The Terrornauts (1967)
Hi all, Nate here. Want some forgotten British sci-fi from Harold Wilson's third year as Prime Minister? Yes? Really mean that? Ok, you asked for it.
So we open with what is pretty much a one-man SETI operation, led by a tall, handsome scientist named Joe who is working with a rented radio telescope in England, looking for radio signals from outer space. Joe is assisted by Ben, another good-looking scientist who isn't nearly as gung-ho about the fruitier aspects of the project, and his office manager Sandy.
Joe (he's handsome).
Ben (he's less so).
Sandy is a fat, ugly middle-aged woman with nasty brown British teeth and my half-blind great aunt Eleanor's fashion sense. Oh wait, no, I forgot for a second that this was a sci-fi b-movie from the '60s, so of course Sandy is a sizzling hot young thing with perfect hair and long sexy legs that could bring the Greeks to Troy. Fine by me, but just once I'd love to see a movie where the presumptive female romantic lead is a chubby, homely housewife with halitosis and orthopedic shoes. But I suppose that's not why we go to see movies after all.
Sandy, in her element.
Joe confides in them that his obsession with listening for aliens comes from a dream he had when he was a kid. In this dream he was on an alien world with two moons, a dream so real that it drove him to become a scientist. And his patience and determination is rewarded as they receive a “signal” from a point in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter that sure looks like it was sent by a sentient race. So they devise a way to use the radio telescope to send a message back into space towards the spot where they heard the signal, a message that essentially says “Hi there, how's it going?”. This is the culmination of Joe's life's work and he's understandably excited. Less excited are Ben and Sandy, who are just here to support their friend Joe and to cash their paychecks.
Ouu, 24 hour clocks, how British.
Night comes and they send off their signal to the asteroid belt, and almost immediately an alien spaceship leaves a base in the belt and heads for Earth. The model here is fantastically unique and shockingly not a disc-shaped hubcap on strings. The ship uses a tractor beam to suck up the entire building the lab is in and flies back to home base with it. Inside are the two dude scientists, the hot lab chick, plus a visiting accountant and an old lady serving tea and coffee who just happened to be in the room when the spaceship arrived.
Our humans, soon to be off-world.
The ship sets the building down in their station in the asteroid belt and the wary and flabbergasted humans are met by a Dalek-like robot that leads them into the heart of the station. Once there, the robot initiates a series of tests on them to determine if they are worthy of being introduced to the community of far-more-advanced beings that inhabit the galaxy. These escalating tests start with the simple “can you open this box” question, then move to the “can you show empathy towards creatures that don't look like you” test, ending with “can you understand the principles of astral navigation?”. The humans pass all these tests easily, learning a bit more about the aliens who created these tests as they go along. The actors all do a good (not great) job of being confused and suspicious, though none of them are really that afraid or even hysterical at being kidnapped by aliens when two hours ago they were more worried about their dinner plans and who won the football match.
Following the robot.
Holographic monster (really).
The Big Reveal is that the station has been abandoned for centuries, though the robots on board are still carrying out their programming. In this case, that means observing local life in the solar system, retrieving species that look to be advanced, running them through intelligence tests, and then introducing them to the living crew. All of that went according to plan except the last part, because the crew have been desiccated skeletons for a long, long time. We even get to see one, our movie's sole jump-scare, and it's a dime store Halloween skeleton painted green (sigh...).
Woof, that's not where the budget went.
The empty control center.
Along the way they happen upon what could be an alien transporter pad (ala Star Trek) and Joe and Sandy “beam down” to an unknown world. This planet is instantly familiar to Joe as it's the one that he dreamed of when he was a child (never sufficiently explained). There are some green-skinned savages here who capture Sandy and she's saved at the last second from ritual execution by Joe and a laser gun that he found on the station. They take the transporter pad back to the station, having learned that the galaxy is full of inhabited planets of varying levels of technology. Once again, none of this really seems to phase our heroes much, they take all this quite in stride (I would have collapsed into a puddle of jello long ago).
The alien world, with bi-moons.
