Nightflyers is an unusual genre hopping movie. It starts out like a science-fiction movie, turns into a horror movie, turns back into a science-fiction movie and then spends its last act see-sawing between the two. It even manages to toss in a weird sort of love triangle. If only the promise of the opening scenes of the story were fulfilled, it probably become a minor classic rather than a minor cult curiosity.
Michael D’Brannin (John Standing) is a man who has been obsessively researching a supposedly mythical alien race for twenty years. He believes he now has the key to contacting them. Along with his personal assistant Miranda (Catherine Mary Stewart), he assembles a team of technicians, including Darryl (James Avery) a documentary maker, Jon (Michael Des Barres) a ‘Class 10 Telepath’ and his empath Eliza (Annabel Brooks). The ship they hire on the cheap is huge, dark and mysterious. It is also flown by a single person, Royd (Michael Praed) who will only appear to the passengers as a hologram.
Before too long the telepath senses an evil presence on the ship, everyone is curious about the captain who eventually reveals he has lived his entire life in a zero gravity chamber and has neither the strength nor the immune system to survive outside his room, but he longs to experience life away from the ship, especially since he’s pretty hot for Miranda. The computer that drives the ship does not like Jon taking an interest in Miranda one bit, so people start dying.
The opening moments of the film are marvelous, interesting large scale models, moody set design. The Nightflyer is a beautiful ship. The haircuts and costuming have a very 80’s feel to them but it’s not far away from what you saw on SF book covers at the time, and I’m never going to fault a movie for looking like the period it was made in. D’Brannin’s description of the alien race he’s looking for sounds fascinating, so when you realize the movie is going to be spending its entire run hanging around the ship fighting an evil computer, it’s a bit of a letdown.
The acting is fine; Michael Des Barres screams and rants like his hair was on fire. James Avery’s character is notable for being a gay character in an 80’s movie that is heroic, capable and not just there to be comic relief.
The real tragedy of ‘Nightflyers’ is that it has such promise at the beginning, that the second and third acts feel weak, despite being a perfectly serviceable haunted house type film. There’s a bit of inspired mayhem involving a surgery laser, and later a knife wielding corpse. There are some interesting concepts, such as one character being a sex changed clone of his mother. But those moments don’t come often enough to hold the viewer’s interest. That along with a pretty silly ending turns the whole thing into a noble failure at best.
‘Nightflyers’ has never received a DVD release, so it is a little difficult to find, but if you are fan of things like ‘Alien’ (1979) or ‘Event Horizon’ (1997) you might want to give it a look.