War of the Robots / Robots / Reactor / La Guerra dei Robot (1978) -*½
The Italians had very nearly worked sci-fi movies out of their systems by the mid-1970’s. A few still got made here and there, but the mini-boom in spaghetti space operas that began with the release of Antonio Margheriti’s Assignment Outer Space in 1960 was history. Then Star Wars came along. No way in hell were the captains of the Great Italian Rip-Off Machine going to leave a lucrative bandwagon like that un-jumped, and nobody leapt aboard more enthusiastically than Alfonso Brescia. Between 1977 and 1979, Brescia cranked out an incredible four films in a pseudo-Lucasian update of the old Margheriti style. He then returned once more in the 80’s with The Beast in Space, which we might conceptualize as his belated version of Flesh Gordon. War of the Robots is perhaps the most frequently seen among Brescia’s quintet of barely-trying space adventures, thanks to the extremely low standards and lack of shyness about duplicating each other’s labors characteristic of the public-domain DVD industry. If you’ve got a box set of cheap-ass sci-fi movies with ten or more titles in it, odds are you own a copy of War of the Robots. It was made smack in the middle of the cycle, and that may have something to do with it being rather boring and exhausted-seeming, even though it’s as crazy and incomprehensible as anything comparable from the 1960’s— perhaps Brescia and his co-writer, Aldo Crudo, had used up all their “good” ideas in War in Space and Cosmos: War of the Planets, but hadn’t yet grown desperate enough to embrace any of their really bad ones.
Professor Carr (Jaques Herlin, from Ironmaster and The Hostess Also Likes to Blow the Horn) and Dr. Wilkes (Massimo Righi, of The Murder Clinic and Planet of the Vampires) are scientists studying something to do with the completely artificial creation of life. No sewing dead bodies together and zapping them with lightning bolts for these two, no sir! That shit went out with horse carts and powdered wigs. Rather, Carr’s process— the finer points of which are over even Wilkes’s head— relies somehow or other on a powerful nuclear reactor, which the professor maintains in his home lab on the outskirts of some unnamed city. Carr is also modern enough to eschew the services of dwarves and hunchbacks, preferring instead to employ assistants of the beautiful but untrustworthy variety; he makes damn sure to enjoy the usual fringe benefits of that arrangement, too. That Lois (Malissa Longo, from War Goddess and The Red Monks) fulfills the beautiful half of the job description should be more or less immediately self-evident, but her untrustworthiness isn’t quite so obvious at first. The initial manifestation— there are more and much bigger ones to come— is the affair she’s carrying on behind Carr’s back with a military starship captain named John Boyd (Antonio Sabato, of Seven Bloodstained Orchids and Escape from the Bronx). Shortly after Boyd departs from his latest clandestine visit, the Carr place is infiltrated by several men with identical blond Prince Valiant hairdos and matching gold jumpsuits, who kill all the soldiers detached to guard the lab and then haul Lois and the professor away to wherever it is they came from.
That’s actually much worse news than it seems to be on its face. Sure, the human race might be somewhat inconvenienced by having the ability to generate any form of life at will dangled in front of its collective face and then snatched away before it ever fully materialized, but the real problem is Professor Carr’s reactor. It was in use when the blond guys showed up to perform their interplanetary abduction, and without Carr to shut down the experiment he left in progress, Wilkes estimates just a bit more than eight days before it blows its stack, and takes the whole of the nearest population center with it. That population center includes Space Base Sirius, where Commander King (Roger Browne, from Emanuelle in America and Vulcan, Son of Jupiter) handles the news in the stupidest imaginable way. You got it— he declares the whole business a state secret, then hunkers down to spend the next eight days soiling his drawers in his control room instead of making any effort whatsoever to evacuate the affected area. The one positive step King takes is to dispatch Captain Boyd and the intrepid crew of the rocketship Trissi to find the alien abductors, trail them to their base, and rescue Carr and Lois in time for the professor to avert disaster by turning off his reactor.
