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Trancers (1985)
Tonight's Feature Presentation


Starring: Tim Thomerson, Helen Hunt, Michael Stefani, Art LaFleur, Telma Hopkins

Written By: Danny Bilson, Paul De Meo Directed By: Charles Band

The Short Version

Here’s proof that sometimes, cheap sci fi knock-offs can be quite good.

This isn’t just “an 80s flick” because that’s when it was made; this is An 80s Flick.

It’s also self-aware enough to not take itself too seriously.

Both leads give seriously good performances, though.

Trancers is a super quick flashback to the 80s that’s a whole lot of fun.

The Long Version

What Kind Of Cheese Is It?


For Jack from Lost Angeles.

Pairs Well With...


“Last call!”

“Dry hair’s for squids!  Let’s get out of here!”

In 1984, the world was wowed by director James Cameron’s instant classic, The Terminator.  It didn’t take a genius to figure out that roughly a zillion imitators would be following close on its heels.

One of those movies was called Trancers.

The story begins in the 23rd Century.  Los Angeles as we know it has sunk into the ocean – the tops of old skyscrapers can still be seen poking out of the water – and is now called Lost Angeles.  Patrolling the new city built up on the shore is trooper Jack Deth (Tim Thomerson, Nemesis), and he’s on a very personal mission to hunt down Trancers: outwardly ordinary people who have been reduced to a state of zombie-like slavery by the psychic will of a villain named Whistler (Michael Stefani, “Bonanza”), whom Deth believes he killed six months ago.

Too bad he didn’t.

The city’s ruling council has learned that Whistler instead went “down the line” – back in time through a bizarre form of time travel that allows a person’s consciousness to inhabit the body of an ancestor as though it were his or her own.  Specifically, he’s gone back to 1985, intending to murder the ancestors of the city’s ruling council and therefore, by extension, the council members themselves.  So far, he’s found one out of his three intended victims, and the two remaining LA councilors – not wanting to suddenly disappear from existence as their colleague did – decide to take a radical step to make sure that Whistler doesn’t get to strike again.  Specifically, they want to send Jack Deth “down the line” and into the mind of his own LA-resident ancestor from 1985, with the mission to hunt down Whistler and send him back “up the line” before the fiend can finish his murderous task…

Sound convoluted?  It is.  Sound complex?  It isn’t, chiefly because the screenplay for Trancers makes no real attempt to explain how the time travel process at its core works, or why people have to travel through time by “borrowing” the minds of their ancestors, while guns and wristwatches can be sent along in a small mesh box.  It also doesn’t concern itself with occasional inconsistencies, like how a tertiary character who later “comes down the line” ends up taking over the body of a child because, the normally adult male character complains, she’s the only ancestor he could find, even though he mentions sneaking away from her parents during the course of the very same sentence.  At first consideration, this might seem lazy, but in this case, it’s brilliant.  A lot of stories spend too much time on exposition, but Trancers, already lean and mean at just 76 minutes long, doesn’t really have time for that sort of thing if it’s going to keep up the pace, and so it trusts the viewers to – gasp! – suspend their disbelief and decide that if the characters accept all of this as real, so can they.  Here, despite (or perhaps because of) the weirdness of it all, it works very well.

And that leaves all of the runtime for Trancers to focus on being fun. 

Trancers may draw its premise from The Terminator, but the Powers That Be here know better than to try and compete on the same ground, with the result being a flick that knows better than to take itself too seriously.  Our hero is an old school noir gumshoe with a modernized case of wiseassery and a devotion to hair gel.  He arrives in 1985 to find himself waking up on “the morning after” and having no idea who the woman getting dressed on the other side of the room is.  (She’s future Oscar winner Helen Hunt, of course, playing a character whose day job is being a shopping mall Elf.)  The first zombified Trancer Deth has to kill in 1985 is Santa Claus.  The next one he meets tries to kill him with a tanning booth.  When he hits a nightclub, he takes “white guys can’t dance” to a whole new level.  So, too serious?  Not a chance.

But that’s not to say that Trancers is an all-out joke, either, because it isn’t.  There’s still real drama here.  It shows up tangibly when Deth makes the brutally honest admission that he doesn’t “even know what you people eat for lunch,” an extremely practical time traveler’s dilemma that most stories ignore.  Tim Thomerson has the presence of mind to deliver the line with a touch of sadness and light desperation, giving his character a full serving of real humanity in the space of single sentence.  Meanwhile, Helen Hunt refuses to simply play “the girl,” giving her role an added depth that goes beyond the script and which definitely foreshadows the greener pastures upon which she’d play later in her career.  And, odd as it may seem at first, the two leads present a chemistry that works, making their adventures that much more enjoyable to watch.

And then it’s time for the 1980s to show up!

It is entirely possible that Trancers is more fun now that it was back when it was first released, because the fashion and pop culture of the 80s are poured on super thick, which might have given it an annoyingly cheesy feel back in the day but which now provides for a nostalgically cheesy feel – a very real and very important distinction.  The hair, the clothes, the action sequence music that makes it sound like the characters are having chases and shootouts right next door to a rockin’ aerobics class with the ghetto blaster turned up… Really, all that’s missing here is a cameo by Martha Quinn or another MTV veejay to make the “Totally 80s” atmosphere complete.

As for the rest of the often neon-lit production, sure, the budget’s low, even for 1985 (try not to do a triple take when you notice a parking lot – in LA – that charges a whopping $0.50 per hour to park with a $2.00 daily maximum), but the money’s very well spent.  The effects are decent given the era, the locations look good, and most important of all, as noted, the actors do an outstanding job.  Normally, when I see a color era movie that runs under 85 minutes, I start wondering what corners were cut, but in the case of Trancers, everything that needs to be there is.  Yeah, it’s light on exposition, but it’s got fully drawn characters, a plot that takes time to smell a few quick roses instead of just moving in a straight line, and a satisfying story that closes up everything that needs closing.

Bottom line, Trancers is a very cool, surprisingly good movie… reverse grandfather paradox and all.  If you find it on a store shelf or in a streaming queue, it’s definitely worth a look.

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- Reviewed by Ziggy Berkeley, March, 2014

More From The Bar! | Laser Mission | Scanners | Looper | Terminator: Genisys |

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