This past weekend (October 2-4, 2015) was the first annual Wizard World Convention in Fort Lauderdale, FL. Wizard World is a pretty large franchise of great and popular conventions and this was their first foray into the city of Fort Lauderdale (basically a suburb of Miami if you're not familiar with where it's located). For a first year Con I'd say it was decently successful. As with any first year it was a little lacking in people because awareness wasn't entirely there and the amount of vendors was also a bit lackluster. However, as word-of-mouth spreads it only has great places to go from here.
I had the privilege of attending on behalf of Moviepilot and, though I wasn't able to spend a large amount of time there, I got to see some pretty decent stuff. The convention had an interactive exhibit from Toruk: The First Flight (not to be confused with Turok: Dinosaur Hunter), which is a Cirque du Soleil show based on James Cameron's Avatar. There was a The Walking Dead Photo Booth setup where you could get your picture taken with some walkers and a very VERY convincing Rick Grimes impersonator. I talked with the Florida chapter of the 1701st Star Trek fan group (which I will go into greater detail on when I start my Fifty Years in the Final Frontier series next year). And, of course, there were lots of great guests and cosplayers. Pictures from the event can be found here at the official Wizard World Facebook page.
The big thing for me, though, was that I got to meet Adrian Paul (Duncan MacLeod from Highlander: The Series – as well as the latter two movies). He was a really nice guy and, though our conversation was brief, he wanted to know as much about me as I wanted to know about him. The introduction inspired me to write the following article for your reading pleasure.
I love Highlander. I'm going to put that out there first and foremost. And Mr. Paul, if you're reading this, please don't let the title confuse you. Like I said at the convention, I am a HUGE Highlander fan.
But that being said, Highlander is like that abusive bad relationship that you just keep running back to — no matter how much it hurts you — because every once in a while it pulls through.
So, as we quickly approach the 30th anniversary of the original cult classic film, let's take a look at the highs and lows of what has to be the most inconsistent and continuity bending — yet incredibly beloved — franchise in the entire history of the entertainment industry.
[WARNING: From this point on there will be spoilers for the Highlander franchise]
The premise of Highlander has always been one that I found particularly intriguing. A race of immortals are forced to battle each other throughout history until only one remains to claim an unknown "prize." They don't know where they came from...only that they must fight.
There can be only one.
The only rules are that they can't fight on holy ground and that the victor must remove the loser's head — in so doing, the loser's power and knowledge are thrust into the other in a dazzling visual effects display called The Quickening.
Highlander is one of those rare concepts that can be a compelling character drama, an action/adventure spectacle, a science fiction masterpiece and a gritty historical epic all rolled into one...when executed properly. Unfortunately, not every installment of the franchise has been particularly successful. In fact...the bad probably outweighs the good.
But when it's good...oh, it's GOOD!
Below is a look at the franchise that many have come to love and/or love to hate.
The original cult classic film — written by Gregory Widen, directed by Russell Mulcahy and produced by Davis/Panzer Productions — was released in March of 1986 and told the aforementioned story from the point of view of Connor MacLeod of the Clan MacLeod (played by Christopher Lambert). Connor was a Scottish warrior that was "killed" in battle in the 1500s...but he didn't die. He recovered from his fatal wounds only to be outcast from his village and learn that he is a member of the race of immortals.
He learns what he needs to know from fellow immortal and ally Ramirez (Sean Connery) and spends the next 400 years battling other immortals to the death. In the end, Connor faces off against the evil immortal known as the Kurgen (Clancy Brown) to be last of the fabled race and claim the Prize.
An original and compelling story, intriguing characters, a kick-ass musical score by Queen (Freddie Mercury was the single greatest vocalist of all time) and some pretty decent acting for a low budget sci-fi/action movie made for a fun film that still holds up as a classic of its time. But it wasn't without its problems.
