Color, 1977, 87m. / Directed by Alfonso Brescia / Starring John Richardson, Yanti Sommer


Color, 1978, 100m. / Directed by Alfonso Brescia / Starring Antonio Sabato, Yanti Sommer / Ventura (US R1 NTSC)

During the 1970s, Italian cinema made no secret of its unabashed attempts to cash in on American blockbusters. The Exorcist kicked off a stream of imitators, but that was nothing compared to the avalanche caused by Star Wars, whose influence continued to linger for over a decade. While international audiences were exposed to some of the more amusing examples like Starcrash and The Humanoid, countless other cash-ins passed under the radar and often went directly to television. Two of the stranger offenders, War of the Planets (Battaglie negli spazi stellari) and War of the Robots (La guerra dei robot), were directed back to back by the prolific Alfonso Brescia (under the awkward handle of "Al Bradly"), a jack of all trades best known for Conqueror of Atlantis and several spaghetti western and crime yarns.

A coherent plot synopsis of either film would be well nigh impossible, given that 90% of their running time consists of costumed actors yammering at control boards and investigating long, loooong planetary caverns and tunnels, with occasional cut-rate special effects thrown in to wake up the audience. War of the Planets (no relation to the 1966 Antonio Margheriti film, or the Japanese space opera also released in 1977!) stars Eurocult stalwart John Richardson (Black Sunday, Torso) as arrogant Orion spaceship Captain Hamilton, drawn into mystery in "the Vega Sector" when he and his crew (decked out with airline seatbelts) are pulled to an unstable planet inhabited by strange beings in stranger outfits. The planet may also be related to the mysterious destruction of another ship during a meteor storm (in the pre-credits sequence), while the ship's computer continues to go haywire and astronauts who venture outside the ship seem to be besieged by "mishaps." As it turns out, the planet is inhabited by cave-dwelling, silver-skinned aliens in loincloths driven into hiding by "the Black Peril," a devilish super-computer which ignites a stock-footage-enhanced battle for freedom.

Like its predecessor, War of the Robots raids the coffin of Mario Bava's Planet of the Vampires more than George Lucas' hit as Brescia floods the screen with gaudy, candy-colored lighting and cranks up the wonky electronic score whenever things get too slow. Antonio Sabato (Senior, that is) takes the reins as captain this time, investigating a distress signal from a planet which turns out to be inhabited by belligerent, caped aliens (who, yes, still lives in caves). As it turns out, this mysterious race is dying and needs American scientists to help preserve them. Oh, but they're also at war against a troop of blonde-wigged robots wearing silver lame jumpsuits. Once again, small-scale mayhem ensues.

Shot with a budget slightly above that of Hardware Wars, these sci-fi misfires serve their purpose as amusing '70s-style visual wallpaper, good for scenic design and ambience in your living room but not much use for coherent narrative. Settings and characters are never clearly established, leaving the viewer to grapple with handfuls of interchangeable actors shuffling through the same handful of sets. A large percentage of shots are actually hand held, which makes for a strange aesthetic clash considering the antiseptic sleekness of the locales. Fans of Ken Russell's Lisztomania may also be amused to see that film's finale virtually replayed in War of the Robots, though arguably to even stranger effect. Oddly, both films share the same supporting casts and a considerable amount of special effects footage, particularly their planet landings and an extended sequence involving an free-floating astronaut repairing a ship's exterior.

Ventura's handsomely packaged box set of these two titles features some eye-popping cover art that will do any sci-fi serial fan proud. However, the transfers inside are less satisfying, culled from fullscreen masters which lop off information from the sides (originally framed somewhere around 1.85:1) and zooming in to trim the top and bottom as well. Black levels are also too high, resulting in a washed out appearance, but monitor adjustment can solve this problem. For some reason, War of the Planets begins with an aspect ratio of 1.85:1 except for some open matte FX inserts, then reverts to pan and scan a few minutes in. Detail is soft and smudgy, with grain and coarse scratches abounding, though colors are vivid for the most part. Occasional video dropouts can also be spotted. No extras.

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