Bill the Galactic Hero (2014)

I really wanted to like this one.

In 1987, Roger Ebert was asked to predict which filmmakers would be the “Grandmasters of the 21st Century.”  At the top of his list?  Alex Cox, who had just directed Repo Man and Sid and Nancy.

Well, that didn’t work out.

Repo Man remains one of my favorite SF films, mostly because of its wondrously woven web of intricate, seemingly coincidental connections which create a filmic universe like that in the fantasies of the Repo agency’s resident weirdo, Miller.  It is a tour de force piece of construction which did seem to promise so much from the young director.

Instead, he disappeared into the cracks of the Indie world, producing odd little films that no one saw (only his revisionist western Walker attracted much praise).

For a long time, I dreamed of seeing his proposed Repo Man “sequel”, Waldo’s Hawaiian Holiday, which would have starred the original cast in roles only tangentially based on their original parts, and would have had dinosaurs!  It never appeared

But then he turned his script into a graphic novel and the sad truth was revealed:  it was a mess.  No wonder he never found any funding.

In 2010 he came out with a movie called Repo Chick, with some of his old cast back in another unrelated story.  However, it set its actions in a  green screen world of toys for no particularly obvious reason.

It left little impression, beyond a certain curiosity about why he’d made it.

But that lingering hope still remained when he started a Kickstarter campaign for his new project:  he was teaching a course in film at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and as part of his course, he was going to make an adaptation of Harry Harrison’s savage satire of Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers using his students for cast and crew.

What’s more, he had in mind a nicely lo-fi approach:  shot on real black and white film stock, with real models instead of CGI spaceships, and using real locations on campus, rather than sets or green screen backgrounds, and a proposed budget of $100,000.

It sounded like a potential in-your-face near classic piece of Indie SF.

And then he released the film.

He chose to start (and end) with an animated sequence, allegedly because those sequences would be too hard to shoot (despite the fact that the animated background looks like a 1950s middle American kind of town) – although one suspects it may have been because they had an “Anime” department on campus.  Unfortunately these sequences are not particularly impressive.

He then made the strange choice of keeping his characters in their spacesuits all the time, with the visors closed.  This means that their faces remain almost invisible, just dark shapes inside blackness.  That leaves us with only body language to tell the story – or it would if they weren’t all in bulky spacesuits.  And then, as one of the main characters, Deathwish Drang, is notably for having large fangs implanted in her mouth, Cox simply puts two fangs at the bottom of her helmet!

Perhaps it is because we never see his face that Bill’s journey from naive innocent to a brutal and cynical creature capable of tricking his own little brother into signing up seems an inexplicably sudden last-minute plot twist.  Or perhaps it is because all the dialogue must have been added in post-production:  it seems to lack something as well.

Whatever the reason, it all seems to fall flat.  Glancing at some of the scenes, I am struck by the fact that the cinematography does look quite sharp, whether he actually used black and white stock as planned – or desaturated color as one source suggested (I doubt if any black and white film stock still exists at this point – supposedly The Ghastly Love of Johnny X  used up the last of Kodak’s Plus-X stock).  And many of the situations are rather funny, in a black sort of way.  But it still falls flat, as flat as many of the jokes.  Humor is hard, and requires a lot of timing – and proper editing, for that matter.  Repo Man‘s Alex Cox could do it, but somehow not Bill‘s

And I think it fair to point out that a (real live) small lizard crawling around on a rock doesn’t make a very convincing alien.

Yes, the film does have its charms.  It is moderately entertaining, even if it never quite achieves anything like greatness.  Maybe with a professional cast (perhaps using  Phillip J. Cook’s moderately successful solution of hiring professional theatrical actors), visible faces, and a sharper script it might have come closer to its promise.

But it doesn’t leave you with the desire to watch it again.




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