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Hanagar 18 (1980)
Tonight's Feature Presentation

HANGAR 18 (1980)

Starring: Gary Collins, James Hampton, Darren McGavin, Robert Vaughn, Joseph Campanella

Written By: Steven Thornley, Tom Chapman (story), James L. Conway (story)

Directed By: James L. Conway

The Short Version

Before Area 51 and before Giorgio, there was Hangar 18.

By nostalgic acclaim, this is a conspiracy classic.

Reality isn’t so kind; it’s cheap, cheesy, and flat.

Except when the flying saucer is on camera; those scenes are interesting.

For conspiracy theorists and UFO buffs, cultural peer pressure demands that you see Hangar 18 once, but otherwise...


The Long Version

What Kind Of Cheese Is It?

CHEEZ WHIZ.

Spread it on a cracker and you’ve got yourself a snack sized flying saucer.


Pairs Well With...

HEILEMAN'S OLD STYLE.

Yee-ha, 1980!

“We’ve been set up from the start!  What the hell’s going on, Harry?”


What’s going on?  Why, a government conspiracy, that’s what going on!  A conspiracy about what, you ask?  Well, I’m not saying that it’s aliens… but it’s aliens.

Welcome to the wonderful world of Hangar 18, a film that carries a reputation as one of the all time classics of UFO conspiracy cinema.  Indeed, that’s how I’d been carrying it around in my own memory, with flashbacks to watching this flicker across the television screen on rainy days or during the darkest hours of the night when insomnia wouldn’t let me drop off to sleep.  But that was a long time ago, and the millennium had turned since the last time I’d actually sat down to watch the movie all the way through.  And so it was with the happy anticipation of revisiting a long-lost friend that I pressed “play” for a fresh round of conspiracy nostalgia just a couple days back.

The truth is out there, folks, and in truth, Hangar 18 is a classic in name only: a jaggedly written, cheaply constructed, flatly directed, badly acted cheese fest that would be too dull to endure if not for a few brief moments of interest that hint toward potential unrealized. 

Turns out that it was those few brief moments that I’d kept remembering for all of those years.  Oops.

Here’s the story.  A US space shuttle crew is in the process of launching a military satellite when they notice an alien spacecraft hovering right next to them… at least it is until the freshly launched satellite crashes into it and explodes, killing one of the American astronauts who happens to be doing some EVA at the time.  The space shuttle manages to make it safely back to Earth, the alien spacecraft makes a controlled landing in the scrublands of America, and The Powers That Be cart said craft off for study at a secret base in Texas known as – you guessed it – Hangar 18…

…and that’s when it all falls apart.  (And no, I don’t mean that it falls apart because everyone knows that the “real” Hangar 18 is in Ohio.  I’ll let the filmmakers have that much license, at least.)  What follows is one of the single dumbest UFO conspiracies you’ll ever see on film. 

See, it turns out that there’s a Presidential election in two weeks, and the incumbent President made some disparaging remarks about people who believe in flying saucers not so long ago.  To his majordomo, Gordon Cain (Robert Vaughn, Bullitt), that’s a problem; after all, how embarrassing would it be for a man who made fun of UFOs to suddenly have to admit that the government just captured one?  Why, it might ruin his chances for re-election, and that just wouldn’t do at all!  No, better to keep it under wraps.  And how do we do that?

By assuring the guy with the green suit and the bars on his chest that of course full reports will be sent to the CIA, the DOD, and a whole bunch of other alphabet soup… which, to anyone with half a brain, means that this thing’s not going to be secret for more than ten minutes.  But hey, it’s a cheesy movie script, so we pretend we didn’t hear that part and just movie on to the next element of stupidity. Specifically, instead of either bringing the surviving astronauts into the conspiracy or at least safely locking them away to study the UFO – you know, putting them in a place where they’d be oblivious to any dastardly doings and where things are already locked down and there’s no means of outside communication – Mr. Cain and company decide to publicly suggest that our pals Steve Bancroft (Gary Collins, Airport) and Lew Price (James Hampton, Teen Wolf) are in fact responsible for the death of their crewmate, because nothing keeps astronauts quiet like being dragged through the mud, right?  Right?

Um, yeah.

From there on in, audiences are treated to a low octane race for answers wherein the Whitest White Guys Ever pick up some really easy clues while the Keystone Men In Black do a half assed job of chasing them around the country.  I understand that the production company behind Hangar 18 normally made its money as a documentary outfit (they toy with that a little bit here, too, but ultimately choose the dramatic route; probably a good call considering that the space shuttle didn’t actually take off for its first real mission until the year after this movie came out), but any given episode of “In Search Of…” has more punch than what viewers get stuck with here, and the cheap TV-grade score isn’t going to make these boring chase scenes and half-assed explosions suddenly turn into anything exciting, either.

So why, if Steve ‘n’ Lew’s Pursuit O’ The Truth is so dull, would anyone still want to watch Hangar 18?

Well, I’m not saying that it’s aliens… but it’s aliens.  Or at least their spacecraft.

Even though the alien ship looks like some kind of nightmarish Soviet-era kitchen appliance gone rogue (Hangar 18 was a big hit on Soviet television, by the way; it was one of the rare American films that made it to the air there, perhaps because it made the US government look like such idiots), what goes on inside of it while the scientists of Earth try to figure out what makes the thing tick is genuinely interesting.  These are the moments that had remained stuck in my memory from all those years ago; moments that borrow from both Wells and Von Daniken and do cool things with those inspirations.  (There’s also a little bit of lip service paid to the whole alien abduction thing, but that subplot crawls off into oblivion and dies within just a few minutes of being brought up.)  If there are any genuine flashes of drama or tension or any kind of thrills at all to be found during the course of Hangar 18, they happen on board that ship.

Anything else… yeah, no.  If you want to be thrilled by two people chasing government conspiracies across America, watch an episode of “The X-Files” instead.  It’ll take less time, and even if you don’t buy into the whole alien cover-up thing, at least Mr. Duchovny and Ms. Anderson can be counted on for compelling performances, something else that is decidedly lacking here.

Unless, of course, you’ve got plenty of cheap beer on hand.  Given an equalizer like that and the company of a few friends with a certain sense of humor, one might just be able to turn Hangar 18 into an unintentionally out-of-this-world comedy.  Could be worth a try, anyway.  Or not.

Bottom line, as a matter cultural competence/peer pressure, conspiracy theory enthusiasts and UFO buffs will find themselves compelled to see Hangar 18, once, but really, once is enough, and anyone who doesn’t fit into either of the two categories I just mentioned can go through life never experiencing this movie at all and feeling no guilt for the omission.

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- Reviewed by Ziggy Berkeley, February, 2014


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