Wednesday, July 22, 2020

Space 1979: The one with a mass shooting with a laser gun

Title: Laserblast
What Year?: 1978
Classification: Ripoff/ Parody/ Evil Twin
Rating: Dear God WHY???

One of my influences in conceiving this series is a strange memoir by MST3K star and editor Frank Conniff, briefly titled 25 Mystery Science Theater 3000 Films. He recounts that his most common question about his work for the show is whether there are movies too bad even for the show's purposes. I won't try to repeat his answer, but I thought of it when I watched the present specimen, because this is the first one that I was tempted to disqualify simply for being too horrible to be of interest. But here it is anyway, because it makes me that mad.

Our story starts with two alien spaceships landing on Earth. One is occupied by a humanoid that looks like a cross between a zombie and a caveman with a weapon that seems attached to his arm, the other  by two tortoise-like alien bounty hunter types. The first alien's weapon clearly doesn't do much good, as he is quickly incinerated by his pursuers. Fatefully, the enforcers don't bother to pick up the clearly visible weapon. We are then introduced to our "hero" Billy, a young man with a beautiful girlfriend and a physique he shows off by walking around with his shirt open who still gets picked on by everyone including two idiot cops and an old man. He discovers the weapon on a trip to the desert and begins to experiment. Soon, his appearance changes, while his own rage builds up, and he begins using the weapon to take out those who have wronged or annoyed him. It all builds up to a completely predictable rampage through the town and the "tragic" ending.

Laserblast was a relatively early production by Charles Band, the 1980s answer to Roger Corman; of course, he will be turning up here again, though not as frequently as those already familiar with him might guess. Per the lore (aka Wikipedia), Band conceived the film as a "mini Star Wars", and made sure to make plenty of references to that film both in the script and the movie's advertising. He assembled what would become his regular crew, including stop-motion master (or at least sorcerer's apprentice) David Allen. The film went on to notoriety as a cult film, including being featured in Mystery Science Theater 3000.

As usual, I personally saw this film well before this review, but looked it up again for a better assessment. I genuinely didn't remember it well enough to judge it in advance, which anyone following these reviews should now recognize as a very bad sign. After critical viewing, I seriously considered writing off this one, and put off writing a review much longer than any other film so far. I suppose I might still have discarded it, if not for the problem of where it would fit in the classifications I have set up. In almost all accounts, it is simply counted as a Star Wars ripoff/ knockoff, and this time, I resisted that label mainly because I find that to be almost giving the film too much credit. What finally convinced me was the film's outrageous trailers and advertising. Even then, the usual impression that Laserblast imitated Star Wars remains quite misleading. On the contrary, the real "ripoff" is that considered on its own, the actual film has almost nothing to do with Star Wars at all.

That brings us to the movie's real problems. First, it is incredibly boring, and that coming from me is like Quentin Tarantino saying a film is too violent. So far, only two films have rated this low, Inseminoid and Zardoz, and dull is the one thing they certainly were not. I love world-building enough that I could have put up with a training video from the alien bounty hunters' academy. (From what we see, they could have flunked out of the same school the ones in Critters went to.) But most of the movie is scene after scene of nothing remotely interesting happening. This accentuates the second and far deeper problem, which is that almost none of the characters have any redeeming qualities whatsoever. Billy in particular seems like a creep in his best moments; even when he is beaten up for trying to protect his girlfriend, he registers as only slightly mopier than usual. This shows even more with the bullies, who seem driven less by madness, greed or sadism than by low-grade indifference to anyone but themselves.

As for the "one scene", the best I can offer is a moment of inspired lunacy when Billy wanders along a road, already partly transformed. The weapon he carries looks something like a cross between a Lewis gun and a vacuum cleaner. As previously mentioned, it appears attached due to a tube that covers the user's arm (shades of Videodrome??), but most of the time, Billy appears able to take it off at will. The strange appliance/ appendage doesn't stop a guy in a VW Bus from stopping and offering him a ride with absolutely no question or comment. Soon after, Billy opens fire again, notably destroying a Star Wars billboard. The good Samaritan, whom we can safely assume is supposed to be stoned on either the good or very bad stuff, merely says, "Far out!" Of course, the driver is next, and a distance shot shows that the door goes with him. How Billy survives after that isn't entirely clear, and I certainly don't care enough to try and figure it out.

In closing, I will return to the problem of classification. In my opinion, what this film really is is a parody of Star Wars, and I use that in part in the most traditional sense,: The imitation of a thing for the specific purpose of mocking it. It does that just well enough to qualify as an Evil Twin. Star Wars gave us a universe where the heroes were unquestioning idealists and villains scarcely needed a motivation beyond being evil for its own sake. Laserblast gave us a world so dull and cynical that a loner shooting up the town with a ray gun is barely ahead of the curve. The most unfortunate part is that if this was done well (especially to the standards of Band's later productions), we could have had a minor masterpiece to add to the impressive ranks of dystopian fiction that followed. Instead, we got a movie that looks and feels as lazily mean as the characters who populate it, and that truly makes it a work without any justification to exist.

For links, I rate highly a video by That Junkman analyzing the Laserblast trailer. As usual, see the Introduction for details of my rating scale and classification system.

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