B-Movie Inspiration: 70s Italian Cheese (1977-1978)

Cosmos: War of the Planets (1977)

Alfonso Brescia, Italian director and movie maker, churned out 4 movies between 1977 and 1978.  I have seen two of them and these films could easily be connected directly as sequels.  Both have similar sets, costuming, and themes, and some actors are in both films.  They are also equally as bad.  So bad that I felt they deserved to be lumped together in one article.

All four films in the series are Italian low budget films that were put out to capitalize on the Star Wars craze.  They have all the great elements of a sci-fi B movie Star Wars rip-off – space ships, rogue pilots, robots, aliens and disco music.  These two films were shot basically back to back, obviously.

Cosmos: War of the Planets is a disjointed and odd film about a far future that becomes overly reliant on computers and robots to make their own decisions.  The protagonist is a computer-hating rogue that gets into alot of trouble over his hatred of the “main computer” called The Wiz.  In the first 45 minutes or so there are various scenes that seem to have nothing to do with the story.  The editing is terrible because the sheer randomness of some scenes almost loses the whole story altogether.  There is a scene where a couple wishes to get “intimate” and apparently they even use computer gizmos to simulate that. This is just one translucent attempt to illustrate the central theme of the movie.

Throughout the movie, there is reference to something called the Robot War.  It’s never clear what that is but I interpret it as something like a robot uprising.  When I first saw the title of the other movie in this review, I thought perhaps it was a prequel explaining that plot element.  However, as I watched the War of the Robots, I realized just how wrong I was.

This rogue captain, Mike Hamilton, is later sent off on his ship the MK-31, on a mission to investigate an “unstable planet” (whatever that means) that is sending disrupting signals to Earth.  There they encounter flying saucers that attempt to shoot them down, forcing MK-31 to land on the planet.  On the surface of the desolate planet, they find a portal that zaps a number of the crew underground where they stumble across the subjugated humanoid inhabitance and their robotic boss – a giant controller robot that looks like something ripped from the old Lost in Space show.

The boss, a cheesy precursor to Terminator’s Skynet, has enslaved the entire planet and is sort of worshiped like a god.  However, it has a problem.  It needs repairing and the enslaved sheep of his world no longer have the knowledge or ability to fix it.  He tries to force the crew to fix him.  Perhaps the most cheesy part of the movie is the fix that was needed – just a simple board switch-out that could have been done by a child.  It should have been more complex and challenging, perhaps making the heroes sacrifice a part of their ship or something, but no, they cheesed it up.

They eventually destroy the controller robot computer thing and all escape only to discover the consciousness of the controller transferred to one of the crew.  He goes on a killing spree until the heroes take him down.  The overall story and theme of the movie is pretty good but unfortunately it is veiled by poor editing and cheesy music.  The acting is also very bad and the english dubbing made it even worse.  The sets and special effects are old Dr. Who quality, the aliens being simply green painted humans with pointy-ears.

From an RPG game master point of view, this movie has a few gems in it, some of which I have used before.

  • Over-reliant and complacent Society – The primary theme I got out of it is the common saying “Forget history and you are doomed to repeat it.”  Here we have Earth already over-reliant on technology to the point that they cannot make a decision on their own.  This is the primary motivation for the main character, as he “follows his gut” and brutishly makes decisions on his own, sometimes ignoring the decisions made by the machines.  And what does he discover?  An alien race that has been there and done that…and regrets it.  The forewarning-of-doom story line can be worked into long term campaigns easily.  You have whole societies of “sheeple” reliant on one particular thing or another.  It does not have to be technology; it can be magic or a particular type of magic. Ignorant of what could happen, these people continue to rely on this particular plot device to the point that it’s dangerous.  Enter in an ancient race or being that has done it before and learned the consequences.  Now it is up to the players to show their society that there are other ways.
  • Planet-wide controlling computer – This I have used before and actually continue to use because I keep finding plot lines that I can use it in.  Ancient alien races that build these giant computers that control their entire society.  What happens after the aliens are gone? Does the computer go crazy?  Does it die?  Does it go dormant until something else wakes it up? What does it do when it discovers it has nothing left to control?    All these questions and more can be explored in a sci-fi setting.  In a fantasy setting, it is a little more difficult but not impossible.  It does not have to be a planet , it could be a castle or a dungeon.  The computer could instead be some kind of magically generated personality trapped inside the structure for the purposes of controlling it. An idea I had was a once great kingdom destroyed by war, that was once ruled by a powerful sorcerer.  The computer can be this sorcerer or some malevolent Sauron-like being trapped in some magic item, ruling over some wasted lands, using golems to do its bidding.
  • The Killer Robot – Expanding off the Computer element, it could have lost control of one robot or golem and the task the party must complete is defeating that robot/golem.
  • The post-apocalyptic aliens – I like the idea of a post-apocalypse that is not our own.  These aliens lived underground in compounds accessible only be teleport gates.  Cool idea.  Another aspect of these people are that they are telepathic.  That’s either a racial thing or something they develop due to mutations from the war.  Not very original but still an aspect that gives them a more alien feel.  They historically complacent and lazy because they were once dependent on robots and computers, which is something you can tie into other plot elements.

