Tuesday, 28 May 2013

Buck Rogers in the 25th Century (1979)

Although Buck Rogers in the 25th Century served as the pilot episode of the TV series of the same name it was in fact released theatrically some time before the series started to air. Producer Glen A. Larson had been responsible for the 1970s Battlestar Galactica series which had also been kicked off by a theatrical release of the pilot episode.

The Buck Rogers character had originally surfaced in the 1920s in Philip Francis Nolan’s novel Armageddon 2419 AD. The novel spawned both a comic strip and a 1939 movie serial as well as an early 50s TV series. In the 1970s George Lucas hoped to make a movie based on either the Buck Rogers or Flash Gordon serials but was unable to secure the rights for either. So he went away and wrote his very own space opera, Star Wars (which you may have heard of). Which is rather ironic, given that the Buck Rogers movie that did eventually get made, this one I’m reviewing at the moment, ended up being an awesomely shameless Star Wars rip-off.

This movie has little in common with any of the earlier incarnations of Buck Rogers apart from the basic idea of a 20th century American who gets accidently deep-frozen and wakes up 500 years later. In this case Buck (played by Gil Gerard) is a 1980s US astronaut. How he became deep-frozen is never properly explained but when he does awake he finds himself on board a gigantic starship. This is puzzling but he starts to get really worried when he discovers that this starship does not come from Earth. He gets really really worried when he realises he isn’t dreaming and this is actually happening.

The ship is from the Draconian Empire and is under the command of the Princess Ardala (Pamela Hensley). Whether the princess is really the effective commander or whether Kane (Henry Silva) is the actual commander is somewhat uncertain. The princess is on her way to Earth where she is to sign a trade agreement with the Earth government. The intentions of the princess and of Kane are however not as peaceful as they seem.

The Draconians release Buck but they hope to use him as an unwitting spy. When he gets to Earth he finds that the 25th century is very different from the world Buck remembers. A nuclear war in the 1990s almost destroyed the planet and the survivors now take their orders from a council of all-wise and benevolent computers.

The Earth is protected by a mysterious shield that is never explained, and by fighter spaceships under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel Wilma Deering (Erin Gray). Lt-Col Deering is not sure whether Buck is on the level or whether he is a Draconian spy.  After being convicted of espionage he is offered the chance to prove that his story is true. He needs to do more than that though - he needs to convince the Earth leaders that they are about to be invaded, and of course he has to single-handedly try to save the Earth. And on top of that he naturally needs to win the heart of Lt-Col Deering.

Gil Gerard is passable in the lead role. Erin Gray is similarly adequate as Wilma Deering (oddly enough Buck’s love interest in the 1939 serial was also named Wilma Deering). Henry Silva fails to generate much excitement as the conniving Kane (a name also re-used from the serial). The only member of the cast who really impresses is Pamela Hensley who vamps it up as the dangerous but beautiful Princess Ardala.

The special effects are quite good for the era bearing in mind that this movie was originally intended for television so it doesn’t have the kind of budget that a Hollywood blockbuster would have had. Director Daniel Haller learnt his stuff working for Roger Corman and does a competent job although the movie does feel slightly padded out. The debt to Star Wars is painfully apparent, with a mother ship that tries to look like Darth Vader’s Deathstar and spaceship fighter sequences that are pure Star Wars rip-offs.

The real problem is the script by Glen A. Larson and Leslie Stevens which makes use of some of the most irritating clichés of 1970s sci-fi. Especially irritating is the whole OMG A Nuclear War Is Going To Kill Us All nonsense, which also has the effect of dating the movie rather badly. It even has the tiresome post-nuclear apocalypse mutants running about stuff. There’s too much dreary sermonising. At one point Buck assures one of the 25th century people, “Don’t worry, my generation didn’t know what it was doing either.” In fact of course Buck’s generation was about to bring the Cold War to a successful conclusion and eliminate the threat of nuclear Armageddon.

Once the action starts about midway through the preaching mercifully stops and things get moderately entertaining.

The script does include a few amusing one-liners but unfortunately the comic relief, provided by a loveable robot you will learn to loathe, falls very flat. There’s also a cringe-inducing scene where Buck introduces the 25th century to disco dancing. The 25th century people could console themselves that even if they had to live in a devastated world they had at least been spared disco dancing up to that point.

The Region 4 DVD is included in the TV series boxed set. It is in the correct 1.33:1 aspect ratio (since it was originally intended for television). Picture quality is acceptable if not startling.

Buck Rogers in the 25th Century isn’t quite camp enough to be as enjoyable as the 1980 Flash Gordon movie, but as blatant Star Wars clones go it’s mildly enjoyable. Possibly worth a rental if you’re in the mood.

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