The low budget meant that you weren't able to get spectacular lightning effects for each Quickening and, instead, had to settle for some off-camera spotlights and giant fans. There were also some issues with the original plot that wouldn't be resolved till later. The Quickening, for instance, is wildly inconsistent in the first film (and the second...but we'll get to that). Primarily, the Quickening is simply the process of transferring a fallen immortal's power to another (typically the one who did the beheading but sometimes just the nearest in proximity). However, the first movie will have you believe that the Quickening is also a force of its own within an immortal that helps them to experience things on a higher level than mortal man. It's all kinds of convoluted and that aspect is eventually dropped from the franchise.
Also, for a film whose title and main character are rooted in Scottish heritage, it features the ridiculously ironic decision to cast the only Scottish actor in the film as the Egyptian servant to a Spanish king.
Despite those technical issues, though, Highlander remains a quality film to be enjoyed. It performed rather poorly at the box office but found a huge following on VHS, which prompted the producers to seek out a sequel. There was only one problem...the story was over.
Gregory Widen wrote an open and close story that wasn't supposed to go any further. Connor MacLeod fought the Kurgen to the death, won the Prize (all the knowledge of the universe) and became mortal to live out the rest of his days as natural as anyone else does.
But hey...this is Hollywood. Tinsel Town doesn't let the conclusion of a story get in their way when they want to make a new movie. As a result of that rather rash thinking, however, we were given...
HIGHLANDER 2: THE QUICKENING (1991)
The film opens up in the future (the year 2024 to be specific) and an old and near death Connor MacLeod is living out the rest of his days after having developed an energy dome that has encased the planet to protect people from ultraviolet radiation that had been seeping through the hole in the Ozone layer.
It's as complicated as it sounds...but don't worry...it gets worse.
How did the producers get around the whole last immortal thing from the first movie's ending? Well, by the most natural means ever, of course.
You see...well...where do I begin?
It's revealed through flashbacks while Connor attends an opera that the immortals are actually...yes...aliens from the planet Zeist. They were an army of rebels fighting an uprising against the tyrannical General Katana (Michael Ironside) and lost. Katana banished the rebels to Earth where they would become immortal and have to fight each other to the death...because...sense.
Connor and Ramirez (whom you may recall met for the first time in the original film after having been born about 600 years apart from each other...give or take) were allies on Zeist and banished together. But before being banished Ramirez made sure that they were bonded by a magic called The Quickening (yeah, now The Quickening is magic) which means that not even death would keep them apart.
Meanwhile, back in 2024, General Katana decides he wants to finish off the rebel threat (oh, by the way, Katana is still alive even though you're only immortal on Earth) and travels to Earth with a couple of lackeys. Upon entering the atmosphere Connor becomes immortal again. He kills the lackeys and The Quickening makes him young again (why not, right?). Oh...during the fight he calls out to his old (and dead) friend Ramirez.
So, like Space Jesus, Ramirez (again played by Sean Connery in a dazzling display of collecting a paycheck) resurrects in the same spot he was killed 400 years earlier. Don't try to wrap your head around why it took Connor 400 years to resurrect his friend if that was a thing he was able to do...you'll never figure it out.
To make a long and increasingly convoluted story short, there's action, environmental terrorism, new suits, magic, John C. McGinley getting his balls squeezed off and Ramriez getting decapitated again after about 15 minutes of screen time (by a slowly descending fan that he totally could have escaped from...after using magic...)
Oh...and the Earth healed itself and they destroy the energy dome thing.
At least I think that's what happened. To be honest, I can't completely recall. It's been a while and I don't think my mind ever completely wrapped around it. But the people on IMDb don't really seem to have a good idea of what happened either so just take my word for it.
The bright side to all of this is that none of it matters. In a bold move by the producers...Highlander 2: The Quickening has been scrapped from continuity. It never happened! But the Highlander franchise still had promise and in the wake of the devastation that was this film we were given...
