Yep, for the first time in almost three years, it’s time for another Super Movie Monday! Take a moment to tip your waitress and thank the coronavirus.
And since the entertainment world has been almost entirely taken over by superheroes in the time since I stopped contributing new items to this blog, I figured I would talk about an obscure movie that has been mostly forgotten, and yet, is rather significant in its own way. I got the idea to cover this movie from a YouTube video I watched about movies trying to piggyback on the success of “Star Wars,” including one I’ve talked about here before, “Starcrash.”
This movie was not on their list, but it was, in fact, the first major release I can remember that tried to cash in on the success of “Star Wars.” It was a low-budget Canadian sci-fi film titled “Starship Invasions.”
The film was released in 1977 by Hal Roach Studios, the company behind a long roster of silent and early sound comedies like Our Gang and Laurel and Hardy, though by this time, they had shut down production in Hollywood and sold off the rights to their name and library to a Canadian company. It was written and directed by a guy named Ed Hunt, who has a brief resume on IMDB of mostly low-budget exploitation fare like “The Freudian Thing” and “Corrupted” and for some reason, one episode of the TV series Greatest Heroes of the Bible.
Even the title has a tortured history showing the outsized influence of the year it was released. Originally titled “War of the Aliens,” the title was changed before release to avoid lawsuits from Lucasfilm and 20th Century Fox. So they changed it to “Alien Encounter,” which they then had to change again because Steven Spielberg’s “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” was due to release shortly after this film.
The film opens with a farmer in his field, who spots a UFO. One of the interesting things about this film are all the deep cuts of UFO lore it references without calling attention to them. For instance, the UFO bears a very strong resemblance to some classic UFO photographs from the 50’s.
The UFO lands and a couple of dudes come out in black leotards. They mind-control the farmer and take him onboard their spaceship, where they press a metallic cylinder against his head to reprogram his brain maybe. Oh, and also, they send in a beautiful naked woman to have sex with him.
The farmer describes his experience to the sheriff later, who laughs him off. So he goes to visit a UFO expert played by Robert Vaughn who earnestly tells him, “You not crazy.” Remember that, because it’s significant later.
Next up, we meet the leader of the aliens, played by Christopher Lee.
Get ready for more UFO lore. Lee’s character is named Captain Rameses, which subtly provides a link between the movie’s aliens and the ancient astronauts theories that were so popular in the 1970’s. Adding to the ancient astronauts vibe is the winged serpent insignia the aliens wear, inspired by the 1967 abduction story of Herbert Schirmer, but also a reference to the Mayan deity Quetzalcoatl. The connection between Quetzalcoatl and ancient aliens had recently been explored in an episode of the Star Trek animated series in 1974.
Rameses commands that they now locate a human female. So the UFO stops a car with a family traveling down a deserted highway. They mentally command the humans into the spaceship and conduct an examination of the female, complete with a large needle probe inserted into her navel (a detail inspired by the 1961 abduction story of Betty and Barney Hill). The woman claims that she knows the aliens are going to kill all humans and asks why, but they shut her up with that metal cylinder they used on the farmer. Then the family are left back in their car on the deserted road.
And now we get the big exposition scene. One thing I haven’t mentioned yet is that the aliens all communicate by telepathy, so all scenes with alien dialogue show a person staring close-mouthed with all the dialogue in voice-over. While this certainly matches a lot of UFO lore, it also has the added advantage of saving money on a sound crew during shooting. It’s unfortunately also deadly dull just staring at someone’s unmoving face for minutes at a time.
Rameses informs his crew that their sun is due to go supernova at virtually any time, so they must conquer Earth to relocate. He’s wearing a wrist gauge that will show when their sun has exploded, which he checks constantly throughout the film just to make sure he conveys the urgency. DNA tests on the farmer’s sperm indicates that the aliens are the descendants of ancient humans who were transplanted to the alien world, which seems like an inversion of most alien lore, which would indicate humans were the ones who were brought here. Anyway, it gives Rameses the chance to say that for the aliens to survive, they must kill their own parents.
Speaking of the farmer, remember when Robert Vaughn said he wasn’t crazy? Well, Vaughn apparently didn’t know about that metal cylinder thingy, because the farmer shoots himself in the head, and immediately after, the kidnapped family is also found dead.
The next step in the plan is to stop interference from the Intergalactic League of Races, so the bad guys fly their ship down into the ocean, where they enter an underwater pyramid base. I don’t think the movie ever states this outright, but for anyone with a passing familiarity with UFO lore of the day, that base could only be located in the Bermuda Triangle. You can tell that the League are the good guys, because their ships are softly rounded, as opposed to the angular look of Rameses’ ship.
