Monday, August 10, 2015

Starship Invasions (1977)

Generally regarded as a low-budget attempt to cash in on the success of Star Wars and Close Encounters, this 1977 Canadian made effort from producer/director/writer Ed Hunt is actually a reasonably entertaining piece of schlock.  Clearly seeking to combine elements from the two bigger budget movies, the scenario for Starship Invasions sees the Earth - unwittingly - at the centre of a conflict between two rival factions of aliens.  The Legion of the Winged Serpent - who all dress in natty black uniforms emblazoned with the aforementioned serpent - are led by Christopher Lee's Captain Rameses and come from a dying planet.  Consequently, they are hell bent on conquering the Earth and establishing a new home here.  To this end, they fly around in their saucers abducting humans for scientific experiments to establish the planet's suitability for their occupation and to determine the human's weaknesses.  By contrast, the white clad Intergalactic League of Races is dedicated to non-intervention in the affairs of primitive planets and instead peacefully observe humanity from an undersea golden pyramid.

Interestingly, all of the aliens are telepathic, meaning that all of their dialogue is overdubbed and non-synced, leading one to suspect that the budget didn't run to properly post-synced sound. However, the human characters all speak normally, so this was clearly an artistic, rather than a budgetary, decision.  That said, after all those Hammer Draculas Christopher Lee had done where he only snarled, it must have been a novelty for him to play a non-speaking lead who actually had dialogue.  Joining Lee as a token 'name' actor is nominal lead Robert Vaughn as a UFO-believing astronomer whose assistance is sought by the League after Lee's treachery puts their base out of action.  Both Lee and Vaughn do what they can with the tepid script and bland dialogue - Starship Invasions certainly isn't the worst film that either of them made at this stage in their careers, but it is still slightly surprising to find them in a low budget Canadian science fiction film. 

But it isn't the script or cast which make Starship Invasions a better-than-average piece of schlock.  Rather, it is the surprisingly good special effects.  Both the miniatures and process work are well above average for a film of this era and budget.  The various flying saucers are actually pretty convincing when in flight or interacting with humans.  The dogfights between the saucers of rival factions over Canada are reasonably convincing whilst the climactic space battle between the League and the Legion's saucers is very well realised.  Whilst it might be assumed that the film was originally aimed at younger audiences, it does include a number of disturbing elements liable to traumatise children, particularly the Legion's ability to make their human subjects commit suicide so as to keep their encounters secret: a sympathetic farmer shoots himself and a wife kills her husband and young son before bloodily taking her own life.  The Legion's nefarious plans culminate with them placing a satellite in orbit which emits a 'suicide ray', causing outbreaks of violence as people hit by it go mad and commit murder-suicides.  Scenes of streets strewn with bodies and crashed cars, with patrolling soldiers trying to keep order are surprisingly effective.

All-in-all Starship Invasions is a quite professionally made piece of hokum.  Sure, it isn't hugely original and doesn't really have enough plot to fill out its ninety minutes, or so, of running time, but it is at least entertaining.  More than slightly barmy in its plot details, (apparently you can repair technologically advanced spaceships with a few circuit boards from a Toronto office building), with the realistic Canadian locations contrasting sharply with the slightly Flash Gordon serial-type alien base interior, Starship Invasions shouldn't just be dismissed as another direct-to-VHS dud.  The effects work and the game performances of Lee and Vaughn lift it well above the average poverty-row B-movie.  Moreover, with the flying saucer designs and alien encounters drawn from the 'real life' accounts of alleged abductees and witnesses, the film succeeds in tapping into the world's collective pop culture, giving the whole thing a curious feeling of hyper-reality.



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