There's a reason it's hard to find the listing for this movie in the all-knowing Internet Movie Data Base. You see, there already is a film named War of the Planets, but unlike Mike Conway's epic space extravaganza, the 1977 film was directed by second banana Godzilla auteur Jun Fukuda. In fact, if you search the IMDB for War of the Planets you'll be steered towards two films that are not the one I am reviewing today, Fukuda's and a truncated 8mm version of This Island Earth starring Rex Reason, Jeff Morrow, and Faith Domergue.
I've seen Fukuda's film, and it sucks — It showcases crap special effects, is poorly shot, confusing to the extreme, and worst of all it's boring. But, compared to Mike Conway's War of the Planets, Fukuda's film is the greatest science fiction film ever made. If you are enough of a masochist to sit through all 9,000 hours of Mike Conway's film you'll see, in the very last second before the DVD stops spinning "Terrarium 2002". Correspondingly, if you search the IMDB for "Terrarium" you get the cast list for War of the Planets.
So that begs the question, "why name this film War of the Planets at all?" It features virtually no war, and only one planet, and considering the plot "Terrarium" is a better name, a stupider one, but a better one. The reason is simple. This must've been clogging up the closet at Lionsgate Films for a few years, and now that Steven Spielberg's epic masterpiece War of the Worlds is about to debut on DVD, Lions Gate renamed Terrarium as War of the Planets. Which, I suppose makes sense if you want to have a thrilling double feature where for the first two hours or so Tom Cruise and Dakota Fanning are menaced by beautifully rendered alien tripods and for the next two hours a dozen community college actors are menaced by a guy in a Spencer Gifts gorilla suit, and a couple of kids in Styrofoam Gray Alien masks.
Mike Conway wrote, directed, starred in, scored, and produced this er… film, so I lay the blame squarely on him. Actually though, for the total cost he and the other cast spent to produce this, I've seen worse. LXG was worse. Reptillian was worse. Final Destination 2 was worse. But War of the Planets is in the Hall of Shame not so much because it was made for the equivalent cost of an All You Can Eat Chinese Buffet Early Bird Special ($4.99 plus tax!) but because the box promised an epic space opera and the film delivered much, much, much less.
We open with some CGI planets whizzing past the screen as the credit sequence spools out. Then we get a spaceship. Then we get a rock. Then the rock hits the dish atop the spaceship. The spaceship crashes. The CGI is okay in a Nintendo 64 budget title sort of way. We cut to 15 years earlier an a montage of expository information about the first manned space mission out of the galaxy. The dozen or so astronauts will be flying in cryosleep to the newly discovered planets orbiting a nearby star. So far this is nothing we haven't seen in science fiction since, oh, I don't know, 1950. The main character is, naturally, Captain Halsey (Tim Daley). He's a loner, a rebel… er… and he can't act to save his life (or the lives of his crew); a former military man with an expositorily induced bad attitude and complete dedication to his space mission.
Why is this important?
Well, if Tim Daley could act, at all, he would have been the natural leader of the crashed crew. Instead he blends in seamlessly with the other grade-f talent and never distinguishes his character from anyone else. The press conference/exposition festival succeeds in imparting all the icky background science we'll need to know for this film – It's a science mission they will make a breeding colony (hence the male/female ratio of 50/50), it will take 15 years of travel, they will awaken from cryosleep in 0-G so mobility won't be a problem, they have seeds to start a garden, they will eat military issue mac and cheese for a while. Come to think of it, there isn't a whole hell of a lot of science in there.
Well, there goes 10 minutes of my life. Hooray!