HIGHLANDER: THE SERIES (1992 - 1998)
Highlander is a story that was made for television. When you have characters that span centuries you need more than 90 minutes to two hours to get the point across. This series picked up after the end of the first movie but with a subtle difference. As far as the TV series is concerned the fight between Connor MacLeod and the Kurgen wasn't the last fight. Just a fight. The Prize remains unclaimed and the story now follows Duncan MacLeod of the Clan MacLeod (Adrian Paul). Duncan and Connor hail from the same Clan but from a "different vintage." Connor trained Duncan following his first "death."
The series gave us such memorable characters as Richie Ryan (Stan Kirsch), Joe Dawson (Jim Brynes), Amanda Darieux (Elizabeth Gracen), Hugh Fitzcairn (The Who's Roger Daltrey) and Methos (Peter Wingfield) — the world's oldest living immortal. The first season followed a pretty routine "immortal of the week" formula but things got much more interesting when Richie became an immortal in Season 2 and we were introduced to The Watchers, an organization of humans who observe and record immortals...but never interfere.
I have to say that I love Highlander: The Series. There are few shows that I live and breath the way that I did this show. It was one of the first ones that I bought all of the seasons for on dvd and binge watched before binge watching was a thing (yeah...that's right. I'm the OG Binge Watcher!). The television format helped to expand the story and allow it to play out at a more appropriate pace. We got rich and interesting characters with a lot of interpersonal drama and the special effects were given a higher priority than they were in the films (which says a lot about the care and attention given to a TV series). It paved the way for a spin-off series centered around the Amanda character (a female immortal with a looser moral code than that of Duncan) called Highlander: The Raven. It was okay. Not great. But that's okay, we were given six quality seasons of the main series and that's what counts.
The show had a pretty rough first season but since TV executives and networks were a lot more forgiving in the late '80s and early '90s it was given more seasons and room to improve. As a result we got great episodes like 'Finale,' 'Unholy Alliance,' 'Comes a Horseman' and my personal favorite 'Homeland' (the Season 4 premiere, directed by Adrian Paul) wherein Duncan returns to Scotland to return a stolen artifact to a loved one's grave and must fight the evil immortal that killed his father. It degraded a little bit in the last season as we dealt with demons, immortal witches and entire episodes without Duncan appearing even once. Plus, I'm still not completely sure what was going on in the series finale as Duncan experiences a It's a Wonderful Life scenario of what the world would have been like without him...but whatever...90% of the time it was a fantastic show that completely redeemed the franchise following Highlander 2: The Sickening...sorry...I mean The Quickening.
But as great as the TV series was, about halfway through some other guys realized they weren't doing anything and wanted to make another Highlander movie, too. I mean, why not, right? Makes sense. They made one movie that was so awful and strayed so far from the source material that they negated it from existence and made a show that also negates the ending to the original movie...so...why not make a new movie to throw into the mix? At least now it would tie into the show right? Bridge the movies with the series? Sensible? Yes?
HIGHLANDER: THE FINAL DIMENSION (1994)
WHAT?! NO! NO, NO, NO, NO, NO, NO, NO!
What does that title even mean?! The Final Dimension? Was there ever an alternate dimension in the franchise? And if there was why is this the final one? It's like they wanted to give some definitive ending to their franchise...that was still going on television...
They...they knew they were making a television show...mind you a GOOD television show... at the same time...right?
Anyways, Highlander: The Final Dimension (which would go on to have later home video re-releases as Highlander 3: The Sorcerer) takes place a few years after the first movie and has Connor MacLeod raising an adopted child as a mortal because he beat the Kurgen and won the Prize (so, in case you're not keeping up, this movie has no connection to the events of the series that was airing at the same damn time). Is that what they mean by The Final Dimension? Because seriously...if you're keeping score...that now gives us three different goddamn realms of continuity. You have:
1. Highlander / Highlander: The Final Dimension
2. Highlander 2: The Quickening (existing in its own realm of bullshit)
3. Highlander: The Series (acknowledging the first film but steering the course into a new direction)
Basically, without going into some long winded diatribe, there is a flashback sequence where Connor (following the death of Ramirez, I guess) needs to learn some more stuff and seeks out a sorcerer played by Mako to learn magic. Seems like if he knew magic he could have used that at any point throughout the history of the first movie but whatever...we've all given up at this point.
