Saturday, July 4, 2020

Space 1979: The one where the man-eating aliens do the least damage

Title: Critters
Year: 1986
Classification: Knockoff/ Parody
Rating: Pretty Good!
As I completed the previous entry in this feature, I have given thought to many more movies I might cover. My most important decision has been on the time frame, and my settled preference is around 1975 to 1985. I have further reflected just how many movies I've considered fail or come close that criteria alone, especially on the 1980s side. Westworld, 1973. Zardoz, 1974. Lifeforce and The Falling, 1985. Terrorvision, 1986. The Gate and The Hidden, 1987. Mac And Me, Deep Space and  Killer Clowns From Outer Space, 1988. Dead Space, 1991. I will probably cover at least some of these. But the one I would definitely bend the rules for is this film.

As usual with this subgenre, the story is simple and quickly set up. In the far reaches of the galaxy, a group of aliens called the Crites hijack a ship taking them to an interstellar prison, and a warden sends two shape-shifting bounty hunters to pursue them. The next stop is a farm on planet Earth where the Crites go to ground, revealing themselves as fast, voracious and venomous terrier-sized predators. While the monsters proceed to lay siege to the farm and devour several humans, the bounty hunters arrive and tear up a nearby town. As the battle continues, the surviving humans kill several Crites but are left wounded and drugged. A plucky kid escapes for help, and inevitably returns with the bounty hunters, just in time to team up against a Crite that has eaten enough to grow to giant size and run off with a human hostage. It all ends with charm and a few decent twists, followed by the completely predictable closing shot to set up a sequel franchise.

Critters was the best of a crop of ripoffs and knockoffs in the wake of Gremlins. I rate it as a knockoff separate from a ripoff because it is moderately later than the evident source material, and especially because of the high level of creativity invested in the final product. The best touches come from creature effects by the Chiodo Brothers, who went on to direct Killer Clowns. The Crites/ Critters look as satisfyingly nasty as they act, and they have a level of agility that was especially elusive with "practical" creature effects. Their signature moves are shooting poisonous quills and rolling along like tumbleweeds when they advance or retreat. In a further nuance, they have a believable level of vulnerability. They take losses to ordinary weapons, mainly a mother's shotgun, while holding the clear advantage in a battle of attrition. It's all livened up by short bits of dialogue between Critters. If I had to pick the usual "one scene", it would be an encounter between two Critters and the mother, already so iconic I got an auto complete when I started to enter the line in a search.

But I'm going to make another departure from form and talk about those bounty hunters. The Critters are fun, but these two make the movie a thing of beauty. There's no one scene I will point to, because only the full movie together will show just how totally and bizarrely incompetent they are. The best frame of reference is the Prime Directive from Star Trek, simply because they do the opposite at every opportunity in the most egregious possible way. The mind can boggle trying to figure out what their manual looks like. Don't acquire or imitate native dress. Don't seek help from local authorities, including friends and family of people you are specifically impersonating. Openly use advanced technology in view of the populace, regardless of whether you need it. If you must communicate with the natives, don't explain terms known only to you, and don't hesitate to threaten them when they don't give an answer to questions they couldn't possibly understand.

In hindsight, Critters was the beginning of the end of an era. It proved that even a low-budget film could have top-notch special effects, and it also showed that a "knockoff" production could still give its source(s) a serious and original treatment. I personally find Critters better than Gremlins in many ways, in large part because its creatures could be funny without being forced to act "cute". But few of the movies that would follow, including its own sequels, would equal it, and soon enough the advent of CGI would sweep them all away. So enjoy it for what it is, because we won't soon see its like again.

Friday, July 3, 2020

Unidentified Found Objects: Space Raiders!

