Cosmos: War of the Planets / War of the Planets / Cosmo 2000: Planet Without a Name / Cosmo 2000: Battaglie negli Spazie Stellari / Anno Zero: Guerra nello Spazio (1977/1978) -***
This was a new experience for me. Never in the eleven years that I’ve been writing these reviews have I ever spent so much time simply trying to figure out which the hell movie I just watched. Alfonso Brescia made two cheap-ass attempts to cash in on the Star Wars phenomenon in 1977, which he shot simultaneously, employing the same core cast, the same sets, the same special effects models, and even the same incredibly cheesy theme song. (Sadly, only a few seconds of “We Are Not Alone Here in Space” made it into the English-language dub of Cosmos: War of the Planets— probably because its intended audience would actually have understood the English-language lyrics: “Every day, every day, amazing flights / And angels in shocking spaceships / We are not alone here in space because / Here in space, we have brothers.”) Just about the only unambiguously distinguishing feature between them is the fact that Gisela Hahn appears in Battaglie negli Spazie Stellari (“Battles in the Stellar Spaces”) but not in Anno Zero: Guerra nello Spazio (“Year Zero: War in Space”), and it took me a good long while to dig up even that. And in case we weren’t already plenty confused enough by all the shared credits and equipment, Brescia’s twin 1977 Star Wars wannabes even ended up sharing titles, as the one film’s complete name later became the other’s subtitle, when Anno Zero was reissued as Cosmo 2000: Battaglie negli Spazie Stellari somewhere along the way to becoming Cosmos: War of the Planets. For some idea of the chaos this has caused, check out the user reviews on the Internet Movie Database page for Battle of the Stars (as Battaglie negli Spazie Stellari may— and I emphasize may— have been called in English-language release); every review save one is actually talking about Cosmos: War of the Planets instead! And although the IMDb lists both Battle of the Stars and War in Space as English-language titles for Battaglie negli Spazie Stellari, I have to consider both identifications to be somewhat suspect. War in Space, after all, was the English export title of a Toho sci-fi epic that was also released in 1977, and the only unmistakable trace I could find of anything called Battle of the Stars— an entry on a website devoted to pre-Video Recordings Act British VHS releases, bearing a small but pretty nice scan of the box art— gave a synopsis that clearly referred to Cosmos: War of the Planets as well. In the end, about the best evidence I can find that Battaglie negli Spazie Stellari was ever shown in American or British Commonwealth theaters at all is the confusion over its release date, with most sources favoring 1977 but a few others stubbornly holding out for 1979; that’s the sort of thing you see most often when a film was exhibited at different times in different territories.
So having ascertained that Brescia did indeed make two of his inimitable clunky space operas in 1977, and that Cosmos: War of the Planets is one and not the other, where does that leave us? With something considerably more enjoyable, if very nearly as stupid and nonsensical, as the following year’s War of the Robots, I’m pleased to report. Whereas the latter movie is content to be just lumpishly and inertly bad, Cosmos takes things to a level at which you almost have to ask if Brescia could possibly have been serious.
Take the opening scene, for example, in which Captain Alex Hamilton (John Richardson, of Torso and Frankenstein 80) and the crew of his ship— the ship to which he won’t be assigned until three scenes from now, I hasten to emphasize— encounter a space mirage. No, really. The ship’s computer calls it “the refraction of an explosion that occurred ten billion years ago,” but what that really boils down to is a space mirage. Everyone on the bridge can plainly see the explosion, but the computer can’t comply with Hamilton’s order for an automated course correction to dodge the debris because it swears there’s no debris to dodge. There’s a supposedly tense moment as a huge asteroid chunk hurtles toward the stubbornly non-evading ship, but then the vessel passes through the illusion unharmed, the computer offers its belated analysis of what just happened, and the whole bridge crew jumps up from their seats and starts hugging each other. That last will happen each and every time Hamilton and his people narrowly escape from danger, so you’d better get used to it.
