Captive (1980)

(aka Prisoners of Styrolia)

Robert Emenegger has appeared frequently on this site of late. Years ago, I caught the beginning of his space ghost story Warp Speed — not that I had any idea what it was. It haunted me for years, but even with IMDB’s help it still proved almost impossible to identify, and it took even longer to actually get around to watching it again.

Ultimately, Warp Speed just wasn’t as good as that creepy first half-hour, but it did get me interested in finding some of his other films.

Emenegger got his start in the movie business when he produced a documentary, UFOs: Past, Present, and Future in 1974 (I’m not sure it will be much of a surprise that the one film Emenegger’s movies remind me of most is Hanger 18, a flying saucer conspiracy thriller made in 1980 by Sun Classics which up till then had made documentaries about Bigfoot, Noah’s Ark and, yes, flying saucers). Two documentaries later, Robert suddenly went on a movie making binge, turning out no fewer than nine science fiction films in two years!

And then he just stopped.

It’s hard to find much information about any of his films or their release — they were too cheap and unimportant for anyone to pay too much attention to them. IMDB lists several as TV movies without providing any information on which channels actually ran them. Nor have I found anything to explain the sudden end of his cinematic efforts., particularly as he’s still around and is hard at work on various projects.

This time around he co-directed with the help of Allan Sandler, who worked with him on all his films, directing most of them. It stars former cowboy star, Cameron Mitchell, who appeared in several of Emenegger’s films and was involved behind the scenes in most of the rest (and, of course, they provided a steady source of acting jobs for Cameron‘s children).

Ironically, we’re over half and hour into the film before we reach the part of the film most summaries start with. That’s because he takes his time introducing his characters and situations: a war between Earth and another planet, Sthyrolia, which has dragged on so long that neither side has an enthusiasm left; a family living a simple and old-fashioned life on a remote farm; and the crew of a Sthyrolian spaceship on a secret patrol in Earth orbit. Mitchell is the gung ho old soldier while Alan Ladd’s son plays his tube-grown radio intercept officer/flight engineer.

Okay, it isn’t that hard to figure out that something is going to bring the two halves of our story together (although I was mildly surprised to learn that the scenes featuring Earth’s Defense Command — with a cast of, oh, four or five. Maybe six — were directed by someone else and were probably shoehorned in later on!). Nor is it much of a surprise what does bring everything together. In fact, it’s down right familiar.

Familiar isn’t really a bad thing. After all, there aren’t many stories out there that haven’t been told yet (if any). The basic story here could just as easily fit in a war movie or crime drama without any SF elements at all.

Still, it is reasonably good drama and relatively well-mounted despite its bargain basement nature. In fact, as most of the film is Earthbound and on location, Emenegger managed to find room in his budget for a brief space battle. I rather like the design of the Sthyrolian patrol ships, and the effects don’t like too bad for 1980. Particularly not for TV.

Let’s face it, Captive looks cheap and grainy. I’m not sure whether they shot this on film or video: either way, they didn’t spend much on it.

Nor does it help that, like an episode of a late-Seventies or early-Eighties TV show, it starts with a selection of clips taken from that week’s adventure.

Still, it is a moderately entertaining film if very, very minor film, one that is better than what anyone had any right to expect from such a minimal effort.

And I do have to give them credit: when the Sthyrolian ship finally reaches Earth, we suddenly learn from a line of dialogue that there is another meaning to the film’s title than the very obvious one.

Which gives Captive just a little more depth than we had any right to expect.

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