Damnation Alley (1977)

Damnation Alley (1977) 

I've long had an interest in exploring those halcyon days of science fiction film-making, before Star Wars and its ilk took over the genre almost completely, ending the wonderful decade before with its intelligent characters, thought-provoking story lines, and emphasis on speculation over laser blasts.

Sadly, Damnation Alley is not a good representation of the period. Belonging to one of the hoariest and most overused sub-genres (even in 1977), the post-apocalyptic survival movie, it tells the tale of a couple of Army officers (Jan-Michael Vincent and George Peppard) who take a couple of armored and armed (with rockets, no less!) bus-sized ATVs on a cross-country trip from the desert southwest to Albany New York – the only place that they can get a radio signal from 2 years after the bombs fall. Interestingly enough, Peppard and Vincent happen to be the two guys who turned the keys and launched the American retaliatory strike, which we see in the opening minutes (loads of stock footage, as is nearly all of the special effects work) – but this is never mentioned again and in fact the film completely ignores politics and any kind of moral questioning for a PG, Disneyish adventure mode.

In fact one of the oddest things about the film is the mood, consistently closer to "high adventure" or a weekend in the country than to fighting for survival. When early on one of the original four members of the expedition (Kip Niven) dies it's acknowledged in about 15 seconds; when a second crew member (Paul Winfield) gets eaten by giant scorpions (which look more like beetles) it isn't mentioned at all! Eventually we have to have the token female (Dominique Sanda, beautiful but completely wasted) and adolescent (Jackie Earle Haley looking totally normal as an adolescent), a run-in with some crazed mountain men types (the leader of whom reminds one of Harry Dean Stanton and should have been played by him), a moment of near-destruction or two, and finally a deliriously improbable and ridiculous happy ending.

This was filmed in Cinemascope and with a budget of 17 million which may seem like very little now but in 1977 was pretty high for a genre film and about double that of Star Wars. The money wasn't well spent. Plodding, predictable, poorly-acted with ludicrous effects throughout (ooh, color filter skies! poorly blue-screened giant bugs and lizards!), desert settings that were chosen I think more for their cheapness than for their beauty, this makes the previous couple of years' A Boy and His Dog and Logan's Run look like masterpieces. Only for the sci-fi completist I'm afraid.  (IMDB OldAle1)

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