Timerider - The Adventure of Lyle Swann (1982) has, for good reason, been described as something like a protracted episode of Twilight Zone. And not even a fourth season, hour-long Twilight Zone at that. It's not so much a story as a premise, with barely enough material to justify a half-hour episode. Nor would it make a particularly good episode of Twilight Zone, either. Its time travel concepts are severely flawed, breaking several of the basic tenets of this popular sci-fi sub-genre. For starters, it utilizes the oldest of time travel and lost world chestnuts, the medallion, brought back to the present/civilization as proof of the journey and always providing a twist ending, a sting at its tail. So goofy is Timerider's logic that its hero ends up having hot and steamy sex with his own grandmother.
And yet there's something undeniably likeable about this shaggy dog story. It turned up on cable television in the early days of that medium, getting a lot of airplay and finding fans drawn to its strange quirks. Though minor, in fact it has much to recommend it, little character touches that are logical and interesting, a depiction of the Old West that is unexpectedly valid in some ways, good cinematography and a pleasing score by presenter, co-producer, co-writer (and one-time Monkee) Michael Nesmith.
These latter qualities at long last become apparent in Shout! Factory's superb Blu-ray. For starters, this is the complete, uncut version of the film. The image quality is fantastic, showcasing the Steadicam motorcycle photography and superb Dolby Stereo mix to full advantage. The disc also touts excellent extra features, including an audio commentary and featurette with Nesmith and director/co-writer William Dear.
Lyle Swann (Fred Ward) is a famous off-road motorcycle racer competing in the Baja 1000 in Mexico. The first 15 minutes or so consist of loads of footage of Swann zipping across the countryside while, not far away, scientists at a top secret underground laboratory prepare to send a rhesus money, Esther, back in time using a "maser velocity accelerator."
Naturally, Swann and his bike unexpectedly ride into the field of energy just as all the buttons are pushed, sending him back into time, specifically November 5, 1875. (Coincidentally - Or is it? - the characters in two other time travel movies, 1979's Time After Time, and 1985's Back to the Future, also arrive on November 5th, albeit in different years.)
The rural terrain largely unchanged, Swann has no idea what has happened. An old Mexican peasant, mistaking the red leather-clad Swann and his bike for Devil, has a heart attack and drops dead. Later he runs afoul of American outlaws Porter Reese (Peter Coyote) and his henchmen, Carl (Tracey Walter) and Claude (Richard Mauser). At first, they're as terrified by Swann as the old Mexican ("What was that thing?!" Reese shouts). Finally arriving at the small village of San Marcos, Swann encounters similarly frightened reactions from the villagers there, but transplanted American woman Claire (Belinda Bauer), who's lived by her wits and six-shooters for years, lets Swann hide a cellar.
Though overlong even at 93 minutes, Timerider is pretty good in several ways. The varying reactions to Swann's strange machine and appearance are strangely believable. Some are terrified, others regain their composure and recognize him as an ordinary if perplexing human being, while Reese quickly sees the advantages of possessing Swann's horseless ride.
Particularly interesting is Bauer's liberated wanderer. Quite believably, she becomes impressed when he learns that he can read - she immediately shows off her prized possessions: three books - and insists, as proof, she read him The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County.
Also unexpectedly, the picture is realistically graphic in its depiction of Western violence. In one scene, protecting Swann, Claire shoots at Carl and blows his nose clean off. Other details demonstrate Nesmith and/or Dear were well versed in Western history or maybe they just wanted to avoid some of the clichés of other Western movies. Coyote and Mauser, not known for their Westerns, are interesting casting choices while longtime genre character star L.Q. Jones has a good role as a vengeful marshal. Another character veteran, Ed Lauter, turns up as the village's priest.
Fred Ward almost became a major star around this time, following this with a strong performance as Gus Grissom in The Right Stuff and in the title role of Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins..., the well-meaning but flat would-be franchise that never was. He's an admirable actor who takes chances, with his Henry Miller in Philip Kaufman's Henry & June being a prime example. He's continued doing good work in virtually every genre.
Video & Audio
The Blu-ray of Timerider reveals assets those long ago cable screenings couldn't even hint at. The gobs of off-road motorcycle riding didn't make much sense on TV back then, but now on big widescreen TVs, in high-def, there's an obvious fascination with the sport that comes across well. The many subjective camera angles from Swann's point-of-view, often photographed with long, Steadicam takes, has a kind of audience participation effect that works well here, especially in this flawless presentation (save for a few inherent negative scratches on a handful of shots).* Originally released in Dolby Stereo, this DTS-HD 2.0 Master Audio Stereo presentation is phenomenal, with Nesmith's score well-integrated into the action, much directional sound effects on the sides and surround speakers, and particularly strong audio effects of Swann's bike. The film is presented in 1.78:1 widescreen and the disc is region A encoded.
Supplements include a featurette with William Dear and Michael Nesmith talking about the film, a project that just kind of fell together, almost as a lark. Dear has similar things to say on the audio commentary track, while other supplements include a storyboard gallery.
No great shakes but strangely likeable, especially in this outstanding presentation, Timerider - The Adventure of Lyle Swann is Highly Recommended to receptive audiences drawn to offbeat sci-fi yarns, motorcycles, and Michael Nesmith-scored soundtracks.
* The film was sublicensed from MGM, whom presumably has rights via its acquisition of the Manson International library.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes film history books, DVD and Blu-ray audio commentaries and special features. Visit Stuart's Cine Blogarama here.