The Shape of Things to Come

Geoff Pevere once observed that science fiction, insofar as it was concerned cinematically, is not traditionally in Canada’s dramatic domain. “Chiefly a nation of naturalists and documentarists,” Pevere wrote, “Canadians are more likely to put their arts in the service of what is than to allow them to ponder what might be.” For years, our nation’s filmmaking, largely a federally funded venture, required an educational or utilitarian bent which usually ruled out any imaginative forays into the cosmos. Promotional material for the CBC’s first attempt at an outer space series, 1953’s Space Command (featuring a young James Doohan), promised “no space monsters, moon maidens, space-pirates [or] space-spies,” instead delivering, according to Peter Kenter in TV North, “a lot of talk and cheap-looking special effects.” A decade later, the NFB did produce the groundbreaking documentary Universe (1962) which even inspired Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. But its stellar visuals of exploding nebula were meant to explain the universe, not conquer it a la Buster Crabbe. So, if hot toddy with green slave girls was your thing, south of the 49th was where you and William Shatner boldly went. If on the other hand, real life was your final frontier, then north you stayed with Pete ‘n Joey. Or as Pevere himself wryly put it, “why travel to other planets for proof of our own puniness?”

As the film industry came of age in the 1970s, Canada finally got around to producing features of a more extraterrestial nature, but the results were yet more talk and second-rate effects. Nowhere is this more true than in The Shape of Things to Come, which some bloggers have even gone so far as to label the worst sci-fi film they’ve ever seen–though alongside Robot Monster and Plan 9 From Outer Space, that’s a stretch. More aptly, it’s a companion piece to Starship Invasions and The Starlost, two other Canadian outer space efforts then were sent flying into orbit before crashlanding on the rock-hard ground of reality. Initiated by Film Ventures International and produced by William Davidson (of 50s Canuck fare Now That April’s Here and The Ivy League Killers), The Shape of Things to Come is a severe case of overreaching ambition that has all the defining features of a classic tax-shelter scenario: hack script, hired gun director, compromised production values, and a cast of Hollywood has-beens mingling with neglected Canucks. Only the film’s title has saved it from complete obscurity, borrowed from (but having nothing to do with) the H.G. Wells novel, or even the 1935 Alexander Korda silent classic.

Let us descend: It’s the “tomorrow after tomorrow,” according to the opening title crawl. Several centuries hence, the human survivors of the “great robot wars” have vacated to the moon under the domed citadel of New Washington (a city that looks suspiciously like Ontario Place). To ensure survival, they must regularly intake anti-radiation substance Radic Q-2, which is shipped regularly from its planet of origin, Delta-3. Things are thrown off-track when one of Delta-3’s cargo ships is sent crashing into the city, a terrorist attack of sorts carried out by Omus (Jack Palance), the usurping ruler of Delta-3. Omus then informs Senator Smedley (John Ireland) that there will be more attacks if the good lunar citizens don’t cater to the tyrant’s will. “Our society has no place for a dictator–not even a benevolent one,” proclaims Dr. John Caball (Barry Morse), although neither he nor the citizens of New Washington object to deferring all authority to the master computer, Lomax. But while everyone refuses to give in to blackmail, a counterattack on Delta-3 is ruled out by Lomax, on the grounds that such an action would be “imprudent”–whatever that means.

Taking a more active role in opposing Omus, the good scientist Caball, his son, Jason (Nicholas Campbell) and Smedley’s daughter, Kim (Anne-Marie Martin), fly off to do battle in an untested vessel, the Star Streak, with their newfound robot, Sparks (whose levels of irritation will go unmatched until the debut of Jar-Jar Binks). There is some dramatic diversion when they land on Earth to refuel, and some minimum suspense is generated when Kim is kidnapped by some unusual, moving green mounds–child refugees of the “great robot wars” dressed up in green foliage–for reasons never explained. Meanwhile, back on Delta-3, the deposed and highly irritable Governor Nikki (Carol Lynley) is training her fellow comrades to make war on Omus’s army of waddling robots, now in control of the countryside (which curiously resembles the very same Ontario backdrop that the Star Streak landed on in the previous Earth scenes). Inevitably, after a talky and yawn inducing leap through “time dilation,” Caball & Co. make it to Delta-3 for the final face-off between the forces of good and not-so-good… and… and….

Well, like Anne Murray handling a Guns ‘n Roses cover, The Shape of Things to Come is a lost cause. The entire effort is just one extended anti-climax of sci-fi clich├ęs and banal dialogue, with more than a few gaping wormholes in Spock logic. For instance, if Delta-3 has the substance necessary for human survival, why not colonize that planet as opposed to living indoors on the moon’s surface? Or why go through the trouble of vacating to the moon when the domed infrastructure of New Washington could be built on Earth, like in Logan’s Run?

