1978 | Italy
AKA: Le Guerra dei Robot
Director: Alfonso Brescia

When one possesses tastes such as I do, one often assumes that one will find oneself standing alone in a vast sea of people who think one is mad, completely mad. If the Internet has taught me one thing other than there are a lot of blogs maintained by people’s house cats, it’s that you’re never so alone as you think you are. No matter how obscure or out of the mainstream your affection for a particular something may be, chances are very good there are multiple discussion boards, tumblrs, and websites dedicated to defending and celebrating whatever that thing may be. Heck, by Internet standards furries, scat freaks, and people who like to watch monkeys stick their fingers up their butt then sniff them and fall over are mainstream. And yet even in this netherworld where everything is acceptable and nothing is beyond the realm of defensibility, there are rare occasions when I still feel cold and alone in a world that regards me with suspicion and disgust. Such is the case when I offer up the opinion that Italian science fiction films are “mostly pretty OK.”

Every Italian B genre has ample defenders, be it peplum, giallo, violent cop films, or those screwball comedies people only watch because Edwidge Fenech gets nude in them. Even the third Ator film has its defenders (am I among those sad individuals? Need you even ask?). And yet when I venture forth with the suggestion that Wild, Wild Planet or War of the Robots are enjoyable movies, I feel like one of those unfortunate guys who mistimes a bodily function in a crowded venue and lets loose the precise moment everyone simultaneously gets quiet for no discernible reason. The expression on most of the faces around me is no more approving than the faces staring in harsh divine judgment at someone who just cut one in church. “Why?” they ask me as I try feebly to defend my adoration of films featuring Antonio Sabato Sr. looking resplendent in a metallic unitard. “Why do you enjoy making baby Jesus cry?” And I when I look to Christ on the cross for reassurance, his gaunt, forlorn visage merely peers back at me in disappointment as he says, “Really! I was ready to forgive your tacit approval of the visible thong fashion trend, your unrepentant atheism, and maybe even your defense of Yor, The Hunter from the Future. But Cosmos: War of the Planets? That’s too much, even for me.”

Luckily, though, I don’t actually buy into religion, and I haven’t been to church since I was a young teen trying to make time with a minister’s daughter. So you know what, Pope Gary or whoever the pope is this week? I don’t care if The Vatican disapproves of my appreciation of War of the Robots. Even if there’s not a single person out there who will back me up on this one, then I am proud to be the lone voice in the wilderness, howling like a banshee about the merits of a film like War of the Robots. Well, perhaps “merits” is too strong a word.

There doesn’t seem to be a wealth of research available on Italian science fiction, not the way there is for giallo and horror or peplum. And as I’m not living in Italy and my conversational Italian is limited to “Dove il bagno?” and “You think you’re the pope of fancytown,” I’m probably not going to end up being the trailblazer in proper research of Italian science fiction films and themes, though I shall do my best. Someone has to shoulder the burden, right? Jesus made clear to me that he was willing to die for a lot of things, but Antonio Sabato in a unitard wasn’t among them. The few books on Italian science fiction I could find were referring to literature, and not Antonio Sabato in a unitard. Hold on, let me do a search for “Antonio Sabato in a unitard.” Nope, nothing except my own work, and we all know that’s a shoddy source for information.

For our purposes here, Italian science fiction is divided into two main eras: the late 1950s through the ’60s, and the post-Star Wars 1970s. Now, let me preface this entire discussion with the admission that I hate discussing sci-fi as inspired by Star Wars. People seem to insist that movies are “rip-offs” of Star Wars even when the assertions are even more tenuous than the kind of crap I assert. Not that Star Wars didn’t have a major impact on science fiction in particular and movies in general, and not that a lot of sci-fi films would never have been made were it not for the success of Star Wars. I’m just saying that it isn’t always Star Wars; there were plenty of other sci-fi films in the 1970s the Italians could rip off. For me, it’s never a question of who rips off what, but of whether or not the rip-off is any good. And the general consensus around a film like War of the Robots is “No, not really.” I, obviously, disagree.

Few things are as candy-colored as Italian science fiction from the ’70s. In fact, that may pretty much be the only thing they are. You certainly can’t call most of them intelligent or well-written. You can’t call most of them well-directed or well-paced. Certainly not well-acted. But they are full of pretty colors. No matter how dull and plodding the film itself may actually be to the rest of the right-thinking world, I sit there in a hypnotized state, gazing happily at the colored lights and thinking to myself how much I love what I’m watching. Such is the case with War of the Robots, a film that was most likely scripted on the back of a napkin and filmed in less time than it took to write on that napkin.