Back on the crashed ship the crew is beginning to awaken. Captain Halsey is dreaming about choking on a hamburger with his daughter. He awakens and coughs up some fluid to the encouraging sounds of Dr. Lamendola (Carlos Marroquin) telling him to breath. Captain Halsey breathes. The crew is in near panic mode because they've crashed, and because of the long time they've spent in snoozy-snooze land, they can't move. Worse, the bunks in which they lay are sealed up tight and can only be opened by the computer. I am already seeing design flaws in this spaceship…
So they are all trapped and immobile but one of them is missing, a woman, AND her deli-case-like cryosleep chamber is all busted open and covered in blood. That's not good. Within a minute or so the monster makes its first shadowy appearance and smashes through the glass to eat another of the female crew members. Everyone realizes that their present state, essentially being displayed like lunchmeat at Stop and Shop, is less than advantageous. One of the guys has a plan, the engineer Leonard Parks (Jason Hall) and figures that once they have their strength back they can force the doors on the cryosleep chambers, the alternate plan is to wait until the computer recycles through its damage recovery program (must run on Windows…) and hope that it opens the door. Of course there is the other plan, to wait for the Spencer Gifts Ape Man to come back and eat them all one by one, an act that would solve two distinct problems with War of the Planets — it would shorten this agonizing experience by an hour, and it would take Captain Halsey out of the film. But alas, no. The crew bickers some as Roger Franklin (Eric Randall) has a problem with Wayne Bower (Mike Conway) being on board as he is a chaplain and not a useful member of the crew. Bower offers to pray for everyone (some of the crew are happy with that) but refuses to give anyone last rights. Thus, Conway has already set Wayne up as a martyr because from the minute he utters that line we know he's going to die, and smart money says it will be while saving someone else. I was praying too, for my DVD player to explode…
This 25 minutes of the main characters stuck on their backs in a series of bunk beds gives us time to learn Captain Halsey's back story, his daughter was abducted and murdered, he left his wife shortly after, and dedicated himself to the space program. Fair enough, but he doesn't tell the story, he lets someone else do it, Kimberly (Lily Santoro). Why does he do this? Certainly not so that he can put his stunning brainpower to the task of getting everyone out of the bunks. No, he waits until Kim finishes relaying his history then adds, "my family was always number two anyway. I chose the space program over them..."
What an Asshole.
No one even mentions the irony of the situation that even though he was barely interested in his own family, even when his daughter was taken away and killed, that now he's 15 years from Earth and the same thing is happening, on a larger scale, and all he can do is lay there and watch. No one mentions this because, it would mean the script was at least marginally literate (and it's not), and it would add a desperately needed .5 dimension to the one-dimensional captain. The monster returns and takes another snack, this time it's the matron of the crew Rita Cardenas (Foster Bloom). During this time the crew, with no empirical evidence other than the monster is consuming part of the victim then taking the rest away, deduces that the monster will be back in 5 hours for another snack because it needs to digest what it's already eaten and wants to eat fresh food.
Er… I guess I have to take this at face value, but if I've just consumed five pounds of meat I won't be back until tomorrow, if ever. .
The monster returns less than five hours later (less than five minutes actually) but the crew have decided to try and sacrifice one of the male crew (to reestablish the balance of breeding stock) so Roger is taken, but one of the women begins to scream and yell drawing the monster's attention. Spencer Gifts Ape Man takes the screamy woman instead but not before freeing Roger from his deli case and chowing down on his calf muscle. And this is the one partially OK special effect of the whole affair. And it's not that the wound in Roger's leg is realistic, no. It's that you won't roll your eyes when you see it on the screen. Roger is able to crawl to the storage room and get a laser cutter from Leonard's toolkit. He cuts the crew out of their bunks. The monster returns just as the last man is freed, Wayne, and the crew barricade themselves in the cockpit. Dr. Lamendola patches up Roger's leg as best he can. The monster may still be in the crew compartment, they aren't sure and can't see it through the window. Captain Halsey asks Wayne to accompany him to the storage locker to retrieve food and weapons, as well as a proper medical kit. As soon as they step out of the door the monster, now fully visible as a guy in a monkey costume, kills Wayne then runs off after Captain Halsey. The remaining crew panics, but Leonard decides to try and get to the storage room too. He figures that the monster is too busy dragging off Wayne and Halsey to bother with him. He's right and manages to get to the pistols. The monster attacks again and Leonard kills it. The crew emerges from the cockpit to marvel at Leonard's manly awesomeness. Captain Halsey leaps into frame from the left side and explains that the Spencer Gifts Ape Man was preoccupied with Wayne to bother with him, then, of course, Leonard killed it.
