Friday, 20 July 2018

The OTHER films of 1977: Star Wars vs Damnation Alley

Damnation Alley, 1977

Star Wars was not Twentieth Century-Fox's only science fiction film of 1977.

In fact, it wasn't even Fox's most expensive science fiction film of 1977.  That title belonged to Damnation Alley.

Today, in our occasional series of posts about the other films from the time of Star Wars, we'll look at a movie which was thoroughly overshadowed by its lower-budget stablemate.

Damnation Alley, 1977

The cast of Damnation Alley

Damnation Alley, directed by Jack Smight, was released in the US on October 21, 1977, at a time when the theatrical run of Star Wars was finally winding down. But it was already a film out of its time.

Shot in 1976 and taking a long time in post-production, it is an adaptation (some would say a travesty) of a novel by Roger Zelazny. It is set in a post-apocalyptic world and follows a small band of survivors as they trek from an air force base somewhere in a desert to Albany in New York State.

The critics were not impressed. "Foreign powers blow up all of North America in Damnation Alley, a movie to make anyone wish the foreign powers had made Hollywood the first town to go," wrote Janet Maslin of the New York Times.

She went on: 

"The only real value of Damnation Alley is educational: This is the movie to see if you don't understand, what was so wonderful about the especial effects in, say, Star Wars. Here, the sky features streaks of red and blue light that make it look like a giant Rya rug, and it actually moves in relation to the equally phony‐looking landscape."

Audiences did not flock to it either. Made for a reported 
$17million  seventy percent more than the budget of Star Wars  it was released with the added gimmick of a new surround sound system, Studio 360, to show off the sound effects and Jerry Goldsmith's music. But it grossed only $8.7million in the USA.

The best things about Damnation Alley

The Landmaster from Damnation Alley

I didn't see Damnation Alley at the time. In fact, I only saw it very recently, in rather muddy widescreen print on television. (Maslin writes that the film's landscape "looks as if it's been photographed through [a] used coffee filter", so the muddiness may have been there originally.)

It begins so well. The first ten minutes of show the personnel of a missile base in the desert watching as enemy missiles are launched against the USA, and American weapons only manage to neutralise 40 per cent of them. The personnel listen in silence as a voice lists all the cities that have been destroyed.

This scene is chilling because it is so calm. For a moment, I thought perhaps we were watching a war game. But no, North America has been largely annihilated. 

The scene is played with no panic and not even any music and that makes it all the more effective.

The film's second big plus is unveiled fairly soon after the nuclear holocaust. A small group of survivors (played by George Peppard, Jan-Michael Vincent, Pal Winfield and Kip Niven) set off across the desert in two giant armoured vehicles called Landmasters. 

The Landmaster is the sort of vehicle kids might have imagined for themselves: a virtually impregnable machine that can handle any terrain and is armed with rocket launchers. It reminded me of the vehicle which caught my imagination in Alan Dean Foster's Star Wars spin-off novel Splinter of the Mind's Eye. And as the film's heroes set off across America, I'm reminded that while we all dreaded nuclear apocalypse in the 1970s, the idea of being free to travel across a deserted and lawless landscape in a giant truck was sort of cool.

The worst of Damnation Alley

The giant scorpions of Damnation Alley

Unfortunately, I've already covered almost everything that's good about Damnation Alley.

On the down side, it tells a slack and meandering story. Our heroes face a succession of hazards that are either predictable or risible, including giant scorpions, sand storms and flesh-eating cockroaches.

In one of the better scenes, our heroes go to Las Vegas and get a thrill from playing the fruit machines, even though the winnings are useless to them. There, they also hook up with a woman (Dominique Sanda) and later they adopt a child (Jackie Earle Haley). After that, there are more predictable dangers, including marauding rednecks who are all set to abuse the only woman they've seen in two years, before the Landmaster's rocket launchers come to the rescue.

It's the film's visual effects that make much of this drama ridiculous. The giant scorpions (actually real scorpions matted into the scene) appear early and pretty much destroy the film's credibility. The contaminated post-nuclear skies look unconvincing. And the last key effects sequence in the film is almost incoherent.

It's a road movie, so an episodic structure comes with the territory, but the film doesn't build to anything. The story doesn't bear any thinking about, either  why is nobody worried about contaminated air in this post-nuclear world? and the ending is highly unconvincing.

A pre-Star Wars film in a post-Star Wars world

The cast of Damnation Alley with the Landmaster

In many ways, Damnation Alley belongs to a world before Star Wars. The post-apocalyptic future it presents is in keeping with such movies as Soylent Green, The Omega Man, the Planet of the Apes cycle and even Logan's Run. Like many a pre-Star Wars genre movie, it is based on a novel and features at least one established star, in George Peppard. (Murray Hamilton, despite being known for his role as the sheriff in Jaws, is silent and uncredited in the released version.)

Despite a couple of impressive sequences, it is a frustrating movie. The always perceptive John Kenneth Muir explains why it is not without interest:

"The primary reason that some folks like me remember and enjoy Damnation Alley, beyond the wonderful Landmaster, is that the idea of the post-apocalyptic road trip is purely and simply intriguing. It's kind of a reverse-frontier story, with brave men heading ... back east, after the frontier has been obliterated."

So there is some enjoyment to be had from Damnation Alley, for all its shortcomings. But it's hard to imagine why anyone at Fox might have thought this $17million production was a better investment than the $10million Star Wars. 

Did you see Damnation Alley at the time? Have you caught up with it since? Am I being unkind to it? I'd be grateful for your comments below.


Eric Gilliland said...

My thoughts on Damnation Alley

Darren Slade said...

I thought your review was spot-on, Eric. Although I'm starting to feel some sympathy with Damnation Alley as a film hopelessly out of its time.

Bret Cantwell said...

I was a boy when I saw this on HBO and remembered it fondly. Revisited it a few years ago, and your review encapsulated my feelings about it. The fact that it isn't good hasn't diminished my memories and knowing now what I didn't know then gives it a cultural and filmmaking context that excuse it's myriad flaws.