It comes from the second era of Italian sci-fi, or the “Alfonso Brescia era” (the first era was the “Antonio Margheriti era”). This was the era when the swingin’ swanky spacecats of films like Wild Wild Planet gave way to the swingin’ disco lounge lizards of the cosmos, but the ponderous and meandering pace of the films remained constant. Brescia is the kind of director who has a filmography dodgy enough that if you told me for six months I’d be allowed to watch nothing but Alfonso Brescia movies, I’d be pretty happy for six months. Like most Italian exploitation directors, he worked the gamut — peplum and spaghetti westerns in the 1960s; sex, cop, and science fiction films in the 1970s; sword and sorcery and Miami Vice rip-offs in the ’80s.

Among other things, he directed one of my all-time favorite fantasy films: the bizarre mash-up of Hercules and Flash Gordon that is Conquerors of Atlantis. Although first and foremost a sword and sandal film, Conquerors of Atlantis had more than enough mad scientist gear, metallic wizard robes, laser guns, and atomic generators to also plant it firmly within the realm of science fiction. Specifically, it plays like an old serial, one of those where a good-natured cowboy accidentally discovers a lost world of guys in pointy helmets, armed with ray guns. Only instead of a cowboy, it was an ancient world strongman. Given Brescia’s familiarity with such material, it’s a bit of a surprise to me that he didn’t make any straight sci-fi during the 1960s, and that straight sci-fi remained more or less the sole dominion of Antonio Margheriti until later in the ’70s, when Brescia took over and Antonio decided to spend his time directing cheap, bloody Vietnam movies.

Come the 1970s, when Star Wars generated new interest in the pulpy, adventure-oriented sort of science fiction that the 1970s had otherwise eschewed in favor of contemplative (if ham-fisted) post-apocalypse films (which were not very much like the post-apocalypse films of the 1980s), Brescia was the man behind the camera more times than not (the most significant “not” being Luigi Cozzi’s Starcrash). Brescia’s films are defined by a few key elements, though if there’s any single over-arching theme running through the body of his science fiction output, it’s that in the future most of our time will be spent sitting in front of control panels covered with blinking lights.

Other characteristics include his bizarre hybrid of swingin’ ’60s pop art fashion with sparkling lens flare disco aesthetics and an extreme reliance on gratuitous and functionally useless helmets. He also really likes shots of guys firing flashlights at each other from behind stone formations. Oh yeah, also, whatever movie you thought you were watching in the beginning ends up getting discarded halfway through in favor of another movie Brescia must have thought up during lunch and figured he wouldn’t get a chance to make, so why not cram it into the movie he was already making?

In War of the Robots, for example, the movie we start out with is about a scientist (Jacques Herlein, who once appeared in a movie called The Hostess Also Likes to Blow the Horn) and his lovely assistant (Malisa Longo, Wild Wild Planet, and who also had a bit part in Way of the Dragon) who get kidnapped by aliens designed to look like Miles O’Keefe in Sword of the Valiant. The aliens need the scientist because he has discovered the secret of how to create life, presumably with his sexy assistant. The old crank has an entirely unprofessional affection for his young assistant, which he expresses whenever he can by grabbing her bare shoulders and casually brushing against her breasts. I guess that’s the sort of thing you have to be good at when you have discovered how to create life. I’m not really sure how a race that hasn’t figured out how to procreate managed to become a race in the first place, but whatever. It’s the future.

The kidnapping doesn’t sit well with Captain Antonio Sabato, or with the rest of the people in the world, since the scientist was apparently running an experiment that, if left unattended, would destroy the planet. In an incredible feat of planning, the aging scientist is the only person who knows how to shut down the experiment. So off into space we go with Sabato and his crew, most of whom seem pretty blase about the whole “the world will explode in seven days” thing and more interested in slinging cheesy lounge lizard come-ons at each other, though mostly at crewmember Julie (Yanti Somer). She has a thing for Captain Sabato who has a thing for kidnapped science assistant Lois (yes yes, the ol’ John Hughes “guy has a thing for glamor girl when plucky tomboy sidekick is better for him” plot is firmly in place years before Hughes made it his stock in trade).

If you’re wondering why we’re wasting time with all this dumb soap opera nonsense when we should be tending to the rescue of a scientist from some alien pageboys, well you’re apparently not going to get very far in Italian space command. Remember that they are a fiery and passionate bunch, those Mediterraneans, and just because you are on a critical mission to save the world doesn’t mean there’s not time to ooze up next to a crewmate and lay on sleazy lines like, “Baby, why are you still obsessed with the captain? You know he loves Lois. But maybe you could swing by my quarters later, and I’ll show you my collection of Anthorian fertility fetishes.”