Everyone breathes a sigh of relief. Strangely, Mike Conway doesn't bother giving us the full body treatment of the monster now that it's dead. Typically once the monster goes down the camera lingers on the body so the audience can marvel at the special effects work. In this case though, such a shot probably would have revealed a $99 price tag affixed to the back of the gorilla mask.
They haul the body outside and Captain Halsey asks the doctor to perform an autopsy if the parts of the missing crew are still in the monster's stomach. Then, as the crew meander around their new world, stumble onto the fact that the crash site is surrounded by an extremely high wall made of glass so strong even the laser cutter can't penetrate it.
The hell? So they are in a zoo or something? Why the hell did we spend the better part of an hour to learn this? If War of the Planets was a piece of written fiction it could get away with this gimmick, but because it's a film we have to have some of the underlying plot revealed to us early on or any deviation from what we've been given so far snaps us out of the willing suspension of disbelief (I mean, worse than the gorilla costume could…).
So now the film isn't about a colonization effort gone bad because of a fluke collision with a piece of space debris and the crew's struggle for survival. Now they have to contend not with a hostile world, but with an apparent race of intelligent aliens who either capitalized on their mishap in space, or astonishingly, orchestrated it.
There is no way, though, that they could have orchestrated the way it was presented — to do that the aliens would have had to know the humans were coming, when they were coming, upon which trajectory they traveled, and from what point in space they originated, and there is no way that they could have done so.
That leaves us with the rationalization that they simply capitalized on the crash, but managed to have a whole shit load of laser-proof glass lying around just in cast a bunch of aliens crash-landed.
Even stranger, we will learn later that the only other feature of this world worth noticing, is the alien's underground bunker system. So not only did the ship crash close enough to their giant glass storage facility to be conveniently enclosed, they also managed to crash RIGHT NEXT to their laboratory.
Anyway. The crew is all happy to be safe from Spencer Gifts Ape Man, but very worried about why they are imprisoned. Halsey arms everyone with a 9mm pistol and infra-red night vision goggles then sets up a schedule of guard duty.
Roger and Brandon (Jeff Rivera) are given first duty. They take positions outside the ship, one on each side, and set about waiting for someone to approach. The belief is that their captors are able to move inside the glassed perimeter with no effort, so theoretically, they could enter and attack the ship the same way they apparently stole the meat away from Spencer Gifts Ape Man.
Roger also comes up with a plan to dig out of the prison. He figures that since there are aliens probably watching their every move from just outside the glass, that if they try to tunnel under the glass that the aliens will see them and put a stop to it. Thus, the crew begins an amateur production of "The Great Escape" and tunnels down from under the ship and towards the nearest glass wall. Thus they will conceal their activities from their observers. The plan then is to sneak their supplies to a nearby cave and make a stand.
Meanwhile, Leonard skulks into the cockpit. He's already a minor hero to the crew for dispatching Spencer Gifts Ape Man and begins to form a romantic relationship with Nichole (Shiela Conway). I guess we know who the first breeding pair will be.
This moment of human optimism is thrown into disarray as Brandon catches the first glimpse of an alien figure within the perimeter. He radios Roger, then the captain. But, Brandon vanishes before they can reach him. Roger tunes back to channel 1 (*the channel the guards were using) and hears the aliens' grunty-grunty noises over the radio. Halsey orders the lights cut and everyone sneaks towards the glass. He watches the alien shapes approaching through his night vision goggles, and orders the lights back on.
