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Site created 12/15/97.

review added: 2/21/01

Buck Rogers
1939 (2000) - Universal (VCI Home Video)

review by Bill Hunt, editor of The Digital Bits

Buck Rogers Film Rating: B-

Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): C/C/D

Specs and Features

131 mins, NR, full frame (1.33:1), dual-sided, single-layered (6 episodes per side), Amaray keep case packaging, cast & crew bios, photo gallery, trailers for other upcoming VCI DVDs (including The Adventures of Red Ryder), animated program-themed menu screens with music and sound, scene access (12 chapters - 1 per episode), languages: English (DD 2.0 mono), subtitles: none

Buck: "Why don't you take a nap, Wilma... I'll take the controls."

Long before Gil Gerard blasted off for his 25th Century film and TV adventures, Buck Rogers was thrilling newspaper audiences as a comic strip, with its tales of futuristic heroism and villainy. Universal had found tremendous success in the late 1930s with their serial-style film adaptations of the Flash Gordon comics (see our review of the DVD version of these here) and wanted that lighting to strike yet again. So they recruited the same actor who played Flash, Larry "Buster" Crabbe, to take a turn as Buck Rogers. And so was born this 12-episode "thrill-o-rama" adventure.

The story is pretty simple (and kind of funny). Lieutenant Buck Rogers and his faithful pal and sidekick, Buddy Wade (Jackie Moran), are leading a dirigible expedition (no kidding) that's flying over the North Pole (near as I can figure). But their airship gets caught in a blizzard and is forced down into the frozen tundra. Luckily, Buddy's scientist father has invented "Navano" gas, which induces suspended animation, and there just happens to be a tank on board the dirigible. So the airship crashes, the gas is released and the dirigible gets buried in an avalanche. 500 years later, a rocket patrol ship sees the wreckage of the ship and revives Buck and Buddy. They're taken to a hidden fortress, where the last free humans are hiding from the evil Killer Kane (Anthony Warde) and his gangsters, who have taken over the planet. Buck and Buddy learn from Scientist General Huer (C. Montague Shaw) that the only hope for the Earth is to solicit help from the planet Saturn in defeating Kane. So Buck, Buddy and Lieutenant Wilma Deering (Constance Moore) set off in their rocketship into space, with Kane's forces in hot pursuit.

Buck Rogers isn't as good as the Flash Gordon serials, simply because the villains aren't as effective. Killer Kane and his futuristic (but very Earthly) Mafia are no match for the evil Emperor Ming and his alien minions. Still, Crabbe is his usual goofy self, the special effects involve all the usual models on strings and the stories are so campy they're hilarious. Star Trek fans will find the first transporter in use here. Star Wars fans will see George Lucas' inspiration for the famous opening title crawl. This may not be the best Sci-fi ever filmed, but there's still a lot of fun to be had here.

VCI Home Video has recently released the entire 12-episode serial on DVD. Chapters 1-6 are available on Side One, and you flip the disc over to access chapters 7-12. The video quality is not great, but it's serviceable. The master appears to be an analog video source, so it's edgy and over-compressed looking at times, and soft and muddy looking at others. The print used for the original transfer is of okay quality - it shows its age with scratches and dust, but is in fairly good shape overall. With a little more effort and a new transfer, this disc could definitely have looked better. Still, the video is entirely watchable. It just isn't going to impress anyone. The audio on this disc is about on par with the video. It's an old mono track, so you're going to hear the usual tape hiss and there's plenty of edit pops and other age-related sound issues. But the dialogue remains mostly audible and the campy, over-dramatic score is well presented.

There isn't much in the way of extras here, but I suppose you don't really expect much anyway. You get a good gallery of production and publicity photos, cast & crew bios and promotional trailers for other VCI releases (that, naturally, have absolutely nothing to do with Buck Rogers). VCI tried to create some nifty, computer-animated menus (which feature fake-looking spaceships on strings), but they take way too long to play out before you can select any of the disc's options. Worse yet, you have to sit through a god-awful, minute-long animation of the VCI logo, where you swoop into a movie theater. All your remote buttons are disabled, so you can't skip past it. VCI needs to ditch this piece of crap - it's almost irritating enough to keep me from watching the disc at all. Personally, I'm hoping that Image Entertainment releases their own version of Buck Rogers on DVD, as they've done with all of the original Flash Gordon serials.

If you're a fan of classic Sci-fi, you should definitely check out Buck Rogers on DVD. VCI's quality could certainly be better, but I suppose it could be worse too. If you've already gotten yourself a set of the Flash Gordon DVDs, you'll definitely enjoy this 12 episode jaunt into this "retro" vision of the future. If you can pick this disc up at a good price, I think you'll be glad to have it in your collection. Now if we could only get Universal to release the 1978 Buck Rogers in the 25th Century...

Bill Hunt
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