Moviedrone: Bill the Galactic Hero
I’m a member of a film club at my local library, and when it came to my turn to present a film I went with Alex Cox’s Bill the Galactic Hero. This is my introduction to the film, or at least the one I wrote before I went off script and started rambling, followed by the film itself (as uploaded by Cox himself on to Vimeo):
(Edited to add: the film itself is mildly NSFW due to some animated blue alien nudity in the very first scene. Thought I better mention that.)
British director Alex Cox made a splash with his first two films, Repo Man and Sid and Nancy, in the 1980s, but for film fans of a certain age he’s known less for his directing as he is as presenter of BBC2’s cult film strand Moviedrome.
It was through Moviedrome that I first saw films as diverse as Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, Django, Carnival of Souls, Solaris, Manhunter and Les Diaboliques. But overall its Cox’s short intros, with his laconic manner and twangy mid Atlanticised Liverpool accent, that are most memorable.
So… when after a patchy film career of increasing obscurity and decreasing budgets Cox re-emerged in 2013 to kickstart a new movie, the campaign launched with a Moviedrome-style to camera video, it seemed only fair I should pay him back for my movie education by backing this new film.
Blame me for what you are about to see. I helped make it happen.
Tonight’s film is Bill the Galactic Hero, based on the novel by Harry Harrison, adapted into a screenplay by Cox, rejected by movie studios for nearly thirty years, and eventually made as a $100,000 student film co-directed, starring and staffed by students on the film programme at the University of Colorado in Boulder.
Cox has described it as the largest student film ever made, and I don’t know if that’s true, but it’s certainly one of the most ambitious. Bill the Galactic Hero is the story of a pizza delivery guy who is duped into joining up with the Space Troopers in their pointless and destructive space war against a race of lizards called The Chingers, though his real enemy proves to be the bureaucracy, stupidity and brutality of the war machine he is a part of. There are spaceships, alien planets and robots.
As a student film there are rough edges. The camera crew are frequently visible, reflected in space helmets. The secondary performances and sound mix are variable, and I don’t really think the animated prologue and epilogue are all that great.
But the core of the film really works. The black and white photography, and the use of spacesuits and gas masks, create a nightmarish sense of disconnection as Bill is pushed around by forces much bigger than himself and driven to his wit’s end. The unpolished student cast suit a story about conscripts in a war suffering massive casualties and rapid turnover. The use of redressed real locations is charmingly reminiscent of cheap SF of the past, from the B movies to the BBC, and the model shots and computer generated visual effects are ingenious and imaginative.
It’s a weird, scrappy film, but a very individual one. Cox’s anti-war sensibility and weird humour chimes with that of the book, which was based on Harrison’s experiences in World War II. It’s not surprising that studios turned down such an eccentric and downbeat project, but I’m glad that crowdfunding and the possibilities of digital technology allow for films like this to be made.
Cox has gone back to the crowdfunding model for Tombstone Rashomon, an episodic western showing the Gunfight at the OK Corrall from different perspectives, currently in production.
He clearly thought Bill the Galactic Hero worked out OK.
You can now judge for yourselves…