A Man Out of Time: The Enduring Legacy of Charles Band’s ‘Trancers’
Forever holding his finger on the pulse of what’s coming next, filmmaker Charles Band has made an entire career out of being one step ahead. Seeing an opportunity and seizing it with fervor, the producer/director and Full Moon Features head honcho remains a showman forever capable of adapting to the times. Band’s 1985 sci-fi flick Trancers cashed in on Ridley Scott’s science fiction classic Blade Runner and helped found one of Band’s longest running franchises. Trancers brings one of the most likable hard-asses ever put on celluloid to the masses, while also welcoming comedian Tim Thomerson’s Jack Deth into Band’s roster of icons.
Made during Band’s Empire Pictures run, Trancers is a sci-fi gem that wastes no time showing its audience what kind of Phillip Marlow meets Rick Deckard hijinks they’re in store for. Set in the future of the 23rd Century, the film follows Jack Deth (Thomerson, Near Dark, Fade to Black), a cop forever plagued by the loss of his wife at the hands of his nemesis Whistler (Michael Stefani, Mission: Impossible), a villain using psychic powers to turn weak minded people into “trancers,” mindless zombies ready to carry out his will. Jack makes his mission a personal one when he’s pulled from Trancers duty by the future council in charge of things and begrudgingly given a mission that could save humanity. Having sent his consciousness back in time and into an ancestor living in 1985, Whistler is picking off the council members via their relatives one by one. With no other option in front of them, the council sends Deth back into the body of his ancestor, a journalist named Phillip Dethton.
From the moment Deth arrives in Dethton’s body, the comic relief is front and center. The wise-cracking cop flounders like a fish out of water, unable to grasp how different 1985 Los Angeles is from his future reality. Adding to the hijinks, Dethton had just spent the evening in a one-night stand with punk rocker Lena (an early role from Twister and Mad About You’s Helen Hunt), making Deth’s lack of memory seem off putting and aiding in the film’s whimsical approach to storytelling. The chemistry between Thomerson and Hunt is a blast to watch even before the sci-fi elements catch up with the modern day setting.
Almost immediately, Deth and Lena — like many films from the era — are put together against their will. They must stop Whistler, in the body of his police detective ancestor, from getting to failed baseball player — and ancestor to one of the remaining council members — Hap Ashby. A pretty standard plot to follow, but what Trancers does to set itself apart is highlight the film’s heart and soul. The script by The Rocketeer writers Danny Bilson and Paul De Meo is tightly paced, leaving room for some excellent improv, but also lean and to the point.
With anyone other than Thomerson, the film could have been a bit too on the nose, but the comedian knows how to chew up scenery. The way Thomerson delivers his lines is immediately quotable. Dialogue is hilariously off kilter, making the sci-fi elements almost second nature to a great character driven ride that makes Trancers a bright light in Band’s Empire Pictures era.
Band, directing this time around, knows what the lack of a Blade Runner budget can mean. While the film’s tighter wallet in terms of effects are apparent, the filmmaker makes up for it in his execution. Instead of using high-tech wizardry to tell a sci-fi story, we’re given set pieces and scenes that use basic approaches to get the job done. A scene in which Whistler corners Deth and Lena and shoots at them is made into a memorable one by utilizing an earlier gag of a watch that slows down time dramatically. Jack saves Lena by simply grabbing her and running, all while Whistler stands there frozen.
That may sound hokey — and maybe it is — but that’s also a part of the charm of Trancers. It’s a film that never quite takes itself too seriously; the audience is in on the joke. Instead of state-of-the-art effects carrying the film, we’re given Jack not being able to pronounce Cahuenga correctly, or Hap Ashby saving Jack and Lena by throwing a half eaten sandwich from a dumpster at Whistler, sending the man falling down off a building. The magic of these moments lies in how Thomerson, Hunt and company play the moments straight. The deadpan approach never pushes Trancers into farcical places, instead playing like dry comedy set in the sci-fi genre. Are there flying cars and advanced technological systems on display the entire time? Not in the slightest. The film’s heart is easy to latch onto, making Trancers something of a diamond in the rough.
After the collapse of Band’s Empire Pictures studio, Trancers eventually joined Band’s Full Moon entertainment slate, spawning a handful of sequels involving Deth and his many adventures (C. Courtney Joyner’s Trancers III is without a doubt one of the most entertaining films Band has had a hand in), alongside other Full Moon franchises such as Subspecies and the Puppet Master films. Future installments saw Jack juggling a love triangle of Lena and the revelation that his deceased wife from the future wasn’t in fact killed, stopping the genesis of Trancers and even traveling to an alternate version of Medieval Europe for various exploits (Trancers: Jack of Swords was helmed by Game of Thrones and Time Traveler’s Wife director David Nutter). Thomerson would eventually go on to work with Band’s Full Moon on another franchise, the Dollman films, as series lead Brick Bardo, an anti-hero that also just happens to be thirteen inches tall.
While big budget sci-fi epics are great to watch and this writer can spend hours adoring the spectacle science fiction films we’re given these days, there’s something unique about what Charles Band was able to create alongside Danny Bilson and Paul De Meo with Trancers. A rare gem that is often overlooked for bigger films, this 1985 classic is one to watch and remember.