Spaced Out: Velocity Trap (1999)

It’s far from vintage Roth, but Matty reckons there’s still some worth to the UFO boss’ flawed space opera.

Having played in Montreal cinemas for two weeks in June 1999, Phillip J. Roth’s Olivier Gruner-starring VELOCITY TRAP hit British cassette at the end of the year through High Fliers before debuting on U.S. video and DVD via Columbia-TriStar on 14th March 2000 (the same day Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut (1999) and Patrick Lussier’s The Prophecy 3: The Ascent (2000) landed on American shelves, fact fans). By that time, Roth and Gruner’s second team-up, Interceptor Force (1999), had already premiered on SyFy and pulled in good enough numbers to warrant the network tasking Roth’s company, UFO, with cobbling together a slate of similar programmers on contract rather than on the film-by-film basis that had marked their dealings since the completion of Digital Man (1995). To meet SyFy’s demands, UFO’s production rate went into overdrive. Two movies a year became as high as five, and the company’s millennial explosion of creativity (and, indeed, commerce) resulted in: creature features Python (2000), Boa (2001), Dragon Fighter (2003), and Deep Shock (2003); the ratings smashing Epoch (2001) [1]; Roth and Gruner’s third and final collaboration, Interceptor Force 2 (2002); and UFO shifting their operations from Los Angeles to Bulgaria. All that is to say Velocity Trap got a little lost in the shuffle, which is a shame. Though a lesser Roth-erring, it’s got a few points of interest. 

Opening with a bunch of satirical, Verhoeven-esque adverts — the most prominent of which establishes a broader, interconnected Roth universe by featuring a massive gun developed by Zircon, the corporation responsible for the Ex-Isle Chair in Darkdrive (1997)Velocity Trap is a triumph of world building. The so-called ‘Velocity Run’ where the film takes place — a rough, bandit-ridden stretch of outer space — feels authentic and lived-in, and Roth presents an evocative future society that’s buckling under the strain of off-world mining, privatised law enforcement, cybercrime, and asteroid storm seasons. Supervised by UFO mainstay Andrew Hofman, the CGI and VFX are excellent. The best of Roth’s career, every spacecraft, planet and cityscape is gorgeously designed and boasts the kind of intricate detail that the pause button was made for; attributes complemented by fellow UFO stalwart David Huang’s nifty art direction. Also impressive is the weird toxic relationship between the film’s antagonists, a pair of intergalactic pirates essayed by a pre-CSI Jorja Fox and Roth’s UFO co-founder Ken Olandt. Their interactions fizz with violence and sexual menace. 

Where Velocity Trap falters is in its scripting. Written by Roth and Patrick Phillips (Storm (1999), Lost Voyage (2001), Mindstorm (2001), Interceptor Force 2), the convoluted plot goes right around the houses to facilitate a closing third that’s basically harried cop Gruner and the slinky Alicia ‘No Relation to Francis’ Coppola versus Fox and Olandt on a commandeered bank vessel. Corruption, whistleblowing, an affair, being framed for an assassination, and ghost ships… Loneliness, heartache, cabin fever, and how people interact with others… It’s a mass of dangling threads, confusing motivations and unfulfilled ideas, leaving a lot of Velocity Trap feeling messy, half-baked and unfocused — a trait exemplified by Roth’s inability to harmonise the clunkily staged action with the more chin-strokey passages of introspection, such as when Gruner gets to grips with the day-to-day banality of space life (which does, admittedly, lead to some amusing vignettes involving ballet, handstands, and microwaveable meals). 

USA ● 1999 ● Sci-Fi, Action ● 90mins

Olivier Gruner, Alicia Coppola, Ken Olandt, Jorja Fox ● Dir. Phillip J. Roth (as ‘Phillip Roth’) ● Wri. Phillip J. Roth (as ‘Phillip Roth’) and Patrick Phillips

[1] Airing on 24th November 2001, Epoch amassed 1.7million viewers. It ranked as SyFy’s most-watched Original movie until 24th January 2004, when UFO eclipsed it with the 3million drawing Dragon Storm (2004). Dragon Storm held the top spot for over a decade and was eventually pipped by the 3.9million viewers that The Asylum’s Sharknado 2: The Second One (2014) brought in on 30th July 2014. At SyFy’s mid-to-late ‘00s peak, the average Original attracted 1.2 to 2million people.

3 thoughts on “Spaced Out: Velocity Trap (1999)

  1. I’ve always enjoyed Oliver Gruner’s work; when I’d see his name on a video shelf, I’d pick it up . . . and enjoyed the film. I also enjoyed Roth’s earlier, oft cable-ran A.P.E.X (1994). His much later, Bulgaria-shot Crystal Inferno (pinching off the Rock’s Skyscraper) was an alright film, as well.

    Another of those ’90s home video/cable television oddballs I enjoyed from the Marc Dacascos-Christopher Lambert-Oliver Gruner action days was Xavier Declie starring in the French-made (but shot in Puerto Rico) The Survivor (1998). Again, you think it’ll be awful, but you end up being effectively entertained.

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    1. Hey, R.D.

      Thanks for reading and stopping by. It’s greatly appreciated.

      I’m a big fan of Roth, though I’d be lying if I said A.P.E.X. was one of my favourites. My review is kicking about on here somewhere.

      I haven’t got round to The Survivor yet but, after your recommendation, it’s certainly moved up a few places in the to watch pile.

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      1. Yes, A.P.E.X is one of those little ’90s flicks from the earliest days of the direct-to-video-UHF-TV synergy, as well as the earliest days of HBO — when they had a thinner catalog and didn’t have a lot of A-List product: so you got a lot of chances to see things like A.P.E.X. I think it always popping up and making us repeat-watch is what sold it to us. The I-never-heard-of-it Let’s Get Harry, with Robert Duvall, is an early, oft-run HBO favorite of mine, for example. Warning Sign with the always-great Sam Waterson is another.

        The lineage on The Survivor is interesting: everyone in Hollywood has to start, somewhere. It’s France’s “Escape from L.A.” if you will, that is, that’s what passes for an A-List major studio flick, over there. It’s not as “big” as Luc Besson’s rip, Lockout, or Neil Marshall’s “it’s a homage, not a rip off” Doomsday, but, eh, I still like it.

        Another “big-budget” French-made (but English-language) sci-fi’er I enjoy, that you may, as well, is the obscure, Road Warrioresque Terminus (1987) with Karen Allen and always-awesome Jürgen Prochnow.

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