Wednesday, December 01, 2010

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Galaxina (1980)


Hollywood has often been dubbed "The Land of Broken Dreams," and considering the tragic fallen star of the space adventure/comedy, Galaxina, one begins to truly comprehend that tag. 

Heading into the 1980s, lovely Galaxina star Dorothy Stratten was Playboy's Playmate of the Year, and a celebrated guest-star on Buck Rogers in the 25th Century (1979 - 1981) in the episode "Cruise Ship to the Stars."  

Most importantly, the performer was successfully making the difficult leap to "A"-list film projects, a transition that would ultimately be appreciated by movie critics such as Vincent Canby.  He noted of Stratten in Peter Bogdonavich's They All Laughed (1981) that she "possessed a charming screen presence and might possibly have become a first-rate comedienne with time and work."

Alas, you may recall the unhappy ending of this story. 

Dorothy Stratten was murdered in 1980 by her estranged husband, Paul Snider. Almost instantly, Stratten became a household name all right, but as the "true crime" victim  in productions such as the TV-movie Death of a Centerfold (1981) starring Jamie Lee Curtis, and Bob Fosse's Star 80 (1983) starring Mariel Hemingway. 

Watching Galaxina even today -- thirty years later -- you can't help but mourn Stratten.  Galaxina is a low-budget, science fiction romp -- low-browraunchy and scattershot -- and yet Stratten's presence is the glue that holds the chaotic thing together.  She is on-screen rarely in the first half of the film, barely speaks throughout the second half, and -- as a "robot" -- is not even really called on to emote much.

Yet, Stratten possessed that special something that can make or break a movie star.  Even playing an emotionless machine in a bad, low-budget movie, Stratten had that sparkle in her eye, and could readily hold the attention of the viewer. 

As for the movie itself, I wish very much I could make some positive comment here, but truth be told,  Galaxina is a pretty unfunny, uninspiring, witless affair.  

In fact, Galaxina makes me think I was probably too rough on Spacehunter (1983) a few weeks back.  By point of comparison, that 1983 film is a masterpiece in forging atmosphere and crafting imaginary worlds.  There, at least, there was evidence of some authentic thought and consistency about the movie's larger universe. 

No such luck here.

What little of interest exists in Galaxina mostly involves Stratten's performance, and her nice chemistry with co-star Stephen Macht.   Even as an adolescent genre sex fantasy in the vein of Barbarella (1968) or Starcrash (1978), Galaxina remains a crushing failure...a bore. 

As The New York Times opined "some of the ads for ''Galaxina'' suggest that it is sexy; it is not." 

That's a blunt but accurate assessment of the film.  I rarely write so negatively about a film -- especially one with a cult following -- but this is a really, really weak movie. 

"No Ordinary Robot"

Galaxina commences with a Star-Wars-styled title-crawl that announces that by the year 3008, space travel has become routine.  As a consequence of "increased traffic," the United Intergalactic Federation is formed, along with a police force.  Aboard Police Cruiser 308, "The Infinity," is a robot servant with a very special nature.  Galaxina (Stratten) is a humanoid machine with "feelings."

The Infinity is commanded by cranky, arrogant Captain Cornelius Butt (Avery Schreiber) and manned by Lt. Thor (Macht), who believes he has fallen in love with the mute Galaxina.  But when Thor tries to kiss the object of his adoration, she sparks and short circuits, and he receives painful electrical shocks.

After the pursuit of Darth Vader-styled alien in a mask named Ordric (voiced by Percy Rodrigues), the Infinity is ordered by authorities to Alta One to recover a mystical artifact called "The Blue Star."  The only problem is that the trip will take twenty-seven years, and the crew will have to be ensconced in cryo-chambers for the duration.

During the long journey, Galaxina makes good use of her time alone.  She watches transmissions from Earth and learns to speak and act as a human female so she can be with Thor upon his awaking.  She also  adjusts her body temperature so she will feel warm to the touch.  As far as sex is concerned, Galaxina informs Thor that, well, she can requisition all the appropriate parts...