The humans figure out that they are on a well-armed defensive station that the aliens built to protect this part of the galaxy from hostile invaders. The last quarter of the movie is where it really falls apart, and is probably the reason most people say this movie sucks. Once they discover that the station is long-abandoned and get a taste of the fantastic technology, there seems a couple good ways to end the movie. If it were me, I'd just have them accidentally blow the place up (“Whoops, who put that self-destruct button there?”) and escape back to Earth on the robot ship. Or maybe discover the last survivor of the alien race onboard and have some philosophical chats with it before it sends them back to Earth before dying. Instead, they went with “the humans have to use the station's weapons to fend off an attack by a totally different hostile alien race that's bent on destroying the Earth”. These enemy soldiers, inventively called “The Enemy”, just happen to show up at this very moment.
Joe wears skinny ties.
Our heroes have to learn how to operate the station's weapons by putting on these shower caps with wires attached to them and plugging into the collection of unmarked boxes that the aliens helpfully left scattered around for them (thanks for not slapping some labels on anything, alien dicks). This might also be why this movie takes hits from idle reviewers, because the visual image of the three of them wearing those dorky hats while flipping random switches and staring off-screen out a window never fails to look incredibly and laughably stupid.
Hohoho, that's funnystuff.
But the actual space battle itself shows some inventive touches and is quite well done. The station shoots out rockets from circular tube tracks and the the Enemy ships fire back with blow-torch lasers. The model work is simply fantastic, the attacking ships look like props from Space: 1999 (a good thing) and the station is all angular and systematical, nothing like the Standard Round Disc UFO style that nearly every sci-fi movie used for 30 years. Rocket launching/flying effects and explosions are to scale and not over done, and there's a welcome lack of “bwoops!” and “zappps!” on the soundtrack. For the budget, this might actually be one of the best space battle scenes I've seen in a long time, maybe the best before Star Wars in 1977?
That's good model work.
Enemy ships on the viewscreen.
In the end the last Enemy ship kamikazes the station and everything starts to burn and explode. Our heroes have to use the transporter pad to escape. They managed to set the coordinates to the south of France (really) and they all make it out alive. They didn't know how to finish it off, so they just have them pick up a newspaper that happened to be at their feet and read how they are all supposedly dead (spoiler: they're not). Everyone laughs and roll credits.
Always leave 'em laughing.
So that's that. Some good things? While our three main leads are all twentysomethings, the two older people playing the accountant and the maid completely take over for a while when given the chance. And by that I mean that they decided that they were going to show these young actor kids how you do it, deftly using their few minutes of screen to give more life and humor and interest to their characters than the other three manage to do all movie. I would totally watch this movie ten times again if they left Joe and Ben back on Earth and just sent the accountant and the maid to the alien station, to mince about and say amusing Cockney things all day, that would have been great. Sandy can come along, she's cute.
Veterans of the stage.
And speaking of Sandy, to my surprise there are no romantic triangles or forced love subplots at all. Sandy and Joe never really become a couple at all, pretty much just working partners and friends. A few times Joe holds Sandy's hand, but that's just when they are running somewhere (1960s women were physically incapable of running on their own without a man holding their hand, look it up). One slightly pained look from Ben early is the only hint of jealousy, and that's never followed up on even though there were ample opportunities to grind the plot to a halt and have a love triangle. Very refreshing.
If Ben loves her, he sure doesn't show it.
While the outside was great, the interior design of alien station is sadly typical of sci-fi of the era. Lots of stainless steel and plastic, too much blank wall space and large open rooms with nonsensical design elements. Once we see that the aliens are essentially man-sized humanoids, you'd think you'd see more in the way of chairs and sinks and keyboards and door handles, but everything seems sterile and clean. Perhaps the robots cleaned the place up a bit before their human guests arrived, that was nice of them.
Some labels would be helpful.
Also, the title blows. “Terrornauts”? What the hell does that even mean? What studio executive came up with that one? He clearly didn't even see the film or read the script, probably had that shitty title in a notebook of possible names for his boss to randomly pick from. Another reason why this movie gets no love, no one likes a bad title.
But we would all love our own Wardrobe Mistress...
Written in April 2015 by Nathan Decker.
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