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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » Steven Spielberg's Taken (TV Miniseries)
Steven Spielberg's Taken (TV Miniseries)
Universal // Unrated // October 21, 2003
List Price: $119.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Holly E. Ordway | posted November 15, 2003 | E-mail the Author
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The movie

The trailer made Taken look great. Steven Spielberg brings us an epic miniseries tracing the lives and fates of three families over three generations. The Clarkes and the Keys struggle to understand the strange events that disrupt their lives as alien visitors repeatedly abduct them for frightening experiments for an unknown purpose, while the Crawfords try to uncover the secrets behind the abductions to put this power into the hands of the U.S. government. I was completely "Taken" in by the idea, and while I hadn't seen the series in its original television broadcast, I eagerly anticipated seeing it on DVD.

Here's a tip: if you've seen the trailer you've seen the best of Taken. There's a Spanish proverb that says "Lo bueno, si breve, dos veces bueno": Something good, if it's short, is twice as good. If only someone on the creative team of Taken had kept this in mind, this long, narratively soggy boondoggle of a miniseries might have conceivably have packed some punch. Instead, we get 15 hours of a story that would have been overly drawn out in 5.

In the end, Taken goes absolutely nowhere. Its plot (such as it is) spins its wheels; there's no sense of discovery; we don't get any insights into human nature beyond the blindingly obvious. Allie-the-child-narrator ponderously proclaims that while we may not find any answers, the essential thing is to keep asking questions and waiting to see what's over that next hill. How convenient a philosophy for a series that strings its viewers along and delivers nothing but an airy-fairy moment of pseudo-enlightenment.

The problem starts right at the beginning, in the very first episode, which trots out all the old, clichéd, derivative pieces of sci-fi alien lore: flying saucers, little gray men, alien abductions and experimentation, lost time, government cover-ups. Nor are these hoary bits of modern myth given a fresh treatment: no, they're just shown at face value, and in the process stripped of any mystique that might actually have remained. Proud of its CGI, Taken doesn't hide its little gray men... it parades them in front of us, forgetting that in film, what's unseen is more powerful than what's seen, that hinting at something rather than showing it in the broad light of day is what gets the imaginative faculties of the viewer's brain working in overdrive. Here, the response is "Oh look, little gray men. Ho-hum." One might hope (in desperation) that this exhibition of clichés is simply a setup for a more intriguing story, one that reveals a deeper mystery or a new interpretation of these elements. Nope. If you've seen Close Encounters of the Third Kind or a few X-Files episodes, you've already delved more profoundly into the "alien abductees" mythos than Taken ever does, despite its "epic television event" billing.

If the beginning of Taken is a ho-hum collection of tired clichés, then the middle is outright soap opera. Normally I enjoy multi-generational stories, and so I really wanted to like Taken, with its tale of alien abduction and manipulation in several families over the course of over fifty years. However, in order for this family saga to be interesting, we have to actually care about the people concerned, and the characters are just not compelling. On the one hand we have The Bad Guys (tm), embodied in the Evil Secret Military Agency that (what a surprise!) is willing to do whatever horrible things are necessary to get the knowledge and power of the aliens. On the other hand we have The Innocent Victims (tm) who struggle to preserve their families in the face of repeated violations from the aliens and persecution by the government. You'd think that we'd at least get to see some interesting mental instability, but in the end everyone is very strong and determined to survive and learn the truth. And of course everyone is devoted to their children; the series positively drips with gooey sentiment in this regard. Is the plot flagging a bit? Put a cute kid in danger – that never fails! Need to wring a tear out of the audience before they become completely glassy-eyed? How about a good old parent-separated-from child scene?

And then we get to the end, and whatever hopes I might have had about Taken redeeming itself fall apart utterly. (If you haven't watched the series but still want to, I'll warn you that there are spoilers in this paragraph.) I suppose I could give credit to Taken for ending on a note that I didn't entirely expect: I didn't really foresee the whole story taking on heavy religious overtones, making the we-wrote-ourselves-into-a-corner plot wrap up with a mystical experience. We get the assemblage of devout followers (the abductees) at the place of the holy child, who decides to face her destiny rather than fleeing to live out an ordinary life. We get the obligatory miracle, the speech to the followers (who are clearly shown as being her disciples, spreading the word about her goodness and powers), the bodily assumption into heaven, the discovery of the holy book, and the promise of a return. All this, of course, with sufficient sticky-sweet family love and tearful partings that I felt like I needed an insulin shot to deal with it.

Taken purports to explore profound and meaningful human questions through the story of aliens and alien abductions; it claims to open up the issue of "what would things have been like if aliens really had crashed in New Mexico in the 1940s?" That's a noble aspiration, and one that's worthy of an epic miniseries... except that Taken fumbles the whole thing. What are the profound questions? One seems to be "Is there other intelligent life in the universe?" Well, the series answers that with a definitive "Yes" before the first episode is even over, leaving us with about 14 more hours to explore whatever other questions Spielberg is interested in. And what exactly are those questions? It's never really clear; maybe "what is the meaning of life?" Don't worry, though: even though the filmmakers can't formulate a coherent theme, they makes sure that Taken packs a very obvious message: There are some things we just aren't ready to understand, so we should just smile and accept that and get back to our little lives, touched by the knowledge that there's something out there.

It took us 15 hours of story time to get to this insipid insight?

