You know, I’d been wondering for some time, while writing these little essays for the Achiever’s Index, why I would bother to include the lower ranks, particularly the rank of “Travesty.” I mean, if a work of print or cinematic art were that bad, why would I waste my time writing about it? And then along came Starship Invasions to alter my perceptions, and to compel me to break out my Travesty Stick for a good, sound beating. I should perhaps preface this essay by saying that I have a very personal connection to the subject matter, here. No, I don’t believe in aliens: I mean, give me a break – the Fermi Paradox, and I rest my case. No, it was because… well, let me tell the story thus:
At a particularly rough time in my life, I went to visit a very good friend of mine out in central Pennsylvania. When I arrived, he proudly presented to me one of his recent acquisitions, a book titled “ASHTAR,” with a bizarrely campy painting on the cover of a white-skinned humanoid alien with a big head, wearing some 1970′s artist’s idea of a space suit – essentially spandex. This was, as we found out from the nigh-incoherent text within, Commander Ashtar of the Ashtar Command.
He was also Jesus Christ. That’s right.
We gradually came to realize that we were reading the sacred text of a UFO cult. It was HI-LAR-I-OUS. I still remember the absurdity of that book and its insane contents, and how much better I felt after that night: as screwed up as my life was back then, at least I wasn’t in a UFO cult. And to this day, we occasionally greet each other with the phrase: “Friend, I AM ASHTAR!”
So needless to say when I happened to turn on my television the other day, which receives only a handful of channels and those very badly, and saw this movie playing, the entire experience suddenly crystallized: this was Ashtar: THE MOVIE, in its whole spirit if not literally. Moreover, to say that the film is as insane as the book would be an act of gross understatement. The movie is much, much worse.
The film opens with a long bit of overwrought expository dialogue delivered by voice-over, intended to give the impression that all the alien characters are communicating by telepathy. Christopher Lee (YES, that IS Christopher Lee!) plays bodysuited and dragon-clad alien leader Rameses, who has come to Earth to supplant the Human race with his own, whose planet is about to be consumed by a supernova. Typical sci-fi fare for the period, I’ll grant you that. But it begins sliding out of control pretty fast when a great deal of assumptions start happening that begin dragging the plot along at breakneck speed.
See, first he has to sample some humans’ DNA (their Ripperesque Precious Bodily Fluids!) from which he determines that humanity was the unknown ancestor-race of his own Alpha Centaurians. And so naturally that means they’ll have to be eradicated, now. (Wait, what?) So he deploys his fleet in orbit to shoot a ray at Earth that will cause humans to commit suicide. (Woah, back up.) First, however, he has to make sure the Intergalactic League of Races (Who?) doesn’t interfere. So he steers his upturned pie plate down to the Atlantic ocean to find their base on Earth. (His what?) What follows is a bizarrely convoluted set of stylized bluffs and counter-bluffs, culminating in an epic bodysuit-and-finger-laser raid on the League’s submarine combination pyramid base and cathouse.
Man, I only WISH I were making this up.
This movie clocks in at an efficient 89 minutes, and is the ultimate expression of 1970′s-style bad taste and poor aesthetic judgement. There are positive reams of silver mylar and solid-color pleather, mirrors on any surface capable of being mirrored, clashing color schemes involving crimson, harvest gold and orange, welding-masked robots spouting post-hippie slogans about intergalactic peace, and to crown it all, the whole thing is set to an electro-lounge score that can only be properly encompassed by the word “Jazzalicious.” Go ahead, click that link. I dare you. I DARE you.
And it stars Robert Vaughan and Christopher Lee. I mean, Robert Vaughan, I could see doing this kind of thing. After all, he was The Man from U.N.C.L.E., so he was no stranger to bad taste. But somehow, in the ensuing years, Christopher Lee’s claim to authenticity makes me forget that he actually WAS this person way back when, a B-Movie actor (at best) playing vampires and alien heavies, famed for his fixed stare and wooden performances, and holding his own against campy greats like Vincent Price. It is entirely logical that he would appear in this trashiest of trashy flicks, and yet still it took me so much by surprise that I could not help but stare, slack-jawed, at the insane fruits of his labor, up there in all its badly-colored glory for all to see.