Of all the "generic" toys in circulation at any given time, none are more ubiquitous yet ephemeral than novelty erasers. The whole idea seems to have been to motivate kids by giving them erasers in the same shape as toys, on the theory that it would keep them interested in school rather than just playing with the eraser. In the long run, it was always a Catch 22. If you used them for their intended purpose, they were literally rubbed away into oblivion. If you tried to save them, then sooner or later they would shrink into dark, cracked and distorted husks of themselves. This installment is about a little line that beat the odds, at least for a while, Diener Space Raiders. And while we're at it, here's a couple more pics:
I first caught wind of Diener products during semi-random searches for vintage toys. I quickly realized the company was responsible for a number of toys I was long familiar with, including a line of rubber dinos I expect to get to another time. I quickly confirmed their status as a very prolific manufacturer of novelty erasers and other rubbery generic toys. Their finest hour was producing toys for McDonald's Happy Meal toys (something else that should fill many installments to come), and these included the present selection, which first turned up in 1978. This consisted of both ships and an assortment of rather generic robots and aliens. For the moment, naturally, I will focus on the ships.

Moving forward to my personal story, I knew of these guys for a very long time without trying to obtain them. I did finally acquire them recently in an uncontested online auction. My first and immediate reaction was that the lot was almost certainly of recent manufacture, due to the very soft rubber. I have found handling somewhat unpleasant, due to the soft and almost (but not quite) sticky feel of the rubber, but I had seen badly aged erasers far too often to look a gift horse in the mouth. What interested me was the ships.

As seen above, there are four ships, each with a name and number imprinted on the toy: Altair (2), Ceti (3), Lyra (4) and Krygo (5). Whether the absence of a ship numbered 1 means anything is unknowable. Of these, Ceti is the one I deemed a dud from the beginning; it was clearly intended to be "realistic" but merely looks clunky and not in the style of the others. Altair is far more interesting. It has the lines of a "classic" rocket ship and details that hint at a much larger scale, particularly a nose that looks like it could be a detachable smaller ship. Then there are Lyra and Krygo, which I knew as the basis of two ships covered in the last installment. Here are the Space Raiders ships with their counterparts.

What was surprising about these was the inconsistency in size. Krygo is clearly larger than the plastic ship, but the two saucers are identical in diameter, though the rubber one is greater in depth and mass. It will also be apparent that the plastic ships have substantially greater detail, undoubtedly in part because the rubber versions were effectively disposable, but I think also because they were influenced by an older aesthetic. Before Star Wars and its ornately detailed ships, science fictional vessels were clean and sleek (and in many ways more realistic), and that is what we still see here. One more rabbit trail to cross my mind is that Krygo would be just about the right shape to dock with the front of Altair, if the latter were vastly greater in size. This was clearly not what the designers intended, given the clear presence of windows, but it's exactly the kind of thing I might have thought of if I had grown up playing with these things.

I can't avoid some comment on the creatures with the set. The lot I received included 3 out of 4, called Brak, Zama and Horta (!), and all that I have to say is that I found them oddly uninteresting. In fact, I find them inferior in detail and quality to  the slightly later Diener Space Creatures (which will be covered in the reference links), which even feel more creative despite being fairly obvious knockoffs of TV and movie monsters. Here are pics of my group.

For the usual postscript, Diener thrived for a very long time, and they kept the Space Raiders and related toys alive. Various accounts record sightings of the things throughout the 1980s and even to the 1980s, including examples given away with kids' meals at the in-house restaurants department/ big box stores. As for Diener itself, it survives today, albeit as part of a larger company, and continues to offer erasers and other rubber toys for sales. Some things change, some things stay the same, and some always find a way to turn a profit.

For reference links, here's Little Weirdos posts on Space Raiders, Space Creatures and Mythological Creatures. Again, they have everything.
You can also see, among many, Retro Dad and Neato Coolville posts on the Diener Happy Meal releases; a 2 Warps to Neptune lineup of packaged Diener Raiders/ Creatures, with some info on the company's (relatively) recent history; and another 2 Warps post on Space Raiders notebooks.
Finally, you can see previous installments on arcade prize ships and the Spaceman Spiff ship.

