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Sunday, April 20, 2014

Starship Invasions

Hal Roach Studios created an ambitious flying saucer film that was, unfortunately, released between Star Wars and Close Encounters. As such, Starship Invasions (SI) was eclipsed into obscurity. By the standards set by those two seminal films, SI was anachronistic when brand new. SI starred some well-known actors among the cast. Robert Vaughn plays the hero scientist, Allan Duncan. Christopher Lee plays the evil alien, Captain Rameses. This film went by a few titles, such as Alien Encounter (which is bland) and War of the Aliens (which is accurate enough). The UK release of this film was re-titled Project Genicide.

Quick Plot Synopsis
A old farmer is stopped in his field by a flying saucer. He is abducted inside and subjected to high-tech tests by aliens in black hooded monotards. Next, he is come onto by a naked alien woman hottie and sex is presumed. No one believes the farmer’s story, so he contacts Professor Allan Duncan, an astronomer who does talk shows, discussing UFOs. Allan believes Rudi’s story. A family is also abducted and subjected to tests. The mom knows they plan to kill them. Sure enough, the next morning the motel maid finds them all slashed. Captain Rameses has his crew seek shelter from earth discovery, by hiding in a secret undersea base staffed by the League of Races — a sort of galactic UN. Rameses is from the planet Alpha, whose sun will nova soon. The Alphans need a new home and Rameses thinks Earth will do nicely. He must eliminate the League presence (so they can’t stop him) and then eliminate all humans. Phase One involves sabotaging a League saucer so it is visible and has no force field. It gets shot down by vaguely military men. While many League folk are out investigating, Rameses and his crew kill off the remaining League personnel in the secret pyramid base. His men also pitch all the “android” robots down a stairwell. Meanwhile, a pair of Rameses saucers are pursing the recon saucer that got away. The recon saucer vaporizes one of them, but this damages their computer. They can’t fix it, so figure some smart earthlings can help. They contact Allan. He suggests they also abduct his friend Malcolm who is a computer expert. They steal some 1970s earth computer parts to fix the alien computer. This works for awhile, but while trying to evade the second of Rameses’ saucers, they fry the patch job. The next plan is to use brain links between Allan (the astronomy expert) and Malcolm, the math wiz) to form an organic computer. With this set-up and Malcolm’s fast fingers on a Texas Instruments calculator, the recon saucer avoids hitting any planets and eludes their pursuers. Nevermind, says Rameses, return to Earth. He launches his evil Alphan saucers against a fleet of League saucers. Meanwhile, Rameses has set up a suicide ray in earth orbit. People either kill each other, and/or kill themselves. This was Phase Two in action. Allan’s wife Betty succumbs to the ray and slashes her wrists. The space battle is going poorly for Leauge, because Rameses is using the pyramid base’s computer to give his ships a tactical edge. One of the robots ‘wakes up’, receives instructions to stop the use of the base computer. It staggers slowly up all those stairs and chokes the lone Alphan. With a few button pushes, the robot programs all the Alphan ships to crash into each other. Rameses has lost. He finds out that Alpha’s sun went nova. While he’s all sad and mournful, he doesn’t notice that his ship is headed directly towards earth’s moon. Crash! The League ship lands in Allan’s backyard. The aliens revive Betty and reunite Malcolm with his wife too. Everyone is happy and smiling as the League ship sails off into the starry night. The End.

Why is this movie fun?
When viewed from nearly 30 years after its release, SI has an unintentionally campy quality. This is only heightened when everyone in the production is taking it all so seriously. Robert Vaughn is his usual Man From U.N.C.L.E self. Christopher Lee is his usual evil character self.

