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Wednesday, January 30, 2013

The Groundstar Conspiracy

Universal distributed this Hal Roach production in June of '72. The Groundstar Conspiracy (GC) is listed as a sci-fi, but the connection is very weak. GC is essentially a spy mystery with Cold War undertones. The blown-up facility was a space probe lab, but that's about it for sci-fi. George Peppard stars as the relentless government agent, Tuxan. Michael Sarrazin stars as the suspect saboteur who has amnesia. Christine Belford stars as Nichole Devon, the love interest caught in the middle. Hal Roach had much experience in television programming and it shows.

Quick Plot Synopsis
A man runs out of a secretive underground facility "Groundstar", just as it blows up. Badly injured and face disfigured, he staggers to the home of Nichole Devon and collapses. She calls the authorities. The man is whisked away and operated on. Gruff agent Tuxan investigates, ruffling just about everyone's official feathers. Nicole did not know the man. Her parents died, leaving her the summer home. Recently divorced, she was just up for peace and quiet. The suspect recovers after massive surgeries, but has amnesia. He has no idea who he is, or what Tuxan is talking about. Tuxan says he is John David Welles, the saboteur. Welles has no memory. Tuxan arranges for Welles to escape and follows him. Welles returns to Nichole to see if she knows who he is. She doesn't, but her intuition tells her he is not a saboteur and killer. While "in hiding" (the house if bugged and has cameras), Welles and Nichole develop and intimate relationship. Nichole hears Welles speak greek in his sleep. Turns out he does speak greek. He also has dreams about some greek ruins and visions of a young woman drowned. Before they can make sense of these revelations, Carl, the government PR man and his goon, Charlie, abduct Welles. They interrogate and torture him to make him reveal the secret swiss bank account number. Welles doesn't remember any of that. Welles escapes just before Tuxan's men attack. Carl is captured alive. Welles heads for the ominous government complex to force Tuxan to tell all. Meanwhile, Carl had talked and exposed the sabotage sponsor as Senator Stanton who oversaw appropriations for Groundstar. Welles demands answers from Tuxan or he'll shoot him. Tuxan shows him a dead man in a morgue -- the real Welles. The actual saboteur died on the operating table. Tuxan used a greek-born lower level agent who felt such guilt at the drowning death of his girlfriend, that he didn't mind having his memory purged via surgery. The greek man then "became" Welles with amnesia to be bait for whoever hired Welles. Welles is righteously indignant over government abuse of people in the interests of national security. Tuxan says, get over it. You get to start over with a new girlfriend. Is that so bad? The End.

Why is this movie fun?
As a spy mystery, the story is pretty well woven. There are plenty of twists and surprises to keep things from settling into predictability. For viewers who grew up watching television in the early 70s, there is a nostalgia factor in the look, feel and especially the score. GC feels very 70s.

Cultural Connection
In the early days of classic sci-fi, the government was the hero. Government agents discovered the aliens. Government troops saved the day through firepower. But, as the Vietnam War fractured American society, the government itself began to look suspect. Distrust of the government was displacing the old fears of the communists. Movies like Andromeda Strain and The Resurrection of Zachary Wheeler (both '71) suggested that powerful, shadowy forces actually ruled the land. Audiences were ready for this, half-believing it was true anyhow.

Scant Science -- The only possible claim GC has to being a sci-fi film is that the scantily-described Groundstar Project had something to do with space probes and research into "miniature fuel" technology. None of that was crucial to the story, however. The blown up project could have been anything. It didn't matter for the rest of the story. If anything, the science was pedestrian. Welles was accused of stealing "computer tapes", by which they meant punch tape which could be read like teletype. Maybe this was oo-ah in 1972.

Waterboarding! -- For those who see waterboarding as the hallmark of a government gone bad, it's worth noting that the traitor-agent Carl and his goon Charlie, use waterboarding torture to try to get Welles to crack and tell them the secrets. As apparently "modern" as the topic is now, it appears to be rather old news in the spy world.

21st Century Reivance -- Somewhat surprising, for a low-budget film, the screenplay raises issues which remain relevant 40 years later. National security "needs" trump "rights" to personal privacy. In one scene, Nicole is outraged that Tuxan had her beach house bugged and cameras set to spy on her -- even in her bedroom. She rants at him: Isn't there any privacy?" Tuxan replies, "To hell with privacy. Murders begin in privacy. Sabotage, revolutions, they all begin in privacy." There's the rub for modern society. Privacy is where terrorist plots begin. Society still wrestles with this problem. Not bad for an obscure 1972 spy thriller.

A Great Place for the Future -- Modern sci-fi fans with a quick eye and a good memory might recognize the rambling modernist government complex where Tuxan, Gossage and Senator Stanton work. The huge sweeping concrete stairways. The tidy square park with reflecting pool. The long colonnades. The actual place was Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, Canada. It was used in some episodes of Battlestar Galactica and in some episodes of Stargate, SG1.

Bottom line? GC is a passable film as a spy thriller. It's reasonably paced and the story is complex enough to stay intriguing. The acting can be workman-like at times. But, there is really no science fiction in this movie. Spy movie enthusiasts can enjoy it. Fans of 70s television can enjoy it. Fans looking for science fiction, we go away hungry.


Randall Landers said...

Just a question: how is it that Welles knows the Swiss bank account number unless he's been told by Tuxon (which means Tuxon has framed the Senator)?

Nightowl said...

Did Wells actually know the number? Carl certainly thought he should. I don't recall Wells giving any numbers.

Randall Landers said...

Oh, I thought he HAD divulged the bank account number. Okay, my bad. My twisted sense of the Big Govt movies had me thinking Tuxon was behind it all for YEARS.

Darci said...

There might be more SF in this film than you think. AFAIK no one can induce permanent amnesia, and I don't think plastic surgery is as advanced as shown either. It would be even less true back in 1972 (I think the film was set in that year?).

Nightowl said...

Good points. Seems like spy-thrillers like to toss in impossible bits now and then (sort of Dies ex Machina) just to jazz things up. Like James' Bond's many gadgets -- just assume that sort of thing would work. But, they never both to explain them.

Sci-fi seems to like to exposit on their gadgets or processes.

Plastic surgery, much like cloning, seems to have a popular understanding vs. anything medical science-y -- Like how clones are always same-age duplicates (memories, skills and all) of the original person. Plastic surgery is kinda the same. The mythical surgeon is somehow able to totally recreate the original's face: wrinkles, sags, those little fatty deposits that no one likes to admit to, etc. And all w/o any signs of scarring. Nevermind HOW they do it. It just happens.