Yet another movie I never thought I would ever see.
It was a very good weekend. And I found yet another of my Wish List movies on Wednesday.
But I will tell you about that one later.
Now a few years ago, at the time the Pacific Rim sequel came out, I wrote an essay on cinematic giant robots for Clarkesworld Magazine. As I detail there, there was a sudden burst of live action Giant Robot movies in the early Nineties, following the back-to-back releases of Ganheddo [Gunhed] (1989) and Robot Jox (1989), all of which relied on practical effects for their robots.
However, there was one film from that era I had never been able to locate (well, other than a single ridiculously low-priced used VHS tape on Amazon Marketplace which vanished before I could order it): a tiny, independently made film shot by a first-time filmmaker and a team of volunteers for next to nothing, in which giant walking robot tanks battle the irregular bandit forces controlled by alien invaders, Sentinel 2099.
For this film, McGee built all the miniatures, and shot over 150 effects scenes, many featuring in-camera effects and pyrotechnics.
Unfortunately, it didn’t get the attention it deserved at the time and more or less vanished. However, McGee, who has built a career on creating special effects since then, created a new and improved version in 2018, Sentinel 2099 SE.
At the time I’d hoped that he would bundle his original film in with the new one as a DVD extra. Sadly, I learned from Mike that his masters of the original film had decayed badly (and yes, it isn’t just nitrate film which is degrading rapidly, but magnetic tape as well) and that the only currently possible source for the film would be a VHS copy.
And he no longer had one.
I’d tried for years to find a copy in the various back alleys of the collectors’ world, and I was fairly certain it would never, ever reappear.
And yet, here it is.
Now I’ll say this right up front:
I like this film better than his Special Edition.
I will confess that I tend to find writing far more important than almost anything else about a film. Yes, the effects in the Special Edition are far better than those in the 1995 film, but I’m willing to ignore technical flaws if the story is more compelling.
The Special Edition feels a bit padded, with several minor storylines which never go anywhere, so it does help that the 1995 version is a good twenty minutes shorter. The 1995 script seems tighter and more focused, without the interruptions and side issues in the Special Edition. The SE introduces a new set of characters in a second story thread, which never quite integrates with the main story line from the original film. It is always challenging to combine two separate storylines into a single story, and in the end the two stories in the SE never quite pull off this feat. Nor do I think they could have as the two main characters were never going to meet up. After all, one of them was part of the original footage that made it into the SE, and the other filmed her parts almost two decades later.
It also helps that more of the story is spent on what the SE did best: the story of the Sentinel Robot and its crew going to cover the flank of a major operation without the air cover they desperately need. Admittedly, most of this is somewhat familiar because Mike McGee used the original footage from this part of the movie, but it seems even better here without any interruptions.
Now the best part of the Special Edition was the face off between the Sentinel and a rebuilt scavenged tank.
And the same is true here, as the robot and her crew play cat and mouse in and around an abandoned factory, with a lot of great tank action and some impressive low budget effects.
Ironically, the new version of this sequence was better, thanks in a large part to the massively improved effects work. In the original, there are times when the robot’s legs look like they are made up of a stack of seemingly unconnected parts, with light streaming between the gaps. I even have the impression that this sequence was longer and more complex in the SE, which isn’t really impossible as Mike may have had some unused bits and pieces of the battle which went into the new version, or may simply have added additional Robot on tank action between the filmed sequences of his crew.
More than anything else, Sentinel 2099 stands out as an impressive effort, a cool little science fictional war movie with almost insanely lofty aspirations which triumphed over its limitations. I am impressed, for example, at the crowded and purposeful interior of the Sentinel, which feels a lot like a real tank interior, only with more computers, and with the design of the various vehicles. Admittedly, the film can’t escape its bargain basement status as its low budget is still obvious despite all the effort that went into it. And, sadly, it now exists only in grainy and aged VHS form, its recording flaws making it much harder to see the climactic nighttime tank battle that is its greatest triumph.
Look, Sentinel 2099 is worth a look, even if you’ve seen the Special Edition. It is not merely of historical interest as one of the first live-action robot war movies and as a lost film, but as a testament to the hard work of the determined people who made it.
And, you never know, now that it has turned up, maybe someday it will end up on that double set with its later reboot…
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