The strange things you find in your Dad’s old tape collection. Four years before he would begin the series of novels that would provide the source material for HBO’s Game Of Thrones, George R.R. Martin was struggling to make it big in Hollywood. After contributing scripts to shows like Max Headroom and Beauty & The Beast, he caught a bigger break. A studio was interested in adapting one of his science fiction novellas into a feature film. Hooray!
Unfortunately, his excitement was short-lived. When Nightflyers was released a week before Halloween 1987, it was hammered by critics & ignored by audiences. Having finally seen it on a dubbed VHS cassette nearly 30 years later, I can’t say I’m terribly surprised. (Apparently, according to Martin, there were numerous changes made to his original story. You don’t say!)
The Last Starfighter’s Catherine Mary Stewart, the film’s emotionless narrator, tags along with a group of scientific archetypes on an inevitably doomed expedition to try to decipher & connect with some unknown entity that may or may not be able to create stars in the galaxy. Right off the bat, Stewart describes this whole endeavour as “questionable” but is up for it nonetheless because “I love a good mystery”. Yes, she has excellent judgment.
As the group arrives at a bilingual spaceport (English & Mandarin) via subway train track in what looks like a giant snail shell, upon observing the large, unspectacular-looking spacecraft that will serve as their proper mode of transportation for the expedition, Stewart makes the unintentionally self-aware comment that the only reason they were given this “nightflyer” was because of their “limited budget”. Do tell.
The second she says it you become very distracted by how cheap, dull and uninspired the sets look. Instantly forgettable is as kind a phrase as I can muster. And the special effects evoke giggles far more than awe. Dig those poor space travelling transition scenes. Mystery Science Theatre 3000 would have a field day with this.
It probably goes without saying that if you were expecting some kind of magical pay-off regarding this communicate-with-a-unconfirmed-mythological-starmaker dealy, you are adorably naïve and need to get out more. The real focus of the story involves a hologram captain named Royd (Michael Praed rocking the old school Billy Ray Cyrus mullet) who says he can’t be there in person because he needs to be in 2 places at once. This irritates most of the scientists who also wonder why there’s no crew running the ship. (They should’ve wondered what their agents were thinking signing them up for this shit.)
The truth is Royd is being held captive by the ship itself. He’s also a clone. As the wonderfully hammy & at times unintentionally amusing telepath Michael Des Barres helpfully informs us, Royd was created by a lonely albeit powerful woman who hated her fellow humans because they treated her like a Salem witch. They attempted to remove her powers because they thought she was cursed. Somehow, she was able to retain them in repressed form despite all those mettlesome surgical procedures. In fact, her spirit lives on in the nightflyer’s badly outdated computer system. (Paging tech support!)
And she’s none too pleased with Catherine Mary Stewart making bedroom eyes at her infatuated “son” who actually isn’t her son. In fact, in a truly weird scene, Royd says he was created to be her lover but she died before he was born. Or did I remember this incorrectly? It is all so very confusing. (As an aside, what’s the deal with Stewart’s gymnastics routine on those makeshift uneven bars? Talk about random.)
As the demon computer spirit’s jealousy rises, at one point she somehow infiltrates Des Barres’ body. (Just say no, Michael.) He makes an early, failed attempt to eliminate Stewart. The special effect that concludes this scene is about as obvious as the screenplay.
Meanwhile, Royd tries to do a number on his mommy-or-lover-that-wasn’t so the surviving scientists can take over the ship. However, there’s a security breach and one of the female computer wizards gets sucked into the oxygenless ethers of outer space. (Hate when that happens.) As our uninteresting heroes climb into their cheapo flying R2D2-style exploratory pods with fishbowls on their heads to venture outside to try to repair three holes in this enormous pile of space junk, the incredibly dopey lead scientist is somehow tricked into thinking a sudden ring of fire is the scientific breakthrough he’s been waiting 12 years for. I can’t tell if the filmmakers love Johnny Cash or visual metaphors for hemorrhoids.
It’s bad enough Nightflyers shamelessly rips off 2001, Star Wars and Alien. It’s even worse that it does it so poorly. (Hey scientists, watch out for that headless special effect. Stop laughing. It’s going to kill you all! I’m serious!) My God, the film is less than 90 minutes but its sluggish, glacial pace makes it feel twice as long. (Or maybe that was because I kept pausing and rewinding so much. And taking so many pee breaks. Nah. It’s definitely the pacing.)
Of all the actors trapped in this Space Titanic, I feel most sorry for the late James Avery. Just a few years before his starmaking performance as the lovably gruff Uncle Phil on The Fresh Prince Of Bel Air, he’s shackled here with a appalling double stereotype: a fey black chef. Despite having some kind of scientific credentials, we learn he was actually hired to cook for everybody.
Oh, for fuck sakes.
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Sunday, October 5, 2014