To mark the 66th anniversary of the Roswell Incident and the 33rd anniversary of the film’s release (how’s that for your numerological significance, eh?), it’s time to take another hard and clear look at a film that purported in its TV spots to “reveal the truth about UFOs.” The claim seemed a little shaky off the bat, given that the film starred morning show, game show, and Miss America host Gary Collins, and featured shots of the space shuttle orbiting the Earth even though the shuttle hadn’t yet been launched on its maiden voyage.
The dreadful Gary Collins aside, the claim wasn’t all that surprising, given that Hangar 18 was produced by the fine folks at Sunn Classics Pictures , who had been releasing a stream of sort-of documentaries about Bigfoot, ancient astronauts, life after death experiences, and the Bermuda Triangle since the early ‘70s. (I honestly don’t know what I would have done with myself back then if it hadn’t been for Sunn Classics. Probably studied more. Or if not that exactly I might’ve at least developed a little more normally.) By 1980 director James Conway was a Sunn veteran, as were three of the four writers who worked on the picture, so it was a team well versed in presenting flimsy evidence of the strange and mysterious as hard, unshakable truth.
Despite Sunn’s history, Hangar 18 is actually a straight ahead science fiction conspiracy feature (Sunn’s first stab at such a thing) that owes far less to documentary wonderments like The Mysterious Monsters and Beyond and Back than it does to Capricorn One from two years earlier. Like the thriller about the faked moon landing, it takes the fundamentals of a popular conspiracy theory (in this case the 1947 Roswell Incident and the then-new whispers about the enigmatic Area 51) and perhaps out of fear of government reprisals thickly disguises them in an updated sci-fi adventure.
Casting caution and logic to the wind considering what follows, the picture opens with a traditional Sunn crawl, insisting what we are about to see is a true story, and one they were only able to tell thanks to the helpful cooperation of a few brave souls who stepped forward to tell the truth. Yes well, it’s a real head-scratcher if you think about it again after the film’s over, but I guess you can’t blame them for trying.
After some hyper-bombastic music and the opening credits (in the futuristic font and electric blue that immediately screams “‘80s MOVIE”) we cut to the shuttle in orbit. One of the three-man crew, maybe as a punishment of some sort, is in the open payload bay trying to manually launch a military satellite when, wouldn’t you know it, a flying saucer zips on by, smashing into the satellite and decapitating the astronaut at the same time.
Silly as it all is, it at least offers what I believe is a cinematic first. Kubrick may have given us a dead astronaut floating eerily in space, but Conway offers a dead, DECAPITATED astronaut spinning slowly right outside the shuttle’s windshield. Instead of making an honorable effort to retrieve the body as Dave Bowman did in 2001, the other two astronauts, Steve Bancroft and Lou Price (Collins and the always swell James Hampton) decide they might as well call it a day and go home, leaving that sucker floating there in the void forever, just another piece of headless space junk.
Okay, that preamble out of the way, we finally get on to the Roswell end of things. After slamming into the satellite, see, the UFO neatly crash lands somewhere near a dusty small town in, um, “Arizona. Like Jesse Marcel, who was immediately discredited after speaking to the press in 1947 about what the Air Force had found, when Bancroft and Price start telling their story they find all the evidence has been neatly cleaned away, and they’re being smeared in the newspapers to boot. The telemetry tapes showing the collision (in early ‘80s video game graphics) have been erased, and the UFO, big as it is, has been spirited away by government and military forces to a secret base in the middle of the Texas desert where a team of scientists (led by Darren McGavin as the deputy director of NASA) start poking at it with sticks.
Meanwhile Bancroft and Price (I’ve met real astronauts, and how these two jocular buffoons ever made it through the shuttle program I’ll never know) keep shooting their mouths off and wandering into restricted areas. The President’s Chief of Staff, Robert Vaughn (in the typically sinister “Robert Vaughn Role”), desperate to keep the story under wraps to save the upcoming election, orders a group of less-than-subtle agents to silence the loudmouthed snoops. . In short, the longer the film rolls on, the more it starts to resemble Capricorn One, right down to a scene in which our heroes discover their brake lines have been cut.
(Just as a side note here and not to give anything away, after Price dies in the middle of the highway, Bancroft just leaves him there the same way he left that headless guy bobbing around in space. What the hell is it with these astronauts?)
Far more interesting than the whole “asshole astronaut searches for truth” storyline is the investigation taking place at Hangar 18. Yes, the effects are typical of indie sci fi films from the early ‘80s, but they do toy around with some interesting ideas and some real thought went into the design of the ship. Even the extraterrestrial symbols found onboard resemble what are reputed to be the markings found in the original Roswell wreckage.
More important than the hardware though, it’s when the action moves to the investigation that we finally get some screen time from the great Darren McGavin, who singlehandedly rescues what would’ve otherwise been a pretty miserable picture. There’s just something about the guy. He was in the business for some 50 years, and always played the same character. Whether it was Mike Hammer on the ‘50s TV series or the dad in A Christmas Story, he always had the same mannerisms, the same nervous inflection, the same gestures. But dammit, I can’t see him here without seeing Carl Kolchak, having finally gotten his hands on the one piece of solid evidence that could prove everything he’d been saying all along. It’s just a shame he had to be teamed up with Gary Collins, who wasn’t even a good game show host. He’s pretty funny when he tries to emote, though.
I’m sorry. I’ve just got to stop focusing on that.
Along with the core conspiracy and Capricorn One as reference points, it’s easy to spot nods to other things here as well. Close Encounters, certainly, and several episodes of The Twilight Zone. There are a few Night Stalker in-jokes in there too. They also drag in ancient astronauts and The 1975 Sunn Classics doc The Outer Space Connection. They even give a nod to Nigel Kneale’s Quatermass and The Pit. But along with all the references to what preceded it, it’s interesting to note all those other things it foreshadowed and influenced down the line, from The X Files (you can definitely see Hangar 18’s thumbprint on Chris Carter’s forehead), to Fox’s Alien Autopsy special (which a quarter-century earlier would have been distributed by Sunn), to the use of military drone aircraft.
For all the clearly intentional similarities, and as bright and entertaining as it is, Hangar 18 still falls far short of Capricorn One. It’s a little broader, it’s not as smart, and the characters could slip through cracks in the floor. It’s obviously aimed at a different audience. And as far as revealing the truth about UFOs, well, I’m not so sure about that, either, though it did go some distance toward popularizing the mythology surrounding Area 51.
In terms of the Roswell story, I still prefer the more recent theory that claims what crashed in 1947 was actually a Soviet propaganda hoax. Inspired by Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds, Stalin attempted to spread mass hysteria in the states by having his scientists (together with the Nazi engineers they brought over after the war) design a new kind of aircraft that didn’t look or operate like anything anyone had seen before. Then he manned it with a couple deformed midget pilots and shot it over New Mexico hoping to convince a few yokels we were being invaded by Martians. Guess he didn’t much expect it to crash. But we got the Stealth Bomber and a new mythology out of it, and I still think it’s a hell of a lot better story than plain, boring old aliens.
Den of Geek Rating: 3 Out of 5 Stars