Once at Alta One, Galaxina is sent on a dangerous mission to retrieve the Blue Star, and is captured by strange humans who worship a motorcycle deity named "Harley Davidson."  Galaxina is rescued by Thor, but Ordric returns and takes over the ship...

"What is this Sh_t?"

Galaxina isn't exactly "tension to the fourth dimension" as the trailers promised. There's an unwritten rule in Hollywood that comedies should rarely -- if ever -- be over ninety minutes long, and Galaxina feels like a virtual eternity at ninety-five minutes.  In fact, the film feels dull and overlong.  . 

Another secret to crafting a good comedy is to squeeze the laughs together; to cut out all the stuff between that doesn't work, so that the solid laughs just barrel on, one after the other. 

Again, that's not what happens here.  There's a lot of dead air, another factor which contributes to the film's lack of vitality.

Galaxina's sense of humor arises from two arenas, primarily.  The first arena is the Mad Magazine-style "parody" of genre movie classics.  Specifically, the tenor-voiced Ordric and the title scrawl (and flashing laser beams) originate from the then-current Lucas blockbuster, Star Wars (1977). 

Secondly, an entire subplot about an alien prisoner called a "Rock Eater" (Herb Kaplowitz) recalls the "it's time to feed the alien" interlude with Pinback (Dan O'Bannon) from John Carpenter's far superior space comedy, Dark Star (1975).

There's also an unfunny but early riff on Ridley Scott's Alien (1979) in Galaxina.  Here Captain Butt eats an alien egg during a meal (on a dare, no less), and it eventually returns as a diminutive alien creature that seems to imprint on him as Mommy.  If you've seen Spaceballs (1987), you've seen the chest-burster gag done better.  In fact, even Stewart Raffill's The Ice Pirates (1984) -- with its messy "space herpes"--  is also a superior variation on the same joke.

Gene Roddenberry's Star Trek (1966-1969) gets a lengthy jab here too, via the presence of a puppy-eared, emotionless bartender named Mr. Spot on Alta One.   He even wears the famous blue uniform, albeit with a crooked insignia. 

The best, and perhaps most subtle gag in the film involves the weirdo alien culture on Alta One that worships Harley Davidson, a fun twist on the Alpha/Omega Bomb-worshipping mutants of the post-apocalyptic Beneath The Planet of the Apes (1969).

Outside the genre, the general tenor of the film is sort of akin to Animal House's (1978)  raunchiness and low-brow humor.  One scene set at a cosmic whorehouse called "Kitty's" combines that brand of humor with the aliens from the famous Star Wars cantina.  It's actually one of the movie's better scenes, despite the rubbery make-up and bad one-liners.

The second arena of comedy which Galaxina exploits involves non-sequitur and ostensibly funny character names.  Captain "Butt," for instance.  Another unfunny gag -- repeated until you want to pull your hair out -- involves a heavenly choir launching into celestial hymn whenever a character in the drama speaks the name of "The Blue Star."  The dramatis personae actually hear the heavenly chorus in all its angelic glory, and look around, baffled, for the source of it.

The best touches in Galaxina tend to be throwaway, minuscule ones.  For instance, there's one very interesting outer space composition in which an ancient 20th century space shuttle is seen, catastrophically damaged.  It tumbles across the movie frame, nose-over-engine, but is left unremarked upon by the narrative and unnoticed by the futuristic characters.  The shot is visually well-accomplished, but more importantly it nicely suggests that the universe of the movie has a real, detailed, even mysterious history.  
Later in the film, there are also some well-staged shots on the dangerous world of Alta, the "Western"-styled planet of alien human-eaters.  Director William Sachs lights all of these scenes with a color filter, in a lush, overripe, almost golden-red hue.  In this unnatural alien light, Galaxina appears quite beautiful -- but different -- her blond hair now a deep, attractive auburn.  That very look, incidentally -- a red wig on a gorgeous, porcelain-complexioned female -- was later popularized in early 21st century production such as J.J. Abrams' Alias. (2002 - 2005).

