This year marks the 40th anniversary of both the original Star Wars film and Steven Spielberg’s mind-bending UFO tale Close Encounters of the Third Kind, two highly successful and influential works in the science fiction genre. Obviously, the next best thing would be a movie that combines the most prominent elements of both films. That’s probably what director/writer Ed Hunt (Plague) was thinking when he attempted to cash in on the space opera craze with the 1977 flying saucer thriller Starship Invasions.
I’m doing my part by reviewing this movie. Are you?
UFO conspiracies and alien abduction stories were all the rage in the 70s and the premise of Invasions deftly taps into the extraterrestrial paranoia of the period with a story involving a band of telepathic renegades from another world, led by Captain Rameses (Christopher Lee, who would go on to star in actual Star Wars movies), using a device that forces its victims to commit suicide. Robert Vaughn (who would soon play a major role in Roger Corman’s infamous Star Wars imitation Battle Beyond the Stars) portrays a UFO specialist who becomes a reluctant hero when he’s recruited by a group of intrepid aliens to stop Rameses. Without a doubt, the performances of Vaughn and Lee, as well as the horror-infused direction from Hunt, carry this film, giving the story an air of dignity that transcends the drab sets and chintzy visual effects.
All in all, Starship Invasions is an intriguing idea in search of a movie that would take full advantage of its themes of acceptance and conspiracy. It feels like two separate movies glued together but Invasions radiates with the potential to tell a truly distinctive story.
Much has been discussed about the various novels, short stories and comics that have influenced George Lucas’s vision of the Star Wars saga. Many iconic concepts from the films have their roots in the works of a diverse array of authors, including J. R. R. Tolkien (The Lord of the Rings), Frank Herbert (Dune), E. E. “Doc” Smith (the Lensman series), Isaac Asimov (Foundation), and Jack Kirby (The New Gods). During the Star Wars mania of the late 70’s, it seemed that the best way to differentiate your space opera from all the others would be to film an adaptation of a story from the Golden Age of Science Fiction. The result of that sort of thinking would be 1979’s H. G. Wells’ The Shape of Things to Come.
That robot should watch what it eats next time.
Directed by George McCowan (The Magnificent Seven Ride), Things to Come is an incredibly loose adaptation (and the second one after the 1936 version) of Wells’s prescient 1933 novel of the same name, with its only common thread being the mention of some sort of devastating war. The fascinating premise of the film is somewhat undermined by its zippy pulp serial structure. In terms of tone, Things to Come wants to evoke a combination of the thrills of Star Wars with the philosophy of Star Trek but the result calls to mind a compilation of Space: 1999 episodes. Speaking of which, Barry Morse, as Dr. Caball, gives the most genuine performance of the film, rising above his undistinctive co-stars with a commanding aura and tempering the serpentine exaggerations of the dictator Omus, played with vicious glee by Jack Palance.
On average, the charm of Things to Come lies in its honest attempt to tell a bigger and more thoughtful story compared to other Star Wars knockoffs of the time. Although it’s a little muddled by the execution, its major theme, the effects of war on a variety of people, shines through.
As one of the biggest breakout characters in the original Star Wars trilogy, the mischievous smuggler Han Solo has been widely imitated in many works inspired by (or plagiarizing) the films. With 1983’s Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone, Columbia Pictures and director Lamont Johnson (The Twilight Zone) reached what they felt was the logical conclusion: make an incredible simulation of the Millennium Falcon’s captain into the hero of the movie.
Forbidden Zone? Say hello to George Taylor for me.
The results are mixed, to say the least. As the interstellar bounty hunter Wolff, Peter Strauss (The Jericho Mile) does his best Harrison Ford impression but he’s not given the chance to show the vulnerability that made Ford’s portrayal of Captain Solo work. It doesn’t help that the performances from the rest of the cast are all over the place. On one hand, Ernie Hudson (Ghostbusters) gives a surprisingly natural turn as Wolff’s old rival and Michael Ironside (Total Recall) is fairly menacing as the cybernetic heavy, Overdog. On the other hand, Niki, the young scavenger played by Molly Ringwald (The Breakfast Club), comes across like every stereotypical annoying teenager ever known. These eclectic performances seem to obscure what Strauss is going for and, as a result, Wolff is lost in the shuffle. On a more positive note, the film is visually appealing, if derivative. Of particular interest are some of Overdog’s mutant henchmen, with unearthly designs that wouldn’t look out of place in your average 80’s horror flick.