The film is also unaided by the somewhat stolid cast, each member bearing that noble, but strained look of hoping that maybe things will get saved in post. Barry Morse does the stoic, elder scientist, essentially replaying Victor Bergman from Space 1999, while Anne-Marie Martin semi-cheerfully does the token female crewmember, her personal hairdresser somewhere in tow. For fans of DaVinci’s Inquest there’s a young, vapid Nick Campbell, who heroically sulks around, apparently less preoccupied with saving the universe than on sneaking in an extra toke between takes. Even Jack Palance, usually the happy ham, merely stands around in a cape wincing, resembling a thinner version of Jack Van Impe (scary enough, though only half the terror without Rexella). And Carol Lynley? Best left undiscussed, but I gotta ask: how does a platinum blonde of her stature–who largely exhales her dialogue–get to be planetary governor? And what hope for mankind is there when leaders win the final ballot sporting names like Nikki or Smedley? Definitely dark days ahead.

Morse, in an interview for The Shape of Things to Come‘s Blue Underground DVD release, admitted that the director, George McCowan (best known for Face-Off and Frogs), was facing an uphill battle. “It soon became apparent that it was a production that was, shall we say, reaching rather further than its financial facilities might allow,” he explained. “I don’t think anybody could have anticipated that certain effects would be so… unconvincing, I suppose is the kindest word.” To be fair, what FX that exist are competent on a level akin to Dr. Who, but they possess none of the visual kinetics to wow audiences lining up to see that year’s space blockbuster, Moonraker. Lacking the necessary monies to fund John Dykstra-styled fighter battles, we instead get lacklustre combat sequences between cumbersome man-in-suit robots and spaceship models with the rubber cement still drying. Ironically, the one man credited for visual effects was none other than Wally Gentleman, one of the animators for not only the original Universe, but also 2001: A Space Odyssey. It just conjures up images of the late Mr. Gentleman crying, “Whaddya mean we don’t have money for lasers?!” The rest of the movie is equally bargain basement. Actors in one piece jump suits wander around the Ontario Science Centre, the Toronto waterfront, or anywhere looking vaguely futuristic, while the sets and props betray their 20th century origins (You can actually see the Honeywell logo on the moon centre’s LED computers). Hence the frustrations of realizing the distant future with existing Hogtown locales and the producer’s credit rating at Grand & Toy. “No buck, no Buck Rogers,” as Gus Grissom aptly put it in The Right Stuff.

Mind you, funding isn’t always everything. A more imaginative director might’ve injected some Roger Corman B-movie thrills into the zero budget proceedings. Unfortunately, McGowan’s direction is pedestrian at best. The pace just sags as scenes plod one after another, with all the thrill of watching the play-by-play at seniors’ bingo. At least in Starship Invasions, Ed Hunt kept things moving at a lively clip in between the hovering casserole pots and Christopher Lee in tights. To top it all off, the movie takes itself way too seriously, lacking even a smidgen of campy humour or cheesy sexiness to enliven the tedium (and how I craved for Carol Laure in a silver bikini!). There are a few laughable bloopers, including Campbell and Martin hilariously trying to simulate weightlessness, and a Styrofoam beam mistakenly bouncing off Palance’s head during the apocalyptic climax, but they aren’t enough to push the film into the so-bad-it’s-good category. What we’re basically left with is The Neptune Factor in space, minus the great Lalo Schifrin score–it really must be seen to be endured.

Yet the more times I subject myself to this film, it gets harder to mock, and I end up just feeling sorry for it. It may act as a sorry example of our own national ineptitude onscreen, but The Shape of Things to Come is more indicative of the post-Star Wars craze that drove the entire industry into a state of attention deficit disorder during the late 70s. Just as Star Wars and its creator raked in the dough, major studios started to scrounge around for scripts containing all the necessary ingredients of blaster toting cowboys and cutie-pie droids. Real storytelling went out the window and the result was Hollywood’s own attack of the clones: Battlestar Galactica, Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, not to mention Moonraker, Star Trek: The Motion Picture, The Black Hole, Flash Gordon and Battle Beyond the Stars (which at least had the decency not to take itself seriously). Needless to say, The Shape of Things to Come, our sole entry into the space opera sweepstakes, went right down the Death Star garbage chute alongside Italy’s Starcrash and Japan’s Message in Space. Thus the hard-learned lesson for all Lucas-wannabes: being derivative for dollars takes you only so far.

So here’s to a cast and crew who went forward dutifully but unenthusiastically, in hopes of better things to come, only to limp away, careers barely intact–victims of a larger trend our industry was ill-equipped to deal with. Hollywood North survived as well, but we’re still somewhat of an Earthbound lot. Space shit like Millennium and Andromeda inevitably gets made here, as it does elsewhere on the globe, but we at least now can boast of Cronenberg’s work, Cube, Screamers, and Lexx: The Series, not to mention our own contributions to The X-Files and Stargate. Still, the scars of the 1970s remain, and The Shape of Things to Come acts as a fitful reminder of what can go wrong when making a feature without an adequate grip on the genre–the shape of things not going as planned, as it were.