Cultural Connection
Grand Unified Conspiracy Theories — In 50s sci-fi, it was often the government (agents or the military) that rescued Earth from alien doom. This reverent trust in government was eroding during the 60s, what with Vietnam and counterculture and all. The Watergate Scandal seemed to have removed the last shred of the old Government Protects Us mantle. With that last control-rod removed, the reactor of paranoid imagination was free to run wild. Fascination with UFO reports and abductions resurfaced with new vigor. The Roswell incident, dormant for 30 years, would be fanned back into popularity. The logic of the day was: The government said UFOs don’t exist, AND the government cannot be trusted, therefore, that PROVES that UFOs DO exist in all the ways people imagined. The logic was flawed, but it was popular. Various abduction stories, sightings, the Roswell incident and von Daniken’s “ancient astronauts” theorizing were coalescing into a more-or-less unified UFO/aliens narrative in the culture. Even those who did not believe that narrative, still knew it. SI interweaves many of the popular narrative tropes: abductions, tests, hidden bases, even alien sex, into one "epic" tale.

Old Fashioned Aliens — An amusing feature of SI is how the aliens are essentially humans (this, somehow, explained away as that the aliens were descended from humans). They dress in solid colored monotards. The evil Alphans wear solid black, with a big logo of a winged snake emblazoned on their chest. The good League aliens wear solid white or light blue. This was how aliens were depicted in the good old days of the early 50s. The Catwomen of the Moon (’51) wore all black monotards. The aliens in Radar Men from the Moon and Killers From Space (’53) wore hooded monotards. After Star Wars gave audiences a wide variety of really weird aliens, plain humans in hooded monotards just looked super cheap.

Egypto-Nauts — Part of the fertile lore of UFO conspiracy theories in the mid-70s, was that aliens had visited Earth for thousands of years. Erich von Daniken’s 1968 book, “Chariots of the God,” popularized the notion, though he did not invent it. The set designers in SI created a pyramid base, and festooned costumes and props with pyramid shapes. The evil alien is named Rameses too! When Allan asks the big-head girl alien (named Phi, btw) about their culture, Phi says he won’t understand. “When you can explain the pyramids, perhaps then you will understand.” She said they built the pyramids thousands of years ago. We knew it! The late 70s TV series “Battlestar Galactica” would blend the new Star Wars look with the old egyptonauts trope. “Stargate SG1” would be a 21st century refresh of this old trope.

Alien Sex — Rameses’ only female crew member, Sagnac, who looks totally human, (no big head like Phi) had sex with the happily willing abducted farmer. This was, it would seem, how Rameses’ scientists got their sample of earthling sperm. (They had no other way?) Later, inside the League pyramid base, Rameses comes upon a room full of space hookers with very 70s big hair. They come on to him with ‘hey baby’ eyes and looks (since they communicate telepathically). One of them, Gazeth, stands before Rameses and poses a bit. Then they leave together to an Earth monitoring room. Was that alien sex? That was fast. Since they communicate telepathically, do they do things telepathically too? That burning question remains unanswered, but preserves the PG rating.

Before It “Happened” — The induced mass suicide trope in SI seriously predates M. Night Shyamalan’s The Happening by a good 25 years. SI had it as an evil alien plot. M.Night spun his version as eco-revenge by the Earth’s plants.

Bottom line? SI is an ambitious effort that had a fair budget. It would have been better received when first released, given its zeitgeist. Audiences in ’77 were still abuzz over flying saucers and all the lore that had glommed onto that snowball. It might have been one of the two big sci-fi films of 1977, had not Star Wars and Close Encounters been released then too. However, they were and they made SI instantly look outdated and cheap. For fans of the old-school style of sci-fi (flying saucers and human-aliens in hooded monotards), SI can be nostalgic fun. For people expecting anything approaching Star Wars or Close Encounters, SI will feel tragically campy and liable to be seen as a “worst movie ever.” SI isn’t all that bad. It’s just very old-school for the late 70s.


marsh said...

I think it looks amazing. I'm not sure I would have had the patience that you had though!

-Alan D Hopewell said...

I love SI as an example of Seventies cinecheese, perhaps the funniest part being Sir Christopher's perpetually embarrassed expression.