SATURDAY MORNING B-MOVIE CRAPFEST: “Cosmos: War of the Planets” (1977)

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ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED ON 8/15/09

Unless you’re kind of dim, odds are you like a bad movie now and again. You know the kind I mean, a low-budget quickie from the fifties or sixties, with unfortunate special effects, a questionably-coherent screenplay, flat direction, chesty women, and even flatter acting. It’s fun. Everyone likes to zone out a bit now and again with a really good bad movie, and the appeal of such things isn’t lost on me. Unfortunately, the trap in this kind of thinking is that there are movies where it’s so bad it’s good (Pretty much anything by Ed Wood in the first half of his career) and then there’s movies that are so bad as to be unwatchable (Pretty much anything by Ed Wood in the second half of his career.)

(Neither here nor there, and not really having anything to do with this particular movie, I’ve kind of been wishing that Tim Burton and Johnny Depp would make a sequel to “Ed Wood.” Something like “Ed Wood II: The Softcore Years.” In keeping with the period feel of the first movie, the sequel could be shot entirely on color-saturated super-eight with a wah-wah guitar in the background, and Johnny Depp could wear a fat suit and a comb over…It’s oscar gold! Gold, I tell ya!)

Anyway, this movie falls solidly in to the latter category. This is the kind of movie that even Ed Wood would have looked at and said “You know even by my standards, it’s pretty weak.”

PLAY BY PLAY

There’s a space ship in space. Something happens or stops happening - exactly what isn’t clear - and there’s an explosion that the ship’s computer refuses to admit is going on. As the ship steers to avoid remnants of this cosmic explosion - asteroids - one of which evidently hit’s the ship, doing no damage whatsoever, and everyone dances around like happy little idiots that the big rock which hit them didn’t exist or something. Again, it’s not quite clear. The computer says that it’s the remnant of an explosion that happened ten million years ago.

Then we get an opening title sequence of random stock footage from the Japanese Space Agency intercut with scenes of the sets from the movie.

Then the captain of the space ship marches in to the massive ground control set and punches him, then marches out. The next scene has him called on the carpet before the director of the space agency. The captain complains that his orders came from a machine, he’s never spoken to his superior officer at all, and this somehow resulted in him endangering his crew. The director says the captain will be punished. Everyone keeps talking about a computer named “Wiz,” which either runs the space agency, or possibly the world. The captain doesn’t like it.

Then we’re back on the ship. It’s unclear if this was a flashback, or a scene that takes place between the poorly-articulated near-disaster in the teaser, or what. Is the captain’s assignment to this ship a punishment? Did the flashback - if it is one - happen before the teaser? If the captain’s been punished with this assignment, why is he on the same ship as before with the same crew? Again, it’s all just vague beyond belief.

The Space Ship is fixing old satellites, which don’t actually appear to be orbiting anything. There’s a weird little almost-song while they orbit a satellite (Whaaaa?) and then a nearly-deadly situation while some jokimo acting on his own nearly burns a whole in his space suit with some battery acid. Fortunately the captain saves him. Earth, meanwhile, is getting signals from out in space, and since the space ship our movie is set on is the only one around, they want to send them in. The captain won’t hear of it - “We’ve been out here for six months, we’re tired.” The Director offers them promotions and fame, but he won’t hear of it, and says he’s heading home. One of the crewmen - it’s hard to tell them apart, they all wear skullcaps - and his chick head to the “Cosmo Love” cabin for some hot, steaming simulated sex. They lay down in separate beds, program the machine, some lights flash, some music plays, and both of them sweat a bit.

Meanwhile, The Captain and a cute chick with a buzz-cut discuss love, and how their society is run by machines, and while it’s efficient and clean and there are no longer any endlessly-blinking VCR clocks eternally flashing “12:00” over and over again; there are no longer any poets or artists or people who shove meat down their pants and complain about president Bush in the name of performance art anymore, which, the captain feels, is humanity’s loss. This has got to be the most elliptical come-on line in history, because I totally didn’t see where he was going with that, but him and the cute chick start making out. She tells him she likes it, and will never use the Cosmo Love again, and he says this is his first victory over machines.

En rout to earth, they get attacked by flying saucers which appear to be smaller than a doorknob. The ship goes out of control, and there’s a scene where the crew is “Suffering from a cabin pressure of five Gs” that’s supposed to be harrowing, but isn’t. Ultimately it’s resolved by touching a button. However, the ship gets pulled to a previously-unknown planet, and is about to crash when - once again - someone pushes a button and they don’t. Hooray!

The ship breaks in to sections - clever - and a landing module (Or a miniature thereof which looks to be about fist-sized, and vaguely reminiscent of an Earth Alliance Breaching Pod) lands on the surface. Though we’re told the planet is frozen solid, they can go about in normal clothes, and there’s no ice. At all. They wander about aimlessly for a long time until a guy with a perfectly normal Sears metal detector finds a hunk of Stonehenge, which teleports him in to a big cave where he’s attacked and killed by a robot. The rest of the crew - some of whom have calculators strapped to their forearms - go look for him, and one of them is killed by the robot, though no one else notices. Once they get to Stonehenge (“Where the demons dwell/where the banshees live/and they do live well”) they too are teleported to the cave, where they find a big glowing thing that was sending the signal to earth. This takes forever.

On earth, one of the tiny flying saucers has landed on a child’s plaster-of-Paris diorama of Antarctica. They can not keep these scenes in focus to save their lives. The director tells the press - all wearing uniforms - that there’s no cause for alarm, and in a parody of the old ‘reporters running from the courtroom to the phones’ scenes from countless old movies, they all run across the room to a battery of TVs and call their papers. This goes on forever.

