The movie opens with three astronauts in orbit aboard the space shuttle. They are getting ready to launch a new satellite out of the cargo hold. Suddenly an object appears right beside them. It’s too late to stop the launch and the satellite collides with the object. The satellite is destroyed, the astronaut in the hold is killed, and the UFO manages to make a controlled landing in the
desert southwest. U.S.
The General overseeing the launch has the UFO moved to a site on a military base known as Hangar 18. It is a self-contained building where they can analyze the craft and anything biological that may be found inside it. He travels to the White House and meets with the President’s Chief of Staff Gordon Cain (Robert Vaughn). Cain is also managing the President’s re-election campaign and there are only two weeks to go before people vote. He wants all news about this UFO kept under wraps until after the election because he fears that news of it will cause his boss to lose.
Seeing as how there are a whole bunch of people who know what really happened, especially the two astronauts who are returning to Earth, this seems like a difficult task. It is decided to get the Mission Director (Darren McGavin) and his staff out of the way by reassigning them to Hangar 18 to examine the UFO. The only communications in or out will be via the General. In addition, a story is leaked to the media that the two astronauts are responsible for the accident in space that destroyed the satellite and killed their crewman. No mention of any other craft is made.
When the astronauts (Gary Collins and James Hampton) see the headlines they realize they are being set up as scapegoats. They go to get the telemetry recordings that would show the UFO and discover they have been wiped clean. With no supporting evidence they can’t clear their names. They decide to travel to a secondary site to see if they can get the recordings from there. When that proves fruitless they try to find out what happened to the UFO itself. They are tailed by government men (who are literally credited as “MIB”) who keep upping the stakes to try to deter these astronauts from finding out what is going on and then taking it to the media. Eventually it rises to life or death situations to prevent them from uncovering the truth.
While all this is going on, inside Hangar 18 a team of scientists and doctors have been examining the craft and what they have found inside it. A linguist has some luck translating some of the records and what is revealed will alter man’s understanding of how he came to be.
Without spoiling anything, there are two endings to the movie. The difference between them is a voiceover that tells you what has happened to the key characters in the film after the big event that ends it. I saw a somewhat happier ending, while some people have seen one that is more of a downer. I watched it streaming on Netflix. I’m not sure which version is on the DVD or on Amazon Instant Viewing.
Overall, don’t expect Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Hangar 18 was limited by its small budget and it is a product of its time. You may get a grin from seeing the “state of the art” technology from 1980. Special effects are not what people have come to expect from a sci-fi movie nowadays, either. The result is a little bit of campiness, but it’s not like it’s a bad 1950s UFO movie where you can see the wires attached to the flying saucer.
On the other hand, they did an excellent job with all of the shuttle scenes. Bear in mind, when this movie was made the Space Shuttle had yet to have a single flight, let alone a satellite being launched from it. They show the shuttle in space, orbiting the Earth, cargo doors open, a satellite being placed out into space by the mechanical arm, and then it being launched. All of these things would later be the actual practices when the real shuttle flew.
The cast is full of faces familiar to a child of the 70s or 80s. Gary Collins was on a ton of TV shows. James Hampton’s name may not be familiar to you, but his face probably will be. He usually plays the guy who’s a little goofy or befuddled, such as the FCC official in Pump Up the Volume (1990). In this movie he actually gets to be a little bit badass. Darren McGavin will be familiar to anyone who has seen A Christmas Story (1983). He played the father. Robert Vaughn often plays someone in authority. It’s probably because of his voice and the way he delivers his lines. He’s practically had a second career as a spokesman for various law offices all around the country. In my home state it’s for “the law offices of Joe Bornstein. We mean business.” Also in the cast are Pamela Bellwood (Dynasty), William Schallert (The Patty Duke Show), Tom Hallick, Philip Abbott, Joseph Campanella, Stuart Pankin, and Steven Keats – all of whom are ubiquitous on TV.
If you are thinking “UFO crash is the U.S. Southwest; “Hangar 18”; this sounds familiar” it’s because of the rumors about a 1947 UFO crash in Roswell, New Mexico and all the stories about “Area 51” that have seeped into popular culture. They were not quite as prevalent back in 1980, but the makers of this movie were definitely referring to them.
If you were ever a fan of the X-Files TV show, especially the conspiracy stories where the government tries to keep people from knowing the truth, then I highly recommend this movie. A 2005 DVD release of this movie even had a cover that showed a stereotypical alien looking out from behind a partially open door and the tagline was “The truth is in there” – an obvious reference to The X-Files’ “The truth is out there” motto.
For everyone else, if you like science fiction then give this one a try. You may end up liking it.
Chip’s Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
[Note – you can see all the Movies by Numbers, as well as get some hints on what’s to come, at this link.]
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