Friday, May 7, 2010

Hangar 18 (Sunn International, 1980)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Charles and I ended the evening watching a Mystery Science Theatre 3000 presentation of a 1980 film called Hangar 18, which turned out to be a not-bad movie rendered suitable MST3K fare less from problems with the basic concept than an ultra-low budget and faulty execution. It starts out on the space shuttle (which an trivia commentator noted had not actually flown yet when the movie was made); two astronauts, Steve Bancroft (Gary Collins) and Lew Price (James Hampton), are flying the craft and a third, Col. Judd Gates (J. R. Clark), is outside in the cargo bay (“Look! They’ve got the top open!” joked one of the MST3K’ers) fiddling with the satellite and trying to get it to launch on cue. Then Bancroft and Price see a bunch of triangle-shaped blips on their radar and conclude they’re being stalked by a UFO — and when the satellite is supposed to launch it blows up instead and Gates is killed (his body floats in space — with the helmet of his space suit blown off just so we know he’s dead — in what’s obviously director James L. Conway’s rip-off of Stanley Kubrick’s famous shot of the death of Frank Poole in 2001: A Space Odyssey).

The UFO lands in Bannon County, Arizona (leading Charles and I to make the almost too obvious jokes about “aliens” in Arizona these days!) and on orders of the piece’s principal villain, Presidential assistant Gordon Cain (Robert Vaughn, who proves as effective as a villain as he was as a hero on the Man from U.N.C.L.E. TV series), is shipped to Hangar 18, a “lunar receiving station” (“just in case the moon ever lands on earth,” I joked, though it obviously meant the place the astronauts who went to the moon — you remember — ended up after their flights landed), where it can be investigated and its existence kept secret for the two weeks remaining to the Presidential election. This is important because the incumbent, Duncan Tyler (when the last name appeared on the soundtrack Charles joked, “John Tyler had a space program?” — and I said, “Yes, but he was so unpopular it was hushed up”), had publicly ridiculed his major-party opponent for believing in UFO’s, and therefore if he had to admit that one had actually landed it would have been devastating to Tyler’s re-election campaign.

So the government puts out a story blaming Bancroft and Price for the loss of Gates and the satellite, and Bancroft and Price set out to find the truth — which essentially turns this story into a sort of interstellar version of The Fugitive, with the two astronauts racing to put together the clues faster than Cain’s agents can destroy them — which leads to the deaths of several people, including two of Cain’s men (they try to run Bancroft and Price off the road — which shouldn’t have been that difficult since they had a shiny new Lincoln Continental while the astronauts were driving a grungy old rented pickup they’d obtained from a typically stereotyped rustic “character” — but the astronauts outsmarted them and ran them off a bridge instead) and, ultimately, Price. The scenes with the astronauts on the run looking for the one-armed man — oops, I mean the UFO — are intercut with sequences showing scientists and other intellectual types hanging out at Hangar 18 trying to figure out how the UFO worked and what happened to the people flying it — who conveniently died from an accidental release of poisonous gases from the shock of the impact when their ship landed — but doctors doing autopsies found out that except for having only four fingers on each hand they’re otherwise biologically identical to humans.

It turns out that this planet had sent spaceships to the Earth before — which is established by their alphabet, which is identical to letters found on Native American carvings — and, in a plot twist obviously cribbed from Erich von Däniken’s book Chariots of the Gods? (the film version of which was distributed by the same studio that made Hangar 18, Sunn International, in 1974, six years before Hangar 18 was made), it’s established that the aliens once established a colony on earth and used the indigenous primates as slaves, mating with the earth females and thereby breeding a new race that jump-started human evolution. Meanwhile, back at the White House, Gordon Cain (ya remember Gordon Cain?) decides to eliminate his boss’s UFO problem once and for all by outfitting a private plane with a bomb and destroying Hangar 18 and all its contents while passing it off as a routine aviation accident, but Bancroft and the scientists studying the UFO are saved because they’re in it at the time and it’s built to withstand an attack from human explosives — so the cover-up is blown and presumably Duncan Tyler gets his ass handed to him at the ballot box (just as the real President Tyler ended his unhappy tenure with almost no political support).

Hangar 18 isn’t that bad a movie — it’s cheap and its awfully slow (for something that’s supposed to be an edge-of-your-seat suspense thriller, it moves awfully slowly under the leaden hand of director Conway, who also co-wrote the “original” story with Thomas C. Chapman, though three other scribes — Steven Thornley, Stephen Lord and an uncredited David O’Malley — turned it into a script) but the central premise is compelling and it’s the sort of bad movie that could have been good with more money and, perhaps more importantly, more care. The MST3K version came from early in the show’s run when it was just a local program on a Minneapolis station — it was basically a way some people working there figured out to turn their library of lemon movies into lemonade by mocking them on the air — and it was a fun show, though both the appearance of the robots (this early they still looked like they’d been built with an Erector set, which maybe they had been!) and the quality of the crew’s jokes improved over time — and they did redo some of the movies they’d mocked earlier when they were on Comedy Central and had a slightly slicker production and were doing better writing.