This review originally appeared on Quietearth.us.
In light of the affection many fans have for Harry Harrison’s source novel – that playful, anti-war sci-fi satire of the 1960s – it is difficult to talk about Alex Cox’s crowd-funded, film adaptation of Bill, The Galactic Hero without feeling duty-bound to prepare viewers for what lies in store. This is because it is essentially a feature length student film, albeit one of considerable scale and ambition. It’s also a not-for-profit project, one which will be made available for free online. I must admit, during the first ten minutes of the film (which I had invited a friend unfamiliar with Cox’s work to watch with me) I was tempted to switch off and suggest something else, as I felt that awkward pang of embarrassment which occurs when one insists on playing a favourite song before realizing that nobody else in the room is going to enjoy it. Thankfully, after the initial shock of realizing just how lo-fi, rough and chaotic this little movie is, one slowly begins to appreciate everything which is going on within it: the imagination of the artists at work, the attention to detail, enthusiasm of the young actors on screen, and the appreciation of the book’s surreal and often black humour, which is largely maintained by Cox’s script.
The film is not perfect by any means, and for many it’ll be a love-it-or-hate-it type situation, but one thing which is undeniable is the passion with which it has been crafted. Cox had been communicating for years with Harrison on the idea of adapting the book, and that he’s co-opted the talents of his own film students at the University of Colorado in finally putting it on screen seems like a fitting approach for this often radical and always unconventional film-maker.
Introduced in a colourful animated segment, we watch as pizza delivery boy, Bill (James Miller), is coerced by a recruitment officer visiting his farming planet, into joining the intergalactic military to fight an alien lizard race known as the Chingers. The film then shifts to live-action monochrome, landing on our hero as we wakes up in his spacesuit and begins training under the ruthless tutelage of drill instructor Deathwish Drang (Devon Wycoff) aboard the flagship Fanny Hill. From here, we follow Bill as he navigates his way through a series of bizarre and often degrading encounters with his fellow troopers, before (literally) single-handedly destroying an enemy armada during a space battle and becoming the reluctant hero of the empire. Bill’s problems, however, have only just begun…
It’s pretty clear from the get-go that this a micro-budget film, and its problems mainly revolve around the limited resources available to the filmmakers. While I took no issue with the black and white photography, which actually helps provide a distinctive sense of melancholy and dread, complementing the darkly satirical tone, some will find it an ill-fitting approach to adapting a book which is characterized by its colourful cover art and cartoonish tone – but low-budget films need to do their best to look good, and monochrome is a forgiving format, plus, I dug the nods to Eastern block era sci-fi, ICARUS XB1, which Cox cites as a major influence. (We also sense shades of Roger Corman lurking in the background.) What sticks out more though, is the decision to dress all key players in white spacesuits, with only minor details to distinguish them from one another (Bill always has his teddy bear, so at least we know who he is) which makes for difficulty both in figuring out who’s who, and who’s speaking which lines. I suppose this could be taken as commentary on the uniform individuality of the troopers, but it still means that we have trouble getting to know the characters. There are additional problems with sound clarity, exacerbated by the fact that everyone’s voice is muffled by a space helmet…
The actors here are mainly students, all young and, we sense, relatively inexperienced. Unfortunately this does give the project an amateurish feel, as tough-as-nails drill sergeants and hard-bitten troopers are played by fresh faced kids who, ultimately, struggle to convince. It’s unfair to labour this point though, as it’s part and parcel of a student film experience, but too often it detracts from the storytelling – taking us out of the film – and we can’t help but imagine a better movie recast with professional actors more suited to their roles. As it is, Miller gives a fine, low-key performance as Bill, keeping his reactions minimal, but instilling the character with the requisite innocence and bewilderment befitting of a conscript, before transforming him into a cynical burn-out by the film’s end. Devon Wycoff and Hayden Winston as (respectively) Deathwish Drang and the ship’s Chaplain, also provide memorable turns, and Lily Grisafi does well in lending her voice to Eager Beager, Bill’s suspiciously upbeat and perky comrade.
Where the film really shines, however, is in its visual design, where every penny of the budget is evident. Wonderfully imaginative scale model work on the spaceships, along with occasional CG animation and green screen effects, is well utilized during space battles and for establishing shots of the city-planet Helior, leaving us wanting more (in a good way). Live action segments are busy with amusing background details (the ubiquitous pro-war propaganda, sarcastic robots and sentient vending machines, several peculiar references to the film Ender’s Game), reminiscent of the kind seen in Cox’s own Repo-Man, which may reward second viewing. Many of the interior spaceship scenes were filmed in the concrete stairways and basements of campus buildings, but a third act taking place on a valley-encrusted desert planet and shot in Cathedral Gorge, Nevada, offers some genuinely startling shots of natural beauty, giving the film a chance to breathe, while also reminding us of Cox’s love of spaghetti westerns. For the scenes set on Helior, exterior shots are framed by stark, ultra-modernist buildings, while interiors are, again, a mixture of cramped basements and labyrinthine corridors: appropriately alienating and claustrophobic.
The pace of the film is definitely one of its strongest points. Although split into three main chapters, its episodic nature dictates that for every scene or situation which doesn’t quite work, there’s always another ready to come along to try its luck. Standout moments include Bill’s recovery from losing his left arm in battle, during which he’s visited by unhelpful colleagues and well-wishers in hospital, before realizing that surgeons have fitted him with a second right arm by mistake. (“Now you can salute with both hands!”) While visiting Helior, Bill is forced to escape his old life and take a job in waste disposal, which mainly involves thinking of ways to get rid of a deluge of ‘unknown artefacts’ which constantly flood the garbage chute – forming a vast mountain of defunct and broken iPads (nice touch). Other visual gags work well, particularly a running joke concerning Bill’s friend, who has been so severely injured over time that he’s reduced to a life as a severed head, jutting out a little travel case, with a single flailing arm. Certain parts, though, feel less consistent, including a sub-plot involving a group of rebels with whom Bill becomes involved; a slightly overextended skit which ought to be funnier.
It’s worth mentioning that, although the film is a micro-budget feature, with directing duties divided between Cox and his students, there are individual scenes exhibiting remarkable skill in composition. These are the moments where the film hits its stride, and we become excited about the potential of this approach to film-making. One of the joys in watching Bill… is being provided the opportunity to think, “Maybe I could do this!”, and while it’s obvious that, as quite a considerable endeavour (it took 75 people and over 8 months to complete the film), this is easier said than done, there is a sense of fun in considering the possibility of shooting your own low-budget, transgressive science-fiction comedy. Maybe I should finally finish that screenplay I started years ago?
This film is rough, yes, and unapologetically so, but in acting as a counterweight to the appalling consumerist rubbish deposited into multiplex cinemas every week, it contains a genuine heartbeat, and that anarchic sense of ‘anything goes’ which so typifies the director’s oeuvre. Does this automatically make it good? No. There are weak moments, and it takes a while to find its feet. But stick with it, and you’ll be rewarded. Alex Cox has been making films for 35 years; I’ve seen all of them, and they all have something to offer. This one might have more in common with his own early student film, the apocalyptic, art-house short, Edge City, than with the work for which he’s best known. I see this as a sign that he’s still a kid at heart, and while he’s learned the hard way that Hollywood has no time for radicals or idealists, perhaps it’s better that way, because fuck Hollywood.
For more information on Bill, The Galactic Hero and other projects from Alex Cox, check out his blog right here.