This in the end is what makes watching this awful film such a sublime experience to be had. These are people doing their best to make the most of what is clearly just a job, a film of no value whatsoever, greenlighted by God only knows who and made on a budget of… I can’t begin to guess. And consider also, that this film is a contemporary of Star Wars, which so clearly designated the final cinematic break between this kind of crappy filmmaking and the new way of science fiction. Star Wars was so far ahead of its time that it created an entirely new way of making films; Starship Invasions is so horribly past it without knowing it that it exudes dreadful, embarrassing obsolescence from every frame.
But when you think about it, movies like this get made all the time. Try to think of all the movie trailers you’ve seen on TV in the past year and I bet you won’t even remember a tenth of them. They come, they go, and people pay their rent and move on. When they call it “The Industry,” they are hardly lying. Making movies, by and large, means cranking out a disposable product. And in this, Starship Invasions represents the diametric opposite of a film like Star Wars, and is therefore a foil to its success. In its campy, nonsensical, poorly-constructed scenery, you see everything that a movie should not be, an open book for the filmmaker by means of negative example. And you also see Christopher Lee in black spandex and Robert Vaughn wearing a lot of turtleneck sweaters. And what does that amount to? Not a whole lot, but it sure is funny to look at.
It’s interesting to conclude with the final realization that what goes around comes around. In a perfect example of the “sunrise, sunset” phenomenon, the worst films of the Star Wars franchise, the three ill-advised “prequels,” feature B-Movie actors from this era very prominently. And who is chief among them? Christopher Lee.
STRIKE: As horrendously bad and overplayed as this movie is, I couldn’t help but smile (and not with mirth) when I saw Christopher Lee, who is so obviously playing a horrible role for everything it’s worth. Yes, he, like Robert Vaughan, was, and to an extent, is a B-movie actor, but he’s the consummate example of the career actor. He’s doing this movie because it’s the job he was hired to do. God bless you, Chris.
GUTTER: Bodysuited aliens, underwater pyramids, upturned pie plates conquering the Earth, that jazzalicious soundtrack… am I forgetting anything? Oh, yes, Robert Vaughan. I… I mean, really? Somebody greenlighted this one, and you really have to wonder who. This movie is just so bad that the best one can do is laugh, and perhaps wonder why they were even making movies in Canada in the 1970′s to begin with.
OVER THE LINE: Where can one begin when the movie never was on the near side of the line? Before seeing this movie I didn’t even know that they were making movies in Canada, let alone in the 1970′s. And no offense to my many friends north of the border, but this movie is probably a good example of why that is the case.
Overall Rank: TRAVESTY
This movie is a disgrace, so much so in fact that it more completely defines the word than I had imagined possible. Yet in that, there is an element of the sublime. It takes a strong constitution and a decidedly warped sense of humor to subject yourself to this kind of thing, I admit, but there’s something to be said for movies this bad. They’re still consummate travesties, in every sense of the word, but I can’t help but feel drawn to them in a weird way, and to Starship Invasions in particular, in which you see actors trying so hard to make the best of an intolerable situation. If you can stand to see something this awful, watch Starship Invasions and you will simply not believe it. It is so much the sine qua non of bad taste that there is simply no other comparison. All peace to you, Galactic Brother.
Starship Invasions was only ever released on videocassette, to my knowledge, and so finding it now will be a serious challenge. You can find clips on YouTube that will pretty well give you the gist of it, though – and in any event, I think that sitting down to watch the whole movie might possibly be fatal to a movie-watcher without the proper training and mental discipline.
Starship Invasions was filmed at Hal Roach Studios in Toronto, Canada, and distributed by Warner Brothers Entertainment in 1977.