Free Enterprise - The Five Year Mission Extended Edition Review
Little Robert has come to school dressed in his Federation uniform and is, unsurprisingly, getting kicked about the playground by the class bully. Between getting thrown to the ground, Mark is asked if he's a homo but, pluckily and not too cleverly, he asks what his sexual preference has to do with Star Trek? One more punch and he passes out, dreaming of William Shatner appearing before him in a heavenly white light telling Mark to, "Kick the little fucker's ass!" Meanwhile, in Brooklyn, teenage Mark is waiting in line to watch Star Trek: The Motion Picture on its opening weekend but with it already gone 4.30, he's refused entry unless he finds an adult to accompany him. Once again, William Shatner appears, this time from a backlit cinema doorway and asks Mark why he's bothering to go see the film - Shatner: "I mean, have you read the reviews?" - but inspired by this dream, Mark runs to find his mother. Nothing will deter him from watching this movie!
Now grown up, Robert (Rafer Weigel) and Mark (Eric McCormack) are struggling through life like many other late-twentysomething men, balancing a career, a girlfriend and various interests outside of both. What makes them different is that they have an obsession about Star Wars, Star Trek, comics, laserdiscs, lead figurines and dolls...sorry, action figures. If this makes them geeks, well that's fine. Mark admits as such what with his editing of Geek magazine but he and Robert have dreams of making it in the movie business - Robert is an editor of low-budget sci-fi movies whilst Mark opens the film pitching Bradykiller to Robert's boss.
But they're getting restless. Robert has had his latest girlfriend walk out on him after finding out that he's lied to her once too often whilst the closest mark gets to a sex life is a female caller who rings him up and fakes an orgasm onto his ansaphone. Then Robert and Mark meet William Shatner in a bookstore - he's flicking through a pornographic magazine at the time - and are awestruck but quickly realise that since his heyday, he's developed some truly awful ideas, including a musical version of Julius Caesar. Days later, things take a turn for the better when Robert meets Claire (Audie England) in a comic book shop and he's smitten, not only by her good looks and lime-green jumpsuit but also by her knowledge of Neil Gaiman's Sandman. Claire is everything that he could want and Robert begins spending all of his time with her but can he keep his old habits in check and make this relationship work where all the others have failed?
Reading that description, you may well come away thinking that Free Enterprise is a Swingers for an audience of geeks. Well, in terms of summarising the film, you certainly wouldn't be wrong but Free Enterprise is often dismissed for being that very thing. Do a little searching for online reviews of Free Enterprise and the most frequent appraisal of it tends to be along the lines of it having much in common with Swingers but that it is neither as funny nor as well-observed. Unfortunately, there is a touch of the-geek-doth-protest-too-much about that comment, being the reviewer effectively saying that although they found Free Enterprise funny and charming, they have no wish to admit that they have anything in common with Mark and Robert. How bad that would look in print.
Until now, that is. This viewer would dearly love for my life to be closer to Swingers than Free Enterprise but I know that it is not. Equally, when I was 14 the film that I most wanted my life to reflect was American Ninja but Tom Hanks's little-known D&D film, Mazes And Monsters was closer to the mark. Similarly, at 21, I'd have preferred it if my life had taken a turn for the likes of Ass Busters III: Extreme Deep Invader but, being honest, it was probably more a combination of 9 Songs without the sex, a documentary on alcoholism and a black-and-white Eastern Bloc drama on the depression brought on by a rainstorm that never seems to end.
Of course, Swingers came and went and it was funny and some of it rang true but Vince Vaughn's stylish lothario was a world away from anyone you'd actually be likely to meet. Nor did it much look as though he'd know who Porkins was nor the differences between the Theatrical and Director's Cuts of Blade Runner. Free Enterprise is a film made for people who know those things, not in passing but intimately. It's a film for people who know the value of a Criterion release and who's the better looking, Mary Jane or Felicia Hardy. It's a film for people who say, "Stay on target!" over and over to themselves whilst approaching a member of the opposite sex. It's a film for people who wonder who might survive in a fight between an Imperial stormtrooper and a Star Trek red-shirt, one of whom is naturally and wildly inaccurate whilst the other is fated to die. It is, finally, a film for those who, with no trace of irony, enjoy the sight of an alien creature being punched by William Shatner in a deserted corner of the Californian desert.
