For the greater part of the twentieth century (and especially in the wake of the World Wars), Italy was a hotbed for film. Whether it be the precocious kid from The Bicycle Thief, the cold hard stare of “The Man With No Name,” or the technicolor inventive gore of giallo, Italian filmmakers have produced more than their share of legendary celluloid. The singular career of Federico Fellini alone assures that Italian films will never be left out of a “best films evar” conversation among the type of people who refuse to call movies anything but “films”. And rightfully so. But like any other cinematic heavyweight, Italy has produced its fair share of films of... questionable merit. In fact, as the careers of old standbys like Fellini and Mario Bava faded to black, the late seventies and majority of the eighties saw Italian film fall into a bona fide slump. Poorly made and derivative flicks became the order of the day.
In that era, poorly made and derivative science fiction flicks were especially prominent. In the wake of Star Wars’s massive success, Italy wasn’t the only country scraping the bottom of the barrel for two bit robots, bleeps, bloops, pastel laserbeams, space aliens, and tight-fitting costumes (In fact, I’d venture to say that every movie studio in the world probably produced at least one turd in the process of trying to get that George Lucas money) but based on director Alfonso Brescia’s output alone, Italy was among the worst.
Enter today’s selection, Cosmos: The War of the Planets AKA Battle of the Stars AKA Cosmo 2000: The Planet Without a Name AKA Year Zero: War in Space AKA Red Skull Caps For Everybody 1. Well, you know what they say, the more alternate titles a film has, the better it is! Chalk it up to questionable translation or the fact that the film is now public domain. That’s right! It belongs to all of us! This film’s seemingly infinite number of alternate titles has wreaked havoc on the Internet Movie Database, where the film seems to have several entries. For our purposes, we’ll just stick to Cosmos.
Unfortunately, not much information can be found about Brescia, who directed an impressive number of low budget affairs throughout the course of his twenty-plus year career. Cosmos was released in 1977, the same year that Lucas unleashed Star Wars upon the world. It was the second of what has since been dubbed a “quintology” of “space operas” directed by Brescia, AKA Al Bradley (I promise this is the last alias), that began earlier in the year with Battle of the Stars and would be rounded out with 1978’s War of the Robots and 1979’s Star Odyssey (which is particularly notorious among B-movie connoisseurs as one of the finest/worst Star Wars rip-offs there is). 23
However, despite the fact that I lazily continue to compare all seventies silver screen science fiction to that behemoth (it’s hard not to!), it would not be fair to call Cosmos itself a Star Wars ripoff; this is a criticism that is often unjustly lobbed at all sub-par sci-fi. After all, there were scores of science fiction films, novels, and television shows for many years before that box office benchmark. Ok, so maybe not a Star Wars ripoff, but a ripoff? Oh yes. From 2001: A Space Odyssey’s all-seeing, all-knowing computer HAL 9000 (here reincarnated asWIZ, whom Captain Mike Hamilton just doesn’t trust, dammit!) to the sets and very, very special effects of old serials like Space: 1999, our friend Cosmos borrows liberally. In fact, it’s main inspiration comes from Mario Bava’s influential Planet of the Vampires, which came out twelve years earlier.
There are those that maintain that Brescia’s space operas are spoofs or satires. It’s seemingly impossible to prove or disprove this fact -- Cosmos could certainly play either way. Is it genuinely bad or is it tongue-in-cheek bad? Whatever helps you sleep at night. At the end of the day, if B movies are your cup of tea, this will not disappoint. It hits all the marks in spades -- buxom babes in skintight costumes, wooden acting, an incomprehensible plot (in which machines turn people into vampires -- or something?), and sets and special effects that wear their cheapness and lack of inventiveness proudly on their sleeve. There’s even a ball that simulates sex and looks (coincidentally) eerily like the Death Star! 4
Perhaps more than any other genre, sci-fi is self-referential. Each film, series, novel, whatever takes from what came before it. Not one but two of the most popular and revered sci-fi television series of all time (Battlestar Galactica and Dr. Who) are reboots of older series! Keeping precise track of what is a rip-off and what is a tribute quickly becomes futile and inconsequential as standards constantly change. Someone had to have come up with the idea of a cyborg first, but at this point, it’s public domain. Is Cosmos a rip-off or a remake? A spoof or super-serious? Rightfully forgotten or influential (after all, a straight line could be drawn directly from universally acknowledged classics like Alien and The Matrix right back to this very film!)? The answers to those questions are irrelevant. As the theme song (Oh yeah, Cosmos has a theme song! Chalk up another point on the B movie hitlist) so elegantly reminds us, “We are not alone here in space because here in space we have brothers.” Just sit back and revel in the fact that there are so many awesome films about spaceships and alien planets. They’re all awesome for different reasons. Sure, sometimes they’re hard to watch. But hey, in a certain light, so is 8½.
1 Note: Cosmos: War of the Planets is not actually also known as “Red Skull Caps for Everybody”
4 The scene with the sex-simulating ball naturally reminded me of the hilarious scene in Sleeper where Woody Allen is disguised as a robot servant and it’s his job to hold an orb that provides intense pleasure for guests, who only hold it in short spurts. Even though in Sleeper the orb was played off more as a recreational drug than a sexual thing (they had the orgasmatron for that), I couldn’t ignore the connection, especially considering Sleeper’s own sci-fi theme. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find any other sex balls, but savvy cheese-lovers may remember a virtual reality sex scene shared between Sylvester Stallone and a P.Y.T. named Sandra Bullock in Demolition Man that is certainly indebted to Cosmos.