by Michelle Erica Green

A Police Detective Faces the First Wave

Sci Fi's original film Nostradamus looks suspiciously like a television pilot, with an ending that leaves the door open for subsequent films or a weekly series. The fact that the network has scheduled no further installments -- and that this millennial horror story didn't make it on the air until well into 2000 -- probably bodes ill for a future franchise, especially considering that Sci Fi's weekly series First Wave has a Nostradamus storyline. It's too bad, because the likeable leads and stylized direction make this telefilm compare favorably with many of the fall genre offerings on UPN, Fox, and cable.

Nostradamus tells the unlikely story of Michael Nostrand, otherwise known as Michel de Nostradame, a skeptical homicide detective who learns that nearly five hundred years ago, he arrived in the past and provided the prophecies that have thus far held off the Apocalypse. But time is running out. The members of the medieval Sixth Order have unleashed the Mabus -- a hideous demonic dude with red eyes who speaks chants to wipe people's spirits out of existence.

If the Mabus successfully kills just a few more good souls by causing their living bodies to spontaneously combust, it will bring about the end of the world. Unfortunately, Nostrand doesn't know the stakes when he starts investigating. He just wants to find a killer who uses antique guns and knives to get to his victims, then burns flesh hotter than kerosene. Because of his skepticism, he refuses to believe the evidence of his own eyes when inexplicable phenomena begin to occur.

The FBI is on the case as well, having assigned two incompetent men in black to accompany psychic Lucy Hudson -- a New Age empath who dresses like a hooker and who once worked with Nostrand, leaving behind some convenient unresolved sexual tension. Lucy gets her information from mental patients and religious fanatics. But since those personality types have already popped up among the killer's list of nearly 30 victims, Nostrand can't afford to discount her theories...particularly not after he watches a man burned alive from a whispered incantation, and sees the caped Crusader vanish into thin air.

The first hour or so of the movie focuses on the police investigation, with witty banter between Nostrand and partner Joe Pilton. Then the film takes a turn for the weird as Nostrand tries on the killer's ring, not knowing it's an ancient teleportation device that will fling him back through time using an astrological system invented by Leonardo Da Vinci. Landing in 1536, Nostrand discovers a madman from his own era using the time machine to manipulate the future by killing off good souls.

The devilish Garamond, who apparently gets his knowledge from the lost Revelation of Paul, conveniently has a stash of futuristic weapons in his armory to protect the Mabus -- and since he keeps muzzles on the men who can kill with a chant, his power is absolute in early Renaissance France. Garamond's Enemies of Carlotta list includes Lucy, so when friendly priests save him and tell him of his destiny as the great prophet and best-selling author, Nostrand agrees to travel back to his present to save her. But it's tough, because transporting through time has wiped his 20th century life out of existence. Neither Lucy nor his partner remembers him. Worse, he's contracted Bubonic Plague.

This story by Sabrina the Teenage Witch writers David Bourla and Brian Irving sounds goofy, but it plays respectably, largely due to strong directing and excellent casting. The closed-minded 1500s are depicted in tight focus, with soft lighting from torches and bizarre-looking yet plausible structures like the time machine. The expansive 1999 scenes feature helicopter shots, special effects including some really disgusting murders, and well-chosen settings such as an anachronistic urban church.

Serious fans of Nostradamus as a spiritual master will undoubtedly be annoyed at this film, given that Nostrand evinces no special insight and no committed religious beliefs. It's a little disappointing that no one specifically cites Nostradamus' prophecies -- at least a little explanation of what Nostrand was trying to warn against in some of the more obscure passages would have been fun. There's also no direct relationship that I know of between the nature of the crimes and the events foretold in the prophecies, though on the plus side, there's no insistence on the correctness of the Christian doctrine from which Nostradamus extrapolated.

Like Lady Pendragon and similar comics that reinterpret history, however, the film tries to remain faithful to the events it's rewriting -- or at least to the non-traditional version of those events being put forth. It's not particularly less plausible that Nostradamus was a man from the future than a prophet who could see the future, at least not in this film. Ironically, because it's played for "realism," the fantasy plot doesn't seem as loopy as it might with more sensational time-travel sequences.

One must overlook the fact that everyone in Renaissance France speaks contemporary English, and that Nostrand will apparently have no trouble writing in a French dialect from hundreds of years ago. Props, costumes, and makeup have been kept to a minimum, which keeps the emphasis on the important ones despite a couple of continuity errors. Director Tibor Takacs' pacing is excellent, beginning with a flashback to establish the veracity of the Sixth Order, then moving into Nostrand's bleak world where even horoscopes can't be trusted.

Melrose Place's Rob Estes plays Michael Nostrand with the proper blend of cynicism and emerging credulity, though he tries a little too hard in the scenes where he must convince former acquaintances that they knew him in a different timeline. Ellen's Joely Fisher is very appealing as Lucy, who must seem ditzy to Nostrand but somewhat plausible to viewers -- she has some terrible dialogue like "Interpreting the paranormal is an art, not a science," but given the stupidity of the other FBI agents and Nostrand's denial of unexplained phenomena even when they're staring him in the face, she ends up seeming like the most competent of the investigators.

Unfortunately the hero gets to rescue the damsel in distress and share the obligatory smooching scene afterwards, but they end the show on a relatively equal footing. And since the long-haired, demonic Mabus gang is still around, armed with the ability to construct time machines, the film offers the suggestion that the events could happen over and over, with demons chasing the innocent, and Nostrand and Hudson trying to stay one step ahead of them. It's probably too similar to First Wave for Sci Fi to consider, but maybe when Level 9 goes the way of the dodo, UPN could revive Nostradamus.

Nostradamus airs Friday night at 9 following Sci Fi's 12-hour Friday the 13th marathon starting at 7 a.m. ET. It's not really a scary movie, so the choice of air date is curious, though there's probably enough television gruesomeness to please horror fans.

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