Wednesday, July 1, 2020

Space 1979: The one where the Italians ripped off Star Wars before Star Wars technically came out

This feature is back with another of the films it was made for. In the realm of ripoffs and independently conceived "runnerups", a certain proportion end up on a razor's edge between the two. These are the films that may technically have begun production before what they reputedly ripped off, but certainly owe their release if not their final form to more successful projects. These are projects like the hare of fable, rushing to catch up with the tortoise without quite succeeding, almost always due to executive neglect rather than any fault or failing of those directly involved in their creation. No example is more egregious than Star Crash.

Like its more famous counterpart, this movie opens with a ship under attack, except this time it's a warship of a galactic Empire that is destroyed by a mysterious weapon. A survivor is rescued by a female smuggler/ space pirate and her not-quite-human co pilot, who are shortly captured by a robot police officer. The outlaws are offered a pardon if they join a search for a renegade Count's secret base and a missing prince. The ensuing adventures see them pitted against amazons, cavemen, a pair of deadly stop motion robots, and finally the evil Count's giant headquarter's ship, all with maximum campiness.

As usual, the circumstances of Star Crash's production are at least as interesting as the movie ever was. This time around, there is no question that the project was around well before the release of Star Wars, but did not advance very far in production until as late as May 1977, the same time the first movie came out. Its real roots were in the Italian-American system that had previously produced the likes of the Steve Reeve "Hercules" movies and several of Ray Harryhausen's stop-motion effects films. This is reflected in heavy use of effects that were "old school" even for the 1970s. It is further evident that the production ended up under pressure to look more like Star Wars than it was. Fortunately, this mostly
came out in the advertising (complete with the ripoff Millennium Falcon in the featured poster), while certain sequences featuring a lawsuit-worthy laser sword manage to loop back around as reverent references to earlier movies (especially by Harryhausen).

As for overall quality, we finally have a ripoff/ runnerup that can stand on its own merits. The acting (and for that matter the script) is competently hammy, backed up by reasonable production values. The ships are what give the film personality, mostly art deco style with somewhat clunky hard-SF ships here and there. (The first to appear is named Murray Leinster after the influential Asounding/ Analog writer.) Most of the designs charm without standing out, except for the utterly bizarre flagship of the Count. This ship is built in the shape of a half-clenched clawed hand, with little or no further rationalization, and the outside is fully matched by the very retro interior and the gloating Count himself.

I have settled on trying to give a more detailed account of a scene in each review, and while good moments abound (especially when the police robot is on screen) there was never any question in my mind that it would be  battle between the Count's claw ship and a fleet sent by the Emperor. As the Imperial ships attack, they launch torpedoes filled not with nukes, or explosives, or bioweapons, or the battle bots we have already seen, but two troopers with ray guns. As torpedo after torpedo crash through the ship's main viewport without a hint of decompression, a battle breaks out between the troopers and the Count's loyal guards. It's impossible and willfully absurd, and utterly delightful.

This review might be coming up shorter than others, because this movie is good enough that there isn't a lot to say that it can't say for itself. Call it a ripoff, call it a runnerup, it's good fun.

See previous installments on Message From Space and Inseminoid. But Dear Logos, do NOT see Inseminoid.

Monday, June 29, 2020

Unidentified Found Objects: The Immortal Arcade Prize Spaceships

I have already said plenty on this blog about "generic" toys, and the common theme has been how durable they are. On reflection, it is really a paradox. Some such toys appear and quickly fade away, while others go on literally for generations, With this post, I have finally reached an example I have literally spent most of my life tracking. This is a line of spaceships usually found as arcade prizes, capsule toys, and other rewards for kids, which has been added to and subtracted from but seemingly never allowed to die out. I have found examples in arcades, pizza joints and on the ground, in elementary school, in middle school, in college and beyond. Here are shots of what I consider the "core" group:
The first of the lot that I acquired is one on the far left of the top photo above, and different enough that I think it originated separately. I believe I picked up this one sometime in the late 1980s, though I have no specific recollection of getting it. It may have been a reward in school, or I might have gotten it in an arcade. It's most noteworthy for having a fairly definite scale, thanks to a visible seat, though that didn't stop me from assuming it was larger if the adventure involved a relatively large crew (typically a Galaxy Laser Team astronaut and a couple Rogun Robots). It is also fairly crude, to the point that most of the bottom is without detail. Here's a photo of it with some latter-day copies.

