Cheesy movies are a special joy. Despite an earnest attempt to create compelling stories, filmmakers often miss the mark. Some movies turn out simply mediocre. Others become entertaining in spite of their flaws or authorial intent. They become cheesy. In Your Weekend Cheesy Movie, we’ll examine some of these misguided efforts for what they fail at achieving and what they manage to do right.
This week: Buck Rogers in the 25th Century
Universal Pictures had a reputation for cheapness for much of its existence. Today, they produce $250 million dinosaur movies. But once upon a time, they were the home of cheapy westerns before there was even a market for programmers. When the company was bought by MCA in 1962, it turned toward television; which, until recently, was also considered cheap entertainment. Ever clever, MCA Universal had a habit of repackaging its TV movies and 2-hour TV pilots as features. Steven Spielberg’s early effort Duel emerged from this scheme, as did this week’s cheesy movie, Buck Rogers in the 25th Century. It also illustrates how much can change in eight years. Movies like Duel happened before Star Wars.
The plot concerns Captain William “Buck” Rogers, pilot of “the last of American’s deep space probes.” In the far-off year of 1987, Rogers and his spacecraft are knocked off their orbit. He is quickly frozen as the ship now finds itself stuck on a course which will bring back to earth 500 years later.
When the ship finally re-enters the Solar System, it is encountered by Ardala, the princess of the Draconian Empire — an apparently alien species with antagonist designs upon the Earth. They briefly wake Buck up, but when he refuses Ardala’s advances, they knock him back out. Determining that they can use his ship to scan the Earth’s defense shield, they send it on its way with a tracker. It’s quickly intercepted by Earth forces and examined. So is Buck.
He soon learns the awful truth: everyone he knew or loved has been dead for at least 450 years. In the time since his departure, the planet was ravaged by nuclear war and ecological disaster with New Chicago being one of the few cities left functioning; thanks in part to its council of sentient computers. Buck is assigned to a computer called Dr. Theopolis, who attempts to determine if Buck has any memories of his encounter with the Draconians. He also meets Earth Directorate Secretary Dr. Huer and Colonel Wilma Deering of the space defense forces.
Buck’s recollections of the Draconian ship suggests they are armed despite the terms of an upcoming conference with Earth. At an official function, he attempts to learn the truth by wooing Ardala. Wanting “a real man,” she invites him aboard the ship where he discovers the Draconian invasion plan: they were staging pirate raids on Earth supply lines to force the planet into accepting Draconian protection and, eventually, rule.
And if the plot sounds like a Buck Rogers serial from the 1940s, that’s sort of the charm. While clearly influenced by Star Wars, the pilot film definitely honors the sci-fi serials which inspired Star Wars in the first place. The big differences here are the space ship effects and the sense of disco permeating every moment of Buck Rogers in the 25th Century.
The sets, some salvaged from the earlier Battlestar Galactica, tend toward the mustards and browns popular at the time. Ardala’s costumes would be quite at home at a trendy dance club. The music of composer Stu Philips also cannot help but follow the trends of the late 1970s, which may be the film’s true charm: its unapologetically of its time. And it is cheesy as hell.
Making it palatable is the performance of Gil Gerard as the timelost Buck. He’s a great TV lead with some of movie serial style chops. He also attempts to convey some of Buck’s loss when confronted by his parents’ graves in the old part of Chicago. His ability to find comedy with disembodied computer voices and Felix Silla, who plays Dr. Theopolis’s carrier robot Twiki, is one of the best things about the whole film.
Oh, but Dr. Theopolis brings us to the most fascinating idea in the film: the computer council! Creator Glen A. Larson had a fascination with computers and robots. They were the villains on Galactica, but here, they are the saviors of humanity. And just as Galactica‘s Lucifer was played with a certain grace provided by Roddy McDowell, the computer council of Buck Rogers come off as though they spent the last 500 years hosting Queer Eye. The movie never really acknowledges it, but the performances of Theopolis (Howard F. Flynn) and the other computers during Buck’s inquisition suggest Larson believed this was the way artificial intelligence would develop. He would continue this trend on Knight Rider.
It all adds up to a deliciously 1970s concept of the distant future. Despite the apparent devastation across the Earth, there is still time to do the hustle. Which makes Buck Rogers in the 25th Century more of a fondue in the annals of cheesy movies.
Buck Rogers in the 25th Century is available in the Buck Rogers in the 25th Century: Season 1box set.