There, at the glass, is Brandon, still very much alive, but outside. He starts to write something in the sand but is shot and killed by someone off screen. We get to see the aliens now, and boy, if you thought Spencer Gifts Ape Man was lousy… The aliens are either very tall or very, very short, dressed in one piece jumpsuits and Styrofoam heads sculpted to look like those googly eyed gray monsters that alien abductees claim to see before receiving extraterrestrial anal probes during repressed fake memory sessions.
The aliens are never shown for more than a half second and that is to the film's benefit.
With Brandon gone (he was the whiniest of the bunch) the crew sets about digging their tunnel in earnest. The remaining crewmembers are Captain Halsey, Nichole, Leonard, Roger, Dr. Lamendola, and Dena Warren (Shae Wilson). They dig and dig and dig. Less than a day later they have a tunnel out. Leonard gives Roger and Nichole an M-16 each and sets them up as snipers outside the glass as he explores the surrounding area for a suitable place to regroup and make their stand. He's also wired the ship to explode which will kill everything within a quarter mile of the ship.
Leonard finds the alien bunker, but it appears to be in ruins. We are never given any idea where the bunker is in relation to the ship or the glass, but we can assume because he says it's "perfect" that it is over a quarter mile away.
Dr. Lamendola and Dena start lumping their gear out of the tunnel.
Leonard continues exploring but never enters the bunker. He merely pinpoints the location for Dena and Dr. Lamendola so they know where to store the luggage. Nice guy…
The aliens get wise to what's going on and storm the ship. Halsey sets the countdown clock and scrambles away after shooting one of the aliens now aboard the ship. Nichole and Roger shoot it out with the three-alien army, Platoon style, until Roger is killed. This is handled sort of like Doom where we are treated to a "guns eye" view
She runs for it.
The ship goes up and all the aliens are killed.
Meanwhile, Dena notices that she's standing on a glass-enclosed structure hidden beneath the sand. The concussion from the explosions drops her directly into the alien's anal probing facility. She fumbles around a bit and locates the half dissected, yet still alive, body of Kim (Lily Santoro) who begs her to "not to let them touch her again". Dena finds the little alien hiding in the lab and kills it.
Halsey finds Dena and she breaks down in a nervous fit of overacting. They leave Kim on the dissection table. What happens to her? Damned if I know, but I am assuming they left her to die.
Nice group these colonists are…
Nichole is scared and stalking around the landscape when Leonard shows up. He's had a few kills as well, one when he rescues Dr. Lamendola.
Cut to daylight and the barren desert the intrepid survivors will apparently repopulate with two males and two females thus ensuring that within three generations the planet will be named "Hemophilia One" and all the children will have three eyes and severe mental retardation. Leonard groans into his radio that they can't find a suitable place to start over and their water is running out.
Halsey chimes in that he's found someplace nice, a little brook and some trees.
Hooray. Kill me now. I can't believe I watched the whole thing, even the annoying Murder on the Orient Express style end credits with a jaunty pic of each crewmember and their name then the self- fellation of Written by Mike Conway, Directed by Mike Conway, Produced by Mike Conway, Cinematography by Mike Conway, special visual effects by Mike Conway, CGI sequence by Mike Conway, original soundtrack by Mike Conway, credits sequence by Mike Conway, stealer of 90 minutes of your precious life Mike Conway.
Hell, he probably catered the fucking thing too…
Oh, and I mentioned that the name "Terrarium" was stupid, right? And I know you are asking yourselves "Why Big, why?" well I'll tell you. A terrarium springs from the root word terra, which in Latin means "Earth". Since our intrepid crew was not on Earth the enclosure for the craft could not be a terrarium.
But hey, it only took me 10 seconds to look up that word in the dictionary, and I am sure Mike Conway was so busy with all the other stuff that he didn't have time to look it up. If he did have the time, she should have also looked up the following words –
Lionsgate released War of the Planets in a box covered in exciting space art with fang dripping aliens, space suited soldiers, tanks, colliding spaceships, and a descriptive paragraph that in no way reflects the contents of the film on the DVD. They also include chapter stops (whoopee) and a trailer for the same film.