Monday, September 19, 2016

Buck Rogers Week: "Awakening" (1979)




Buck Rogers in the 25th Century -- though designed as a TV series -- actually had its premiere in American movie theaters on March 30th, 1979.   

The film, originally a pilot called "Awakening" quickly provided a remarkable return on Universal’s investment.  It was produced for a little over three million dollars (or one-third of Star Wars’ budget, essentially, in 1977) and the movie grossed over twenty-one million dollars in American theaters alone. 

Perhaps even more surprisingly, the film was generally well-received by critics, despite its TV origins.  Vincent Canby at The New York Times belittled the film as “corn flakes” while simultaneously comparing it to the big boys: Star Wars and Superman: The Movie.  He also noted (with grudging admiration) the ingenuity of the film’s makers.

I remember seeing Buck Rogers in the 25th Century in theaters and enjoying it tremendously, unaware that it had been conceived and shot as a TV series pilot and then kind of exploded into becoming a full-fledged feature film.  In 1979, the special effects held up on the big screen beautifully (particularly the moments in Anarchia, a ruined 20th century city inhabited by mutants…), and the film, overall, was a lot of fun. 

Today, however, it is not difficult to detect some of the “growing pains” of this production as it stretched from being, essentially, a kid-friendly TV pilot to a more adult-oriented,“big” event movie.  What began as a relatively straight space adventure inched closer to a nifty and ingenious paradigm: James Bond in Space

This shift in premises is best exemplified by an opening credits sequence which features Buck romancing scantily-clad women of the 25th Century, who pose and preen on the over-sized letters of his “name” while a Bond-like ballad blares on the soundtrack.  It’s a little bit ridiculous, and a little bit cheesy, but it definitely captures the 007 aesthetic: sexy women and a catchy pop-tune.


The Women of James Bond Buck Rogers.



The women of Buck Rogers #2


The Women of Buck Rogers #3




The Women of Buck Rogers #4



The Women of Buck Rogers #5

Other moments are more clumsily folded into the narrative than the enjoyable Bondian-opening.  Late in the film, aboard the Draconia, for instance, Ardala declares she wants Buck to take her father’s “seat” on the throne.  Suddenly, the film cuts to a shot of Buck -- obviously shot at some later date, on a different set -- declaring that her father’s “seat” is the furthest thing from his mind (implying it’s her seat – her buttocks – that interests him). 

Thus sexual double-entendres were ham-handedly added to the production when the shift in venues was broached.  Other double-entendres work a little better than this one because they arrive via the auspices of ADR or looping, and therefore we don’t get the chance to visually note the inconsistencies.

Another not-entirely successful addition to the original pilot sees Buck going mano-a-mano with Tigerman, Princess Ardala’s hulking bodyguard and the film’s equivalent of Oddjob, or Jaws…a so-called soldier villain.  There’s nothing wrong with the climactic physical confrontation between Buck and Tigerman, except that Buck faces a different Tigerman here, not the one seen throughout the film.  This discontinuity is left unexplained, but Derek Butler plays the character throughout the film, and H.B. Haggerty (who returned to the role in “Escape from Wedded Bliss” and “Ardala Returns”) plays him for the fight sequence.  The two men are both imposing, but boast very different looks in terms of muscle-mass and body-type.  Honestly, I didn’t notice the substitution as a kid, but the switch is impossible to miss now.


Tigerman #1 (Derek Butler)

Tigerman #2 (H.B. Haggerty)
These last minute additions to the enterprise feel somewhat jarring, even if they add to the James Bond mystique of the thing.  A more significant problem, however, involves the thematic approach to the material.  Buck -- in both the film and the series – is raised up as some kind of paradigm for Earth’s future, the ideal man.  A professor and friend at Hampden-Sydney College called the idea “American Exceptionalism in Space,” and he was right.

The only problem, of course, is that Buck is from the very age on Earth that brought about the devastating nuclear holocaust.  His generation, in essence, destroyed everything.  It seems strange and counter-intuitive, then, to deride the sincere 25th Century folks -- just climbing out of a five hundred year economic and cultural hole, as it were – for depending on computers, since the episode makes plain the notion that ungoverned emotions and passions were what brought about the end of 20th century mankind. These benevolent robots, acting dispassionately but helpfully, instead rely on logic and rationality.  As Dr. Huer notes, they saved the Earth from "certain doom" and have been "taking care of areas where we made mistakes, like the environment."