Wandering around in the caves, they find a race of grey-painted alien men with pointy ears wearing speedos, and speaking by telepathy. One of them explains that there’s an evil machine that’s been killing them all for a long time. The captain decides to go and help out. They come to a model of a city which houses the evil robot and after leaving and coming back in space suits, they go in to confront the computer. Their own computer has told them by this time that “The best way to destroy the evil computer is probably to push the red button.” [Pause for hysterical laughter] No, I did not make that up. You will not find a less likely depiction of computers this side of the Superfriends.

The computer is a great big face made out of TV screens and flashing idiot lights. It tells them it needs them to fix some of it’s damaged circuits, which they then do, and it attacks them. Oh, sure, there’s a red button, but the evil computer isn’t having any of that. He doesn’t explain how he’s managing to get power to operate when the captain asks him, but I think we’re supposed to conclude that he was eating the grey-painted gay alien men. The captain manages to pull a David and Goliath and take it out, though. The wall-of-computers morphs in to a giant boxy wind-up robot that screams about how it’ll track down the earthlings and kill them, then explodes. Meanwhile, back at the ship, a few more crewmembers are getting some synthetic lovin’ on in the Cosmic Love booth. The system goes horribly wrong, however, and, uhm, well, exactly what happens isn’t clear, but there’s a lot of screaming involved, and evidently it wasn’t really good for anyone.

Running back to the ship with a new alien friend, they find several crewmen dead, and take off right before the planet explodes slowly and boringly. The UFO in Antarctica explodes. The ship heads back to earth - but wait, the executive officer has somehow turned in to a vampire thing with really bad skin, and is sucking the blood out of the crew. Wha? The alien sacrifices himself to blow himself and the possessed crewman out in to space.

Heading back to earth, someone is inexplicably shown a picture of his new baby boy on the TV screen, and then the computer says “We’ll be back on earth in 30 hours…Earthlings.” The captain recognizes that the computer is possessed by the big alien computer.

THE END.

OBSERVATIONS

There’s a kind of sadness in watching a film like this. It’s clearly not a polished production, and you just know that you’re watching somebody’s trust fund or college money getting blown up there on the screen. “I got me an idea for this great spacey kind of movie…in space! The story must be told, and come hell or high water or an utter lack of talent, by Gar, I’m gonna’ tell it!” So they do. And you know that all they end up getting for their pain and suffering is…*more* pain and suffering, with some derision and bankruptcy thrown in. Watching something like this, you just know that you’re watching the fruition of a dream that one of the people *IN* the movie has been nursing on since he was 12 or so. And while it’s unquestionably a triumph of the will that he soldiered on and got it done, it is at the same time a complete and utter defeat on every level. It’s hard not to cringe and feel bad when you watch ‘em.

That’s how I felt when I watched this movie. I tried to look for silver linings - sure the sets are crap, but there’s lots of ‘em, and they’re expansive crap. The Ground Control set is huge. The Space Ship Control Room is very fake looking, but it’s got clever touches like real TV screens and rear-projection film screens in the walls playing loops of space-related scenes. The uniforms are embarrassing, but there’s plenty of ‘em - the cast has 20 or 30 people in it, no skimping. The music is, in several places, kind of interesting. Kind of somewhere between Juan/Wendy Carlos and a nursery rhyme. The special effects are inept, but the miniatures, and the external set they built of the lander are not bad. Shooting in a cave was a very neat idea. The concept of a computer managing to download its consciousness in to another computer is pretty groundbreaking. Indeed, though there’s absolutely no getting around the mind-numbing awfulness and boredom of this movie, there are a lot of elements that are unexpectedly sophisticated for a movie made in 1967 or so.

Then I realized the movie was made in 1977, the same year as Star Wars; and that it wasn’t a bunch of starry-eyed yokels in upstate New York making this thing on the weekends with their butter-and-egg money, but rather an actual Italian studio production with a budget, and at that point I lost all patience with it. Has there *EVER* been a decent SF film to come out of Italy? I've seen a lot of 'em, and never one that wasn't just screamingly embarasing. I mean, the French can do a good SF film now and again (Alphaville, for instance), so why can't the Italians?

It’s just bad, unrelentingly bad, terribly achingly awfully bad, and what IS it with those skullcaps? Really the only thing interesting about it is how I was willing to cut it some slack when I thought it was from one era, and instantly wanted to burn every copy and dance around remorselessly in the ashes when I realized it was from another one. I can’t quite explain that, aside from when a small child writes his name badly you use a different standard to judge it by than you do when a 50-year-old writes their name badly.

And yet - to it’s credit and its damnation - this movie isn’t really far removed from an ambitious fanfilm. Production values are actually a bit below your average episode of Star Trek: Phase II, even if the location work is a bit better. (They tend to do mostly bottle shows on STP2, anyone notice?)

There’s several ideas that the movie tries to sell - that humanity is repeating the mistakes of the gray-skinned gay alien man race by turning over more and more stuff to the machines, that love itself has been supplanted by virtual sex, that the captain is a bit of an anachronism, that no one (Excepting the anachronistic captain) even reads the bible anymore, but they manage to drop the ball every single time without nailing a one of these points home. I’d have to honestly say that with the possible exception of Star Trek Generations, this is the single worst SF film I’ve ever seen in my life. A badly-crushed kernel of an idea is better than no ideas at all, so it still outranks that particular Trek flick.

WILL CONSERVATIVES LIKE THIS MOVIE?

Only if they’re dopes.

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