UNIDENTIFIED FLYING ODDBALL (1979)
The year is 1979 and what with the Star Wars being all the rage, it’s prime time for Disney to try to cash in with an outer space adventure of its own. Or just an adaptation of a Mark Twain classic packaged to look like a space flick, that’d work too. Despite its “Chaos in the Cosmos” tagline, Russ Mayberry’s Unidentified Flying Oddball takes place mostly in merry old England (an alternate title was A Spaceman in King Arthur’s Court). This is actually my second time watching this odd but sporadically enjoyable film: the first time was when Cinemanaut Bill watched it during that year when he reviewed every time travel movie ever, and the experience was one of the reasons I decided to spend this year watching awful old Disney movies. Anyhow, on to the film.
It’s Mark Twain’s Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, but instead of a guy from Connecticut there’s a weird scientist (Dennis Dugan) in a spaceship with a robotic copy of himself (Dennis Dugan) and a porno mag.
The weird scientist is named Tom Trimble, and while the U.S. government isn’t stupid enough to intentionally send him into orbit, they are stupid enough to hire him to create a robot to test their new faster-than-light spacecraft. But when Hermes the automaton’s metal feet get cold, Trimble goes on board to give him a pep talk, and a freak lightning storm launches the rocket. Disaster! It then travels back in time for some reason. Further disaster!
At any point in the movie you could tell me he just landed at a Ren Fair, and I’d buy it.
As in Twain’s version, the past is shitty, the people largely live in ignorance, and there’s a really stupid lady hanging around who thinks her pet is a human being that has been cursed. The lady in question is Sandy (Sheila White), and despite being unfathomably clueless, she becomes Trimble’s helper/love interest. A goose who she thinks is her dad tags along.
No movie containing this shot can be all bad.
As any time traveler can tell you, being a bizarre asshole from the future is never popular, so Trimble runs into some issues with those native to this time, including such notables as Merlin (Ron Moody), King Arthur (Kenneth More), Sir Mordred (Jim Dale), and Sir Gawain (John Le Mesurier).
These are all valid facial expressions to make while watching Unidentified Flying Oddball.
Honestly, there isn’t too much to the plot besides “strange man uses future inventions to escape/fuck with medieval assholes.” Behold, moon buggies!
And then it ends somehow.
A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court is a wry tale about how entrenched religion and societal ignorance can stand in the way of progress and development (which in turn can have disastrous effects on a society that isn’t ready for them). Unidentified Flying Oddball takes a different approach to the same (albeit abridged and altered) story. The spaceman’s stay in King Arthur’s court isn’t spoiled by religion or a backwards society, but through the stupidity and general shittiness of individuals (from both time periods).
I’m looking at you, Trimble.
In certain respects Trimble is much like Twain’s Hank Morgan. Both are experts at engineering machinery that is cutting edge for their time. But where Morgan carries out (with a large degree of success) a plan to reform Arthurian society using his inventions, Trimble aimlessly fritters away his time in the past, barely able to keep one step away from those who would kill him.
And then there’s Sandy. In the book, her ignorance can be easily attributed to the superstitious society in which she was raised. In Oddball, however, she’s plainly just dumb as a clod of turf.
It’s depressing that she’s the only female character.
When Mordred and his forces oppose Trimble and his allies, neither side has any cohesive plan whatsoever, they all just flail about, willy-nilly. No one has an excuse. Trimble should know better, what with being from the future and all, and Mordred and his knights are trained fighters, they should be able to hold their own. Yet it all degrades into a miserable free-for-all.
Everyone sucks. Nothing is good.
There is one character who consistently creates positive change, who, on multiple occasions, saves the day. And guess what? He’s not human. Yes, Hermes the robot, by virtue of the fact that he doesn’t get distracted by petty human impulses, is able to save Trimble’s ass at the joust, and later end the climactic battle by wielding future technology responsibly. Trimble just succeeds in crashing his jet chair, and Mordred completely fucks up with his laser gun. Only the cold logical machine is able to save humanity from itself.
I’m guessing someone’s favorite Avenger is the Vision.
What moral can we take away from all this? People are miserable and irresponsible, and no matter how much technology we have it will still end up in the hands of shitty assholes. Our only hope is that control of our world will be wrested away from us by superior computer minds.
WHY DON’T PEOPLE LIKE IT?:
As much wacky fun as Unidentified Flying Oddball supplies, it is still a bizarre and uneven film that gets somewhat tiring by the end of its 93-minute runtime. And hey, that name isn’t doing it any favors either. If I didn’t already know it was a Connecticut Yankee adaptation, I would assume it was about some sort of goofy alien having a fun time in a flying saucer or some shit. I’m not saying this is worse than that would have been, but when you go into a theater expecting one thing and get something completely different, the experience can be jarring.
No one expects an astronaut to get burned at the stake.
Nor does anyone really want that.
And then there are comedy bits that just don’t work, like a running gag about Trimble teaching the king about future history, and everyone finding it really boring. Anytime a movie makes a joke about boredom, I start to wonder if I’m getting a little bored myself. And in this case, I was. Anyhow, it might be fun, but isn’t without its flaws, so it’s no surprise to me that Unidentified Flying Oddball hasn’t made a lasting name for itself.
- I haven’t talked too much about the time travel or the film’s awful special effects, but that’s because Cinemanaut Bill already covered those elements very well when he reviewed it a couple of years ago. Check it out!
MOST REGRETTABLE MOMENT:
I usually reserve this section for something racist, sexist, homophobic, etc. But since there wasn’t anything too terribly regrettable in those regards this week, I’m going to use this space to point out a particularly pointless and miserable joke. For no apparent reason, one of the king’s knights looks a bit like Winston Churchill, and pipes up a couple times with jokey little quotes.
“We shall fight them on the beaches. We shall fight them on the landing grounds. We shall fight them in the courtyards and in the halls. We shall never surrender.”
He also throws a “Never was so much owed by so many to so few” in there as well. Why? There is no explanation, and it just sucks.
Dull in spots, but enough of an oddity to be worth seeking out if you like bizarre obscure Disney films. It’s goofy, it’s dumb, and hey, for the most part, it’s watchable.
Herbie Goes Bananas (1980)