Mario Van Peebles plays a Mongul warrior with a bad '80s haircut (in a medieval flashback from a movie made in 1994...because...sense...again) and he kills Mako...whose head keeps talking and prophesying...and then Mario Van Peebles gets frozen in ice for 400 years.
Wait...so...Mario Van Peebles was technically still alive during the events of the first movie. Frozen...but alive...and Connor still won the Prize when he beat the Kurgen. I mean, c'mon...when both sequels were made had anybody involved even watched the first movie? Were they just stock scripts that people downloaded and inserted character names?
I'm just not even going to go any more into it. There's fighting. Tongue lashing (not a metaphor). Bad early '90s illusions...because...magic. Debra Unger shows up as Connor's reincarnated love interest from the 18th century. A pretty gratuitous sex scene just to keep the audience alert and then it's done. And why the hell did the box art have a clock? Why is it that every description of the movie called them "time traveling warriors?" Whatever...if you insist on seeing it the damn thing is on Netflix.
With no clever transition whatsoever we're now brought to...
HIGHLANDER: ENDGAME (2000)
I have to say right off the bat that I liked Highlander: Endgame. There...I said it. It's out there. However, I don't really have a lot of justification for that. It's like when kids are asked why they like Apple Jacks when they don't taste like apples. I just do...okay?!
Highlander: Endgame takes place after the events of the TV series and finally (for the love of God) brings the films and the TV series together. Duncan MacLeod is reunited with Connor MacLeod and together they have to go up against Jacob Kell (Bruce Payne)—an immortal who has killed so many other immortals that he's apparently the most powerful one there is.
There's a really dramatic scene wherein Connor realizes that the only way to defeat Kell is to combine their strengths...forcing Duncan to take his head. It's a pretty fitting way to say farewell to a character we remembered fondly from one movie while still trying to wipe away the memories of the other two.
I think the easiest way to say why I liked this movie is that I had the benefit of having not seen it in theaters. I mean, it was only out for about 70 minutes. In fact, its run in theaters was so short I actually forgot they even made it until walking into a blockbuster one day and finding it on video. And video was the only way to watch this film, apparently.
You see...in theaters...the movie only ran for about 70 minutes (that wasn't a joke). Every scene of plot, exposition and character introduction had been cut from the movie. So all you got were some loosely connected scenes of dialogue and action, spliced together with some B-roll and unfinished special effects and green screen background. After learning all of this I formed the notion that editing the movie was an intern's film school project and I think he got a C- (thanks only to a grading curve).
But as for me? Well...I missed it in theaters. Rented the VHS, which had all of the important footage (well...most of the important footage) put back in. Special effects were finished. Green screen was filled in. The giant RCA logo during the Duncan/Connor fight was blurred out (not kidding!) and I sat down with rose colored glasses and fond memories of the great TV show and I enjoyed every minute of the film (including the scenes that were spliced in twice to increase the run time).
I liked Highlander: Endgame. Was it great? No. Even with the improved video release it still had some glaring problems. And if you had never seen the show then you probably had no idea who any of the characters were (even with the character introduction scenes put back in). But hey...at least it was better than Highlander 2 and Highlander: The Final Dimension. It was even a more fitting ending than the show's series finale.
With the climax of Highlander: Endgame I was a pretty satisfied Highlander fan. It was a franchise with a strong premise that had some rough patches but the show pulled through and gave us many great hours of televised entertainment. And Endgame was, for all intents and purposes, a worthy closing to that show. That's it...there's no more to say on that. Connor was dead and even though Duncan was not the last immortal, the series didn't really need to go any further. Closure was had...
