Matthew Kresal looks into the terrifying secret in Hangar 18...
Someone once observed that any piece of art is inherently the product of the time that it was created in. Not that I am going so far as to call the 1980 science fiction/conspiracy thriller Hangar 18 art - the very fact that it was a selection for spoofing by Mystery Science Theater 3000 should speak to the fact that it isn't. Yet between its echoes of Watergate, the still brand new NASA space shuttle, echoes of Erich Van Daniken's Chariots Of The Gods and the then recent revelation of the so-called Roswell Incident, it is without a doubt very much a product of its time.
That is especially true of its cast believe it or not, as many of the cast members are recognizable from their roles during the 1970s and 1980s. Gary Collins and James Hampton play the two NASA shuttle astronauts who, after being set up as a cover-up for a UFO incident, go on the run to try and unravel the cover-up. The movie very much follows them, and that is not necessarily a good thing as neither seem to have a whole lot of range and are anything but convincing in their roles. Much more successful are Darren McGavin (Kolchak) as a NASA official who is charge of investigating the incident and Robert Vaughn (The Man From UNCLE, Superman III) as the President’s chief of staff who is charge of the cover-up. Both McGavin and Vaughn do pretty well given the material they're given. The rest of the cast ranges from okay (William Schallert as Professor Mills) to bad (any of the actors playing a government agent) to utterly forgettable. The cast though is pretty indicative of the rest of the movie.
Hangar 18 also has a dated feel thanks to its production values, which look cheap. The entire opening sequence of the film involving the space shuttle mission blatantly gives this away: the interior set of the shuttle cockpit is ludicrous, while there is a hilariously bad attempt at zero g (by having the actors walk around in slow motion), while outside the shuttle is represented by a model that looks as though it was bought right off a store shelf. Thankfully things improve somewhat when the movie comes down to Earth, with many of the locations looking pretty good, including the NASA mission control room, the office of Vaughn's character and the title hanger itself, while the UFO and its contents are a bit of a let down. The rest of Hangar 18 has the feel of a low-budget TV movie out of the late 1970s in every other way, this bogs the film down and makes the 97 minute running length seems to be much, much longer. Cheap and occasionally effective then.
Perhaps there is no greater place where Hangar 18 is dated then in its script. The basic premise though is interesting: during a space shuttle mission to deploy a satellite (“the first” according to dialogue, but never mind), said satellite collides with a nearby UFO which then crashes to Earth. With a Presidential election just two weeks away, the White House decides to hold off announcing this and instigate a cover-up for fear of political repercussions. While a group of NASA scientists and technicians go about investigating the UFO and make surprising discoveries, the two surviving astronauts are effectively framed and set out to unravel the cover-up. A nice idea right?
Maybe but definitely not in the way it's done here. There are some sizable plot holes and leaps (a most unscientific examination of the UFO and its contents being a prime example) throughout that make it just a bit too difficult to suspend disbelief on top of all the aforementioned issues the movie has. Not to mention quite a bit of cringe-worthy dialogue, especially from the two astronaut character’s that are so much the focus of the film. There are also perhaps too many ideas being thrown into the plot as well. The script feels like a smorgasbord of late 1970s conspiracy theories and science fiction cliches: you have the two astronauts trying to unravel the cover-up, the NASA team investigating the UFO, the political machinations of the chief of staff and then the NASA team starting to confirm bits and pieces of Van Daniken and others theories about ancient astronauts. The result is that the script and the movie feel very unfocused and very dated.
Where does that leave Hangar 18? Well it's a mixed bag all round, from its acting to its production values and its script. Above all else though it is a dated piece of work that proves that it is very much a product of the time it was created.
Matthew Kresal lives in North Alabama where he's a nerd, doesn't
have a southern accent and isn't a Republican. He's a host of both the
Big Finish centric Stories From The Vortex podcast and the 20mb Doctor Who Podcast. You can read more of his writing at his blog and at The Terrible Zodin fanzine, amongst other places.