Rameses is welcomed into the base, because they don’t know he’s a bad guy apparently. There are robot servants that resemble the aliens from an alleged abduction in 1973 in Pascagoula, Mississippi, and the main aliens are the closest thing we get to the classic “grays,” with bald, bulbous heads. And of course, they are all also telepathic.
Rameses is warned not to make contact with Earthlings because of some League treaty, and then he is taken to a “relaxation lounge” that looks like it might be a brothel, because it’s full of hot human women in skimpy outfits. The base scenes themselves look like they might have been filmed in a kids’ science museum or something; the walls are all black with day-glo geometric murals.
Anyway, Rameses hooks up with a prostitute(?) named Gazeth (sounds like she says Gazelle the one time we hear her name). We never see them have sex, but in the next scene, she’s wearing different clothes as she takes him into the aliens’ communications center. Robert Vaughn is on TV talking about the suicidal farmer and claiming his testimony would be accepted as evidence in any court of law. Rameses freaks out a bit at the story and returns to his ship (I guess because he’s afraid the League will realize he’s broken the treaty? It’s never explained). He instructs his hot girl second-in-command (with the incredibly un-hot name of Sag-nac) to sabotage one of the good guy UFO’s.
The UFO leaves and immediately flies past Robert Vaughn’s car, but it makes no contact. It feels like there’s a lot that got left out of the script or cut for time. Like, did they just happen to fly past Robert Vaughn’s car or were they investigating the story from TV? But if so, why didn’t they do anything to, you know, investigate?
Anyway, when the UFO passes, Robert Vaughn and his wife and daughter are on their way to visit friends for a dinner party or something. The husband is a computer programmer with a pipe clamped in his mouth, who greets Vaughn with a true confessions magazine with a cover story titled “Seduced By Aliens.” This is his subtle way of telling Vaughn his UFO obsession is threatening to destroy his career.
Meanwhile, the UFO is buzzing an Air Force facility. The guy flying the UFO has this chubby, smiling Buddha face, which the alien make-up just enhances. As they’re buzzing the place for kicks, knowing that the Air Force has picked them up on radar, the humans launch a surface-to-air missile. The aliens realize a little too late that the hot girl alien sabotaged their force shield, leaving them defenseless, and they are blown out of the sky.
When the aliens realize that there’s something wrong with their recon ship, they send out another patrol. Captain Rameses uses this opportunity to take over the pyramid. He sends his soldiers to kill the technicians while he personally kills all the prostitutes, except Gazeth, the one that helped him. The aliens are armed with ray guns that slip over the ends of their fingers. They’re literally finger-guns, y’all.
While the Air Force (which is now the Army for some reason—maybe it’s different in Canada) investigates the UFO wreckage, they are buzzed by a second UFO. Meanwhile, Gazeth, the surviving prostitute, takes a weapon off a dead alien and begins fighting her way through the base. It’s “Die Hard in an Alien Pyramid,” only John McClane’s a hot chick in a bikini. Except when she sends out her emergency call for help, they don’t send an obese desk jockey to check things out. Oh, and she gets killed by Rameses right after that, so I guess it’s not like “Die Hard” after all.
Rameses sends out hot second-in-command chick to intercept the returning ship. There’s a brief flying saucer chase, then the good guys destroy the bad guys with one shot, which is good because one shot is all they get before their computer shorts out from the stress of firing their laser one time. Aliens: Great at Designing Starship Engines, Shit at Designing Weapons. The aliens decide to hit up Robert Vaughn for help making repairs or something. I don’t remember the plot being this hard to follow when I was 14.
Captain Rameses calls in his fleet of invading alien ships hiding behind the moon and tasks one to orbit the Earth, broadcasting a signal from a souped-up metal cylinder thing which causes people to flip out and start killing each other and themselves. This goofy UFO abduction movie has suddenly turned dark.
Robert Vaughn is at home doing some light reading about cattle mutilations when his wife (played by Helen Shaver) comes in, complaining about his obsession with UFO’s and how it doesn’t seem like he loves her as much as he does the aliens. So he suggests a little adult playtime, but just then the aliens show up and mind-control him into their ship. Next month’s true confessions headline: “Cock-blocked By Aliens!”
Turns out, the aliens don’t actually need him. They really just need a computer expert to help fix their ship. They came to him because he’s the only Earthling they figured would be willing to help, but with their mind-control abilities, I wouldn’t think that would be a problem. Anyway, their next stop is kidnapping Pipe Guy, who it turns out is a computer expert.
The military has a very serious, very ridiculous high-level briefing where they mention that the alien ship has been in orbit for a week. The general stresses the need to keep the wave of suicides secret, otherwise the resulting panic could destroy the human race, which seems like a bit of potaytoh, potahtoh to me. Not sure panic over alien-mind-controlled violence is worse than the actual alien-mind-controlled violence, but I’m not the general. And really, it’s not like this sub-plot goes anywhere.
