From Here to Obscurity: Annihilator (1986)
PLEASE NOTE: The movies reviewed in From Here to Obscurity have either never been given an official VHS or DVD release, have been released on VHS but are long out of print and very hard to find, or are readily available in some form but have generally gone unnoticed by most of the general public.
Reviewed by The Foywonder
Starring Mark Lindsay Chapman, Susan Blakely, Catherine Mary Stewart, Lisa Blount, Geoffrey Lewis, and (maybe) Brion James
Directed by Michael Chapman
I have a sneaking suspicion the pitch meeting for the sci-fi horror actioner Annihilator went a little something like this, "Think The Fugitive meets Invasion of the Body Snatchers meets The Stepford Wives with just a dash of The Terminator!" Yeah, I bet it went something like that alright. If not, it should have because that's precisely what Annihilator is.
The concept of an otherworldly force snatching a plane from the sky and replacing its passengers with evil robotic doppelgangers fulfilling a sinister agenda is a promising one. That the obvious culprit is an alien power yet the movie also loads up on enough religious imagery to make one wonder if maybe these evil robots might actually have a satanic origin to them is just another dynamic that makes Annihilator an interesting failure. Don't usually hear about Satan going the mechanized route to takeover the world, do you?
Whatever unknown force was behind the robot replacements we'll never know. I should probably specify right now that Annihilator was a feature length pilot that aired back in 1986 for what would have been an NBC Network television series had the network not passed on it. That means we’re guaranteed 90-minutes of set-up with no real pay-off or hard answers. That withstanding, the pilot is ultimately done in due to the combination of a stuffy lead, some weak acting all around, a tone that teeters between being mundane and unintentionally silly, and a script that simply wasn't particularly well thought out.
Annihilator is also disgustingly Eighties, thus making it highly dated by today's standards. Look no further than when a third of the way in it completely devolves into a rather lengthy music video montage complete with plenty of MTV effects tricks of the era set to a mid-80s pop cover version of David Bowie's "Ashes to Ashes".
Starring is Mark Lindsay Chapman who got the lead role in the Annihilator pilot as a consolation prize from NBC after they initially cast him to play John Lennon in a big TV movie they were planning; he ended up losing the role after a public outcry due to the unfortunate reality that Mark Lindsay Chapman is awfully similar to Mark David Chapman, the name of the man who murdered John Lennon. Many of you might also know Mark Lindsay Chapman from his turn as the evil Dr. Anton Arcane on the USA Network's "Swamp Thing" series.
Here the British-born Chapman plays newspaper editor-turned-robot battler Richard Armour. Though a perfectly fine actor, Chapman comes across as too British, too refined, and too mannered for the role he's cast in here. He doesn't convey that dapper yet scrappy quality that Pierce Brosnan had playing "Remington Steele" on the network around the same time. He's just something of a stiff - not the kind of quality you look for in a series lead.
The set-up has San Francisco newspaper editor Richard Armour at the airport awaiting the return of his girlfriend and fellow reporter, Angela, played by quintessential Eighties B-movie "it" girl Catherine Mary Stewart. One little problem: her flight is late, and by late I mean it has completely vanished from the radar screen. The plane finally rematerializes after a few tense hours and nobody getting off, including Angela, seems aware there was any sort of a problem.
But problems there most definitely were and for Richard Armour they've only just begun.
Angela begins behaving strangely and by "strangely" I mean killing their dog because it won't stop barking at her, writing strange editorials vehemently supporting experimentation on lower animal life forms, and eventually revealing herself to be a murderous robotic duplicate. Killing her proves to be a Sarah Connor-esque task; ramming her with a jeep that explodes ultimately does the trick. Problem is he now finds himself wanted for Angela's murder and because this whole incident took place in federal woodlands while they were on holiday at a lake house her "murder" is considered a federal offense and the FBI are hot on his trail.
This is where "The Fugitive" aspect comes into play. Richard is on the run from the cops and the feds for his girlfriend's murder even though she was actually a killer cyborg look-a-like and doesn't know who he can trust because other killer cyborg look-a-likes are after him because he's stumbled upon their otherworldly conspiracy. Richard gets a hold of the plane's passenger list and begins making the rounds to find someone who might know what the hell is going on, but mostly keeps finding himself confronted by other killer robot doppelgangers.
Director Michael Chapman (All The Right Moves, Clan of the Cave Bear) and the writer's of the movie pilot made the mistake to structure the story so as to start smack dab in the middle of the tale. A very 80's TV cop show car chase kicks things off, a bad choice given we initially don't who it is being chased or why yet we're supposed to be riveted. Things will soon settle into flashback mode for the entire first half until the story intersects and rejoins where it opened and moves forward from there. I wouldn't be shocked to know it was the network that suggested they kick it off in the middle just so things would open with an action scene. Because of this misguided storytelling technique and other plot problems to come Annihilator ends up feeling clunky, clumsy, and so disjointed that it sometimes felt more like a movie compiled from several episodes of a series and not just the full-length pilot for one.