En route to the point (“north pole Earth, 90 degrees west, and 810 north”) at which their spaceship, which is kitted out with the world’s most advanced rolling space office chairs, will intercept the aliens, our crew ends up crashing on a planet inhabited by mutants, one of whom looks like Yul Brynner in cheap World of Warcraft elf makeup. It turns out that these people are used by the pageboys as a humanoid (as they say, “we are humanoid but different from you”) internal organ farm. The pageboys, it turns out, are the goon squad for a race that can only stay alive by stealing organs from other races. Not-Yul Brynner (Aldo Kanti, actually, as Kuba) is itching for revenge. So Sabato lets him join the crew on the condition that Kuba trade in his loincloth and cape for a snug, metallic space jumpsuit.

After some more, “So, who do you like? Why does he love her?” banter, we finally arrive at the alien planet, where Captain Sabato discovers the horrible truth — that the kidnapped Earth scientist is actually enjoying his new home and accompanying space wizard robes and has no interest in returning to save Earth or even telling the crew how to shut down the stupid experiment he left percolating in the kitchen. In fact, it turns out he and Lois have decided to lead an invading armada to conquer the planet — which would make you think they’d want to at least help out with stopping the reactor, since amassing an armada to invade a planet that is going to blow up seems like a poor application of resources.

So at this point, someone from Italian space command calls Sabato and is like, “Oh, we ended up figuring out that reactor thing. You can go on to the next movie.” So the remaining half of the film is dedicated to the glorious and epic battle among the stars for the very fate of humanity itself. This is realized largely by filming scenes of Antonio Sabato wearing a motorcycle helmet and sitting at a control panel while he pretends to fly a spaceship with scenes from the movie projected behind him, not unlike similar scenes from the Turkish sci-fi epic, The Man Who Saved the World.

Other people sit at control consoles elsewhere and do the same. In the end, it seems like an exceptionally one-sided battle despite what we’re being told in various snippets of exposition. I mean, on one side is an old man and a bunch of pageboys who turn out to be androids filled with springs, and on the other side are a bunch of hot-blooded Italians led by Antonio Sabato in a useless helmet. What is a motorcycle helmet going to do for you while you’re flying a space fighter? I would think that, even by Italian standards, when you crash a ship in open space, mild head trauma is going to be among the least of your concerns.

As is often the case, if you ask me why I like this movie, I’ll shrug and mumble something about pretty colors and lights and isn’t Yanti Somer a peach? And you’ll shake your head, maybe try to explain to me that those are not really reasons of merit to like a film as much as I like War of the Robots. I will respond by putting my fingers in my ears and, in an affected monotone computer voice, repeating “Does not compute!” until you finally lose heart and go off to win the Nobel Prize or something, leaving me in peace to watch War of the Robots and brood about how no one understands me but Alfonso Brescia.

Antonio Sabato seems to be on autopilot for this film, but he’s still Antonio Sabato, and that means he’s cooler than you or me, which is why he has time to juggle two hot space ladies while still saving the galaxy from an army of Miles O’Keefe robots. Malisa Longo gets to chew some scenery with her “lab assistant turned evil space empress of the universe” role, and I guess we can’t blame her or the professor for taking the offer, though they might at least have questioned how a race that has perfected android making, interstellar travel, ray guns, and other highly advanced technologies and feats have yet to figure out how not to live in sparsely-adorned caverns. Yanti Somer mostly hangs around looking cute, occasionally killing things and drinking space martinis. The rest of the cast is pretty non-descript, except maybe the “Texan” who communicates his Texan-ness by wearing cowboy boots with his space outfit.

Really though, none of the faults of this film bother me. Or rather, they didn’t bother to the point that they outweighed the enjoyment I got from the sheer silliness of everything on display. Even though I opened this review by talking about how I hate when everything is listed as “a rip-off of Star Wars,” it’s hard to argue against that when Antonio Sabato gets involved in a fight with glowing laser swords. Unfortunately, Alfonso Brescia couldn’t afford to have someone draw in animated laser blades in post-production (I don’t even think a movie like this has post-production. I think they just assemble it as they film it, then send it off to theaters later that afternoon by fourth-class media mail), so they just use regular plastic swords with reflective tape on them (which is actually how Star Wars pulled off a lot of its lightsaber effects, only better). But other than that, I think claims of Star Wars rip-offery are greatly overstated.

Yes, this movie and the whole series of science fiction films made by Brescia got made because someone wanted their own Star Wars. But the content of War of the Robots is substantially different from that of its big-budget door-opener. It’s very much a throwback to the cheap sci-fi films of the 1950s and ’60s, when the interiors of spaceships were all wide-open and spacious and equipped with folding tables and rolling chairs. And yes, there are a lot of scenes of people sitting at a prop control panel turning knobs, but there are also a fair number of laser battles and sneaking around in catacombs while wearing sexy pleather space outfits.

