Tuesday, December 02, 2008

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: The Shape of Things to Come (1979)

"Welcome to a universe of robots with the power to perform wonders. And men with the will to destroy worlds..."

- from the trailer to The Shape of Things to Come (1979)

So...here's a prime chunk of aged cheese from the disco decade: the Canadian-produced "re-imagination" of H.G. Wells' The Shape of Things to Come.

Of course, Wells' original story of pacifism, socialism and futurism (filmed in 1936 the first time) has been re-purposed here for the swinging 1970s as a swashbuckling Star Wars (1977)-style space adventure, replete with friendly robots and gigantic spaceships.

Directed by George McGowan, The Shape of Things to Come is set the "tomorrow after tomorrow" (which, yes, now that you mention it, creeps by at its petty pace...). Earth is a polluted wasteland devastated by the "Great Robot Wars" and man dwells mostly on the moon, in a colony called New Washington (populated, no doubt, by New Lobbyists).

But this "thriving" colony has a problem: to survive the deadly radiation on the moon(?),the colonists must constantly import the "miracle drug" called RADIC-Q-2.

And unfortunately, RADIC-Q-2 can only be found on the distant planet called Delta 3. There, the evil Omus -- Jack Palance in a gold-quilted uniform with fancy blue cape -- has launched an insurrection with re-programmed mining robots as his minions. He has unseated the legal governor, referred to in the movie only as "Nikki."

So Governor Nikki (a shrill, deeply confused Carol Lynley) and her six or seven retainers are ousted from the Delta Three Capital Citadel, and now live in the wild. The wild, meaning Canada in autumn. The Nikki regime dead-enders plot to return to power by battling the lumbering mining droids...with large plastic pipes. It's like Queen Amidala's plight in The Phantom Menace...only dumber.
Where's Jar-Jar when you need him?

Meanwhile, the power-mad Omus crashes a cargo ship into New Washington to get the attention of the city's nominal leader, Dr. John Cabal (Space:1999's Barry Morse). Omus then threatens to halt shipments of the much-needed RADIC-Q-2 to the inhabitants unless the moon council appoints him supreme commander of the Moon, Earth and all the outposts in the solar system. Cabal refuses.

From his city command center -- a chamber which combines Commander Adama's space map from Battlestar Galactica with the giant red Computer Crystal from Logan's Run -- Cabal plots a response. Fortunately, his Honeywell brand computers are still operating in this distant future-- you can actually see the logo!! Nice to know that the company survived the Great Robot Wars, no?

Anyway, Cabal decides to take out Omus using his super new experimental space ship: Star Streak! Only problem: the ship is entirely untested. I should mention that Star Streak is depicted in miniature here; constructed of commercially available model kit parts including AMT's K-7 Space Station from Star Trek's "The Trouble with Tribbles." Master Computer Lomax pessimistically states that the Cabal mission will likely meet with "disaster" or "malfunction." Oopsy.

Caball decides to go after Omus anyway, bringing along his son, Jason (Nicholas Campbell), a hottie control room technician named, Kim (The Boogens'[1982] Ann-Marie Benton) and a re-re-re-programmed mining robot called Sparks. Why are they always named Sparks?

After a brief side-trip to Earth -- in which Jason and Kim meet the platinum-headed Children of the Damned, all suffering from fatal radiation poisoning -- the Star Streak runs afoul of a weird, rear-projected magnetic space disturbance. This unusual phenomenon compels Kim, John and Jason to lurch around their control room in slow-motion contortions of agony. It's an inept ballet of idiocy, but the Star Streak emerges from it...conveniently in orbit of Delta 3.

There, our heroes join forces with Governor "Nikki," while Jack Palance puts a pickle-jar on his head and tests a doomsday weapon on John Cabal. The device makes Cabal shimmy around a room and spit up blood. Eventually, our heroes win the day...and Delta 3 explodes.

So where the hell are our heroes going to get more RADIC-Q-2? That's just one question you'd be better off not to ask as The Shape of Things To Come fades to welcoming black. How bad is The Shape of Things to Come? Well, let me put it this way: it makes Space Mutiny look like high art by comparison. It makes Star Crash look like Shakespeare. It makes Starship Invasions look like James Joyce. Shall I go on?

The Shape of Things to Come relentlessly, shamelessly and endlessly apes Star Wars, beginning with the opening shot: the familiar "flyover" of a gigantic spaceship. Only here, the shot is repeated about twenty times, from every conceivable angle, as the massive cargo ship bears down on New Washington. And after a few scenes with Sparks, the film's de rigueur R2-D2 rip-off, you'll be begging for mercy. The robot not only spouts poetry, referring to Kim as his "Dark Lady of the Sonnet," but he can orchestrate "bilocational transference," or -- I shit you not -- a "BLT" for short. Hold the mayo.

By the way, Sparks also has floppy, Lost In Space-style robot arms...Oh, the pain. The pain.

Jack Palance matriculated to Buck Rogers in the 25th Century shortly after this movie, playing essentially the same role, except that he was named Kaleel. His character was shipping much-needed food to the Directorate on Earth from the planet Vistula. The food was actually poisoned, and he was plotting an overthrow of Huer and company. Meanwhile, Ann-Marie Benton also showed up on Buck Rogers....as an assassin bent on capturing the perfect robot, Twiki!

However, the actor whom I feel most sorry for here is the late Barry Morse. Here he is, back on the moon (and in charge of the base this time!), but in a film without even a tenth of the production value that Space:1999 boasted. As usual, Morse comports himself with dignity, but the screenplay does him no favors.

At one critical juncture in The Shape of Things to Come, the evil Omus falls prey to his own doomsday weapon. Jack Palance clutches his head and pleads madly: "Turn it off! Turn it off!"

My sentiments exactly. If this is the shape of things to come, I want out.

1 comment:

  1. John,
    Just saw this tonight (New Year's Eve Eve), and man was that a loooong 98 minutes! I had actually been wanting to see this for a while, thinking it would be grade A cheese (particularly since it was put out by Blue Underground who generally deliver the goods). I can only imagine this is someone's guilty pleasure at the company, hence it made the roster.

    Actually your referencing of Buck Rogers is very appropriate. Aside from the fact that Palance and Benton made appearances on the show, the film struck me as having the feel of a really bad Rogers episode . . . only much longer and without the much needed presence of Gil Gerard and Erin Gray. At least even the worst of that series had their charm and charisma. Morse and Palance are the lights here, but can't make up for the rest of the mess that is Shape of Things to Come!