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.

Thursday, September 01, 2005

Review: Equalizer 2000 (1986)


Bear with me here, folks... So there was this nuclear war. And after the whole nuclear winter thing died down it got really hot, even in Alaska. In the sun-baked, barren wasteland that used to be the 49th state, there are still some pockets of humans left. A large, paramilitary-style group called the Ownership (possibly the remnants of George W. Bush's "Ownership Society") have taken control of all the gasoline reserves in the area. The members of the Ownership reside in a cheesy styrofoam castle and look kind of like dusty, post-apocalyptic chauffeurs.

The Ownership is trying to quash the dozen or so little rebel groups that oppose it. During a gun battle between the Ownership and the largest rebel group, we meet our "hero," a beefy bearded fellow by the named of Slade. Slade is fighting for the Ownership, but during the battle his father is killed and he is taken captive by the rebel group. Another member of the Ownership, a skinny idiot named Lawton, is pleased by this development. With the dashing and competent Slade out of the way he can move up the corporate ladder a little more quickly. To ensure that Slade doesn't come back and screw things up for him, Lawton tells the Ownership's leader that Slade deserted them and went over to the rebels' side.

Elsewhere, buxom, post-apocalyptic babe Karen is trying to make a deal with some scummy outlaws to trade gasoline for rockets. The deal goes awry and the outlaws chase her into the hills. She meets up with Slade, who just escaped from his captors, and the two of them fend off the outlaws. Karen takes Slade to the encampment of her father, Dixon. Dixon is the leader of a peaceful group that lives in a sort of fortified slag-heap. They don't want to get involved in the struggle between the Ownership and the rebels, but when the Ownership comes looking for Slade, they are forced to fight.

Dixon and his group are able to hold their own, thanks largely to a big-ass gun - the Equalizer 2000 (well, nobody actually calls it that in the movie but we all know that's its name). Once Lawton sees the Equalizer, he becomes obsessed with it, figuring that if he had a really big gun he could gain control of the Ownership. With the unwitting help of the outlaws, he gets the Equalizer and puts many ventilation holes in his former boss.

Dixon's group decides to throw in their lot with the rebels and attempt an attack on the Ownership castle. With the help of a mysterious tribe of "natives" called the Mountain People, they manage to fight their way in. Karen unwisely saves Slade's life and pays the ultimate price for it. Slade turns Lawton into swiss cheese. When it's all over, everyone throws their weapons into a bonfire, making the moral choice that in the future they will just kill one another with their bare hands.


For those of you who read Bitter Dregs, I've been trying to decide which is worse, Equalizer 2000 or its cousin, Firebird 2015 A.D. Both feature barren wastelands; dusty, dirty people driving around in beat-up old cars; lots of shooting; a struggle for gasoline; one rather attractive female character; and a distinct lack of effort on the part of the filmmakers. I still haven't made up my mind as to which is the inferior film, but I can say that Equalizer 2000 is the less intellectual of the two. I certainly never got the feeling that there was some oblique political message here the way I did with Firebird. I'd say that Equalizer 2000 is a movie made by the stupid, for the enjoyment of the stupid.

Speaking of stupid, heroes don't come much stupider than Slade. I don't mind the strong, silent type, but I like to have the impression that there is some kind of neural activity going on behind the scenes. When Slade sits there, looking stone-faced into the distance, you can almost hear a dial-tone. And what about the name "Slade," anyway? Do guys like this ever have normal names like Albert or Fred?

Slade's not the only one in the movie with a dumb name, though - many of the minor characters' monikers are even worse. The credits read like a list of rejects from the Seven Dwarves: Skidplate, Boze, Deke, Alamo, Tailfin, Firewall, Lube Job, etc... In addition to the bad names, the filmmakers also chose to give their actors really terrible costumes. Lawton, for example, sports a chauffeur's cap, shop goggles, football pads, boots, gauntlets, and duct tape accents, all seemingly spray-painted black. It looks even less threatening than it sounds on Lawton, who appears to be about 6'2 and 115 lbs.

I can't believe they killed off Karen (played with actual effort by Corinne Wahl). Maybe it was expecting too much to hope the only likable character would make it to the end of the film, but I was rather incensed when she got gunned down. She seemed to bring a little life to her role, unlike her costars (and, no, it wasn't just because she had a spandex tank-top with a plunging neckline). Her death served no particular purpose as far as the plot is concerned, so I'm guessing they had to eliminate her because she was making the other actors look even worse by comparison.

I don't know if the nuclear holocaust caused people to lose the ability to use the sights on guns, but nobody in Equalizer 2000 can aim worth two cents. Considering the number of rounds fired through the course of the movie, the death toll is really quite low. The only people who seem able to hit their targets are the Mountain People, who use bows and arrows as their primary weapons. The importance of the Equalizer seems mitigated by the fact that not even Slade could hit the broad side of a battleship with it.

Issues of aiming aside, I still don't understand what was so great about this gun anyway. It was basically just a couple of machine guns and rocket launchers welded together. It's not like the average graduate of shop class couldn't figure out how to make another one.

Final Analysis

Equalizer 2000 is a joyless little film which adds nothing of note to the post-apocalyptic school of cinema. The big gun is kind of cool, and Karen is agreeably foxy, but by the end of the movie they are both history. Watch this one only if every other boring, low-budget, post-nuclear-holocaust movie is unavailable.