“The story of a guy, a girl and an alien... and the one night they will always remember.”
Rocketing through space in their guitar shaped craft, ABCD (that’s Absid to you and me) and his crew of new wave aliens head to Earth to find the source of the music signal they’ve intercepted. Oblivious to this impending close encounter, as well as to the giant mutated polka-dotted octopus in the local lake AND the two recently escaped deranged serial killers (I’m not making this up), Dee Dee bemoans the fact that her boyfriend Frankie won’t let her sing with his rockabilly revival band. When ABCD finally arrives he (quite literally) explodes with love at the sight of Dee Dee and, after being reassembled, decides to form a new wave band with his crew so Dee Dee can perform with them instead. This, of course, does not go over well with Frankie. After a series of misadventures, everything comes to a head as the two bands face off against one another in the school gymnasium. The raucous event is quickly forgotten, however, as the two maniacs AND the mutant octopus attack the school. Fortunately, Dee Dee's best friend Diane manages to win the heart of the maniacal Chainsaw, who in turn aids the gang in driving off the octopus. All is not settled, however, as the time arrives for ABCD to return home and Dee Dee finds herself torn between leaving Earth with him to seek fame or staying on the planet with the newly repentant Frankie to seek love... and maybe fame.
Way back during our first year here at The B-Movie Catechism, we reviewed Santa Claus Conquers The Martians, the movie which marked the big screen debut of Pia Zadora. Having witnessed her beginnings, it seems fitting that we now find ourselves reviewing Voyage Of The Rock Aliens, Ms. Zadora’s swan song as a Hollywood headliner. Oh sure, she’s made some notable cameos since this movie came out (Hairspray, Naked Gun 33 1/3), but as far as being the lead actress, this appears to be the movie which hammered the final nail into the coffin of that particular career path.
But that’s exaggeration, right? Surely no one movie could be so bad that it could kill someone’s career, could it? I mean, no one movie that isn’t Showgirls? Back in 1984 Pia Zadora herself, fresh off of winning the Sour Apple Award from the Hollywood Womens' Press Club as the "celebrity who most believes in his or her publicity", certainly didn’t think so. In an interview with John Waters (yes, THAT John Waters), Pia gushed “It’s a spoof. It’s very funny. Ruth Gordon is in it. It’s pure entertainment. The music is terrific. You’ll love it ‘cause it’s campy. It’s the most viable product I’ve been in so far.” Alas, despite Pia’s confidence, the movie sat on the shelf for three years before being released briefly into theaters and then eked out to the home video market. By that time, Ms. Zadora was not so enthusiastic. In a 1986 interview with Joey Ramone (Yes, THAT Joey Ramone), she quipped, “I went through a whole bunch of crap with my lousy movies and pop records. I had people behind me kind of steering me in that direction, but it wasn't really my bag… I mean, I'd become a cult figure to a certain extent because of my movies, but unfortunately it was because of how bad they were.”
Well, who am I to argue with the star of the movie? Yes, indeed, Voyage Of The Rock Aliens is a bad movie. Gloriously bad. I mean, this is a movie which apes a scene from Xanadu? Yeah… Xanadu! Remember that scene where Olivia Newton John and The Tubes engage in a musical duel to the song Dancin’? It’s right here in Voyage Of The Rock Aliens as Frankie and ABCD’s bands battle to the tune Let’s Dance Tonight. They even go so far as to start the whole number off with Pia being surrounded by a neon blue laser light and emerging in a metallic silver disco bodysuit. It’s Xanadu all over again, only… you know, dumber. Let me repeat that. DUMBER than Xanadu! How’s that even possible? Well, at least in Xanadu the scene had a purpose, the swing and rock styles merging together at the end of the song to symbolize the meeting of minds between the movie’s two male leads. In Voyage, it’s just alternating verses of flaccid rockabilly and psuedo-Devo riffs with no apparent purpose other than to leave the audience with their jaws on the floor. Which, I must concede, it succeeds in doing so quite admirably.
Fortunately, not all of the songs are bad. You might actually find your foot tapping along while watching the five foot tall Zadora thrash around in the sand to the song Real Love during an obvious parody of early 60s beach movies. And if new wave synth rock is one of your guilty pleasures, you could even find your head bobbing while the one-time Christian band Rhema bleeps and bloots the tunes Openhearted and 21st Century. But just when you’re starting to feel okay about the whole thing, along comes Craig Sheffer lip-synching to the power ballad Nature Of The Beast while a couple of 80s rock video chicks flop around in cheetah prints, and then you’re forcibly reminded just how wretched this movie can be. (You’re a heckuva guy for beating cancer, Mr. Sheffer, but shame on you for that scene. Shame.) As for the Pia Zadora/Jermaine Jackson duet, When The Rain Begins To Fall, I’m not sure what to say. Even though it has absolutely nothing to do with the rest of the movie, and you never see Jermaine onscreen again, the film inexplicably opens with the entire full length video for the song. And by the time it fades out, even if you don’t want to like it, you forlornly realize you’ll be humming the God-forsaken thing for weeks to come no matter how many times you try to negatively reinforce yourself with blows to the head with a hammer.
But let’s not forget, even though Voyage Of The Rock Aliens is a musical, it’s not all about the tunes. As John Kenrick, author of Musical Theatre: A History, reminds us, “The book, also called the libretto, is the least appreciated and yet most dramatically important element of a musical. It is the narrative structure that keeps the score from being nothing more than a disjointed medley of songs… More than one expert has observed that musicals with great scores and weak books tend to fail, while those with mediocre scores and solid books have a better chance of succeeding. After all, the first job of every play or film – musical or not – is to tell a good story.” Right. So how does Voyage Of The Rock Aliens hold up as a story? Well, let’s look at a few of the things which, according to Mr. Kenrick, a musical book must do in order to be successful.