If anything, War of the Robots owes more to Mario Bava’s Planet of the Vampires and even more to Gerry Anderson’s British sci-fi television series UFO than it does Star Wars. It is from psychedelic space adventures like these that Brescia seems to be cribbing his notes (including an alien race that survives by harvesting the organs of other compatible races and putting most of his female cast in platinum bob haircut wigs). As such, War of the Robots feels more like something that came before Star Wars. Heck, the UFOs in which the aliens travel are basically the UFOs from UFO, only realized with even less of a budget than that television show probably enjoyed.

A lot of the science fiction in the 1970s before Star Wars started striving to create some new, usually depressing realism, abandoning the gee-whiz pop art madness of the 1960s and opting instead for films that were dystopic and, at least in the eyes of those making them at the time, truer to a potential real future. Thus the grim setting of a film like Solyent Green, Ultimate Warrior, or Silent Running. For decades, science and the military had protected us, even when they were also responsible for creating whatever it was we need to be protected from (usually a giant scorpion or giant mantis or giant bald man in a diaper). After the turmoil of the 1960s, science fiction was keener on appealing to the suspicious streak running through people. Science was our undoing, rather than our savior, and it was left to the survivors to pick up the pieces as best they could and spend their days waxing poetic about plants while wearing burlap tunics.

Star Wars ushered in a “new” era of old-fashioned pulp sci-fi that took the focus off grim prognostications about the future and placed it squarely on action and adventure, with films that were as much swashbuckler and fantasy as they were sci-fi. Few kids filed dutifully in to see Star Wars because they were interested to find out what it had to say about the threat of nuclear annihilation (it said, “don’t live on Alderaan”) or because they wanted to reflect on how Gran Moff Tarkin was an allegory for the Nixon administration. It was meant to be a rollicking good adventure yarn, and for a population perhaps weary of being beaten over the head with the doom and gloom scenarios that filled the 1970s, it struck exactly the right chord.

As much as I enjoy a heavy-handed 1970s sci-fi film, I also enjoy a good ol’ pulpy adventure, and I think the universe is big enough to house them both. War of the Robots doesn’t really strike me as having any particular type of message, although one could be forced from it if one was desperate. After all, this is a movie where science gets us in a pickle and then flat-out refuses to take even the simplest of steps to rectify the situation, leaving the solution to be found by two-fisted adventurers. Somewhere in there is a parallel to, oh, let’s say the scientists that created the atom bomb and then were like, “Welp, good luck with that, world!”

I don’t think War of the Robots is trading in that sort of agenda, though. I think, more than anything else, Alfonso Brescia just wanted to make a goofy science fiction film full of lens flares, jumpsuits, and boopidy-boo-boo electronic music by Marcello Giombini. What you have here is basically what would happen if you mashed the freewheelin’ science fiction of the ’60s together with the fashion and art design of Logan’s Run. It’s pretty glorious in that cut-rate way Italian sci-fi production design tends to be. Lots of tight vinyl, lots of Lycra jumpers, some bulky spacesuits, and perhaps my personal favorite: the crew uniforms that say “Trissi” on them, ostensibly because the spaceship is named Trissi, but in reality because the uniforms are just Trissi brand motorcycle outfits, and the filmmakers didn’t have the time, money, or interest to remove the logo from the arm of the outfits.

Other key moments include the realization of spacewalking by turning the camera sideways and having an actor wave his arms around in front of a starry background painting. Suspending them by wires in front of the starry background would have just been too costly and complicated. Better than that, this is just footage recycled from Brescia’s War of the Planets. And even better than that, War of the Robots uses it twice. Then there’s the laser gun battle—keeping in mind that there are no animated rays; just flashlights in the shape of novelty ray guns—where they neglected to add sound effects, so it’s just a scene of the good guys pointing their prop ray guns at the bad guys, who then fall down.

At some point, someone said they would probably need some sort of story, so Brescia shrugged and came up with something that was probably a summary of the last few scripts he read. Thus you get space aliens who kidnap a scientist…ummm, and then they’re going to invade Earth…let’s throw a romantic triangle in there for good measure…and look, really, as long as Antonio Sabato is in there wearing a bright red motorcycle helmet and we have a lot of animated ray gun effects (we don’t, by the way), we should be good to go. And as long as they had a viewer as undemanding as me in mind, they were correct.

Pretty much the only reason this movie went into production was that someone noticed that had a lot of stuff lying around that was used on Brescia’s previous War of the Planets and figured they might as well squeeze another movie or two out of it. And if they were doing that, they might as well hire the same basic cast, since they already fit into their costumes as well as anyone can fit into a pleather jumper. And since some of that model work of space ships and stations was so good the last time around, we might as well get some more mileage out of that. Maybe later we can use it all yet again in, oh, I don’t know, an Alfonso Brescia-directed space porno or something. Which they did.

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