In december of 1976, a cryptic two page ad had appeared in major newspapers across america that would give sci-fi fans hope: the visionary director behind Jaws was promising us an epic film about UFOs like nothing we had seen before. (The ad space had been bought far in advance – in anticipation of the release of the film which, in the meantime, was pushed back a year). The ad simply showed us a road stretching into the night on the right hand page while a lengthy blurb on the left hand page promised us an unprecedented work of exceptional vision. It was to be called Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
This was great news to fans of a genre which now seemed like a thing of the past. There is a reason why so many of us sci-fi fans who grew up in the seventies became old-movie buffs: our decade sucked ass in it’s first half. The remake of King Kong was no match for the original made over 40 years before. Epic sci-fi had de-evolved all through the Planet of the Apes films- going from a whole planetful of them to just a pair travelling back to our decade. Now the future looked like Logan’s Run, shot in a newly built but still-vacant shopping mall. Few genre TV shows would even survive a single season- done in by big budgets and low ratings. The word “realism” was being bandied about as a substitute for having no “sense of wonder”.
The summer of 1977 gave us hope the trend was reversing with the release of Star Wars, which overnight freed us from having to go back a decade or more to find a satisfying genre entry.
But no matter how many times we repeatedly went to see Star Wars that summer and fall, we kept looking forward to the mysterious film with the big cryptic ad that was headed for us later that year.
In that interim, Warner brothers released a Canadian-made film that hoped to cash in on all that buzz…and hurt us in the process.
Produced by Hal Roach Studios (famed for the Laurel and Hardy films) and directed by softcore auteur Ed Hunt (an american who always ended up working in Canada), Starship Invasions was released in the interim between Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind and manages to bridge (or rip-off, depending on your point of view) the two films: it’s about Earth being visited by U.F.O.s waging an interstellar war.
It starred Robert Vaughn, still trying to shake his identity as TV’s The Man from U.N.C.L.E. as Dr. Hunt, a prominent UFOlogist brought in to investigate the abduction of a fat dumpy farmer. Seems pesky aliens have been buzzing his field and taking him on board for some nookie. Poor chap.
The truly desperate aliens are from Planet Alpha whose star is about to go supernova. Now hiding behind our moon, they are poised to colonize once Captain Ramses (Horror Legend Christopher Lee) succeeds in decimating the human population. All this exposition is delivered “telepathically” as the actors stand around quietly (therefore saving a bundle on retakes due to flubbed lines and having to sync the post-production sound).
How boinking fat farmers fits into the grand scheme of things is anyone’s guess. But its considered a great success by Lee and company.
On to phase two: capturing a mom and examining her in her lingerie. (I guess you can take a director out of softcore but you can’t take softcore out of the director). The experience proves too traumatic for both the mom and the farmer as we find them committing suicide before the end of the reel.
Phase three involves destroying Earth’s defenses. It turns out there is a “League of Races” headquartered in a giant pyramid under the Bermuda Triangle. This collection of benevolent aliens are the true protectors of Earth. Donning some really goofy looking “finger lasers”, Ramses proceeds to exterminate them all in a violent rampage set to some really funky 70s porn-style music.
Phase four is then set in motion. It involves a gigantic pie plate emitting an electric arc high in space (cleverly portrayed by a regular pie plate). This arc causes a worldwide suicide epidemic: people suddenly go berserk and then do themselves in. The visual effects of the film may be underwhelming at first but there is no denying their effectiveness on an emotional level as I found myself toying with the concept of doing myself in at that very moment.
Authorities respond by placing armed guards in public places- which is exactly how we should handle this situation: by having more guns on the streets (!). It’s in the middle of this devastation that Mrs. Hunt (Helen Shaver) and her daughter go grocery shopping. While at the grocery store, the little brat (played by that obnoxiously perky girl in the then-current Skippy Peanut Butter ads- I’m not even gonna bother looking up her name) falls under the ray’s spell and tries to incite violence by squishing a tomato that rolled on the market’s floor. (While the audience wishes it had a bushel of them to launch at the screen.)
Fortunately for Earth, some of the good aliens survived. They’re led by a female in a white skin-tight leotard which is not forgiving of the big wedgie in front. (It’s hard to catch on video but was really hard to ignore when I caught this on the massive screen at the Palace back then).
The climax of the film is endlessly repeated shots of the saucer zooming in space, interspersed with some poorly matched stock footage and random shots of Lee silently steering his ship. The film’s budget being under $1,000,000.00 there isn’t much in matters of eye candy and it almost feel like they’re running out of money as they reach the end.
This was the Canadian Film Development Corporation’s first venture in funding sci-fi in Canada. They would do it again for The Shape of Things to Come (see the preceding blog entry entitled “Oh Pain-ada!”) two years later. Frankly, they shouldn’t have bothered.
If anything, these two movies served as justification for Canadian producers to steer away from sci-fi for decades. The genre is currently thriving in Canada in the form of crap made-for-cable (specifically SyFy Channel) movies and low-cost series. On occasion, we host the shooting of a big budget “runaway production” but , for some reason, it’s usually a massive pile of hurt like Battlefield Earth or Pluto Nash. But as far as home-grown sci-fi is concerned, the first great (painless) Canadian space-opera remains as elusive as ever.
[Update] The complete film
Pain Level: 7/10
Quality of Pain: Kill Me!
Painjoyment™ Level: Ohhh Canadaaaaah!