(1) It should “create situations that call characters into song… move in and out of songs as smoothly as possible.” This is a bit of a hit and miss in Voyage Of The Rock Aliens. Some songs flow naturally from the narrative, such as You Bring Out The Lover In Me which starts out as a conversation in a public restroom before segueing into a full-on lavatory-palooza. Others, however, come across as standard rock videos, such as the aforementioned 21st Century which plays over a Scooby Doo style musical montage of the inimitable Ruth Gordon chasing the aliens around a phone booth.
(2) The book should also “keep the story line clear and easy to follow.” Here, I’m afraid, the movie misses completely. In order to bolster the flimsy love triangle plot, the script crams in countless sub-plots involving the alien obsessed town sheriff, two escaped lunatics, and a giant lake monster. (Or possibly, since we only ever get to see one tentacle, a small lake monster with a REALLY big arm.) And although the movie struggles valiantly to tie it all together, the end result is a broken mess. Still, I have to admit, without the sub-plots, we wouldn’t have the sequence involving Alison La Placa at first fleeing from Michael Berryman only to fall for him during a lesson on how to repair his chainsaw. The obvious fun the two characters are having is infectious and this small interlude ends up being more enjoyable and involving than the rest of the film put together.
(3) Finally, a good book must “make the audience care at all times.” Alas, for most of Voyage’s hour and a half running time, the main character is fairly obnoxious. For all Pia’s efforts to win over the audience with her pixyish charms, she just can’t make the one-note “I wanna be a star” Dee Dee appealing. At least not until the very end. That’s when, out of the blue, ABCD announces that upon arriving back on his planet, everyone aboard the ship will have their emotions removed. Now, how a guy who comes from an emotionless planet manages to fall in love in the first place is never explained. Nor is why he would bother to take his new love back to a place where those feelings would be immediately eliminated. But, hey, that’s the scenario the movie provides, and lets face it, it’s not like it’s any more senseless than the rest of the film. The thing to note is that even though she’s spent the entire movie caring about nothing other than fame, Dee Dee unhesitantly decides that keeping her emotions is more important.
But why should she? After all, even if you don’t count Spock, there’s still over 6 billion Vulcans who seemed to get along just fine without emotions. (At least until J. J. Abrams blew them all up anyway.) So what would be the big deal if Dee Dee had disposed of hers altogether? Well, to start with, that pack of green blooded hobgoblins from Star Trek were only suppressing their emotions. To remove them completely from a person is probably next to impossible. Antonio R. Damasio, M.D., Ph.D., author of Descartes' Error: Emotion, Reason and the Human Brain explains that emotions are “one of the highest levels of bio-regulation for the human organism and has an enormous influence on the maintenance of our homeostatic balance and thus of our well-being.” Given that, is it little wonder the Vulcans developed that little seven year glitch by toying around with such an integral part of the physical person?
But for the sake of argument, let’s say that ABCD’s people had actually developed a way to remove emotions while counteracting all of the potential physical ramifications. Shouldn’t Dee Dee then be okay in deciding to get rid of the things? Well, no, not really, because there would also be mental ramifications as well. Dr. Damasio explains that “emotion is an adaptive response, part of the vital process of normal reasoning and decision-making.” The Catechism puts it this way, “Feelings or passions are emotions or movements of the sensitive appetite that incline us to act or not to act in regard to something felt or imagined to be good or evil.” Basically, emotions are a built-in motivator. Without emotions to help attach value to our choices, most of us would find it impossible to make even the simplest of decisions. What do you feel like watching tonight? I don’t know, I DON’T KNOW!
But for the sake of argument, again, let’s say that ABCD’s people developed a way to remove emotions that also took into account the mental ramifications. Then would Dee Dee be safe in ditching her feelings? Nope. Because along with the physical and mental aspects, there’s also a spiritual side to emotions which has to be taken into consideration. As the Catechism notes, “the human person is ordered to beatitude by his deliberate acts: the passions or feelings he experiences can dispose him to it and contribute to it… Moral perfection consists in man's being moved to the good not by his will alone, but also by his sensitive appetite, as in the words of the psalm: My heart and flesh sing for joy to the living God.” In short, having aliens remove your emotions would take away one of the avenues you have of coming to know God.
We might need to clarify that a bit, though, because just going with your feelings doesn’t immediately put you on the path to holiness. For instance, that inescapable urge to reach into the screen and strangle Craig Sheffer while he pretends to sing Nature Of The Beast, well, acting on that probably isn’t going to do your soul any good. That’s why the Catechism is quick to point out that “in themselves passions are neither good nor evil. They are morally qualified only to the extent that they effectively engage reason and will… Passions are morally good when they contribute to a good action, evil in the opposite case.” That sounds so simple, but it’s so easily forgotten. Dee Dee certainly forgot it for awhile and it almost cost her an integral part of physical and spiritual makeup. Fortunately, in the end, she realigned her passions and chose the right path. And for that we can applaud her… even if we don’t necessarily applaud her movie.
"Music, great music", Pope Benedict XVI remarked after attending a concert by Chinese pianist Jin Ju, "distends the spirit, arouses profound emotions and almost naturally invites us to raise our minds and hearts to God in all situations of human existence, the joyful and the sad. Music can become prayer". That’s wonderful. But what about music some folks might consider not-so-great? What passions might that music arouse…