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Fox Home Entertainment presents
Harsh Realm: The Complete Series (1999)

"The ultimate mind game."
- tagline

Review By: Rich Rosell  
Published: August 15, 2004

Stars: Scott Bairstow, D.B. Sweeney, Terry O'Quinn
Other Stars: Max Martini, Rachel Hayward, Sarah-Jane Redmond, Samantha Mathis
Director: Daniel Sackheim, Bryan Spicer, Cliff Bole, Kim Manners, Tony To, Larry Shaw, Jefery Levy

MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (nothing objectionable)
Run Time: 06h:45m:00s
Release Date: August 24, 2004
UPC: 024543115724
Genre: television

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer

DVD Review

Chris Carter seems destined to never properly finish what he starts on television, whether it be The X-Files, Millennium, or, as we have here, the canceled-after-three-episodes Harsh Realm. I still want to pummel him for allowing the alien invasion arc on The X-Files to get so convoluted that even the most ardent fan had trouble knowing just what was going on, and by the time the series' lame finale ran I was more angry than sated, especially that it hadn't ended years before. Millennium, perhaps Carter's finest overall series, also suffered from the quagmire of an underlying thematic arc that became too confusing, though of all his recent series did come closer to having some degree of satisfying closure. The guy has a knack for creating the kind of dark and twisted television that hooks me, but given enough time I have come to expect overly labyrinthian plots that seem to be made up on the spot.

With his work on the 1999 series Harsh Realm, a show that I blame indirectly for the downfall of Millennium (but that's my problem), Carter moved into The Matrix territory, which unfortunately for him came a shade too early to effectively attach itself to the success of the whole alternate "mind world" scenario. It is the story of Lieutenant Thomas Hobbes (Scott Bairstow), a soldier who gets drawn into a top-secret military project known as Harsh Realm, which it turns out is a virtual reality game designed to, at least initially, serve as a training ground for soldiers. Hobbes is sent in to take down the villainous General Omar Santiago (Terry O'Quinn from Millennium), who wants to not only become a dictator of Harsh Realm, but who has grandiose designs to destroy the real world in the process. Teamed up with the disgruntled Mike Pinocchio (D.B. Sweeney), as well as a mute healer named Florence (Rachel Hayward), Hobbes and crew have to take on Santiago's henchmen, which also include a sexy Mata Hari with the ridiculously cool name of Inga Fossa (Sarah-Jane Redmond).

This is one of those shows where the level of acting at least seems better than the usual weekly television fare, though maybe that's a result of the strange sci-fi storyline. Carter's use of Terry O'Quinn, who was excellent as the duplicitous Peter Watts on Millennium, in hindsight now seems like a wise choice, though at the time I found it a bit odd that he would so readily cannibalize one show for another. For me, the adjustment of seeing O'Quinn switch roles so quickly sort of took me out of buying 100% into the premise during the initial brief run of Harsh Realm, considering I was (and still am) pissed that Millennium had been canceled. With the opportunity to now watch the series again, O'Quinn, though far from being the star here, does the more outright villain role extremely well.

By being in set in a virtual world—albeit one that seemingly resembles our own—the show had the benefit of being able to contort and mutate a given episode's setting at will so that there really could not be any sort anchored reality. It is a high-tech premise, one that was understandably more of a tough sell for typical television audiences to readily grasp, and the Fox network summarily axed the series after just three episodes. We've all seen this knee-jerk cancellation crap before, and to Carter's credit, a heady show like Harsh Realm needed time to effectively develop the Byzantine storyline and characters, but in the infinite wisdom of television executives, it was deemed a bust, though the FX network did eventually air the remaining episodes.

Sometimes less is more, and I think confining Carter to just nine episodes gives Harsh Realm some sort of creative boundaries that prevent the kind of excessively wild storyline floundering and padding that came to pass with The X-Files. This is fairly inventive television that was given the bully's treatment by impetuous network executives.

Rating for Style: A-
Rating for Substance: B+


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.78:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: In a pleasant mistake, the packaging lists 1.33:1 full frame, when in actuality the episodes are presented in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen, like the later seasons of Carter's The X-Files. This is a nice touch, because there are moments, especially during the pilot, that are genuinely more cinematic in structure than most weekly series, and the widescreen format suits that nicely. There is quite a bit of noticeable grain during a number of episodes, but overall the prints are relatively free of anything more significant than a few specks here and there. Colors are rendered well, and the depth of the black levels is deeper and cleaner than it was during my crappy cable signal viewing of the series during its run on Fox and FX.

Image Transfer Grade: B


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0English, Frenchyes

Audio Transfer Review: Audio is provided in 2.0 Dolby Digital surround, and though not an overly aggressive presentation, does lob out the occasional rear channel cue to broaden the sound stage slightly. Dialogue remains cleanly locked across the front channels, with some directional pans evident, especially during the action sequences.

A French language 2.0 surround track is also included.

Audio Transfer Grade: B


Disc Extras

Full Motion menu with music
Scene Access with 135 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English, Spanish with remote access
3 Other Trailer(s) featuring Alien Quadrilogy, The Planet of the Apes: 35th Anniversary Edition, Predator: CE
5 TV Spots/Teasers
1 Documentaries
1 Featurette(s)
2 Feature/Episode commentaries by Chris Carter, Daniel Sackheim
Packaging: Box Set
Picture Disc
3 Discs
3-Sided disc(s)
Layers: dual

Extras Review: Extras are not overdone for this release, which comes packaged in thin-line Scanavo cases housed in a cardboard slipcase, but what's here is a nice accent.

Disc 1 contains a pair of commentaries on the pilot episode, with one from creator Chris Carter, and the other from director Daniel Sackheim. The tracks probably could have been combined together without much problem, and as I have such a love/hate relationship with Carter, I actually think this time around I preferred Sackheim's track, who is far more talkative and provides more production insight, whereas Carter speaks of origins and the like.

Carter, however, comes across much better on the third disc's Inside Harsh Realm (25:48s), who, along with Sackheim and writer Frank Spotnitz, talks at length, and more succinctly, about the origins, casting and set design in between brief clips from the show. Speaking about how the final ep was in the middle of filming when word came down the show had been canceled, Carter and Sackheim come close to bitch-slapping the Fox network, but keep their obvious disappointment veiled in diplomatic niceties. This is probably as honest and straight-forward of a inside look as fans are likely to get on the series, and it's a shame it couldn't have been longer.

Also included here is Creating the Logo and Title Sequence (08m:42s), in which designer Justin Carroll gives a brief walkthrough on the creation of Harsh Realm's visually exciting opening, including showing off a number of alternative graphic designs that were never used.

A series of television trailers (three for the Fox network, two for FX) are included, as are trailers for Alien Quadrilogy, The Planet of the Apes: 35th Anniversary Edition, Predator: CE. Each episode is cut into a generous 15 chapters, and features optional subtitles in English or Spanish.

Extras Grade: B


Final Comments

Chris Carter may have let The X-Files get sloppy and somehow allowed Millennium to swallow its own tail, but if I scrape away the bad memories those still remain two of my favorite television series.

As a series, Harsh Realm is more open-ended and potentially more intricate, fenced in by a tight nine-episode run, but it is just as watchable as those shows were during their prime.

Highly recommended.


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