film Groom Lake on has been re-released on DVD this March. First shown in the early 2000s on the Sci-Fi Channel, the film is a science fiction tale written, produced, and directed by William Shatner (who also stars in the movie). See below for a review of the new DVD plus the latest ‘ShatWatch’ news on Bill.
Review – Groom Lake
Feminist sociologists have proferred the idea that self-disclosure is important when providing information as it alerts the reader of biases. In that spirit, I would like to reveal two of my biases that certainly affect the way I think about the movie Groom Lake. First, I really like William Shatner. Second, I teach sociology. The liking-Shatner confession is obviously relevant to what I think about a movie he acts in, writes, produces, and directs. The sociology professor thing, though, that might need some explanation.
When I lecture about popular culture, I often share with my students a theory of mine called "The 20 Year Nostalgia." It was a Swiss medical student named Johannes Hofer who in 1688 identified "Nostaligia" as a psychological condition. When utilizing the word now, it means thinking fondly of the past, with some sadness because the old days can never be reinvented. That doesn’t mean American society doesn’t try. America is often nostalgic for the era twenty years previous. For example, much of the zeitgeist of the 1970s was actually about the 1950s (Grease, Happy Days, MASH, fashions). The 1980s was about the 1960s (1960s tv shows Batman and Star Trek return as feature films, The Monkees are huge, Vietnam films such as Platoon). The 1990s (you guessed it) are about the 1970s (stage plays of Happy Days, ABBA musicals, The Brady Bunch feature films, That 70s Show). Now, the 2000s are about the 1980s (Transformers, Indiana Jones, GI Joe, and the return of that 1980s film franchise Star Trek).
Okay, now that the sociology lesson is concluded, what does this have to do with Shatner’s Groom Lake?
First, some context. Groom Lake is a narrative about Kate (Amy Acker) and Andy (Dan Gauthier), a couple who both undergo transformative experiences while going on vacation as they recover from the heartbreaking news that Kate has terminal lupus. They stop in the bizarre town of Groom Lake (otherwise known as Area 51 in UFO folklore). It is revealed that Kate wishes to believe in the unseen and the unknown, an appropriate feeling for someone who knows their time is limited. Andy, however, is a practical person and doesn’t believe in UFOs or anything else he can’t experience for himself. The two get separated, and then embroiled in the secrets of the town.
For months, strange lights have been seen in Groom Lake. It turns out that the lights are part of a diversionary strategy by military leader John Gossner (played by Shatner) who wants to return the alien who has been helping humanity home before the government ends his alien operation. Andy and Kate will become part of the town’s adventure as they go through their own learning experiences.
This is a very good science fiction premise indeed. And with both William Shatner and Maurice Hurley (a writer and producer of Star Trek: The Next Generation) contributing the script, it should have been a great film. Except that Groom Lake is hampered by many things, all of which Shatner acknowledges on the bonus feature interview. The most damaging was a minimal budget (Groom Lake was made for a reported $750,000). Thus, the film had to be created quickly and cheaply, and much of that rushing appears on the screen in the form of gaps of logic and fairly bad special effects. Groom Lake epitomizes the notion of a bad B science fiction film. And that is why I recommend the film. That and the 20 year nostalgia.
Firstly, there is nothing wrong symbolically with the film’s narrative. Shatner discusses on the bonus feature interview that the inspiration for the film was the accidental passing of his wife Nerine Shatner. Writing the film was a way for him to come to terms with his grief. Also interesting is the symbolism of Kate and Andy themselves. Kate goes to the town a believer in spirituality and paranormal experiences. During the story she is threatened by the town’s people and she learns the value of practicality. Meanwhile, Andy who is a practicalist and skeptic, learns through his experiences the value of spirituality and of belief. These are appropriate themes for characters dealing with the possible death of one of them. The film’s message, that love is forever, is a nice idea. As a Shatner fan, I learned something about Shatner by applying the auteur theory to this movie, reading it as if it were a story about him (the notion defined by Close Encounters of the Third Kind actor and famous filmmaker Francois Truffaut that films are biographies of those who make them).