The good guy alien ship pulls into downtown Toronto, where Robert Vaughn and Pipe Guy pick up the very latest in advanced 1970’s computer technology.
But as they are escaping, they are attacked by one of Rameses ships. There is a brief fight, and the bad guys crash into what is probably not the Nakatomi Building, blowing up the top floors. Hey, this really is “Die Hard.”
Well, if “Die Hard” had an extended sequence of aliens and humans silently repairing computers as the TV plays interviews of witnesses to the UFO abductions. There is a quiet moment where we learn about the aliens having built the Great Pyramid, and that when humanity understands it, we will learn about anti-gravity and morality. Man, this movie just refuses to build up any momentum.
The good guy aliens decide to leave Earth and link up with their own fleet in space, but the temporary computer fix that we just spent so much time on burns out almost instantly, so we get a thrilling sequence of Robert Vaughn staring into an alien viewscreen (which is just a clear slab of plexiglass), “remembering” the masses of the planets in the solar system, while Pipe Guy uses his pocket calculator to do the math necessary to navigate past them. A couple of bad guy saucers are chasing them, but that never really comes into play.
Meanwhile, back on Earth, Robert Vaughn’s wife forces their daughter to go out grocery shopping with her and immediately regrets it when they keep passing dead bodies on the way. While they’re in the store, the daughter is possessed by the alien weapon and… stomps a tomato, making a mess in the store. The store owner is upset by the mess, but is distracted by a woman in another aisle who killed herself with a big knife she brought with her to the store for some reason. It’s Canada, who knows how grocery stores work there? Maybe they make you butcher your own meat or something.
Back to the Space Chase, where Pipe Guy has a heart attack from his strenuous calculating, so the aliens put a little pyramid on his forehead and use some sort of first aid gun to heal him. For a moment, it looks as if there might be some tension as the enemy ships draw closer. But no, turns out the fleet is right there, just beyond Saturn, so the bad guys run away to join their own fleet back at Earth.
Captain Ramses gets in a ship to lead his fleet against the League, setting up our big battle in space finale.
There’s funny bit where a long line of saucers curves through space toward us, and it’s obvious that they’ve just repeated the same two ships over and over, because there’s a glitch in the flight path that happens at the exact same place every time. It’s like there’s a speed bump in space.
The battle doesn’t go well for the good guys. Captain Rameses is using the computer at the base to calculate superior firing probabilities or coordinated flight patterns or something. Bad guys are winning, is the point, now that Pipe Guy can no longer bring the power of Texas Instruments to bear.
Robert Vaughn’s daughter is watching news reports about the rash of suicides, but instead of making her turn it off, Mom sneaks into the kitchen to slice some tomatoes and her wrists.
The good guy aliens are in a bad spot, but then, one of their robots in the base turns out to be only mostly dead. He repairs himself and walks up to the base control room to kill the bad guy there. Then he causes the suicide weapon ship to self-destruct and begins programming the bad guy ships to crash into each other.
A word about the special effects: they’re pretty good by the standards of most science-fiction films released before 1977, which means that the film came out about 6 months too late to look anything but wretched next to “Star Wars,” which really redefined movie special effects. When the good guy ships are being zapped by lasers, they just disappear in little blobs of light. But once the bad guy ships start crashing into one another, there’s some impressive-looking pyro. I’m wondering if they got some extra money to spice up the effects after “Star Wars” came out, because the contrast is striking.
Finally, there’s just Ramses’ ship left, but when he sees that his supernova watch is at Explode O’Clock, he realizes he’s too late. He deliberately crashes his ship into the moon and dies. The good guys get Robert Vaughn back to Earth just in time to heal his wife with the first-aid gun. Pipe Guy and his wife share some very awkward kisses, because let’s face it, Pipe Guy is a schlub and his wife is way out of his league. The aliens fly away without a word of thanks or warning, and everybody’s happy. The end.
As I said before, “Starship Invasions” was the first film I know of to try to cash in on the monster success of “Star Wars.” “Star Wars” came out in May of 1977, followed by “Starship Invasions” in October, followed the next month by “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.”
It followed on the heels of “Star Wars” so closely that I figure that the movie was already in production before “Star Wars” came out, and I’m wondering if some of the space battle stuff was hastily added in just to make it look more like “Star Wars.” There is certainly a weird disconnect between the flying saucers flitting around to the beeping and booping of the synthesized soundtrack and the sub-plot of a wave of urban violence and suicides that seems more influenced by David Cronenberg than George Lucas. And then there’s all the weird sexual stuff, the alien probing and the room full of maybe-prostitutes that would look more at home in “Logan’s Run” than “Star Wars.”
It all adds up to a strange movie that doesn’t quite hold up, but actually plays a little better now that it’s out from under the looming shadow of “Star Wars” which was all anybody could think of when the movie first came out.