Thursday, September 26, 2013

Culture Shock 09.26.13: 'Hangar 18' puts all the pieces of UFO mania together

The 1970s were a high point of UFO sightings, alternative history, New Age mysticism and paranoid conspiracies, as well as a few not-so-paranoid conspiracies. As the decade ended, one movie in particular weaved all of those threads together.

"Hangar 18" betrays its low-budget pedigree from the opening shot: a spaceship filling the screen above a planet. It's a shot that explicitly recalls the opening of "Star Wars," except in this case the spaceship is a NASA space shuttle, the planet is Earth and the special effects look more suited to a TV movie than to anything playing on a big screen. But any movie that would so eagerly invite an unfavorable "Star Wars" comparison deserves our attention.

Released in 1980 and quickly forgotten, "Hangar 18" is back, issued on DVD and Blu-ray by Olive Films ( and looking better than it probably did during its theatrical run.

The film wastes no time getting started. The shuttle we see in the opening is on a mission to launch a top-secret military satellite. But before the launch can occur, the shuttle astronauts spot what looks like an alien spacecraft hovering above them. When the satellite launches as scheduled, it slams right into the UFO, sending the alien craft crashing to Earth and killing one of the astronauts.

From there, the film branches off into three overlapping story lines.

The first follows the team of NASA scientists assigned to study the UFO, which the government has secreted away at the titular Hangar 18. The second involves the politicians trying to keep the UFO crash secret until after the presidential election. And the third follows the two surviving shuttle astronauts trying to prove they saw what they saw and clear their names after they're blamed for their fellow astronaut's death.

If "Hangar 18" were a modern TV show, that would be enough plot for a season-long story arc, but as it is, "Hangar 18" breezes along and clocks in at a bit more than 90 minutes.

"Hangar 18" seems a bit low-rent for a theatrical release, but it would have made for a pretty impressive TV movie of the week. Director James L. Conway ("The Boogens"), who would go on to direct episodes of the various "Star Trek" spin-offs, makes the most of what he has, which includes a solid cast of television veterans, led by Darren McGavin ("Kolchak: The Night Stalker") as the NASA director tasked with leading the investigation.

McGavin's Harry Forbes is a lot like his Carl Kolchak, only Forbes gets to investigate the paranormal with the assistance of the best minds NASA has to offer, while Kolchak has only his trusty tape recorder. Forbes is the most entertaining part of the movie.

Heading up all the president's men are Robert Vaughn ("The Man from UNCLE") as Chief of Staff Gordon Cain and ubiquitous character actor Joseph Campanella as Cain's right-hand man.

The last of the heavy lifting falls to the two astronauts, played by wisecracking James Hampton ("Sling Blade") opposite wooden straight man and future "Hour Magazine" host Gary Collins.

Other recognizable faces include Pamela Bellwood ("Dynasty"), Stuart Pankin ("Not Necessarily the News") and William Schallert ("The Patty Duke Show").

Everything about the movie seems perfunctory. "Hangar 18" covers a lot of ground, so everything is plot, plot, plot with little time for anything else.

As for the plot, it's a crash course in UFO lore, drawing on ideas that became popular in the '70s: alien abductions, government cover-ups and the idea popularized in Erich Von Daniken's book "Chariots of the Gods?" that extraterrestrials visited Earth long ago and influenced humanity's development. There are even "men in black," long before MIBs became a big deal.

"Hangar 18" is entertaining enough in a disposable, Saturday matinee way, but it's truly fascinating as an artifact of UFO mania. This is where all the pieces first came together.

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