Monday, 19 May 2014

Hangar 18 (1980)

Hangar 18 is an odd mix of genres being both a science fiction first contact movie and a paranoia/conspiracy theory thriller. It’s a low-budget production with a fairly high cheese factor but it’s fun if you don’t think too much about the plot. Actually it’s possibly even more fun if you do think about the outrageous plot holes.

An American space shuttle is about to launch a satellite when a strange object suddenly appears. The object collides with the satellite, killing one of the shuttle astronauts, and later crash lands. The UFO, for that is what the object was, is taken to the top-secret defence facility at Hangar 18 for investigation.

Encounters with alien spacecraft being fairly important matters the White House is naturally contacted. That’s where the problems start. The message doesn’t get to the President but it does get to the White House chief of staff, Gordon Cain (Robert Vaughn in nasty slimy bad guy mode). The presidential election is just two weeks away, the president seems set for an easy victory, and the last thing Gordon Cain needs at this stage is aliens appearing on the scene. You see the president had had a lot of fun mocking an electoral rival who had claimed to see a UFO and if he now announces that the Air Force has captured a real live UFO those earlier jibes would backfire in a very embarrassing manner. So Cain decides that until the election is safely out of the way the whole matter must be kept very much under wraps.

It would all have worked out pretty well for Cain except for one really dumb mistake. Instead of taking the two surviving astronauts into their confidence and explaining the need for secrecy in the short term Cain and his fellow conspirators tell the astronauts nothing but instead leak a story to the press blaming them for the loss of the satellite and the death of their fellow-astronaut. That naturally makes astronauts Steve Bancroft (Gary Collins) and Lew Price (Steve Hampton) both very annoyed and very curious. Bancroft and Price immediately start digging around for information on what really happened.

An even dumber decision is not to tell NASA Deputy Director Harry Forbes (Darren McGavin), who has been put in charge of the investigation of the alien spaceship, about the treatment of the two astronauts. When he finds out, which of course he will, he’s going to be very annoyed as well and the one sure way to blow the whole conspiracy sky-high is to get someone high-profile and important like Harry Forbes offside.

While the two astronauts are busily looking for clues about their UFO encounter the investigations in Hangar 18 are producing some disturbing results. What they learn about the aliens will upset everything that is known about human evolution and human history. More disturbing are the implications for the future of the human species.

The two plot strands come together at the end with a couple of dark twists.

This was the late 1970s, the golden age of conspiracy theories, and the plot goes all-out on the paranoia angle. This is where the plot, fairly shaky to begin with, goes off the rails in a big way. Astronauts were pretty high-profile people in those days and it’s a bit of a stretch to believe that even the most cynical of conspirators would have CIA agents running about the countryside trying to kill astronauts, especially in the clumsy and very public manner in which said agents go about the job in this movie.

The Hangar 18 plot strand also gets a bit silly at around this point with some distressingly Chariots of the Gods kind of ideas starting to get thrown around.

This was a fairly low-budget movie and the special effects reflect this. That could have been a major problem but if you’re prepared to view this movie as rather silly fun (and that’s really the only sane way to view it) then it arguably adds to the fun.

The movie gets away with a good deal of silliness thanks to the performances. Robert Vaughn keeps his scenery-chewing tendencies in check and as a result he comes across as a fairly convincingly chilling villain. What makes Gordon Cain more interesting is that he’s not so much evil as too clever for his own good and desperate, and his desperation to secure the President’s re-election leads him to set events in train that will rapidly spiral out of his control.

Darren McGavin plays Harry Forbes as a slightly up-market version of Carl Kolchak, with the same mix of frenetic energy, sincerity and obsessiveness. Against the odds McGavin’s performance just about saves the movie. Whatever McGavin may have thought of the script he gives the impression he believes in it and he gives it everything he’s got.

The Olive Films DVD is what you expect from this company, a pretty decent 16x9 enhanced transfer with no extras at all.

Hangar 18 can’t be taken too seriously, in fact if you’re unwise enough to stop and think about it it can’t be taken seriously at all, but approached purely as a fun movie it’s actually pretty enjoyable. With those reservations in mind, and with tin-foil hat firmly in place, Hangar 18 can be recommended as pure popcorn movie entertainment. 

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