For the rest of the group, I began acquiring them in the early to mid 1990s, and I have no doubt they were around well before that. Their common origin is proven by a mark or logo that says "Rigo", presumably the name of a company which I personally have had no luck finding further information on. Here are closeups of three I picked up around 1994.

After acquiring these, I quickly gave them designations. I thought of the purple one simply as a cruiser, and assumed a similar role for the saucer. I thought of the triangular one as a bomber, which it really resembles more than a spacecraft, but made it serve as an exploration ship. From much later research, the saucer and bomber were based on another odd little line called Diener Space Raiders, which will get their own installment sooner or later. The group got mixed in with Star Wars Micro Machines, and I didn't give them a lot of further thought. Then, while I was finishing my undergrad degree in 2005, I ran across more in the prize bins of a pizza place, all made from a quite flexible transparent rubber material, and quickly won enough tickets to get the ones I knew I didn't have. Here's another view of the ones I acquired then.
I already introduced two of these three in my review of Message From Space, which I now know they were copied from directly enough to qualify as knockoffs. I immediately thought of them as a fighter, a troop transport, and either a bomber or another cruiser-scale ship. At the time, I suspected the middle ship was based on the drop ship from Aliens, while the horseshoe-shaped ship bore a fair resemblance to the Reliant from Wrath of Kahn. (Curiously, it also resembles a Lenticular Reentry Vehicle concept fielded in the 1960s.) Unfortunately, I did not consider picking up duplicates of the ones I had before, and can no longer remember for sure which ones were available. Here's more views of the horseshoe ship.

Fast forward further, and the ships were still with me. I made one more addition when I found the triangular bomber lying on the ground. However, I chose to carry it with me instead of stowing it with my collections, and soon found it broken. Then, around 2013, I started giving some thought to the possibilities of a "retro" science fiction project, and in the process learned a lot more about the toys I had lying around. Soon, I made a double score: I bought a reissue of Galaxy Laser Team, and I found that the prize ships could be bought in 144-count bags online from Rhode Island Novelty Co. The latter was, of course, the source of every ship I have not otherwise marked as vintage.

I have to say that finally having a set of ships that weren't won piecemeal was underwhelming. To begin with, the cruiser and the bomber were simply gone, while the ships that filled out the lot were ones I recognized as copies of other ships (including some more I will be getting to later). I also found the plastic different and in some ways inferior, though not in ways that easily show in photos. But this was more than made up for by having a large sample of consistent age and origin. I have spent plenty of time since then experimenting with ways to display the ships, and I still have ideas for working a few into  fiction. And the punchline is, anyone at all interested can still buy your own bag!

Having come this far, I can see this is all a bit meandering, and it still may feel like I'm leaving it incomplete. But it's the story of a phenomenon that has literally spanned decades, and I will certainly be telling more later. For now, I will post this as a series of snapshots, the same as any memory.

Another short link list, here's a page for Space Raiders at 2 Warps to Neptune, and a video on these and other "generic" ships from Space Trucks/ Steve Nyland.

Friday, June 26, 2020

Space 1979: The one where a starship crew is wiped out by a pregnant lady

Last time, I introduced this feature as an overview of "ripoffs" and runnerups of 1970s-1980s science fiction, and I'm following up with the movie that did more than any other to give me the idea. If one movie drew more knockoffs, ripoffs and less classifiable runnerups than Star Wars, it was Alien. The present selection is easily the most egregious example of them all, and in a further hallmark of the "runnerup", it was less like a direct imitation than an evil twin. Its title (not withstanding the poster) is Inseminoid, and the first clue we're in for a rough ride is that the title is... You know what, I'm not repeating it if I don't have to, even for a joke.