What about the final issue, of what history would have been like if alien abductions were real? Well, Taken seems to stick with the idea that... nothing would have been different. Yup, those Evil Military Guys do a great job of covering stuff up, and when that doesn't work, the Plot Fairies (uh, I mean the aliens) come in and swipe the physical evidence and use their stupidity rays on everyone in a 500-mile radius. It has to be either stupidity rays or something they're adding to the drinking water: there's really no other explanation of how UFOs can be buzzing around the countryside like commuter flights over JFK International Airport and sucking people up inside rays of light on a regular basis, and everybody except the military still thinks that aliens are a crackpot idea. (The real reason nobody gets a clue is, of course, so that the filmmakers don't have to cope with creating an alternate history in which the knowledge of the existence of aliens affects our society and culture.) No, as a what-if scenario, Taken falls short as well.

Somehow Taken manages to take a perfectly good science-fiction idea (are aliens really experimenting on us? if so, why?) and wring all of the excitement out of it, so that by the end, we haven't found out and we don't really care. It manages to take honest questions about our place in the universe and give them facile answers: "Yes, there are beings out there, doing things... and we'll trust that everything will work out fine and answers will be revealed when we're "ready" for them." It takes the strength of the human quest to understand the universe, and turns it back on itself in a glorification of blind faith.

I'll admit that I'm perhaps being excessively hard on the "family drama" portion of the film: if you're willing to accept it for what it is, then it has the potential to be moderately entertaining. But that's like going to a steak restaurant and ordering their heavily-advertised steak special, hearing the sizzle on the grill, and smelling the tempting scent... only to have the waiter bring you a hamburger. Even if it's a decent hamburger, you can't help but feel disappointed at the bait-and-switch: where's that fabulous steak you were anticipating?

I've thoroughly enjoyed most of Spielberg's work, and I've found his recent science fiction work to be quite solid as well: I enjoyed both A.I. and Minority Report, which have their flaws but succeed in delivering an interesting narrative coupled with an intriguing view of a possible future. How can we explain the flatness and imaginative poverty of Taken, then? Start by looking at the credits: this is a sharecropped series. Spielberg certainly lends his prestigious name to the undertaking, but the actual directorial work is handled by ten other directors, one per episode. The script, as well as the series concept, is credited to Leslie Bohem, whose short list of writing credits has Dante's Peak and Nightmare on Elm Street 5 as the high points. (OK, I liked Dante's Peak, but the script isn't the film's strong point.) It's no wonder that Taken lacks any of the Spielberg magic: he's too distant from the actual production to do more than lend his name to the advertising.

The DVD

Taken is a six-DVD set, packaged in a cardboard fold-out holder that fits into a glossy paperboard slipcase. Discs 1 through 5 contain the series (with two episodes per DVD), and the sixth disc contains the special features. The case is attractively designed and the discs are reasonably easy to access.

Video

Fans of this miniseries will be pleased to know that Taken has been given an anamorphically-enhanced widescreen transfer onto DVD, in its original aspect ratio of 1.78:1. The image offers a respectable level of quality; colors are lifelike and natural, contrast is generally solid, and overall the picture looks visually pleasing. Edge enhancement does raise its ugly head at times, mostly noticeable in outdoor shots with a bright background; in dimly lit scenes there's also a middling-to-substantial amount of noise that appears in the image. The transfer could have been better, but it will almost certainly look better here than in its original television broadcast.

Audio

Taken's Dolby 5.1 soundtrack is acceptable, but it doesn't offer much that a solid 2.0 track wouldn't have. The sound overall has a generally clear quality to it, and the dialogue is clear, if sometimes a bit flat and center-focused. When the surround sound is put to use, it is very effective, but it's not used consistently, so while there are isolated "cool sound" moments, the series as a whole doesn't create an immersive audio environment.

A French Dolby 5.1 track is included as well. Subtitles are also available in English, French, and Spanish... and I didn't need to check the setup menu to discover this, as several episodes start out with either English or Spanish subtitles turned on. Fortunately, this is nothing more than disconcerting, as the subtitles can be turned off on the fly.

Extras

The final disc of the set is devoted entirely to special features, but there's nothing to write home about here; the material is all promotional in style, with relatively little of interest to anyone who's already seen the series.

The features open up with "Inside Taken," which at 17 minutes long is the most substantial of the featurettes. It's a general look at the making of the series, with interviews liberally interspersed with clips from the series. "The Cast of Taken" is a five-minute piece that has short interview clips from some of the cast members (obviously not many of them, in only five minutes), and "A New Reality" is an eight-minute look at the creation of the visual effects for the series. The featurettes wrap up with "A Singular Vision" (4 minutes), discussing the use of ten different directors for the series, and "Time Warp (4 minutes), focusing on the creation of distinct historical periods for the different episodes. As you can guess from the running times of each of these featurettes, none of them really has time to delve into interesting details about the series.

Final thoughts

Taken is lousy science fiction. Instead of exploring new horizons, it contents itself with trotting out old bits of cliché; instead of asking tough questions and looking for answers about the human condition and our place in the universe, it offers worn and tired platitudes. Even with its flaws, though, the premise has promise: if Taken had been a two- or three-hour movie, it would probably have been passable. But it's not... it's fifteen hours long, and a very heavily padded fifteen hours, at that. I really wanted to like Taken, but the truth is that it promises a lot more than it delivers. If you've already seen this miniseries and enjoyed it, the anamorphic widescreen transfer makes it a reasonable purchase, although the special features are nothing special. If you haven't seen it, though, my advice is to skip it: there are better things to do with a hefty chunk of money and fifteen hours of your life.

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