The good news is, the aliens were observed, tracked, and recorded by one of the early warning satellites in orbit around Earth, and only the satellite’s alarm system was tampered with. The bad news is, the kidnappers have enough of a head start that it will take the Trissi four days to overtake them, even at maximum speed. Furthermore, when the Trissi does finally get within sensor range of the fleeing spacecraft, the latter’s two escorts change course to intercept. The Trissi crew destroy both attackers (in a scene that bears a marked resemblance to the Millennium Falcon’s clash with the TIE fighters midway through Star Wars), but the ship sustains sufficient damage in the fighting that Boyd feels compelled to land on the planetoid Azar to make repairs. This is the point at which I begin to suspect that the writers and the effects people were not on speaking terms, because the Trissi doesn’t so much land as detach its command module to set down on the planetoid’s surface. We’re told the damage has something to do with the water tanks for the main reactor, and that’s really the kind of thing I’d expect to find in the primary hull, in the vicinity of those great, big engines. Be that as it may, Boyd goes out to reconnoiter upon making landfall, bringing along Julie (Yanti Somer, from War in Space and Cosmos: War of the Planets), Jack (Dino Scandiuzzi), Sonia (Ines Pellegrini, of Eyeball and Escape from Women’s Prison), and Roger (Giacomo Rossi-Stuart, who was an old hand at this sort of thing by 1978, having taken over command of Space Station Gamma I from Tony Russell for Planet on the Prowl and The Snow Devils). They’re not expecting any trouble, as Azar’s atmospheric conditions are similar to Earth’s, and the Trissi computer describes the natives as friendly and peaceful.
Hah. What the Trissi computer doesn’t know is that the inhabitants of the planet Anthor have taken to kidnapping Azarites, surgically modifying their eyes so that they can see normally under Anthorian atmospheric conditions (it’s kind of a long story), and either pressing them into service as slave labor, or keeping them on hand to serve as live organ banks from which their nearly immortal masters can extract replacement parts as needed. The former fate befell Kuba (Aldo Canti, from Yeti: Giant of the 20th Century and The Wild, Wild Planet), the Azarite headman, during his youth, and he’s still hopping mad about it. Kuba and his people assume that the Trissi astronauts are Anthorians, and thus stage a massive ambush against them. Only the arrival of the real Anthorians bails Boyd and his people out, at which point the Earthlings use their superior firepower to bail out Kuba and the Azarites. And yes, the Anthorians are indeed those identical blond guys we saw abduct Carr and Lois before— or, more accurately, the blond guys are the Anthorians’ robot soldiers. Kuba takes a much more amiable attitude toward the Trissi crew after he’s seen them massacre the Anthorian slave-raiding party. In fact, when he hears that Boyd is on a mission against Anthor himself, Kuba volunteers to lead him into the Anthorian imperial palace, which he had spent years laboring to construct.
A major and unpleasant surprise awaits Boyd on Anthor, however. Don’t ask me how or why, but the Anthorians have decided to make Lois their empress, and Professor Carr has gone Durand Durand on us. The aliens want Carr’s nearly perfected life-creating technique for the same reason they want the Azarites’ organs— their medical scientists may technically have solved the problem of death, but they never could figure out a way to overcome the effects of entropy on the humanoid body. Carr’s system, if successful, would permit the Anthorians to replace their worn-out parts without having to steal new ones from people who aren’t done using them yet, and thus they’re offering him far more support for his project than he ever would have received back on Earth. Now a reasonable person would notice immediately that Carr is laboring in effect to eliminate the circumstances that cause the Anthorians to behave like the bad guys, and that he therefore ought to be classed even more firmly as one of the good guys now that he has “defected” to “their” side. A reasonable person would also see at once that there’s really no need for Carr to go back to Earth if he doesn’t want to— all he need do is give Boyd instructions for shutting down the reactor, which Boyd could then pass along to Dr. Wilkes. Neither Captain Boyd nor the makers of War of the Robots are reasonable people, however, so the Trissi astronauts now endeavor to drag Carr back home against his will. Lois, meanwhile, is even less reasonable than that. First she betrays both Carr and her “subjects” by injecting the professor with some manner of temporary zombie drug, freeing Boyd and his people from the dungeon to which Carr had ordered them confined, and helping them smuggle herself and Carr alike back to the Trissi. But at the same time, she gives Carr a disintegrator device, enabling him to assassinate Paul (Venatino Venantini, from The Libertine and Black Emanuelle), the Trissi’s doctor, and make his escape from sickbay as soon as the injection wears off. Then she turns around and murders Carr before he has a chance to go anywhere at all (this time betraying him, the Anthorians, and the people of Earth all at once!), and stages a mutiny with the help of a squad of android soldiers. (No, I have no idea how those got aboard the Trissi, either.) Finally, when some sharp and timely shooting by Julie turns the tables on the mutiny, Lois flees the ship through an airlock, rendezvous with a conveniently passing Anthorian vessel, and then leads a huge alien fleet in a direct invasion of Terrestrial space. At this point, I can conclude only that Lois must be a direct descendant of Lisa from The Room.