Also, Groom Lake was created in the late 1990s (and filmed and shown in the early 2000s). With the 1990s being about the 1970s, and the 1970s being about the 1950s, it is no surprise that there were quite a bit of television shows and feature films reminiscent of 1950s McCarthy-era paranoia science fiction during the 1990s (The X Files, Millennium, Conspiracy Theory). Groom Lake works wonderfully into this genre, conjuring all the elements necessary for a good 1950s B-science fiction film (strange small town, paranoia, government conspiracies, evil bureaucracies).
So, for these reasons (getting to see Shatner act, learning more about him as a person), the themes of the film, the symbolism, and the 1950s nostalgic feel, I recommend this film.
There are several fun Star Trek connections, too. Obviously, there is William Shatner and Maurice Hurley. Dan Gauthier who plays Andy is familiar to Star Trek: The Next Generation fans as Sam Lavelle, the young Riker-ish character from the excellent episode "Lower Decks." In a nod to Trek, Dick Van Patten plays a scientist who helps Shatner’s Gossner. His character is named Irv Barnett, an inside joke reference to Star Trek II-V producer and writer Harve Bennett).
However, like an Area 51 sign, fellow fans should also be warned. I am not kidding when I define this as a B science fiction film. There are, as Spock might say, defects in logic. The acting is good, although that really depends on the actor (some actors seem like amateurs). The special effects remind of syndicated 1980s science fictions shows and are not very good. The alien costume is pretty cool, but the UFOs are unconvincing. The 1960s Star Trek is able to weather the storm of special effects problems because the characters and narratives are excellent. Groom Lake is not Star Trek.
What it is, though, is a personal film by William Shatner and a great 1950s style film. It is meant to be enjoyed with some pizza and some friends, and fans will have a good time. And that is the message of the film itself.
The Groom Lake DVD has only a single special feature, an interview with William Shatner about the film. It is pretty interesting. Here is a clip of Shatner contrasting directing Groom Lake and Star Trek V.
Groom Lake is available now at retailers, including Amazon.
ShatWatch – King of All Media
The re-release of Groom Lake is by no means the only Shatner item of note. We have a ton more Shatnerific news in a special bonus ShatWatch, showing that it is Bill (and not Howard Stern) who is the true King of All Media.
Internet King: The Streamy Awards
The Streamy Awards are given by a consortium of new media companies and reviewed by the International Academy of Web Television. William Shatner’s "The Shatner Project" web show won for "Best Reality Program" during the March 28th online ceremony. This is the video of co-host Liz Shatner accepting the award. TrekMovie sends it congratulations to Shatner who is truly the king of all media.
And here is his latest ShatnerVision, showing he is the King of food too.
There is not much to say about this video except that it will either frighten or delight you. Or, perhaps, both is possible.
King of TV
Shatner is appearing this week on CBS’ Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson (Tuesday, March 31st, 12:35AM Eastern Time).
You could also watch Shatner voice the leader of the frantic cult of wilde beasts (no, I am serious) in the animated adventure The Wild, showing on the new Disney channel DISXD March 31st at 5:00 PM and 7:00 PM Eastern Time.
King of Equestrian Entertainment
Don’t forget that this April 25th is the 19th Annual William Shatner Hollywood Horse Show benefiting charities that help children with disabilities. To learn about how you could help or attend visit horseshow.org
Shatner proves he owns the world of DVD these next few weeks. Don’t believe me? You will be a true believer, Dr. Jones, when you see this list of preorders and titles available this month at Amazon.com (in addition to Groom Lake).
Blu Ray Titles
Regular DVD Titles
Comic Book King
Bluewater Productions and William Shatner are teaming up for some comic books which start this May. There will be comics based on Shatner’s TekWar, Quest for Tomorrow, and Man O’War books, and an original comic called "William Shatner Presents" which is available on May 2nd at comic stores on the annual "Free Comics Day." Talk with your local comic stores to see how and if they are participating and how you could get your free Shatnerized comic book. More info at BlueWaterProd.com.
King of the Reprints
Some of Shatner’s best books are being released in paperback or reprint editions. These are all available from Amazon.com.
And that’s it for another big wrap-up of all things Shatner.