Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Review: Orion's Key (1996)


Thousands of years ago a race of aliens and their android servants landed in Africa. With the help of a local tribe called the Kuala, they built an underground facility for manufacturing the elixir necessary for the aliens' survival. As payment, they shared their elixir with the Kuala, giving the Kuala nearly indefinite lifespans. It was all going really well until lightning struck the aliens' landing pod and blew it up, killing the aliens and wiping out the Kuala's village.

Fast forward to the present day, where archaeologists Michael and Corinne Cavanaugh are excavating the site where the Kuala's village once stood. Michael and Corinne are under a lot of stress because they're about to run out of funding for their dig, and their cute little son Joey is on his deathbed in the local hospital after a car crash. They're desperate to move Joey to a better facility so he can get the treatment he needs (or at least have a cushier place to die), but with their strangely evil boss Dr. Morton about to pull the plug on their work they just don't have the money.

All that changes when Corinne unearths a strange metal artifact featuring astronomical symbols (can you guess where it came from?). She scans the object into her computer and emails an image of it to Dr. Morton, which turns out to be a big mistake. Somehow, sending the image over the phone lines causes one of the alien androids that survived the explosion all those years ago to come out of stasis. It's been programmed to retrieve the metal object (a.k.a. Orion's Key), and so it comes after Corinne.

Corinne and Michael are desperate to get the object to Dr. Morton so he'll give them the money for Joey's treatment, so needless to say they aren't too anxious to hand it over to the odd-looking guy with the metallic voice. The android chases them all over Africa, and although he tries to be nice about it at first, he ends up going into military mode and getting pretty nasty. Eventually he grabs Corinne and the Orion's Key and goes back to the underground elixir facility.

Michael follows them there, and soon after that Dr. Morton shows up with a bunch of armed goons. Morton intends to take the elixir and sell it as a cure-all drug, but the android bitch-slaps him down a flight of stairs, fatally wounding him. The android uses the Orion's Key to phone home and is pretty sad to learn that his alien masters have already died out. He shuts down the elixir plant and himself, but not before giving some elixir to Michael and Corinne so they can save Joey. They give some of the elixir (which turns out to be Blue Curcao, or possibly Barbacide) to Joey, and although he does come out of his coma, his eyes start glowing and he begins speaking with a distinctly alien-sounding lisp.


Orion's Key (also packaged under the title Alien Chaser) is a movie which gives you the initial impression that it might not be all that bad. The first few scenes lack the derivative feel of most low-budget sci-fi films. Soon enough, though, the signs of badness begin to appear, and by the time the actors actually start talking you know any hope for quality will be obliterated like a lightning-struck space pod. By the end of the movie the badness has snowballed into an unstoppable, brain-numbing mess and you're left wondering where it all went wrong.

Of all its many flaws, the most serious problem with Orion's Key is probably its two main characters Michael and Corinne (or as I like to call them, Whiny Idiot and Bombastic Shrew). Michael is spineless, complaining, and inept - the sort of guy you can imagine borrowing your car without asking, crashing it into a tree, then blaming the whole thing on the tree. Corinne seems to hate everyone and everything, especially her incompetent husband. When she's not launching into an angry diatribe against whatever comes to hand she's likely to be talking angrily to herself about Michael's failings. These two bicker, gripe, bellyache and yell at each other through the entire movie, making any reasonable viewer yearn to see the android rub them out as quickly as possible.

Orion's Key features a trope common to alien-related films which has always annoyed me: the character who remains skeptical that aliens exist even after the build-up of alien evidence becomes overwhelming. In this case, that character is Corinne. Even though Michael had been theorizing that aliens visited the Kuala tribe for quite some time; even though she herself unearths the strange, futuristic metal object emblazoned with all sorts of outer-space designs; and even after witnessing on many occasions the superhuman feats of the seemingly indestructible, incredibly odd-looking gentleman that's been pursuing her, she remains in denial that aliens could be involved. When her husband brings up the possibility during one of their narrow escapes from the android, she looks at him with palpable disdain and says, "Michael, listen to yourself."

Frank Zagarino, who plays the stoic android, will be familiar to readers of this blog as he also played the android in Armed and Deadly. Evidently there is just something about this guy that screams "ANDROID" to certain people. Personally, I don't see it. He sports his trademark haircut here (a snow-white flattop), which doesn't strike me as a very androidian sort of look. A bright-red afro would only make him look slightly more ridiculous. As with Armed and Deadly, we get an android here who can deflect bullets and survive explosions without showing any signs of damage whatsoever. Creative decision or budget-minded special-effects cop-out? You decide.

I actually did feel sort of sorry for the android in this movie. He kept trying to explain what he wanted in a polite way and people only seemed to want to either run away, shoot him, or drop boulders on his head. Hunting down the two most obnoxious people in Africa is a tough job, and the poor guy goes through all that trouble only to find out that his bosses are extinct, and any hope of overtime pay is out the window.

I have to give Orion's Key points for trying to be original. Africa is an unusual setting for a sci-fi movie, and though much of the plot is cliched, it does offer a few unique ideas. However, any originality is mitigated by the completely confusing way the film is executed. The inconsistencies of plot and even simple logic pile up at a dizzying rate. Much is left unexplained, and much of what is explained doesn't make sense. Still, the aliens' giant cosmic Slurpee machine is pretty cool.

Final Analysis

After watching Orion's Key I felt like I needed a few shots of that alien elixir myself. Between the incoherent plot, the bickering characters, and the "twist" ending featuring Joey the Alien Boy, this movie left me a little shaky. In a way it reminds me of those Time-Life "Mysteries of the Unknown" books from the 1980's. "Did ancient astronauts crash-land in Africa 2000 years ago? Read the book." Just don't see the movie.


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