I’m constantly amazed at the way a lot of science fiction movies made in the few years after Star Wars (1977) somehow manage to come off like they were made 20 years earlier. Sure, the special effects were usually a little better than the sci fi flicks of the 50s, but in many cases, the dialogue could’ve been lifted right out of those older flicks — a favorite example being The Black Hole (1979) (a movie I love, don’t get me wrong) when Anthony Perkins announces that he’s “Activating the Micro-Beam!” and dramatically flicks a switch, turning on a spotlight outside the ship. Really? Activating the Micro-Beam?
Some of that is a simple inability to understand the genre on the part of the filmmakers (a problem that plagues sci fi flicks to this day) — but sometimes it seems like nobody bothered to watch Star Wars before attempting to cash in on it: not only did that film take the trappings of classic sci fi and make them seem modern, but one of the things that makes Star Wars (and shortly thereafter, Alien) work so well is that the characters don’t talk like they’re in space — they talk like they’re at work.
The Shape of Things to Come not only features dialogue that would’ve been at home in an old sci fi flick (and, now that I think of it, every movie I’ve mentioned so far — including this one — is now technically “an old sci fi flick,” but bear with me), the production design is stuck there, as well. The robots look like they should be chasing Buster Crabbe around Bronson Canyon and the spaceship interiors almost cry out for a curtain or two to go along with their ancient switches and readouts. And with lines like “My responsibility is to the Moon Council!” coming fast and furious within the first few minutes, I was hoping for epic cheese on a Yeast Lords scale, but sadly, the movie never rises to those heights again once the setup is out of the way. And if a flick doesn’t rise to the heights of Yeast Lords, you know you’re in trouble.
Based not in the least on the H. G. Wells book despite his name above the title, The Shape of Things To Come is set in “The tomorrow after tomorrow,” when the Earth has been ravaged by “the robot wars” and mankind has packed up and moved to the moon, where swell domed cities have been built and Master Computer Lomax runs everything. Apparently humans can only survive thanks to the “miracle drug” RADIC-Q-2, which is only manufactured on the distant planet Delta Three.
As the movie opens, we find ourselves in the moon city of New Washington, where Dr. Caball (the awesomely-sideburned Barry Morse, of Space: 1999) is in a meeting with Senator Smedley of the Moon Council (John Ireland). Caball wants to roll out his experimental spaceship, the Starstreak, but Smedley (of the Moon Council!) won’t hear of it: “We no longer have need of your intergalactic warship!” When Caball begs to differ, Smedley gets even more self-righteous, saying “What for? To wage war on the universe?”
What Smedley doesn’t know is that a cargo ship piloted by a robot with Popeye-like arms is on a collision course with New Washington. In the city’s control center, Kim Smedley (Eddie Benton, a.k.a. Anne-Marie Martin, a.k.a. Mrs. Michael Crichton, a.k.a. the former Mrs. Michael Crichton) and Jason Caball (Nicholas Campbell) try to contact the ship, to no avail. Since the world of the future seems to have no defenses whatsoever, the ship crashes through the dome, sending people scurrying for the safety of the disco tunnels below (and in the future, if you aren’t cool enough to rate a jumpsuit, you’re forced to wear flouncy disco clothes).
In an incredibly boring sequence that pretty much sets the tone for the rest of the movie, everyone stands around staring reverently as a few little spaceships fly around and repair the dome. Then they get a phone call from Jack Palance, clad in a goofy outfit and purple cape. Palance plays Omus, “Robot Master of Delta Three,” who has taken over the planet and set himself up as Emperor and now wants to rule the galaxy. Omus is a former student of Dr. Caball’s, and when Omus threatens to cancel all shipments of RADIC-Q-2 if his demands aren’t met, Caball says “You’re talking more like a blackmailer than a man of science!”
Meanwhile, the robot pilot of the cargo ship is found and Kim says “See ya later — I’m gonna go take a look at this suicide robot!” She reprograms the robot to be super-friendly and names him Sparks, because he occasionally does so. Sparks can teleport, which pretty much goes nowhere in terms of the story.
Dr. Caball wants to mobilize the Starstreak and confront Omus, but the Moon Council and Master Computer Lomax aren’t having it (because, as we’ve already seen, the last thing anybody in the future seems inclined to do is defend themselves). Ignoring orders, Caball, Jason, Kim and Sparks take off in the Starstreak.
On Delta Three, Nikki (Carol Lynley) and her band of outcasts are training for their attempt to overthrow Omus. They duke it out with some of Omus’ robots in the caves below the power plant that serves as the new Emperor’s headquarters, ultimately getting chased back outside.
When the Starstreak suffers various malfunctions, Caball and the others land on Earth to visit an old pal of Caball’s for help. This entire sequence goes absolutely nowhere and serves only to introduce some kids (most wearing bad white fright wigs) that get left behind anyway.
Next up is an exciting sequence where Omus’ robots walk verrrry slowly past the hidden rebels on Delta Three. This is followed by an even more exciting sequence wherein Dr. Caball tells Kim about the book he’s reading. It seems like things are looking up when the Starstreak flies into a mysterious space cloud, but all it does is cause everyone to prance around in slow motion, like some kind of pathetic space ballet, culminating in Kim and Jason making sex faces. When everything goes back to normal speed, Jason says “What the hell was that all about?”
Our heroes (using the term loosely, of course) see another of Omus’ suicide cargo ships heading for New Washington, but because their fabulous new warship is apparently completely unarmed, they just kind of shrug and continue on their way, not even bothering to call New Washington and give ’em the heads-up.
Back on Delta Three, Omus sits around his control room grinning at nothing. The Starstreak’s saucer-section lands on Delta Three and our heroes team up with Nikki and her rebels. However, a bunch of really slow robots arrive and there’s a fruity battle where the rebels attack the robots with sparky poles. This is interrupted when a gigantic glowing Omus head appears in the sky, rotating and barking commands.
Dr. Caball goes to meet with Omus, figuring he can sweet-talk him into rethinking his dictatorial ways. Omus spends a long time showing Caball his operation, which of course we’re already familiar with since we’ve been watching the movie for the last hour.
Eventually, the final battle between good guys and bad guys mildly takes place, the only excitement coming when one of the robots grabs up a large rock and repeatedly bashes one of the rebels in the head with it. Then there’s some kind of uplifting narration that’s supposed to make us feel good about the awesome future.
I’ve gotta say, I have an extremely high tolerance for lameass movies, and The Shape of Things to Come was rough going even for me. I’m a big fan of model and miniature work, though, so I enjoyed the spaceships and whatnot, but overall, the unrelenting sluggishness of this flick makes the average episode of the notoriously lethargy-prone Space: 1999 seem like a Michael Bay movie. It’s your call, but don’t say I didn’t warn you.
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