The next we see of Captain Hamilton, he’s at Orion Headquarters— mission control for all mankind’s space travel endeavors— punching out one of the senior officers. As he subsequently explains to Orion chief Commander Armstrong (Romeo Costantini), Hamilton considered it a personal insult that the other officer habitually delegated all his decision-making responsibilities to Orion’s supercomputer, the Wiz. (Suddenly WOPR sounds almost dignified, doesn’t it?) Armstrong essentially solves the discipline problem that Hamilton represents by moving it offsite. He places the insubordinate captain in charge of the spaceship MK-31, which is scheduled to repair a far-off sensor platform for monitoring cosmic rays, on the theory that Hamilton’s excess of initiative will actually be useful in a situation of independent command in deep space.
Segura (Vassili Karas, of The Arena and The Ten Gladiators), the man who goes out to fix the century-old device when the MK-31 finally reaches its destination, nearly gets himself killed doing it, but neither that nor the outbreak of hugging that follows his rescue by Hamilton is important now. And the non-sequitur montage establishing love affairs between Hamilton and Mila the communications officer (Yanti Somer, who’d be back for War of the Robots and Star Odyssey in the years to come) on the one hand, and two older, more… shall we say mechanically inclined crewmembers on the other? That’s of less immediate importance still. No, what really matters at the moment is the mysterious signal from even deeper in space, transmitting thinly disguised snippets of Bach’s “Toccata and Fugue in D Minor” on all frequencies in such a way as to play havoc with every piece of electromagnetic receiving gear on Earth. The press is jabbering about an impending invasion from the stars, and Commander Armstrong wants Hamilton to take the MK-31 out at once to find and neutralize the source of the transmissions. Hamilton doesn’t want to. Armstrong says he has to. Hamilton says Armstrong isn’t the boss of him. Armstrong reminds him that he is. The pointless, childish bickering continues until Armstrong invokes the Wiz, and then Hamilton really gets pissed off. Eventually, Armstrong sics the base psychiatrist on Hamilton to wear him down with a combination of reverse psychology and feminine wiles, and that finally does the trick.
Not far from the unexplored planet that appears to be the home of the galaxy’s loudest and most irritating classical music station, the MK-31 is attacked by a pair of unmanned flying saucers. Richard (West Buchanan, from Ring of Darkness and House of Pleasure for Women), the ship’s first officer and helmsman, manages to shoot down one of them, but the other scores a direct hit on the MK-31’s power plant before zipping off as though there were someplace else it really needed to be. The second saucer eventually travels all the way to Earth, where it stealthily lands above the Arctic Circle, and proceeds to do not one goddamned thing for the whole rest of the movie. The MK-31, meanwhile, tumbles out of control through space until it falls into orbit around the world that was supposed to have been its destination to begin with. Hamilton orders the separation of the landing module, which will facilitate both the accomplishment of their actual mission and the repairs to the main engines. (This exact plot device would resurface in War of the Robots; it wouldn’t make any sense that separating the crew from the damaged engines would make it easier to fix the latter then, either.) Crewman Jack (Daniele Dublin, from Emmanuelle & Joanna and Short Night of the Glass Dolls) wanders off alone during the initial surface reconnaissance, blunders his way into Space Stonehenge, and gets himself killed there by a robot that makes even the one in Devil Girl from Mars look respectable. (I’ll give the props-and-costumes guys this much, though: off-the-shelf suit of late-medieval plate armor? Slightly better choice for a robot body than off-the-shelf gorilla suit.) The other explorers hear Jack’s scream, and Hamilton quickly organizes them into a pair of search parties, with strict orders for the members of each group to keep each other in sight at all times. Naturally, this means that Greta (Katia Christine, of The Hand that Feeds the Dead and Lover of the Monster) immediately wanders off by herself, too, and is also killed. (Don’t worry about her, though— she gets better.) Finally, Hamilton’s party is surrounded by bald, green-skinned, pointy-eared aliens led by Aldo Canti (whose character would serve exactly the same function in War of the Robots as well), and the aliens’ wise man explains to the Earthlings about the pathetic killer robot. Perhaps reasonably assuming that this might have something to do with both the flying saucer attack and the interstellar Bach assault, Hamilton agrees to destroy the robot for the aliens. What none of the humans realize yet is that the robot is merely an avatar of the computer system that the aliens’ ancestors once built to manage their entire civilization for them— that is, a more advanced and ambitious counterpart to Hamilton’s hometown nemesis, the Wiz— which has malfunctioned and turned megalomaniacal. As its creators devolved in the absence of any need to think or do anything for themselves, the computer arrogated to itself the privileges of an adventure-serial volcano god, and now it’s thinking about expanding its sphere of influence to other inhabited planets. Like Earth, for example.