War of the Robots (1978)

War of the Robots takes us to a similar future.  On a planet, a genetic engineer (Professor Carr) and his beautiful assistant Lois are experimenting with “the forces of nature” by artificially creating life.  This process apparently involves the use of a big nuclear reactor that the scientists have near their lab.  While arguing over the morality of creating artificial life, the scientists are kidnapped by silvery aliens with bad hair-cuts (which we later find out are robots) and taken off planet in a ship that looks very similar to the flying saucers in Cosmos: War of the Planets.  Unfortunately, the good doctor left his reactor running and because he has heavily modified it, no one knows how to shut it down.  It’s going critical and in 8 days and it will take out the entire city! Our hero, coincidentally the assistant’s secret lover John Boyd, is dispatched to rescue the two by the space authority of Space Base Sirius.

Through a few recycled shots and props from Cosmos: War of the Planets,  the crew of the ship Trissi (at least it’s not another bunch of letters and numbers) get on the trail of the alien kidnappers.  They catch up only to be attacked by two other saucers.  They take out the attackers but sustain enough damage that they have to land and repair.  They find a nearby world called Azar.  On planet, they encounter the Azarites who think Boyd and his away party are people of Anthor, an apparent enemy of the Azarites.  In short, they discover that the Anthorians have enslaved the Azarites and used them as slave labor and unwilling organ donors.  Anthorians seek immortality through harvesting Azarite organs and have kidnapped the good doctor and his scientist assistant to find a better way.  After thinking about it, I really did not think that was all that bad.  Except for the fact that he needs to shutdown his reactor, he’s actually trying to give the bad guys a good alternative and free the Azarites.  But that’s not how the writer saw it and the plot goes downhill from here.

The climax involved a lot of strange back-stabbing and betrayal.  Character motivation is very blurred for many of the characters as you begin to lose who is the bad guy and who is the good guy in a confusing array of events that lead to the final battle.  Professor Carr turns traitor and joins the Anthorians to help them, while Lois was somehow adopted as the Anthorian queen (I guess they thought she was hot).  Lois betrays Professor Carr but then betrays Boyd and everyone else for no apparently reason.  It get’s quite confusing towards the end.  Then, “Oh look…,” the giant controller robot from Cosmos: War of the Planets is now being used as Dr. Carr’s research computer.  Unlike Cosmos: War of the Planets, the editing in this was a little better, the story-telling a little clearer.  The failure was in the characters and their motivations.

Drawing ideas from this for an RPG campaign is not all that hard.  The theme is far less epic but still kind of interesting.

  • Mad scientist playing god: Common theme in many comic books, the mad scientist or scholar toying with things he doesn’t quite understand is easily used in any setting or genre.  Although it was probably a failing of the writers in character development, we see the scientist go from only slightly maniacal and morally ambiguous to eventually full blown mad when he realizes the Anthorians can supply him with not only means to his goals but a proper motivation.  This mad scientist was just waiting for a reason to be mad.
  • The search for immortality:  The Anthorians were searching for a way to live forever.  Harvesting organs from another alien race assumes they are compatible, so apparently the Azarites are an off-shoot race of the Anthorians.  There is a long and sorted background just waiting to be written right there alone.  The Anthorians apparently thought themselves as gods and sought to reach that level through whatever means necessary.

This kind of story has been explored in various ways in the Star Trek franchise.  I distinctly remember race of aliens that harvest body parts from other aliens to live.  I would imagine it took some serious genetic engineering to make all those parts compatible.  Also I think the second-to-last ST:TNG movie, Insurrection, had similar plot elements in it –both immortality and organ harvesting.  The search for immortality has been around since before Ponce de Leon and his search for the Fountain of Youth.  From this writer’s point of view, though, the journey to immortality is not as interesting as where they find it.

Although equally bad, both War of the Planets and War of the Robots are different movies with different themes.  Both have pretty good stories if you look past the terrible acting, special effects and editing.  Like most B-movies, there is inspiration somewhere in there.