A lot of filmmakers in the late 1970s wanted to get some of that sweet, sweet Star Wars money. That resulted in shitty cinema being overrun with Star Wars ripoffs — some much better than others. At the bottom of the scale is something like Cosmos: War of the Planets, while today’s film, The Shape of Things to Come, is about as compelling a ripoff as shitty cinema managed to produce.
From 1979, The Shape of Things to Come is a loose adaptation of the H.G. Wells novel of the same name. It’s the future. After Earth was devasted by The Robot Wars, mankind settled on the moon and elsewhere. A drug called Radic-Q2 is vital to humanity’s continued survival, but the supply comes from a single planet called Delta 3. After a cargo ship from Delta 3 crashes into the capital city on the moon, New Washington, it is revealed that Delta 3, and all Radic-Q2 production, has been seized by the evil Omus (Jack Palance). We know that Omus is evil, not just because he was responsible for slamming a spaceship into a populated city, or that afterwards he holds an entire civilization hostage, but because he wears a cape. Everyone in this movie wears super-shiny futuristic space clothes, but only Omus accessorizes with a cape. It’s purple, too.
Palance dominates this film. His is not the main character, or even the most prominently featured supporting character, but the man knew how to play a hammy bad guy. This performance doesn’t approach the extreme absurdity of his performance as crime boss Carl Grissom in Batman, but there are glimmers. I’m not sure if it’s possible for Palance to not eye anyone up like they’re a steak dinner. His eyes glisten and widen, he breaks out into an unholy sneer, and it doesn’t matter what line follows forth from his lips. It’s predatory.
Palance is joined in the film by Barry Morse as Dr. Caball, Nicholas Campbell as space buckaroo Jason Caball, and Anne-Marie Martin as Kim Smedley, the sensible one. These three, accompanied by one of the clumsier robots one will see in a science fiction film, set off for Delta 3 in an experimental spaceship called the Starstreak to confront Omus and secure the supply of Radic-Q2.
Meanwhile, things are not going perfectly smooth for Omus on Delta 3. His little coup is being met with resistance by the local population, led by the deposed governor, Niki (Carol Lynley). Their plight is such that they are reduced to fighting Omus’s robots with spears. I suspect this might have more to do with budgetary restrictions than anything else, but the production did have enough money for model work and a whole platoon of silly robots.
About those robots. They look like they began life with the production team purchasing a dozen or so garbage cans and lengths of plastic articulating drainpipe from the hardware store, and going from there. Some doodads were glued on, and then the whole kit and caboodle was dropped over performers’ heads. Let loose on the set, these robots bounce around like they’re in a Milwaukee Brewers sausage race. It’s astoundingly shitty, and worth the price of admission, alone.
Another fantastic moment of shitty comes early on in the film when the Starstreak encounters mechanical trouble. Our heroes are already on their way to Delta 3 (from the moon, remember), but then decide they have to land on the Earth, because for some reason that defies logic it’s the closest place where the ship can be fixed. While there, Jason and Kim encounter a group of children suffering radiation sickness that can only be cured by Radic-Q2. Thus, the stakes of the film are increased. Fine, but then the intrepid heroes go back aboard their spaceship and continue on with the mission, with no indication given, at all, that their ship was repaired. That plot point, which was really only good for extending the running time, anyway, was just dropped.
Finally, the two groups of good guys meet to do battle with Omus and his legions, and it goes as one would expect. It’s the not plot or resolution that makes this movie worth watching. It’s just packed end to end with glorious shittiness. It might not be as good of a film as Alien: Resurrection, but The Shape of Things to Come is a wonderful shitty movie watch.