I can't really slam Galaxina on its low budget, but still,  it is pretty difficult to enjoy the movie when you are constantly noticing, for instance, the Adam West/Burt Ward Batmobile parked outside a saloon on Alta.   That kind of touch just takes one out of the action, out of the movie's reality.  And even a space comedy requires some sense of basic reality and believability.


The greatest disappointment with Galaxina must surely be the film's poor treatment of the titular character.  This android is beautiful and fit, but never really comes across as an independent, self-directed, individual entity.  Galaxina demonstrates the capacity to self-actuate and grow, in her decision to alter her body temperature and learn to speak (from TV commercials...) but the reason behind this decision is that she has fallen in love, conveniently, with Thor...the only guy around who is not a complete and total idiot

Love is a powerful motivating force, of course -- even to robots, apparently -- but movie-goers drawn to Galaxina want to know more about her; about her extraordinary nature.  Why has this particular model proven susceptible to human feelings?  The movie never tells us.  It never even hints at a reason.

It doesn't help, either, that Galaxina hardly appears at all in the first half of the film, except seated immobile in a control chair during cutaways; no more than, essentially, a very pretty mannequin.  Or that, when she does get into the action, late in the film, she almost immediately requires rescuing by macho Thor.  That sort of traditional damsel-in-distress role hardly seems appropriate for an adventure of the year 3008, and it doesn't do anything to make Galaxina fit the mold of great genre sex icons like the aforementioned Stella Star or Barbarella. 

Hell, I would have taken Bo Derek's Jane in John Derek's Tarzan of the Apes (1981). 

Basically, you just wish this movie would mythologize, build-up and idolize the Galaxina character. As an action hero. As a space hero.   As a gorgeous robot of extraordinary capability.  Anything.  And the movie steadfastly refuses to do the job.  Again, the approach is scatter shot and inconsistent.

Today, I suppose that this movie is of interest because it features a tragic star-in-the-making and some good 1980-era outer space effects.  If you saw it back in 1980, perhaps you have a nostalgic attachment to boot.  But there's not even one well-told joke in this mix.   As the ads promised back in the day, Galaxina is indeed "too good to be true..." 

5 comments:

  1. Hi John,

    I always love the historical perspective and facts about these stars and how they are interconnected to all of these wonderful aspects of my science fiction childhood.

    Thank you for all of the information and wonderful review about Stratten.

    While I may not have Galaxina on my radar I do look forward to opening that Buck Rogers set that much more. Best to you, SFF

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  2. Hi, SFF:

    The history behiind Galaxina and Dorothy Stratten is a lot more interesting than this movie, that's for sure.

    The Buck Rogers episode was named one of the best installments on that recent Sci-Fi Now list, but Stratten's voice is dubbed over in the show, alas.

    I wish so much -- for Stratten's sake -- that Galaxina were better than it is.

    Thanks for the comment,

    best,
    JKM

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  3. Galaxina looked tacky even in photos within a Starlog article from back in '80 before the film's release!

    Dorothy deserved better, in the movie and life.

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  4. Fang Shih-yu:

    Amen, my friend. I couldn't agree with you more. Dorothy Stratten deserved much better (in the movie and in life...)

    best,
    JKM

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  5. Galaxina worth only by the presence of Dorothy Stratten!Her stunning physical beauty : as beautiful as she was, she was an even sweeter person! Dorothy Stratten had talent and magnetism and this is evident even when she had a weak material to work, as the script of Galaxina!She still had the subtlety of the look, body movements ( his body was his art, as for the great divas of dance and ballet )! Dorothy Stratten was incredibly better than any of his films: she was really talented!

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