It was in March 2013 that maverick director Alex Cox, best known to genre fans for 1984’s science fiction caper Repo Man and as the presenter of BBC2’s irregular Moviedrome slot (1987-1994), launched his Kickstarter campaign to raise funds for an adaptation of Harry Harrison’s novel Bill, the Galactic Hero, originally optioned thirty years before but never produced. A less ambitious vision than the initial concept of “a big budget comedic anti-war science fiction film”, it was to be produced in conjunction with the Film Studies and Theatre & Dance Departments of the University of Colorado as a student project, supervised by Cox and other industry professionals.
The original target was $100,000, but the generosity of 1,106 supporters raised almost $15,000 over this, ironically only $45,000 less than the budget of Repo Man, though thirty years later the cash value is considerably less than it would have been in the eighties. The advantage of the collaboration was that as the majority of the performers and creative personnel were to be involved as part of their degree, the full budget could be directed towards the physical production, costumes, sets, special effects, and the black and white 35mm stock on which it was to be filmed, possibly the last feature film ever to be shot in this way.
The story of young Bill, taken from his home planet of Phigerinadon II and his life as a Trainee Technical Fertilizer Operator and pressganged into service on promises of a lovely uniform, an enlistment bonus, a medical examination and awards just for signing up, training at Camp Leon Trotsky under the fearsome Petty Chief Officer Deathwish Drang is not what he expected, nor is the philosophy of the war against the seven foot tall four armed sauropod Chingers convincing.
“The only non-humanoid intelligent life ever discovered in this galaxy. Naturally we have to wipe them out.”
With casualties mounting, training is curtailed and Bill finds himself on active duty aboard the Fanny Hill as a fusetender 6th Class, unskilled. Through happenstance, he unmasks a Chinger spy aboard ship, and as sole survivor of an uncontained discharge overload on the engineering deck it is he who operates the Mark IV Atomic Blaster. He has saved the ship and become a hero, but his injuries required an arm transplant; regrettably now with two right arms, in compensation Bill can now shake hands with himself.
Invited to Helior, the Imperial Planet of a thousand lights, where he will be decorated by the Emperor himself, Bill’s military career finally seems to be on course, but as easily as fate grants him a step up so it will take him back down again…
First published in 1965, Harrison’s novel is reputedly a response to Robert A Heinlein’s Starship Troopers (1959), and certainly the opening section of recruitment and training operate under this premise, and the closing act returns to this style, the inhabitants of the jungle planet Veniola possibly working in conjunction with the true enemy, the reptilian Chingers, mirroring the Skinnies and the Arachnids of Heinlein’s novel, but Harrison’s targets were wider.
The middle act of the novel (“A Dip in the Swimming Pool Reactor”) is set entirely on the central planet Helior, entirely industrialised and sealed beneath metal in the same manner of Trantor, administrative headquarters of the pre-Foundation Empire, but even within that equivalent runaway bureaucracy there are fractals to be found, the Robot Underground Resistance sharing its initials with Rosumovi Univerzální Roboti (“Rossum’s Universal Robots”) of the Czech writer Karel Capek’s R.U.R.
Certainly, Harrison’s chosen style for the book was more Asimov than Heinlein, as unpolished and full of rhetorical nonsense as Foundation with no clear narrative direction or apparent planning beyond the next few pages. To a modern reader it is a deeply unsatisfying read, with Douglas Adams having satirised bureaucracy more effectively and comprehensively just over a decade later in The Hitch-Hikers Guide to the Galaxy (1978).
Filled with decidedly comic book science – the bloater drive, supernovas caused by matter transmission of large amounts of refuse into a local star – it’s not even funny as there is no involvement, no investment in the disposable characters, just names assigned a limited set of characteristics before being replaced by another set of ciphers a few pages later.
Largely set belowdecks or underground, Cox’s adaptation opens with a brightly coloured animated section of Bill’s civilian life prior to becoming a Space Trooper before switching to stark monochrome live action on minimalist sets enhanced with digital inserts, the high tech at odds with decidedly home-made props.
The variety of visual styles cobbled together is apt for Harrison’s template, though his lack of attention to genuine character and plotting is not addressed by Cox’s screenplay, a slavish translation of the novel rather than an adaptation to a fundamentally different medium, giving a scattershot effect.
Crucially, Cox does nothing to expand the paper thin characters as written by Harrison, nor do the cast make the best of what little they have. Drawn from the same peer group, there is insufficient variety or experience amongst them, and while James Miller’s Bill is affable, in accordance with the source material he is essentially a passenger rather than a driver of the story, haplessly stumbling from one event to another, and while it is interesting to switch the gender of Deathwish Drang who terrorised recruits and experienced soldiers alike, Devon Wycoff lacks any form of authority and fails to deliver the requisite intimidation.
The space scenes are surprisingly effective, but confining the entire cast to their spacesuits for the whole duration of the film makes it hard
to distinguish between the characters, nor can it have been pleasant for the actors, particularly in the scenes shot in the deserts of Cathedral Gorge State Park, a more practical local substitute for the jungles of Veniola. The third section (“E=mc2 or Bust”) is the only one which significantly diverges from the novel, with Bill’s court martial shenanigans also excised.
There is a charming primitive feel to the production with the sound design reminiscent of John Carpenter’s Dark Star (1974) and the scenes on Helior using the split screen of Robert Wise’s The Andromeda Strain (1971). Some of the more manifest technical limitations are forgivable in light of the circumstances, but with little sense of urgency the make-do-and-mend approach becomes wearing and the performances don’t encourage the viewer to overcome the weaknesses.
Details of the project and updates on the release can be found here.