So…would you really want to go back to the approach that led to Earth’s ruin?  Would you life Buck up as a role model, or see him as a backward man from a much more primitive time?

It would be one thing if the movie noted that some balance between approaches -- logic and emotion -- needed to be struck.  But the 25th century characters are treated, in broad strokes, as gullible fools who can’t even pilot their own star-fighters (even though those ships are built with very prominent joy-sticks designed for manual control).  

It’s all a little bit…incoherent.  Yet the film gets away with it because, again, of the James Bond comparison.  We all know that James Bond is irresistible to all women, best in a fight or shoot-out, and supreme exemplar of style and taste.  Nobody does it better, right?  Here, Buck Rogers seems to have the same magic touch.  We accept the premise, in short, because we recognize it from that other franchise.

Despite such flaws, the movie vets an intriguing premise involving the Draconian “stealth” attack (a kind of Trojan Horse in Space dynamic), and features at least one authentically great sequence set in Anarchia, or “Old Chicago.”  Here, Buck goes in search of his past, and finds it…in a grave-yard. 

This scene in Anarchia is particularly well-shot, acted, and scored, and adds a significant human dimension to the film’s tapestry.  We are reminded that Buck has lost everything.  Not just his family…but the world he knew.  Here, Buck Rogers harks back to a 1970s movie tradition earlier than Star Wars: the dystopia or post-apocalyptic setting of such efforts as The Omega Man, Logan's Run or Beneath the Planet of the Apes.  I’ve always wished that the ensuing TV series had followed up on this plot-line a little more sincerely.  There were many stories to be vetted in Anarchia, but in its two-year run, Buck never returned there (that we know of).

I should add, the special effects visualizations of New Chicago and Anarchia are nothing less-than-spectacular, even today.  Again, it’s difficult to reckon with just how cheaply this movie was made because it features extensive, highly-detailed matte paintings, numerous space dogfights, and huge sets (like Ardala’s throne room…replete with Olympic-size swimming pool). 







Finally, I would be remiss without mentioning Buck Rogers’ other great “visual.”  Vincent Canby writes: Pamela Hensley is the film's most magnificent special effect as the wicked, lusty Princess Ardala, a tall, fantastically built woman who dresses in jewelry that functions as clothes and walks as if every floor were a burlesque runway.

There’s probably a case to made that Hensley is one of the Best Bond Femme Fatales ever…except that she’s not technically in a Bond film, of course.  Still, the material is close enough, and boy does she have a sense of…presence.  I can't think of many actresses who could pull-off that "boogie" scene with Buck Rogers here.  But Hensley disco dances with the best of them, retains her character's regal sense of dignity, and is awfully sexy...


Pamela Hensley as Princess Ardala
I can’t really argue that Buck Rogers in the 25th Century is in the same artistic class as contemporaries like Star Wars or Superman: The Movie.  But the movie is undeniably fun, and it sets up – with tremendous entertainment value -- the boundaries of Buck Roger’s new life in the 25th Century.  In other words, it’s a pretty great TV pilot for 1979 even if -- blown-up to the silver screen – it all plays as a bit scattershot.

3 comments:

  1. John that must have been impressive seeing Buck Rogers in the 25th Century(1979) in a theater. I saw it on NBC with the series that followed. I think that the 1979 film "Awakening" was better than the series because there were elements that they dropped after this pilot film.
    In the 1979 film "Awakening":
    1)The Earth had on the Inner City/New Chicago with no other cities.
    2)The Earth Defense Directorate had a defense shield that would not allow anything to enter Earth's atmosphere.
    3)The Computer Council was brilliant.

    SGB

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  2. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BINijYepahA
    This 1979 movie "Awakening" gave us the song lyrics to the Buck Rogers theme music.

    SGB

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  3. Saw it in the theater three times when it was out and watched the series too. Recently myself and a friend who remembered it from childhood (we were both born in 1970) and had a similar reaction: good lord Pamela Hensley and Erin Gray were hot! It took another watching to focus on the rest of the elements because the experience of integrating pre-puberty memories of it and that of watching as an adult and realizing how we missed the sexual aspect of it back then was so discombobulating. Funnily enough when I was watching a DVD of the Venture Brothers and listening to the commentary Doc Hammer, one of the co-creators of that show mentioned how he found it difficult to talk to Erin Gray when he met her at a convention they were guests at because he had a serious crush on her as a kid and all those feelings came flooding back when he met her again!

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