2+5 Mission Hydra/Star Pilot/2+5 Missione Hydra (1966/1977) -***˝
And now for one of the rare 1960’s spaghetti space operas not directed by Antonio Margheriti. I certainly wouldn’t call 2+5 Mission Hydra the best of its breed (Mario Bava’s Planet of the Vampires doesn’t even have a credible rival for that title), but “most infectiously enjoyable” would not be an unfair description. 2+5 Mission Hydra almost feels like one of Japan’s more unabashedly absurd contributions to the genre— and not just because of the special effects footage stolen from Gorath that comes on like an epileptic seizure in the increasingly deranged third act. This movie is sillier than The Snow Devils, sexier than The Wild, Wild Planet, more overloaded with undercooked and mutually unrelated ideas than anything to be seen in the field of Italian sci-fi until the emergence of Alfonso Brescia in the late 1970’s. It’s as close as you can easily come to eavesdropping on the fever dreams of a hyperactive twelve-year-old who just spent a day home sick with pneumonia binging on third-season 60’s “Star Trek” episodes and sneaking peeks at his big sister’s lingerie catalogs.
On the island of Sardinia, “during the latter part of the 20th century,” a spacecraft from a planet near the center of the constellation Hydra sets down in the middle of the night, its landing witnessed only by a peasant whom we will never see or hear of again. So already, you can see why I compared this movie to the fever dreams of a hyperactive twelve-year-old. We will later learn that geological instability at the landing site accounts for the alien ship vanishing into the ground, but for now, there’s nothing to suggest that the crew didn’t just fire up their Cyclomatic Burrowtron or whatever in the interest of concealing their arrival. In any case, the latter interpretation would be much easier to square with the way the ground apparently seals itself up above the extraterrestrial rocket.
Two years later, scientific renaissance man Professor Solmi (Roland Lesaffre, of Playmates) receives a summons to the Department of Advanced Geological Studies. When he arrives there with his daughter, Louisa (Leontine May, from Hours of Terror and Triumph of the Ten Gladiators), and his protégé, Paolo Bardi (Mario Novelli, from The Invincible Brothers Maciste and The True Story of the Nun of Monza), the Department’s director (Gianni Solaro, of Hercules the Avenger and Ursus in the Valley of Lions) tells Solmi about a soil anomaly discovered three months ago near the Sardinian village of Marino. One of the farmers there has an expanding blighted patch on his land, in which the organic components of the soil itself are being destroyed. Solmi observes that a similar absence of humus is not uncommon in soil associated with uranium deposits, but there’s no uranium in Sardinia that anybody knows of, and even if there were, the soil effect wouldn’t arise overnight like this. The director would like Solmi to fly out to Marino and look into it. Louisa, meanwhile, notices something almost as strange as the dying soil during the ride to the Department, and then again on the ride to the airport. Neither Paolo nor her father give her observation any credence (chalking it up to an overactive imagination overstimulated by modish spy movies) but somebody has been following Solmi and his young companions every step of the way. After all, how many late-40’s Chrysler limousines does one see in Sardinia?
The department has two youthful engineers already onsite when Solmi and the others arrive at the afflicted farm for what Louisa wishfully assumes is going to be a single day of taking cores and testing soil samples. These are Morelli (Nando Angelini, from School Girl Killer and War of the Planets) and Giulio (Giovanni de Angelis, of Orders Signed in White and Man, Woman, and Beast), and they’re both in the habit of playing telephone pranks on the folks back at the institute for which they work— in Morse Code, no less! Surely something that convoluted and bizarre must be a plot point, right? Anyway, investigations in the blighted field turn up evidence of a sizable hollow space under the ground, and Solmi (much to Lousia’s horror) begins making arrangements to stay on longer and undertake a mechanized excavation of the subterranean gallery. That effort is unexpectedly assisted by a midnight earthquake, which opens up a means of ingress to the very verge of the hollow spot— and Solmi’s Geiger counter shows that there’s a powerful source of radiation in the empty space. The professor, Paolo, and the engineers set to work hacking through the last few feet of intact rock with sledgehammers and pickaxes.
