“I was terrified. Everything started to expand. I told myself: let go, let go. Fear is fiction. Physics is truth. Hold onto science. I panicked.” -Gossner
When I wrote the Star Trek reviews a few months back, I noted in the Star Trek V review that I had thought it was the only film that William Shatner had written or directed, but that upon fact checking found that lightning had struck twice. William Shatner broke out the triple threat feature for a second round in 2002’s straight-to-DVD Groom Lake: actor, director, writer. No budget, starring Amy Acker right about the same time she landed the role of Fred on “Angel,” the Wikipedia page is only a few lines long, IMDB has nothing listed but the basics of cast and crew, Rotten Tomatoes doesn’t even have an entry for the film. I don’t even know how one would go about finding this film were it not for the internet and Netflix. Is it bad? That’s not the real question. The real question is: is it so atrocious that it becomes a thing of beauty?
The film was made for $750,000 and it shows, the effects are not up to cinematic standards. And by effects, I don’t just mean that the ray guns and space ship look kind of silly (we can live with that in a low budget sci-fi film) but that the sorts of things you don’t even associate with being special effects start to break the suspension of disbelief. Stock footage of a rattle snake is interspersed with shots of the actors to simulate a scene with a snake, a car chase unfolds more awkwardly than had they used twenty year old footage from “The Dukes of Hazard.”
The basis of the film is a decent sci-fi premise: a secret military facility at Groom Lake (a real place, sort of like Area 51 is real) is run by the government with laser light shows and weird aircraft in order to specifically generate UFO sightings so that legitimate sightings of secret aircraft under development get lost in the midst. The twist is that the commander of the base (John Gossner, the Shat himself) actually has a real alien in hiding who he is trying to help get home. Interwoven in this is the more personal story of Kate (Amy Acker) who has been diagnosed with a rare and fatal form of Lupus (she should have gone to see House, they always guess that first so she’d be as good as new by the first commercial) and Andy (Dan Gauthier, the co-pilot from “Lost”!) who is her sort of douchey boyfriend. Kate and Andy have come out to the desert so that she can sit under the stars one last time before she dies.
The problem is that the story really never syncs together very well. You’ve sort of got two films running parallel at times. The story of Kate and Andy seems to have the most potential, offering some surprisingly moving quiet moments and conversations about the nature of life in the universe and coming to terms with our own mortality. But this is really only on screen for twenty minutes or so total, and even during that short time, is wrecked by Andy’s character madly vacillating between sensitive and uber-douche without any reason. You get the feeling though (especially after listening to Shatner’s commentary, more on that in a bit) that this is where the real heart of the film was supposed to be.
In execution though, the film is dominated by the other two-thirds of it which plays out as an occasionally hilarious, but ultimately shallow ultra-low budget B-movie. It’s got some great lines and is really quite entertaining for entire minutes at a time before flaming out in the end.
There also is a very strange and dark scene in the middle of the film in which Amy Acker’s character is apparently raped off screen. We later find out that she probably wasn’t (it’s not exactly clear), but it’s a really fucked up scene that doesn’t add anything to the story except a lurid sort of exploitation that didn’t fit in the least with the rest of the film’s tone.
The acting is hit or miss, which isn’t too bad for such a low budget film, only a few of the actors are physically painful to watch, and none of them are in more than passing roles. Amy Acker really steals every scene she’s in, infusing her role with a lot more life than it has on paper. Shatner is really only a side character, although he gets top billing of course, he explains in the commentary that he only took a role in the film to save the money in the budget of having to pay another actor. While Dan Gauthier can’t really hold up his end of scenes with Acker, he manages in the latter half of the film to establish a bizarrely funny chemistry with Tom Towles, the gleeful and somewhat psychopathic tow truck driver.
The most entertaining part of the 90 minute film wasn’t the film itself though, it was the 30 minute commentary also included on the DVD. Thirty minutes of nothing but Shatner talking right to the camera about the film. Two things evidence themselves. First, you feel like a colossal dick for how lame you thought the movie was once you hear Shatner explain that after his previous wife died, he envisioned a story of the eternal nature of love as a dedication to her, the story that eventually became Groom Lake. Second, you learn that Shatner is a hell of an entertaining story teller, and wonder why he couldn’t channel that into the film itself.
A few highlights roughly transcribed or paraphrased from that commentary for your enjoyment:
“Some movies are made for $150 million. I think one was just made for $200 million. Some are made for $40 or $50 million, and another completely different type of film is made for $5 million. Some great films have been made for $5 million. [long pause] This film didn’t have $5 million.”
He describes how on most sets, there is food and drink for the cast and crew to keep energy up during shooting, but that they didn’t enough money for that. But sometimes during late night shoots, his wife would bring pizza. But that they didn’t have any chairs to sit in.
Shatner describes one late night when a border patrol agent suddenly showed up where they were filming in the middle of the desert and offered to take Shatner and his wife out horseback riding. So William Shatner and his wife are on horseback in the middle of the night with the border patrol and they apprehend a bunch of border crossers. One of them recognizes Shatner and asks “Are you Captain Kirk?” Shatner responds: “Yes I am.”
For one day’s shooting they rented a helicopter for $400 per hour, it was scheduled to arrive before dawn at 4:30. They had several different locations planned for the day, and the cast and crew were going to floor it by car from location to location to get the filming all in. The helicopter is fifteen minutes late and they think they see its lights moving in the wrong direction, so the cast and crew pile into the cars and try to chase the helicopter down. After ten minutes they realize that they were actually chasing the North Star.
Once they get the helicopter, he describes the elaborate camera mount normally used for filming and then notes that they had to just tie their camera man to the side of the helicopter and make him hold the camera.
“The guy in the alien suit almost died, two or three times. But we revived him, splashed him with a little bit of water. But just a little bit, it was expensive water.”
So overall, is this strange obscure little film worth seeing? It’s really not a very good film, and I watched it fully prepared to have extraordinarily low standards. The fact that Shatner clearly was aiming for something profound and dedicated to his late wife makes it tragic that it’s not very good, but that doesn’t make it a better film than it was. If you’re the sort of person who digs movies that are so bad that they’re their own special brand of entertainment, you might get some laughs out of the absurd second half of the film. On the other hand, if you just like a good ramble and have extra Netflix slots to burn, Shatner’s half hour commentary is gold.
“When it does, and life on this planet ceases to exist, then all that, that infinite space will be without life. Just so many dead rocks spinning in a void. But if there’s other life out there, it proves that we aren’t an accident, that we’re part of a process, a continuum as endless and timeless as space itself.” -Kate
Steven Lloyd Wilson is the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. He is a hopeless romantic who can be found wandering San Diego’s strip malls and suburbs looking for his mislaid soul and waiting for the revolution to come. Burning Violin is still published weekly on Wednesdays at www.burningviolin.com, along with assorted fiction and other ramblings.