5ive Days to Midnight

Welcome to the Made-For-Cable Café, home of all those tasty movies that aren’t quite right for serving on the silver screen but have enough appeal to be shown on television. Maybe they’re too long. Perhaps their producers couldn’t get a big enough budget. Possibly there was a commission from the cable studio for something to fill the Thursday night primetime slots for the month of June. Whatever the reason, these movies command a presence on cable networks all year ‘round. Never fear if you missed the first serving on telvision, because here at the Café there are always plenty of leftovers offered on DVD to satisfy your cable movie appetite. The newest addition to the Café menu is Sci-Fi Channel’s mini-series 5ive Days to Midnight. This sleepy, sci-fi “lite” suspense drama combines warmed over plot points from Back to the Future and Frequency with a dash of A Beautiful Mind‘s mathematical imagery and just a hint of “NYPD Blue” thrown in for that spicy police drama after-taste. Sound less than mouth-watering? You’re right. But enjoyable acting, interesting details and an exceptional soundtrack make an otherwise temperate movie moderately enjoyable.

J. T. Neumeyer (Timothy Hutton) is a brilliant professor who has spent the last ten years doing his best to raise his daughter Jesse (Gage Golightly) on his own. Since his wife’s death during Jesse’s delivery it has been a tough road for the good Dr. Neumeyer but devoted father puts his daughter ahead of all else in his life, including his passion: physics.

Each year on Jesse’s birthday the pair make a memorial trip to her mother’s grave. But this year’s visit is a little different. A mysterious case made of futuristic materials and bearing Neumeyer’s name suddenly appears on the ground near the grave. Cleverly cracking the code to unlock the case, Neumeyer is met with a disturbing collection of papers in the police file of his own unsolved murder, an event destined to occur in (drum roll please) five days. After careful consideration and a few tests of fate, the good professor begins to believe the materials really are from the future, sent to warn him of what’s to come.

Most disturbing among the file’s contents is the suspect list that includes family members and his girlfriend Claudia (Kari Matchett). Engaging the help of local police homicide investigator Irwin Sikorski (Randy Quaid) and a neurotic but ingenius physics grad student Carl Axelrod (Hamish Linklater), Neumeyer sets out to prevent the distastrous event from taking place.

5ive Days to Midnight is hardly the best thing on the cable movie menu. There’s not much to the movie’s 255 minutes that couldn’t have been reduced to a more palatable 120 minute feature. 5ive HOURS to Midnight might have made for a better flick. Each of the series’ five hours are penned by a slightly different committee of writers. They say too many chefs spoil the stew. The concept couldn’t be any truer here. Everything comes together nicely in the end, and the twists aren’t totally predictable, but the endless storyline wandering and incessant cliffhanger moments get older faster than leftover Thanksgiving turkey. Perhaps the various episodes work better when spread out over four commercial filled nights, but watching the whole thing in one sitting will likely leave you with cinematic indigestion.

If you do have to spend that much time on a show there are worse acting performances to have to watch. Hutton and Matchett have a clever chemistry about them and Gage Golightly, looking rather like a young Drew Barrymore, absolutely enchants in her role as a smart girl following in her father’s footsteps. Hamish Linklater, of TV’s “American Dreams”, offers us a glimpse at what a manic Dr. Emmitt Brown might have been like during his college years. Look for good things from him in next year’s Fantastic Four.

The biggest surprise comes from Randy Quaid. Despite his recent fascination with making TV films, he usually turns out enjoyable performances. Not so in 5ive Days. Of course, any actor might have a tough time bouncing back after coming off a run of “hits” like Home on the Range and National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation 2: Cousin Eddie’s Island Adventure (whoever is blackmailing the man into doing these movies -- I’m begging you -- please stop, for all our sakes!)

The biggest conundrum with 5ive Days to Midnight is knowing when to actually break down and watch it. The old “I’ll see it when it comes out on TV” card doesn’t play well in this case. My recommendation: unless you like your movies long and twisting, keep on browsing the Café menu, you’re bound to find something tastier to cure your movie munchies. As DVD packages go it’s not often that the special features actually outshine the movie itself, yet that’s exactly what you get with 5ive Days to Midnight. The sad part? There aren’t that many special features for a two disc set.

My only complaint about the DVD is episode layout. The movie was originally written in five parts, but the Sci-Fi channel aired it in four. The DVD producers had the opportunity to break away from the airing format and show a little creativity by breaking the story into its more natural five parts and removing the annoying “previously on 5ive Days to Midnight” segues. No such luck…we’re left with the originally presented format. At least it’s still in widescreen.

Things turn around when it comes to the making-of featurettes. They’re a bit dry, but if you’re into movie making you can’t ask for a more technically pleasing perspective on the process that was bringing 5ive Days to life. Broken down into four categories, there’s a featurette for production design, cinematography, visual effects and a special in depth look at one of the film’s biggest stunts. To make up for their slight technical dryness they have clever names like Proving Destiny and Fractures of Time. Fair enough.

The real surprise bonus on these discs is the commentary. Director Michael Watkins and Cinematographer Joel Ransom seem to have knocked back a few before sitting down to record their commentary track, and the relaxed feel pays off. Between the two of them they have mastered the art of creating an entertaining commentary. It’s not the kind of thing you’d want to listen to during something important like Schindler’s List, but for a Sci-Fi Channel mini-series it’s perfection. Watkins and Ransom had me laughing most of the way, taking pot shots at their own mistakes (they even encourage you to rewind and watch the ones they forgot to prep you for) and marveling me with their revelations about the fine details in their work that I missed the first time through. Too bad these guys couldn’t even make it all the way through their own movie. The commentary is only there for the first and fourth episodes.

The commentary almost makes this DVD set worth picking up…but not until it hits the bargain shelf at Hastings. In the meantime, rent yourself a copy if you like a decent Sci-Fi mini-series. Otherwise, non-Timothy Hutton fans need not apply.