Well, actually, there is one other thing that I can conclude, or at least strongly suspect: that Brescia and Crudo stitched War of the Robots together out of several unrelated, uncompleted screenplays, and never bothered themselves overmuch about whether the recycled elements fit together in any sensible way. It’s all I can think of to account for the behavior of the villains, or indeed for the movie’s chronic indecision over which characters are supposed to be wearing the black hats in the first place. Let me emphasize as well that while this may have been the filmmakers’ intention, at no point is the constantly shifting portrayal of Professor Carr— and of Lois even more so— ever credible as the ingenious maneuvering of an enemy who is just that tricky. This is because neither Carr nor Lois ever displays anything that can be plausibly spun as a coherent motivation. When Professor Morbius refused to cooperate with his own rescue in Forbidden Planet, it was completely believable, because the revolutionary research he’d spent the better part of his adult life conducting by that point could not be continued back on Earth, and because he’d already had twenty years to get used to the idea of being stuck on Altair IV anyway. Carr’s face-heel turn, on the other hand, is completely arbitrary; the first time we see him, he’s all bluster and defiance in the faces of his captors, then four days later, it’s like, “There’s just one thing you didn’t plan for, Captain Boyd… I’m evil now! Mwu-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha! Guards! Seize them!” Lois is even worse. There isn’t a single character in this movie she doesn’t try to fuck over at some point (generally with a considerable amount of success), but I’m completely at a loss to discern what she hopes to gain from any of it. But then, I suppose it might do strange things to your expectations about how cause and effect works if a race of aliens you only just met decided, immediately upon kidnapping you, to put you in charge.
Had Brescia played his cards right, that tendency of War of the Robots to turn into what might as well be a different movie about every fifteen to 25 minutes might have made for an entertaining sort of disorientation. It doesn’t work that way, though, simply because this movie’s action scenes are so lifelessly and incompetently handled that focusing enough attention to appreciate the repeated reformulations becomes a chore and a struggle. There are only so many times you can watch the same five blond-wigged extras fall over in the same three catacomb corridors, only so many times you can watch variations on the same sad light-saber battle, only so many times you can watch the same V-shaped formation of polystyrene flying saucers “hurtling” toward the camera courtesy of a lethargically manipulated zoom lens. The saddest thing of all is the climactic showdown between the Trissi and its embarked squadron of wannabe Viper fighters on one side, and Lois’s Anthorian armada on the other. Even when you don’t have to watch the first reel of it twice (as at least one of the available DVD editions forces you to), the final battle is a dismal and overlong slog of unimaginative editing, technical inadequacy, and failed attempts at suspense. It inadvertently demonstrates what a good Star Wars cash-in the original “Battlestar Galactica” (which War of the Robots apes at least as determinedly as its more obvious inspiration) really was. The attack of the Anthorian fleet also hobbles the film by serving as a bizarre capper to the perfunctory yet distracting subplot in which Julie pines for Captain Boyd, even as he remains unswervingly fixated upon the increasingly evil Lois. Julie ends up piloting a fighter after both of Boyd’s original wingmen are shot down (she really should have been out there to begin with, since she’s easily the most all-around competent person among the whole Trissi crew), which eventually places her squarely in the gunsights of Lois’s ship. Somehow, this turns into a referendum on Boyd’s romantic leanings, with Lois threatening to blow up Julie’s plane not because that’s just what one generally does with enemy combatants, but because Julie is a threat to Lois and Boyd’s relationship. Right. Because we all know True Lovetm always triumphs over trivialities like interplanetary treason… Julie, for her part, goes along with Lois’s framing of the issue, too, accepting that Boyd’s decision to rescue her or not would naturally depend on which of the two women he’d prefer to spend his life with. It’s hard to select a single dumbest moment in War of the Robots, but the conclusion to the Julie-Lois rivalry is surely a top contender.