Overall, Spacehunter’s willingness to throw as many bizarre concepts at the audience as possible is both its greatest strength and flaw. Though the film’s short run-time hampers its potential to fully realize its numerous settings and characters, it never drags out or complicates the exciting story it wants to tell.
Credit: Mondo Digital
We’re a month away from a new Star Wars film that’s apparently so incredible, Lucasfilm is giving director Rian Johnson his own personal Star Wars trilogy to play around with. With hype for the eighth installment of the Skywalker saga at a fever pitch, whet your space opera appetite with a series featuring some of the strangest films inspired by George Lucas’s opus. First on deck is the 1985 animated feature Starchaser: The Legend of Orin.
Directed by Steven Hahn and written by Jeffrey Scott (Superfriends, Muppet Babies), Starchaser is essentially the store-brand equivalent of the original Star Wars trilogy, the Sam’s Choice to the OT’s Pepsi. To wit, here’s a tale of a brave but reckless young worker who discovers a magical sword that once belonged to a band of warriors. With the aid of an arrogant outlaw, the courageous daughter of a ruler, and a pair of bickering machines, the young man comes of age and fights a cybernetic warlord. It’s not just the basic story either. Certain shots, set-pieces and even sound effects have been pilfered, almost verbatim, from the classic trilogy (pay close attention to the sounds of the titular starship’s engines as it flies by the camera).
On the plus side, the movie looks good. The animation is fluid and highly expressive in a Rock & Rule/Heavy Metal sort of way and the overall art design, though conventional, shows a good deal of skill and pulp sci-fi influence. By far, the most intriguing designs belong to the flesh-harvesting Man-Droids, who look appropriately nightmarish in their only appearance in the film. For that matter, there are times where Starchaser feels more like a family friendly Heavy Metal, especially in scenes involving Dagg Dibrimi (Carmen Argenziano), the amoral space pirate who could give Captain Sternn a run for his money in the sleaze department. The film seems to find its real voice when it drifts away from its routine nature-versus-technology plot and into these crasser moments.
On balance, Starchaser holds up fairly well. It’s incredibly simple but its infectious zeal and breathless momentum keep it from getting boring. Don’t let the somewhat derivative story keep you away from checking out this visually appealing animated space opera.
Credit: The Popcorn Drop
In May of 1977, an innovative motion picture was released that forever altered the way we understand and create films. It depicted a fast-paced, fantastical adventure that has fueled many imaginations and taught many important life lessons. Of course, I refer to the Hal Needham opus, Smokey and the Bandit! Just kidding, you know what I’m talking about.
There’s no denying the immediate impact that Star Wars has made on the pop cultural landscape, especially in the franchise’s early years. A wide variety of products were made to capitalize on the film’s widespread popularity, ranging from exciting new stories based on the universe, like the early Marvel comics and Brian Daley’s Han Solo Adventures (which I highly recommend), to other movies and shows that took their cues from George Lucas’s modern-day space serial. Even John Williams’s iconic orchestral score became in vogue, with Meco’s various disco remixes of the leitmotifs from the films being the most famous example.
One of the more obscure tributes to Williams’s work on the films is double bassist Ron Carter‘s 1980 album, Empire Jazz, an easy listening homage to the then-recent music of The Empire Strikes Back, including the themes for Darth Vader, Yoda, and the Leia/Han romance motif. Here is my personal favorite track on the album, the underrated theme of Cloud City kingpin and Rebel general, Lando Calrissian.
Thanks to Andy Lindemann for finding this album.
Let’s celebrate the release of the latest Star Wars film, Rogue One, during this 2016 holiday season in the most synergistic way possible. Have a listen to the B-side of Bobby Helms’ hit single and modern Yuletide standard “Jingle Bell Rock”, a cosmic Christmas carol entitled “Captain Santa Claus (and His Reindeer Space Patrol)”.
One of the things I love about the Star Wars fandom is the high level of creativity that they display when it comes to showing their love of the franchise. Case in point: the wealth and variety of fan films and shorts. From straight-forward, action packed lightsaber duels to clever parodies, the Star Wars universe has been a vital inspiration to many independent filmmakers.
Speaking of parodies, here is one of the first videos I’ve seen on one of the top Star Wars fansites, TheForce.net. Here’s the 2000 short, PA Wars, featuring Scott Hahn, Dennis Stay, Tadd Callies and a Taco Bell Yoda cup.
Hope you enjoy it!