The story opens with a crew of space explorers landing on a planet to investigate the mysterious ruins of a vanished alien civilization. After a madness-inducing crystal triggers the deaths of two crew members in an impressively grisly opening sequence, a man and a woman named Sandy go back to the ruins without supervision. A mysterious figure suddenly attacks (and then disappears for the rest of the movie), leaving the man dead and Sandy traumatized by visions of a gruesome alien and a giant glass pipette of unpleasant fluids and solids. A doctor's examination reveals that she is pregnant with an unknown organism, and she soon becomes protective of her unborn offspring and homicidal toward the surviving crew. After the captain gives an offensively sensible order for everyone to remain locked in their quarters, the expedition members venture out to engage and contain the hostile and increasingly ravenous expectant mother before she can give birth. It will not be a spoiler to say things go downhill from there.

There are really just two things that make this movie of interest. First, the film makers credibly maintained the script was created months before Alien reached theatres, though various developments delayed its release until 1981. Second, for all the notoriety and debate, the two films really have very little in common outside of a shared pool of Freudian subtexts, which Inseminoid (funghh) turns into a giant neon sign.  It is worth further note that the level of gore is remarkably tame, even allowing for significant censorship, to the point that the movie might conceivably have been rated PG if not for certain scenes of nudity. Several of most bizarre and brutal moments are advertised by little more than the image of Sandy getting ready to chow down.

Something else I will mention is that this movie has been like a black hole in my memory. Usually, my ability to remember movies is like the world's worst super power, but this one has (probably mercifully) eluded me. I watched it, not for the first time, no more than a few months before I went through it again for this review, but still went in with fewer recollections than for movies I had seen on TV in the 1990s (ironically including The Black Hole). It has also escaped my usual preference for physical media. Purists will say that movies can only be appreciated in theatres, but I maintain Inseminoid was made to be viewed as a sketchy video streamed on an outdated laptop

With all that out of the way, there isn't much left to be said of the actual movie. Its individual parts are generally unremarkable and still in many ways better than the whole. Early exposition about the alien culture is particularly tone deaf, with a quite common mythological theme being mentioned dramatically just to foreshadow it as a plot point. Once Sandy's rampage starts, most of the characters quickly prove cowardly as well as incompetent. The one well-executed sequence has her facing off with a male crewmate in a spacesuit, who trying to evade her by retreating out an air lock. Naturally, she adapts to the alien atmosphere, and the following rout is the most violent (and explicitly sexualized) of her assaults. The inevitable birth scene follows shortly after, and it is effective enough to be painful to watch and hear. Unfortunately, the plot becomes even more predictable with the alien progeny in play, down to the arrival of a rescue party to clean up the scene.

Then there is one more thing that has really kept this particular movie in my mind. Fast forward to 2013, Ripley Scott makes Prometheus. In itself, it was an unremarkable if especially convoluted prequel, which I personally didn't even bother to watch when I bought it as part of a DVD multipack. But when I did get to it, my first and foremost thought was that it had more story points in common with Inseminoid than either ever did with Alien. Here, we see ruins of a civilization instead of a derelict ship, a scientific expedition rather than passing space truckers, and an explicit impregnation of a woman as opposed to a man. Then it all builds to my foremost piece of evidence, the "birth" of the trilobite-creature by a frantic C-section. This is the full circle of pop culture, when a prequel to a good movie comes closer to remaking a bad one.

Wednesday, June 24, 2020

Unidentified Found Objects: The Spiff Ship!

It's time for another feature, and this is another one I've had backlogged for a very long time. This time I will be covering another breed of space toy, the "generic" space ship. They might be too small for action figures or even army men, but they could still get the heroic space explorer to his destination, and whatever mysteries the hero discovered would never be as great as that of where they came from. These are the toys that I personally held onto longest, and this is the tale of the one that got away.

My first sighting of this item probably happened sometime in 1988. The real backstory is that I was an utterly devoted and obsessive fan of Calvin And Hobbes. I especially loved the brief (and usually grim) adventures of Spaceman Spiff, which I now know to be older than Calvin himself. I got to thinking that I wanted a toy like Spaceman Spiff's ship. Then, one day at school, on a prize table my teachers set up, I saw a toy that looked exactly like the ship. It turned out to be a friction toy, the kind with a little motor that made it zip along if you pulled it back. I had to save up for it, but they set it aside for me, allowing me to get fixated on it well before I could play with it. I finally took it home, and I'm sure I played with it plenty, in part because I recall a time when I wanted to take it to the pool. My solution was to take out the motor, which didn't seem difficult at the time. Of course, some time after that, the toy disappeared, but I remembered.

