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War of the Planets

Reviewed By David Cornelius
Posted 11/14/05 15:44:40

"There's awful, there's gawdawful, and then there's 'War of the Planets.'"
1 stars (Sucks)

2005 has turned out to be a banner year for Bad Movies. In addition to the handful of worse-than-usual theatrical releases we’ve been handed lately, we’ve also seen a parade of worse-than-usual direct-to-video junk. Let’s put it this way: when a movie that has Jerry Springer as the President of the United States is one of your better direct-to-video titles, something’s gone horribly wrong.

Add to this list “War of the Planets,” a homemade schlocker from director/producer/writer/actor/composer/photographer/etc. Mike Conway. The film was produced for a light $27,000 in 2003 under the title “Terrarium;” it sat, like most no-budget films do, in indie limbo for years, with Conway retooling the editing and the special effects, until Lions Gate picked it up this year to be a cheap video quickie, rechristening the work with a more familiar-sounding, more sellable title.

Consider this: Conway thought naming his sci-fi thriller “Terrarium” was a great idea. And sadly, it remains one of his better ones. Ouch.

The film ultimately is a throwback to those wonderful 1950s, where any schmuck with a camera and a few grand could slap together a genre film to sell to the drive-in crowd. These days, when so many B pictures are modestly budgeted and suffer only from their own ridiculousness (or, at least, the casting of Armand Assante), it’s refreshing to see a film reach beyond generic suckiness and dive head-first into complete ineptitude. Pay attention, class, for this is as bad as they come.

The first chunk of the movie - just a few minutes, but it feels like a flippin’ eternity - provides the backstory of a fifteen year mission into deep space, where an Earth-like planet has been discovered, ready for colonization. We meet our heroes, a collection of second-string community theater players and friends-of-the-director making their acting debut; this may not seem like a big deal, considering how many other homemade productions use amateurs, but once you slowly realize that this film has been designed to be actor-centric, you’ll understand why these early scenes are a warning, a flashing neon sign reading “Abandon Hope, All Ye Who Enter Here.”

A seemingly endless series of I-can’t-believe-they-thought-they-could-get-away-with-this special effects shots later (seriously, the CGI is something an eighth grader would whip up on his home computer), we finally get to the story proper. It seems the spaceship has crashed on the distant planet, and the astronauts awaken from their cryo-sleep to find one shipmate dead, and what appears to be the de-helmeted version of Ro-Man from “Robot Monster” stalking their ship.

Let me repeat. “War of the Planets” features, as its alien monster, a dude in a gorilla suit.

Wow.

Anyway. I want to praise Conway here for doing one thing right. In these early scenes, he realizes that fifteen years of suspended animation would leave the astronauts’ bodies atrophied; as such, for the first half hour of the film, the cast remains essentially trapped by their own selves, unable to escape or fight back. It’s rare that a film of this scale would get its science right, and the idea of a filmmaker using such a gimmick to create claustrophobic terror is commendable.

Or, at least, it would be, if Conway had any storytelling skills. Which he does not. For yet another flippin’ eternity, we’re stuck watching this collection of overactors and underactors spew laughable dialogue and, in between the Space Gorilla attacks, wax philosophic about what personal demons drove them to volunteer for a mission that would separate them from their homes for possibly the rest of their lives. To see a mediocre actor bungle his way through an attempt at heartfelt emotion over the memory of his kidnapped daughter is one thing; to follow it with screams of “Leave him alone, Sasquatch! Come and get me, you hairy bastard!!” is something else entirely.

Mercifully, our valiant heroes manage to escape their cryo-chambers, elude Ro-Man, and work their way outside… where they discover that their ship has been encased in glass, and aliens (which, by the way, look even more ridiculous than the Pajama People from “Signs,” if such a thing were possible) are apparently studying them like creatures in a zoo. Hence, the original, horrible title.

Of course, it only gets sillier and sillier, the plot becoming increasingly nonsensical, the acting increasingly embarrassing (do check out Timothy S. Daley’s portrayal of the rugged captain - his stumbling non-responses to every emotional situation are Bad Movie nirvana). Oh, and there’s an infinite supply of Casio-quality synthesizer music for you, too.

Conway eventually writes himself into a corner with this one - with no way back to Earth, no help possibly coming, and a planet full of hostile Pajama People and Space Gorillas out there, how could this story possibly resolve itself? After spending 82 minutes with this effort, one’s only hope is, obviously, for a slow, violent death to all the major characters, but no, we don’t even get that. What we get instead is perhaps the least satisfying of all possible outcomes, saved only by the fact that the last line of the film is delivered in such a ham-fisted way that it’s impossible not to leave this film giggling. Well, I guess has some redeeming qualities after all.

It’s movies like this that make me wish that “Mystery Science Theater 3000” was still on the air. Oh, what Mike and the Bots could have done with a junker like this. This is 82 minutes of utter lousiness, delivered right to your television set. Either avoid like the plague, or rent it immediately, depending on what kind of evening you prefer.

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