HIGHLANDER: THE SOURCE (2007)
Yeah...there was another movie made after Endgame. This one actually blows my mind more than Highlander 2. At least when they made The Quickening they didn't have much to go on. They needed a way to explain how a conclusive story could continue and they came up with Zeist. But how we came from Highlander: The Series and Endgame (hell...even Highlander: The Raven) to The [bleeping] Source is utterly mind collapsing.
In fact, there's nothing I can really say about Highlander: The Source that critic and Internet personality, Noah Antwiler, didn't already say perfectly on his show The Spoony Experiment. Check it out below if you have 40 minutes to kill.
What I will do is give you the highlights.
Highlander: The Source was a direct to SyFy Channel movie that didn't get a theatrical release because no distributor wanted to touch it with a fifty foot pole. It was intended to be the first in a new trilogy and the fact that people even considered that notion is laughable. I only saw it because I happened to have SyFy on the night that it premiered. And like any obedient Highlander fan...I watched it.
Much like Highlander 2, this film was set in a distopian future and the laws of universal physics went out the window as planets are suddenly drifting closer to Earth. Methos and a few other random immortals are looking for The Source (which is apparently a thing even though they aren't supposed to know anything about their origins) and Duncan got both married and divorced between movies. I would keep going but honestly that's about as sensible as it gets. I mean it's just utter bullshit beyond that point. It ends with Duncan becoming "The One."
Mind you...that's not to mean he's the last of the immortals. It means he's "the one" to pass a test of character and be the only immortal to have a child. It was basically a cop-out to end the story without killing fan favorite characters like Methos and Amanda (who doesn't actually appear but one can assume she's maybe still alive).
The one thing this movie did fairly well was kill Joe Dawson. It was a decently handled scene. Jim Byrnes played it off well and it was a fitting conclusion to that character. However, it was completely overshadowed by the glaring question of "why is Joe Dawson even there in the first place?" IT'S THE FUTURE! It's so far into the future that society has collapsed and computers now have holographic projection screens. Why is Joe Dawson still alive? Better yet...why hasn't he aged? He's mortal. A Watcher. What the hell?!
So yeah, Highlander: The Source is to the TV series what Highlander 2: The Quickening was to the original movie. But...like The Quickening...it was still Highlander. I watched it and in spite of everything I bought it on DVD hoping that maybe the unrated cut was in some way better. It wasn't.
So with that bid farewell to the Highlander franchise...
HIGHLANDER: THE REMAKE (???)
OH FOR GOD'S SAKE!
Yeah...there's a remake on the agenda. At least there has been for a while. And actually, I'm not opposed to it. The thing about Highlander is that there has never been a completely perfect representation of Gregory Widen's story. The first movie is a classic of '80s sci-fi but it was like a rough cut. It was like Mad Max but without getting it's proper Road Warrior follow up.
Highlander can actually work with a remake. Modern filmmaking, a bigger budget with improved special effects and a complete library of what not to do for the creative team to reference. I'd like to see what they do. But they have to do it right. It's already gone through questionable stages of development with high and low points of encouragement. At one point it was being written by the screenwriter of Twilight (low point) and starring Ryan Reynolds (high point). Neither are attached anymore and now I'm not sure if anybody is even still focused on it at all.
But if it ever does get made you can bet I'll be there to watch it. I can't explain what it really is about Highlander that I love so much. All I can say is that it's a great story with unlimited potential to be unbelievably epic and maybe I'm just waiting for that day to come. But I'm not alone. If you're reading this then deep down you know — regardless of how many times the franchise has kicked you in the baby-maker — that it's a really good franchise at heart and that it's there for you when you need it.
Don't forget to follow me on Twitter (@ThisIsJamesT) and remember to check out Noah Antwiler's hilarious (albeit profane) video above. And definitely remember that one of the most graphically violent and sexually explicit film concepts of all time once yielded a Saturday morning kids cartoon.