Annihilator starts with Richard already on the run from the cops and lugging around a shotgun he'd acquired, as well as a little kitty from the home of a woman he found murdered after she’d discovered her husband had been replaced. Now despite Richard supposedly being this really smart newspaper editor, he never once suspects this woman he carjacks and forces at gunpoint to take him someplace where he can hideout could have more to her than meets the eye, even though her response to his threatening actions is to calmly take him back to her place, make him a spot of tea, and tell him the reason she's treating him more like a stray puppy she's brought home rather than a shotgun-toting abductor is because he was carrying a cat with him and she likes cats. This right there should have been fair warning that she's clearly not human one way or another. This right there also should have been fair warning to the producers that the script needed another rewrite.
Sure enough, she'll eventually turn out to be one of them, but it's not so bad because she's a "good" killer robotic duplicate. And by "good" I mean she's a robot trying to understand this very human emotion called love even as she fails to resist her preprogrammed urge to try and turn Richard into roadkill.
Again, an interesting premise with plenty of avenues it could have taken; instead all those roads lead to someplace stupid. The stupidity is often amusing, but disappointingly stupid nonetheless because of all the potential the premise holds.
Much of Annihilator's sometimes inspired silliness will involve Celia, Angela's best friend and co-worker who had accompanied her on the flight and has also been replaced with a killbot. Somehow having a fire extinguisher thrown at her in a stairwell causes cyborg Celia to get her arm stuck in the guard railing so tight she has no recourse but to rip her own arm off to get free. She'll then use that same severed robot arm as a weapon to both throw at Richard and beat him with like a club. In the pilot's most unintentionally hysterical moment, Richard escapes a Celia severed arm sidewalk beatdown; she'll then step out into traffic and get rundown by a bread delivery truck in a moment staged almost exactly like Bela Lugosi's demise at the beginning of Plan 9 From Outer Space.
But that won't be the last we'll see of robo Celia. She'll show up again later and kill a woman who was a passenger on the flight yet didn't get replaced with an android because she slept during the whole thing. Figure that one out. While you’re at it attempt to figure out how they expected us to believe even a cyborg can kill a human with nothing more than a weak looking slap across the face. One-armed cyborg Celia can literally pimp slap people to death.
Richard will eventually find himself at a house out in the country populated by an entire family that’s been replaced with mechanized masqueraders, including a very young Nicole Eggert who will explode after getting crushed by a bulldozer and Geoffrey Lewis as her professor father who will reveal some insight into their bionic nature starting with the fact that they are called Dynamatars (sp?). We'll also learn each Dynamatar is individually programmed for the person they're replacing yet answer to an unspecified collective.
From what we’ve already seen, Dynamatars can also make their eyes glow, looked to be really good at taking massive amounts of punishment without bothering to put up much of a fight, and female Dynamatars for some reason are prone to screaming like wild animals when in kill mode. Also, if you bash their heads in enough they'll start behaving more like Dynamatards.
Richard will comes to learn that it wasn't just a case of everyone being misfortunate enough to be on this one particular flight. They were after specific people in positions that could benefit their agenda such as himself had he not let his girlfriend take his place on the flight, and other flights may have been involved.
The ending, clearly setting up a potential weekly series, will see Richard still on the run from the law while setting out to track down the remaining names on that passenger list in order to unravel the truth, clear his name, and save the world from what is either an alien or unholy (Richard describes them as "demon spirits" during his climactic voiceover) invasion of cybernetic clones setting up their never specified masters' conquest of Earth.
The late great Brion James is billed in the credits as "Alien Leader" but I don't recall ever seeing him in the movie, unless he was the mysterious man in black with the blonde hair carrying a puzzle book that kept popping up for seconds at a time never saying a word. If so, it didn't look like him. Does make me wonder if his scene got cut out to maintain the ambiguity of the Dynamatars' creators?
In better hands with a better script and a better lead it might have worked. As it is, Annihilator is modestly entertaining even as it underachieves and it's easy to see why the network execs opted not to greenlight it as a regular series. If this pilot was a taste of things to come I strongly suspect it would have been a very short-lived series anyway.
The set-up is still strong enough that some enterprising producers today really ought to consider giving it a revamp. Then again, “Battlestar Galactica” has pretty much already cornered the insidious robots masquerading as human beings concept. Ah, well...
And if anyone is wondering why the show was called Annihilator in the first place, keep in mind it was the mid-Eighties, the concept was killer robots plotting to conquer the world made to look like ordinary people so as to blend in, and The Terminator had been a huge hit just two years earlier - you do the math. I'm sure NBC had a great big board of terms that sounded similar to "Terminator" to choose from and Annihilator was the one they threw the dart at.
2 ½ out of 5
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