No doubt you’ve already surmised that the hollow under the field is really the hull of the alien rocketship, and that the radiation source (which is presumably what’s killing the soil upstairs) is the vessel’s atomic engines. Solmi and the boys break through to an access hatch just a little after dawn, and although Paolo, Giulio, and Morelli are as dismissive of Louisa as ever, the professor agrees with his daughter at once that there’s every possibility they’ve got an extraterrestrial spaceship on their hands. What they don’t know yet is that most of the crew is still alive: Kaena the commander (Leonora Ruffo, of Hercules in the Haunted World and Goliath and the Vampires), Artie (Alfio Catabiano, from Messalina and Goliath and the Sins of Babylon) and Belsi (Kirk Morris, from Conqueror of Atlantis and Triumph of the Son of Hercules) the junior officers, and one of the three robots charged with the more menial tasks of keeping the ship running.
The aliens aren’t the only thing that’s about to make Solmi’s life more complicated, either. You remember that antique Chrysler? Louisa’s right again, for the men driving it are indeed foreign secret agents— their leader, Chang (John Sun), bizarrely asserts that they are “Oriental, not Chinese” when he and his two henchmen ambush Solmi and his colleagues on the way back to the farmhouse from the buried spaceship. They’re unmistakably Communists, though, which would make them what? North Korean? Viet Cong? Khmer Rouge? Red Bamboo? Got me. What I do know is that they’ve somehow gotten it into their heads that Solmi has been working on some sort of invincible super-weapon with which to stamp out the cause of People’s Revolution everywhere. Chang demands at gunpoint that Solmi take him to see this doomsday device, but let’s just say that things don’t go quite they way he envisioned. The red agents (or two of them, at any rate) see the alien ship, alright, but they do so as Kaena’s prisoners— along with Solmi, Louisa, and the three young men.
Kaena’s motives are murky throughout the film, but she seems to have a minimum of three parallel agendas. The original mission, or so she claims, was to study and report on the progress of Terrestrial nuclear weapons development, and to assess the potential threat posed by humanity to intelligent life elsewhere in the galaxy. That got sidetracked when equipment breakdowns forced the landing in Sardinia two years ago. The alien captain’s most immediate concern is to get her ship spaceworthy again, to which purpose she intends to pressgang Solmi, Paolo, Morelli, and Giulio by holding Louisa hostage. Evidently their training in physics and engineering makes them suitable rocketship mechanics. Once that’s done, Kaena will need all the humans to take the destroyed robots’ places in the launch routine, but she swears she’ll let them go after that. However, in private communications with the ruler of her world (Gordon Mitchell, from Atlas in the Land of the Cyclops and Vulcan, Son of Jupiter), Kaena repeatedly mentions bringing her captives home for biological study. The Communists overhear one of these conversations, and pass the word along to the Italians; I guess it’s “No Enemies to the Right” when interstellar kidnapping is in the offing. Giulio gets a message out to the Department of Advanced Geological Studies at the cost of his own life, and the director summons the authorities to rescue the captives. It’s just a pity for Solmi and the others that they’ve been such efficient workers. Kaena’s rocket is all fixed up by the time the cavalry arrives, and it’s “Hydra ho!” for the lot of them.
We’re a little more than halfway through the movie at this point, which is the spot where 2+5 Mission Hydra and its sanity part company. And remarkably enough, the American distributors seem to have exaggerated the coming plunge into wackiness! Simply put, this movie that has already worn the hats of scientific mystery, Eurospy hybrid, and This Island Earth-style alien abduction melodrama now turns into an outer space travelogue in much the same vein as the contemporary Space Probe Taurus before transforming again into a downbeat post-apocalypse film. The American version, meanwhile, compounds the disorienting effect of these course changes by tossing in those Gorath clips that I mentioned before, plus a couple of redubbed scenes from Doomsday Machine. You’ll see Casey Kasem as Major Hasty Postloop of Starfleet Command ordering teams of Japanese astronauts to pursue the escaping Hydra ship at warp factor five (evidently somebody was a “Star Trek” fan…), and bizarrely asserting that the survival of the human race is at stake. You’ll see Kaena set the ship down on an uncharted planet to recuperate from the effects of a mutiny among the captives, leading to the inception of hugely improbable love affairs linking Louisa to Belsi and Paolo to the alien captain. You’ll see this romantic interlude cut brutally short by an attacking tribe of space yetis. And perhaps most appealing of all for those who appreciate a pretty girl in an outrageous outfit, you’ll see what almost looks like an ongoing contest between Leontine May and Leonora Ruffo to see who can look hotter in the abbreviated and largely transparent contents of Kaena’s wardrobe. Then 2+5 Mission Hydra harshes its own groove in a big way with the discovery of a Soviet space capsule crewed only by skeletons (although Solmi and his daughter amusingly keep arguing over whether the ghost ship is of Russian or Bulgarian origin), which leads in one way or another to the revelation that Earth and Hydra Central alike have been destroyed in nuclear wars.
