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. And yet others thrive on a tone not easily marketed in Hollywood. They become cheesy. In Your Weekend Cheesy Movie, we’ll examine some of these films for what they get wrong — when they get it wrong — and what they right do in spite of the wishes of the studio or the director.
This week: Battlestar Galactica
As we’ve discussed before, Universal had a habit of re-cutting its television pilots and releasing them theatrically in foreign markets. They also released TV Movie to theaters internationally, making Duel Steven Spielberg’s first feature film in some territories. Sometimes this was done as a cheap way to fill a quota and, as with this weekend’s cheesy movie, it was to recoup costs of an enormous television production. And the scheme was successful enough that Battlestar Galactica received a US theatrical run — a 125 minute version of the 148 minute pilot that is, most definitely, cheesy.
The plot concerns the Twelve Colonies of Mankind. The coalition of space-faring humans have been in a long war with the Cylons, a race of robots who overthrew their own lizard-like creators thousands of years (or yahrens) ago. As the film begins, the Colonial fleet is on its way to a star referred to a “Kobol” — yeah, this gets retconned when “Kobol” becomes something else in the next telefilm — to discuss an armistice; ending the thousand-yahren conflict between man and machine. While the Council of the Twelve, President Adar (Lew Ayres), and a council member named Baltar (John Colicos) are hopeful, Commander Adama (Lorne Green) of the battlestar Galactica is doubtful of the Cylons’ peaceful intentions. Most dismiss this as a veteran of the war letting his prejudices show, but Adama’s skepticism leads to his sons Apollo (Richard Hatch) and Zac (Rick Springfield — yeah, that Rick Springfield) going on patrol and discovering a fleet of Cylon Raiders hiding in wait. Their patrol is attacked and Zac dies in the attempt to relay the information back to the fleet.
But even then, Baltar (who made a secret deal with the Cylons) is able to convince Adar that it all must be a misunderstanding. Adama’ puts his Viper squadrons on alert, but the commanders of the other battlestars remain in a peaceful posture. Soon, Adama’s caution proves to be correct again as the Cylons launch a sneak attack on the fleet and the Twelve Colonies simultaneously. The Galactica launches its fighters and manages to put up a fight while the other battlestars are destroyed. Adar and the Council are killed aboard the battlestar Atlantia and the Galactica warps back to Caprica, its home base planet.
Unfortunately, the devastation is almost total. The colonies’ defense apparatuses and infrastructures have been destroyed. Upon arriving on Caprica, Adama learns his wife died in the attack. But he soon meets a small group of survivors and orders them to collect anyone they can find, commandeer any space-worthy ships, and follow the Galactica. Soon, the rag-tag fugitive fleet is on a lonely quest for a shining planet known as Earth.
The then next episode starts.
And if it seems like I spent a lot of time on the first act of the film, that’s part of the charm. Galactica is such a great premise that people keep trying to remake it. We’ve had one successfully get of the ground — even if the ending was bad — but three other productions nearly got their first because there is a definite power in its idea. The 2003 Syfy miniseries put this more succinctly by marketing the show as the story of what humanity does after the world ends. So, for at least a half-hour, the Battlestar Galactica film is telling a compelling story. After that, we get aliens and more obvious Star Wars knock-off content.
Don’t get me wrong, though, there is cheese to be found even in the compelling first act. Despite the expense of the production, the trappings of television pervade the film. Sets are overly lit (except when the Galactica goes on high alert), the camerawork is, well, it’s the tried-and-true Universal Television style. If it’s not a space shot, you will see the sort of master shot compositions and close-up coverage you might find on The Rockford Files. There’s nothing wrong with this style — a lot of television shows used it for decades — but when you see Battlestar Galactica in a theatrical context, those sets look less impressive and the directing seems pedestrian. The result is a film which ends up looking more like a cheap and cheesy Star Wars knock-off than the upscale television knock-off of Star Wars it is intended to be. Note all the times footage of the Vipers launching from the Galactica gets recycled. See also: all of the dogfighting in space. The shots themselves are fantastic, but you’ve seen them all twice by the time the Cylon attack ends. That works on television. It has to because all that space-fight footage had to be recycled for 20 more episodes. But on the big screen, the seams show and cheese emerges forth.
The performances are also cheesy. Greene, Hatch, and most of the supporting players take everything very seriously. For the first episode — er, act of the film — this works for the most part. But as soon as material from Episode 2 begins to unspool within the film, attempts at comedy and courting a family audience start to make the convictions look out of place. The only character who survives the shift well is Starbuck (Dirk Benedict), an ace pilot whose cocksure attitude gave him the flexibility to play both serious and silly. Hatch suffers the most from the pivot, which occurs as soon as the Viper pilots inspect the food reserves aboard a ship called the Rising Star. It is also here when we meet the principle human antagonist for the duration of the film: Sire Uri, played by Ray Milland. As you may recall from our look at X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes, Milland was a fabulous actor of the 1940s whose techniques became antiquated by the mid-1950s. Here, in 1978, he looks utterly baffled by the robes and talk of yahrens. And the puzzlement of a older actor actor trying to grasp the notion of insect people and slang like “felgercarb” just adds to the cheesy aura of the performances.
Okay, we need to talk about the slang. Star Wars and Star Trek both offered the culture a wide-ranging amount of terms from their lexicons. Concepts like the Dark Side, raising shields, and jumping to hyperspace have meanings outside their original contexts. Makers of science fiction projects during the ’70s definitely felt a compulsion to try to get their own version of Jawas to matter in the wider world. Galactica mostly attempted this with slang and a few other terms. “Frack” — by becoming became “frak” in the 2000s reboot — eventually entered the culture, but no one uses terms like “cut the felgercarb” or yahren. And while “frak” had a naturalistic element to it, it rings strangely artificial here, as do most of the terms Galactica used to tell the audience this is a different culture millions of years in the past (or future) of mankind.
This is also true in the 1978 television series, but the theatrical cut highlights the problem as the terms really have no time to sink in. And while cutting 23 minutes from the story gives it a better sense of tension toward the end, it also means there’s very little room for these ideas to breathe. It once underscores Star Wars‘ brilliance for keeping a fast pace while constantly introducing new concepts. The imitators reveal just how hard it is to pull off.
And make no mistake, Battlestar Galactica is an imitator. So much so, they imported concept artist Ralph McQuarrie and special effect guru John Dykstra from Star Wars to realize the spaceships and creatures. Even the notion of the rag-tag, fugitive fleet echoes the Rebel Alliance, and the echoes made 20th Century Fox sue Universal for copyright infringement; a case ultimately settled out of court.
At the same time, there is something lovable about Galactica; both as a series and a feature film. While the actors’ conviction leads to some cheesy moments, it also makes the world seem real. The sets may look cheap, but they have some of Star Wars‘ lived-in appeal to them. Also, the Vipers just look cool. Thanks to the conviction of the cast and crew, Galactica manages to inspire devotion within its cheesiness. It’s something worth celebrating and noting. Particularly if you enjoyed the 2000s series and never looked at the original.
Battlestar Galactica is available for rent on Amazon Prime. The 148 minute version is available on home video releases of the entire television series.