Fast forward to the age of the internet, and I spent well over a decade searching here and there, now and then, for something like my ship. I found plenty of toys like it, mainly much older "tin toys" that I am now sure must have inspired the comic strip spaceship. I picked up a reissue model kit that I discovered was used in Plan 9 From Outer Space. I even found a model kit for the Calvin And Hobbes ship, but that wasn't my style. But then, in one of my recent online auction binges, I found the two items shown above, one from the US and one from a seller in the UK, and ended up getting both of them. Here's pics of the first one to arrive. 

On receiving this item, I very quickly decided to remove it from its package and remove the oversized, peeling sticker, because I certainly wasn't going to sell the toy and they literally disgusted me. On examination, I discovered it had a sparking mechanism, something I have no recollection of on my old toy. That proved to work, though the motor won't move it an inch. I had no trouble believing a kid could remove the motor with bare hands, in part because a piece of a wheel housing was rattling around inside the toy when I took it out of the package. There were enough things I didn't remember that, especially the patterning on the top surface, I might still convince myself that the toy I had was a copy or imitation. However, the only things I remember being different were that the missiles and engines were white instead of clear orange and that the sticker was much smaller with some kind of number, and the second one (received just a few days before this writing) had both.

Meanwhile, I found out enough about the toy for it to feel anticlimactic. It was made by a company named Blue Box, whose products appear to have been sold mainly in the UK and/or Europe, as part of a series that also included alleged tie ins to the show Blake's Seven. All known copyright dates are from 1978, though it is suggested at least some were made earlier and they were made and sold well into the 1980s. The one I opened was sold in the US with the name and logo Zee Toys, but the only markings on the toy itself are from Blue Box. The US card had a printed back that showed more toys, also identical to Blue Box offerings. Here's a pic of the other side:
As for availability today, anyone who doesn't remember playing with one of these things probably isn't going to pay what it takes to get one. In my own searching, I found exactly one other one on sale loose, which ironically would have cost more than either of those I bought on card, especially after shipping.  Given how flimsy they have already proven, this might easily reflect the realities of preservation. If you're a Calvin and Hobbes fan, you can better honor the strip by getting one of the vintage tin toys.

As for me, this has been my holy grail, and I still don't know how I feel about finally finding it. The one I just received is certainly staying as it is, as the card is far to charming for even me to damage, though it might or might not stay with me. The other will be staying on my desk, as another reminder of where I've been and where I've come.

For the links, most the ones I can offer are going to a blog called Moonbase Central, particularly posts covering the Blake's Seven tie in and an HP friction toy of similar design. I have chosen not to link to certain pages for models based directly on Calvin and Hobbes/ Spaceman Spiff, which are certainly out there. You can check out this video from Space Trucks/ Steve Nyland about what I believe to be a version of the Blake's Seven ship design, by his report released somewhat earlier.

See also my last post reviewing Message From Space, which includes a preview of material to come in this feature.

Monday, June 22, 2020

Space 1979: The one where Star Wars got ripped off by the culture Star Wars ripped off

It's time for something different on this blog, enough so that I shelved another post in progress to make room for it. This time, we'll be looking at movies, and not just any movies, but what I will term the "runner up", the films so similar to a higher-budget and more profitable one that most rightly or wrongly accused it of being a ripoff. More specifically, we will be looking at the bumper crop of such entries that plagued the science fiction/ fantasy genre in the late 1970s and 1980s, when the landscape was reshaped not only by Star Wars but the likes of Logan's Run, Alien, E.T and Conan the Barbarian. The most definitive feature of these nominal "ripoffs" is that they are as self-dating as their betters are timeless, to the point that an entirely disinterested observer might assume that they were the older of the two. No offender is more egregious in this and any other respect than the present offering, Message From Space.