And it's Bill Shatner who effectively opens Free Enterprise, advising Mark and Robert in the manner of Humphrey Bogart in Woody Allen's Play It Again, Sam. Or, at least, that's how they see him when he appears to them in the early flashbacks to their childhood but when their first meeting with him goes badly wrong - Robert says later, "The man I idolised since I was two turns out to be a raving loon!" - they appear as two men whose life has pulled the rug out from underneath. Even when he confides in them his idea of a musical version of Julius Caesar, their look is more one of horror than of understanding, being unable to see just how far one man can fall in so short a time. Of course, this is the film's message, being one of separating the art from the artist, and it's one that we have Shatner to thank. As the accompanying documentary and booklet say, Shatner initially passed on the film, when it was much closer to Play It Again, Sam, feeling embarrassed by the adulation for him in the film and suggested that they rewrite his role, making him more of a screw-up who needs as much help from Robert and Mark as they need from him. More, in fact, as it's Mark who stops taking calls from Bill when he can no longer cope with the torrent of ridiculous ideas that he's leaving on Mark's ansaphone, including one to pass on Heather Locklear in favour of Julia Roberts. What Free Enterprise then becomes is less Play It Again, Sam and more My Favourite Year in which Robert and Mark realise that the very human Bill Shatner is a world and a few centuries away from the more remarkable figure of Captain Kirk.
The comparison to Swingers does indeed ring true as well and not only due to the presence of Patrick Van Horn, who is cast here as Sean and who appeared as Sue in Swingers. There's much late-twenties/early-thirties moments of crisis, typically to do with one's success, or otherwise, in relationships. Schweiger (Daniel Schweiger), for example, complains that he has nothing but first dates and that all he wants is a second date or a follow-up call at least. Robert, despite the Star Trek obsession, is successful with women but can't hold on to one - a chance meeting with an ex-girlfriend has her new boyfriend sum him up as, "Oh...the trekkie, right?" - whilst Mark, although realising that he needs to relax, just can't take that step into a relationship that is as satisfying to him as it is to his girlfriend. When Robert meets Claire, he falls in love quickly but his friends are torn between what's obviously good for Robert and their missing him. That's also reflected in Robert's willingness to spend time with Claire at the cost of his job - as Claire asks, "When are you going to start living in the present instead of the 24th century?" / Robert: "I would never live in the 24th century! I fucking hate The Next Generation! Only classic!" The struggles between work, a new boy- or girlfriend and one's friends are warm, touching and nicely observed although it's difficult to imagine real-life sci-fi nuts being as emotionally eloquent as Mark, Robert, Claire, Sean and Eric are here.
Aside from that, though, Free Enterprise is just very, very funny throughout and not even in a way that demands a knowledge of more sci-fi than might be healthy. In their first meeting with Bill Shatner, for example, Mark and Robert agree to play it cool but Mark stumbles over a sofa, lands at Bill's feet and, covering him, looks in the bookshelf saying, "Oh good, I've been looking for...Mein Kampf." There are scores of references to movies, music and other items of pop culture - Eric (Phil LaMarr) is obsessed with Yes and Tales From Topographic Oceans in particular, Robert and Mark argue over Star Wars and, in a Deleted Scene, Robert and actress-model Leila (Lori Lively) talk about her casting in Deep Space 9. But the very best thing in the film is a Logan's Run-inspired dream sequence in which Mark, only days before his thirtieth birthday, awakes to find that the red light is now blinking, a sign of Lastday, and that Robert, dressed as a Sandman, is attempting to, in the words of the film, terminate him. As Mark runs, saying, "Please Robert...for Christ's sake, we're the only ones who remember Logan's Run", Robert/Sandman aims his sidearm with a, "There is no Sanctuary!"
It may be a phrase born from a sci-fi movie that few people remember but, "There is no sanctuary!" is one that defines Free Entreprise. There is no sanctuary from real life eventually bursting into one's bachelor pad and that not even a complete set of KISS action figures can hold love back. But that's the joy of Free Enterprise, showing that even in the most unlikely of places - a fourteen-year-old's mind in the body of a twenty-nine year-old - some kind of romance may still make its way in. Granted, it's a romance that feeds a desire to dress up as characters from Star Trek but it's a romance nonetheless, leaving Free Enterprise a warm and funny romantic comedy about what happens when geeks fall in love.
The low-budget origins of the film are obvious when looking at the transfer - it's soft, colours are dull and it's missing the sparkle that one associates with a feature. It could well be direct-to-video/DVD and though I suspect that although Anchor Bay have done their best, it doesn't appear as though much improvement would have been possible. Even the CG effects that have been added to this extended edition don't look that impressive, hinting that the look of the film is deliberate. Still, the transfer isn't bad for a low-budget independent film and should you accept that it's not going to look as good as a studio feature, you should get along with it fine.
The original 2.0 Surround audio track has been included here as well as a 5.1 remix and both are good if, like the colours, a little dull. They're certainly functional but there's little action in the rear or subwoofer channels nor is there much panning across the front speakers. There's very little noise, though, and although the dialogue can sometimes sound muddled, this is more a fault of the original feature than Anchor Bay's transfer.