The fascinating thing about Cosmos: War of the Planets is that unlike War of the Robots, it actually does have a clear and fairly worthwhile story, except that that story is completely invisible until after the film is over. While you’re watching, it looks like nothing more than an hour and a half of Ted V. Mikels-style random meanderings, as no scene bears any apparent logical or thematic connection to the one before it. Stuff generally is happening at all times, but at any given moment, there doesn’t seem to be much purpose or pattern behind it. It almost feels as if editors Larry Marinelli and Carlo Reali (the latter of whom, by the way, is credited under the delightful “English” pseudonym Charles Really) just spliced Brescia’s preferred takes together in whatever order they fell to hand, without reference to script, cutting continuity, or anything. Especially during the first 45 minutes or so, it’s entirely too easy to get lost altogether and tune out everything but the overall impression of cheapness and tackiness conveyed by the images onscreen. Yet if you do succeed in reaching closing credits, all the paths suddenly become visible, even if most of them are pretty overgrown in places. Even a few bits that have nothing to do with anything in narrative terms become thematically important once it becomes apparent that the aliens’ situation is meant as a forewarning of where humanity’s increasing reliance on machines is leading. Look at the satellite-repair scene at the close of the first act, and at the double romantic interlude aboard the MK-31 a bit later. Both of these scenes exist to draw a contrast between Hamilton’s “natural” style and the mechanized “modern” way, to show how humanity is unwittingly following in the aliens’ footsteps. When Segura gets acid from the satellite’s corroded batteries on his space suit, leaving him just three minutes to return to the ship before decompression kills him, the rest of the MK-31 crew is stymied by the failure of the standard automated, mechanical solutions to the problem. It falls to Hamilton to strap on a space suit, and to bodily drag the stricken astronaut back inside. Most commentators seem to dismiss the scene as a lame copy of the disastrous extravehicular excursion from 2001: A Space Odyssey, but that isn’t all that Brescia is doing here. Then while the captain romances Mila the “old-fashioned,” “obsolete” way, with hands and lips and prolonged close-range eye contact, the other couple are shown making love through the intermediary of a machine that stimulates the limbic system directly, so as to mimic the neurological effects of sexual intercourse. Mila, who has never experienced anything like Hamilton’s hands-on approach, comments afterward that she’ll never use the brain-zapping sim-sex gizmo again, casting her vote for animal vigor over technological sophistication. This isn’t to say it was a good idea to use seriously a concept that was played for laughs years before in Barbarella and Sleeper. It does, however, mean that what looks on the surface like a pointless curlicue is really among the more meaningful moments in the film. I’ve occasionally heard it argued that Brescia is unfairly condemned as a hack, and that reviewers who do so are letting the poor-quality presentations that his science fiction movies have received in the English-speaking world blind them to those movies’ underlying merits. And maybe they’re right, since even the US version of Cosmos: War of the Planets hints at one or two potentially interesting things going on beneath its tawdry surface. I can’t say that what I saw gives much sign that Brescia was any good at this sort of thing, but I will aver that a close examination of the picture indicates that he was, if nothing else, no worse a hack than the majority of his fellows within the Italian exploitation movie industry.