For the purposes of this feature, I plan to keep commentary on actual plot and story to a minimum, and for this one, that approach is in all likelihood the only way to keep a review manageable, comprehensible or remotely sand. Very briefly, the opening finds a race conquered by an evil interstellar empire, with their very planet turned into a giant war machine. They use their arts to send eight seeds into space to summon heroes to avenge them, while the mobile planet hurtles toward Earth. The space seeds find their way to an impressive assortment of misfits, including an unbelievably irritating pair of rocket drag racers, an even dumber but mildly entertaining young heiress trying to become a daredevil, and a general who has resigned his commission after giving a military funeral to a robot. After more hijinks, quarrels, betrayals and space chase/ battle sequences than anyone could keep track of, the surviving heroes go on a daring mission to rescue the remaining natives and fly inside the empire's base to destroy it from within.

The most interesting thing about this film is that it was made in 1978, among the very earliest Star Wars ripoffs/ knockoffs, close enough that the film makers could have gotten a benefit of a doubt if they had laid claim to an earlier origin of the project. It also copies other Japanese films as egregiously as it does Star Wars, which from what is now known about Lucas's influences makes it feel less like a ripoff than a rebuttal. On this vein, the movie allows a grim tone that was largely suppressed from the original trilogy, complete with several kamikaze-style attacks. The dark overtones are heaviest with the character arc of the general, played by Vic Morrow, who manages to get convincing weariness out of a performance that could just as well be that of an actor wishing he could have gotten any other role. His high point is surely a completely surreal duel with a minion of the emperor, played out with a disconcerting combination of pathos, tension and possibly intentional humor.

But the one thing no discussion can avoid is the spaceship effect sequences, and the strangest part is how anachronistic they are. On one hand, the concepts and execution repeatedly prove more ambitious than the original Star Wars, to the point that they seem instead to anticipate the sequels then unmade, particularly the asteroid-belt chase in Empire and the flight into the Death Star core in Return of the Jedi. On the other, the feel and grain of the effects footage is so strangely dated that it literally looks like it could have been shot in the 1960s.

The high point by any standard is the aforementioned finale, in which the hot rodders race a trio of enemy fighters through a maze of tunnels leading to the main reactor (er, "furnace") of the empire's battle planet. The enclosed spaces are convincingly claustrophobic, while the opposition is reasonably competent. As a bonus, the villains prove to have had the foresight to put in several doors to block the tunnel, leading to a quite clever three-way showdown between the heroes, a final fighter and a lowering door. Of course, it all ends with a series of explosions that destroy the enemy base, with a final touch of melodrama as the last of its original inhabitants race to escape.

Ironically, the one thing where this movie inarguably matched Star Wars was in selling toys. A number of toys and models were released in Japan, which now sell for preposterous amounts when they turn up in US markets. The most elaborate found its way to the west as an especially incongruous entry in the Shogun Warriors line, consisting of the Millennium Falcon Liabe and two detachable hotrod ships. In a final twist, versions of the Liabe and one of the hotrods found their way into an immortal line of arcade-prize toys currently sold by Rhode Island Novelty Co. I had an assortment of these ships for ages before I realized what they were based on a chance sighting of a pic of one of the Japanese originals, ultimately a major reason I looked up the movie. Here's a pic of the pair, which should be covered in far more detail sooner or later.

If all of this sounds like an attempt to put the film in the most favorable light possible, it's because the final verdict remains unavoidable: Even with the most generous allowances for a movie made in another time and a very different culture, this movie is simply and absolutely terrible, and the nails in its coffin are not the inferior effects but the convoluted story, mostly unlikable characters and especially the unspeakable leading actors (apart from Morrow, who can barely be counted based on screen time). Yet, it has enough energy to be entertaining at first viewing, and creative enough to remain intriguing on further review. There are by all means better "runner ups" to Star Wars, including several I will certainly get to, but no this is the one that is essential for any overview. Not that you have to look forward to it.

For links, here's my own most direct introduction to the film, a review video by Cinemassacre's Mike Matei.