Commentaries: Robert Meyer Burnett turns up on both tracks, once with his writing partner Mark Altman and with Eric McCormack and Rafer Weigel on the other, both of which are often hugely entertaining and, in the case of the Burnett/Altman track, informative. All of the contributors sound as though they're still firm friends but it's the Burnett/Altman track that's the most fun - they're clearly geeks but they're honest in what works in the script, what was based on real-life incidents and what was not and how fans of the film out-geek even them. They even make jokes at the expense of their own movie, saying of the newly-added CG effects, that they couldn't bill this version of Free Enterprise as an Extended, or Special, Edition without some new CG in it. As for William Shatner, who's listed as a contributor on the cast commentary, he's been edited in from a separate recording and lacks the round-the-table feel that works so well on both tracks.
The Making Of Free Enterprise (69m40s): This documentary covers almost everything that you might want to know about the film from every conceivable angle. Most of the main cast are interviewed and they explain, as does Mark Altman and Robert Meyer Burnett, how their real-life friendship with the writers came to influence the script. There's also a couple of interviews with William Shatner who admits that, at first, he had no interest in starring in the film, which forced Altman and Burnett to come up with a rewrite based on a fictional television show called Solar Quest, the equally made-up star of which would appear in Free Enterprise as Shatner eventually did. That Shatner eventually agreed to star in Free Enterprise is, after hearing that, something of a relief.
Deleted Scenes: This new version of Free Enterprise comes in at 121 minutes but there's also a lot of new footage in here with twelve deleted or extended that, although they don't add much to the film, are well worth watching. In particular, there's more of Alan Spencer as the Obsessed Fan, as he's listed in the credits, with his unique take on ET - "ET was a paedophile, he hid in the closet, dressed in women's clothing, he was always touching Elliot never Drew Barrymore, he was always giving the kids candy [and] telling them to come with him...some alien who looks like a penis!" In two rapid-fire performances, there's much, much more than just that, including what might have happened had Elliot gone on ET's ship - it has something to do with that glowing finger - and where Walt Disney's frozen remains are.
Aside from Alan Spencer, there's more of Leila and a classic line from Eric before he enters a comic book shop, "Dudes...we were in that car for twenty minutes and heard not one Yes song...how can they possibly call that classic rock?" There are also two Easter Eggs that won't trouble anyone, including another deleted scene with Robert and the kid in the Toys'R'Us store as well as Rafer Wiegel catching up with Eric McCormack on the set of Will And Grace (3m38s) that, I'm assuming, was a lead-in to Free Enterprise 2 for the two main members of the cast.
Screentests (8m17s): Of the main cast, only Audie England is included here in a read-through of the script. Otherwise, there is Jennifer Sommerfield, Annika Brinbly, Russell Young and Mandy Ingber.
No Tears For Caesar Music Video (3m32s): If his version of Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds wasn't enough, this set also includes the music video for William Shatner's Shakespearean rap, No Tears For Caesar. It is as dreadful as you might imagine it to be but that's probably the point.
Cine Fantastique (24m18s): Robert Meyer Burnett and Mark Altman, who wrote and directed Free Enterprise, join Dan Vebber (Futurama) and Concept Designer Daren Dochterman in an unusually quiet bar to talk movies in a pilot to a film discussion show that was never commissioned. Don't let that put you off though as there are some interesting, sometimes funny points raised about movies, including, "[AOTC] has a sense of evil to it"..."Yeah, but it's behind the camera!" Near the end, they're joined by Free Enterprise and ST: DS9's Chase Masterson for a discussion on Arnold Schwarzenegger standing for Governor of California...summary being it's not a good thing.
There is also a Trailer (2m23s), a TV Spot (31s) and a trailer for The Specials. Finally, there are two drafts of Free Enterprise - one is the first draft whilst the other is the shooting script - as well as an excerpt from the Solar Quest version of the script when William Shatner passed on the project. These scripts are included on the second disc in PDF format.
I have been trying hard not to make Free Enterprise sound like a hardcore geek movie, more that it's romantic coming-of-age drama strung through with moments of quickfire comedy, which requires some knowledge of Star Trek, Star Wars and even such lesser lights as Logan's Run. The heart of the movie, though, is the relationship between Robert and Claire and even if the sci-fi leaves you cold, there's much to enjoy in the subtle looks between the cast that suggests that a scale model of an Eagle from Space: 1999 will only get you so far in life.
This is the second release of Free Enterprise and it's a big improvement over the first, containing as many bonus features that you could want on the film with many contributions from the proud but honest Burnett and Altman. That you're here at all - sat at a computer reading a website containing the type of DVD reviews that Mark and Robert would base their purchase of a disc on - suggests that Free Enterprise won't be inordinately far from your tastes and this Extended Edition is now the best way to watch it on DVD. It may not come via a Criterion release, so beloved of Mark and Robert, but this release is almost as good and I can't help but feel that the real-life Mark and Robert (Altman and Burnett) are ridiculously, if not geekily, happy about it.
Last updated: 19/04/2018 06:11:02