Yes, one way or another. The exact mechanism differs substantially depending on the form in which you’re watching 2+5 Mission Hydra, and figuring out how has consumed an almost embarrassing amount of my time and energy in the days since I watched this movie. So far as I can determine (Google Translator can be a great friend, but it’s also a remarkably inconstant one), the sojourn on the Planet of the Space Yetis originally left the astronauts unanimous but for Kaena in wanting to bag the trip to Hydra Central, and return to Earth instead. The Russian (or Bulgarian) ghost ship served as an enigmatic warning that Solmi and company would not find their home as they had left it, but it wasn’t until the final approach for landing in Rome that the main viewer revealed the atomic devastation. One Italian commentator I turned up praised the matte paintings used in this sequence, which is a more significant point than it might seem. Kaena then regained control of the ship by incapacitating her fellow travelers with sleeping gas, and set a course back to Hydra— where she and her officers received their own unpleasant surprise upon landing. Evidently these twin apocalypses could happen without the astronauts’ knowledge thanks to the time-dilation effect of light-speed travel; that’s an interesting wrinkle (and a structurally satisfying one for all its tonal maladjustment, since we first meet Solmi giving a lecture on general relativity), but it forces one to ask why Kaena and her crew encountered no such complications on the initial trip to Earth two years back. That’s not quite what happens in the version you’re most likely to encounter in the English-speaking world, though. That version, called Star Pilot, was created in 1977, when the otherwise unheard-of Great American Films (*snicker*) and a bottom-feeding distribution company called Monarch Releasing made an impressively brazen bid to fleece the suckers among the newly sci-fi-hungry moviegoing public by hiding this decade-old Italian clunker behind a mendacious Star Wars-inspired marketing campaign. Indeed, it may even be that Star Pilot was the only form in which 2+5 Mission Hydra ever played American theaters. Adopting a practice that was already mostly obsolete by 1977, Monarch and Great American tried to dress up the film by trimming scenes they deemed extraneous (including most of a first-act subplot about Louisa’s semi-secret and somewhat scandalous career as an aspiring movie actress, and the emergence of a few survivors on Hydra Central at the very end), reordering what was left, and adding new material to up the flash quotient. The additions weren’t limited to those “Starfleet Command” scenes, either. Most of what the protagonists originally saw on the viewscreen during the flight over Rome was replaced by disaster footage from Gorath, which the new version excused by rewriting the return to Earth into a perusal of data tapes recovered from the Bulgarian (or Russian) space probe. Indeed, all mention of an Earthbound leg of the voyage was excised, creating a mystifying state of affairs in which the Russian (or Bulgarian) ship has somehow managed to race ahead of Kaena’s, even though it must have been launched years later. Removing the turnaround also removes any trace of motivation for Kaena to gas the rest of the crew, and yet that scene was left unmolested. The tinkering makes near-nonsense of an already pretty loopy conclusion.
Of course, 2+5 Mission Hydra’s loopiness was hardly confined to the conclusion to begin with. Director Pietro Francisci had made a fairly lustrous name for himself in the sword-and-sandal genre, having helmed The Queen of Sheba all the way back in 1952, and catapulted boulder-tossing musclemen to international prominence with Hercules and Hercules Unchained, but he had never worked in science fiction before. 2+5 Mission Hydra was his penultimate film, too, and his last one until the indifferently received Sinbad and the Caliph of Baghdad in 1973. Francisci was thus out of his element and quite possibly nearing the end of his tether with the whole business of filmmaking when he directed this movie, which might explain the impression one gets from it that the person in charge neither knows what he’s trying to do nor particularly cares if it holds together from one scene to the next. Or maybe he just wanted to take a crack at every popular genre he hadn’t tried yet, and figured this would be his last chance. It also rather looks as though Francisci found Leontine May and Leonora Ruffo so mesmerizing that he had a hard time concentrating on anything else when they were around. The camera seems irresistibly attracted to them even when the ostensible focus of the scene lies elsewhere, and I leave it to you to decide whether that’s a point for or against 2+5 Mission Hydra. You can probably guess how I’m scoring it, though…