Appellate Judge Tom Becker has just experienced William Shatner's final frontier.
The proof is out there.
It's rare to find a sincerely bad film. I'm not talking about the run-of-the-mill, offhanded crap that gets churned out, but the truly, sincerely bad, the kind you can spot almost immediately, like a misguided Halloween costume. It's not every day that such a movie comes along.
Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Groom Lake.
Groom Lake was a labor of love for its producer/director/co-writer/star William Shatner. As Shatner explains during the "Exclusive Interview" that is the disc's lone special feature, he made Groom Lake as a tribute to his wife, who'd drowned in a swimming pool a couple of years prior. It's a lovely sentiment, but Groom Lake, unfortunately, has less in common with, say, Tess, which was Roman Polanski's tribute to Sharon Tate, than it does with Plan 9 From Outer Space, which was Edward D. Wood's tribute to Bela Lugosi.
Kate (Amy Acker, Angel) and Andy (Dan Gauthier, Melrose Place) are just a couple of wacky kids out for a good time in the desert—but there's a catch. Kate, you see, has just been diagnosed with terminal lupus. The prognosis is grim, but Kate is foxy, and Andy just can't keep his hands off her, even jumping her bones after their jeep rolls off a mesa and crashes.
This particular mesa is actually government property. It seems that the desert they've chosen is just a cactus toss away from Area 51—you know, that secret government place where aliens are sighted and sometimes captured. Before you can say Hangar 18, our sickly heroine and her thick-skulled swain are embroiled in conspiracy theories, facing off against conspiracy theorists (the number one sport of yokels, yee-dawgie!), battling the military (including Colonel Shatner), and getting face time with an actual ET (in the form of an old man who's naked and fluorescent).
Somehow, the theme here is "love never dies," which is charming and poignant, but what stands out about Groom Lake is that inept filmmaking never dies either.
People tend to forget that beyond his blindsiding fame as the Starship Enterprise's James T. Kirk, William Shatner is something of a B-list renaissance man. In addition to his varied acting resumé, he's a recognizable pitchman, author of fiction and non-fiction, musician and singer (of sorts), and a songwriter whose album Has Been has inspired a ballet. He's won Emmy awards, and Golden Globes, and won Razzies for acting and directing Star Trek V: The Final Frontier. His stiff, stilted delivery—punctuated with seemingly carelessly placed pauses—is iconic, and comics and impressionists forever grateful for it. Shatner, of course, has made a second career out of nudging his own image and winking at his idiosyncrasies.
No one is winking in Groom Lake, which is a shame. If Shatner and company hadn't taken this particular "enterprise" so seriously, this could have been a great big barrel of crowd-pleasing schlock, what with its alien conspiracies and doomed lovers. Instead, it's pointless, confused, and—worst of all—dull.
It would be easy to blame the budget, and Groom Lake's bare bottom production values are laughably awful. Shatner's character presides over a military installation that looks like it rents itself out to General Hospital during down time—you know, when the military isn't hiding aliens from local locos. Space crafts are launched using I-Macs, and an ever-present robotic female voice is constantly paging people. With Dick Van Patten playing a scientist named "Irv Barnett" and a soldier called "Captain Morgan," I was hoping that the old Shatner winking was coming into play, that The Man himself realized that his own stiff-walking entrance and-stilted-de-liv-er-y would elicit appreciative and knowing chuckles.
Alas, it was not to be. Shatner's not kidding around, not in his acting or his writing. He's also not the lead character. For most of the film, we're stuck with the atrocious Gauthier and the wan Acker, who sputter with convoluted ideas and wretched dialogue, and try to generate heat with his constant talk of sex and her constant talk of death. Various subplots—mostly involving the alien-obsessed local village—crop up but just go nowhere, which causes no end to the confusion. Is there some reason an eclectic group, including bikers and bagpipers, has gathered for an alien sighting? Who were those country folk who just assaulted the dying Kate? What's up with the snake? Who are these people running around the military zone, being deep fried by the electrified fences? Don't wonder too much, 'cause Shatner's not gonna tell ya.
You wouldn't be alone if seeing this made you think Shatner had not only never directed a film, but probably had never seen one. His command of the medium is fragile at best. Some shots trail on so long that the actors look to be restraining themselves from screaming, "Cut!" Other shots just cut off in the middle for no apparent reason. Chase scenes are made deliberately non-urgent by using fade outs and dissolves rather than good old fashioned cuts and jumps. The crappy special effects are less annoying than the dreadful pacing, slap-dash editing, career-changing performances, and sundry continuity mishaps.
The film meanders along until the last third when Shatner switches from desert ennui to full-bore loony mode. You'll know it's coming when nitwitted Andy concocts a scheme with a deranged tow-truck driver to break into the heavily guarded secret military installation. You'll know it's here when that plot consists of the dummies dressing up in camos, using the tow truck to knock out a section of fence, wandering onto the base, and giving obtuse answers whenever someone questions them. Clearly, the yokels in the village are dumber than three days of rain, since they've been trying for decades to infiltrate the base, and two guys with as much brain power as a pair of possums do it in under an hour.
The release from Koch Vision comes in a neon green case, even though the only alien skews lavender. The picture and audio are clean but unexceptional, with the image true to its video roots.
As mentioned, the only extra is a fairly lengthy interview with Shatner, and he really comes hat-in-hand to this one. We don't get the arrogant Shatner or self-satirizing Shatner, but rather we get a somber and sheepish incarnation that I'd never seen. He really wants us to understand why he made this picture, and he wants us to appreciate it for what it is.
I do, Mr. Shatner. I do appreciate Groom Lake for what it is.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Koch Vision
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