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THE GROUNDSTAR CONSPIRACY Review – ***

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Though if suspense and surprise endings are your thing, you could do a lot better. (Source)

Though if suspense and surprise endings are your thing, you could do a lot better. (Source)

Availability generally dictates value, and although the rise of torrenting has perhaps put an end to the golden era of rare tapes and DVDs commanding hundreds of dollars in the marketplace, connoisseurs still know the thrill of the hunt–and the sense of triumph when the quarry is secured.

The Groundstar Conspiracy is the quarry in this case. No, I didn’t find a copy of the DVD–it’s years out of print and commands a good $50+ online–but I found it online, free for the streaming (since I personally do not torrent), and sat down to finally see the film I’d been seeking for so long.

After a rather cryptic scene of a woman arriving at a country house, a series of explosions rip apart the Groundstar facility (a governmental science facility of some kind), and a man being chased by security guards is horribly disfigured by a blast. He finds his way to the house; the woman, Nicole Devon (Christine Belford), summons the authorities, and the man is taken to the hospital. A government investigator named Tuxan (George Peppard) demands to speak to the man, but extensive plastic surgery is required before the interrogation can begin.

The man, identified as J.D. Welles (Michael Sarrazin), claims to have no memory of what has happened or why he caused the explosions. Data from the Groundstar project was found on his person, which suggests he was selling it; Tuxan repeatedly demands to know who Welles was working for, even subjecting him to electroshock and threatening his life, but Welles can remember nothing. Finally, Tuxan tells Welles he is being sent to an isolated site where he will remain until he regains his memory.

En route, the van carrying Welles is forced off the road, and Welles escapes; he goes to Nicole’s apartment and demands that she tell him who he is, but she knows nothing. It turns out the van crashing was all part of the plan, and Tuxan has had Nicole’s apartment bugged. She and Welles start to form a relationship while trying to jog his memory, and flashes come back–he knows Greek, and he has repeated dreams of going swimming with a young woman, whom he knows, somehow, has died.

Nicole takes Welles to a secluded beach home to continue trying to restore his memory–and to deepen their relationship, but Tuxan and the government are keeping a close eye–and so, too, are the people Welles was working for. But even when they get ahold of him, he still remembers nothing…

I’ll admit, I don’t remember just how I came to be fascinated by The Groundstar Conspiracy (Coincidence? Or conspiracy?!), but as I recall I first heard of it while skimming through Halliwell’s Film Guide, where it attracted a little more attention than usual from the editor. Not that he called it a masterpiece, but it was a film worth mentioning that I didn’t already know, and that had to be rectified.

Somewhere along the way, I found out that the DVD was hard to find; unless I saw a copy once upon a time (and I’m sure there were some films I could’ve easily bought once upon a time that I would now kill for), I have never even seen a copy of it in person, and until yesterday, I had seen nothing beyond a trailer.

Ultimately, it wasn’t so much that I hoped to find a hidden gem–the reviews I’d read suggested it wasn’t that noteworthy–but that I needed to see this film that so relentlessly eluded me. And honestly, some of it might have been the fact that I just liked the sound of the word “Groundstar”.

Yeah, I know.

The cover of the (now very expensive) DVD. (Source)

The cover of the (now very expensive) DVD. (Source)

And now that I’ve seen it, I’ll say I’m glad I didn’t spend $50 for the privilege. The Groundstar Conspiracy is a decent thriller, but compared to Universal’s other sci-fi of the era (especially The Andromeda Strain, which it evokes heavily–more on this in a moment), it feels a little flat. Moria claims that it was originally meant for television, and although the film itself was shot in ‘Scope (unlike the milder widescreen a repurposed TV film would boast), Lamont Johnson’s direction is about on that level.

Ah, yes, Lamont Johnson. Responsible for The Last American Hero, another film I searched high and low for (because it was an NBR Top 10 film), before ordering it online (it was still in print, just absent from every store I checked). And it too left me a little wanting. I mean to see it again someday, but at the time I found it solid but surprisingly unnoteworthy.

The Groundstar Conspiracy has the benefit of a more compelling story, but it doesn’t dig deep enough into the dramatic possibilities of Welles’ search for his identity. The exact nature of the conspiracy, when revealed, is fairly predictable, but the end of the film involves the revelation of Welles’ identity, and what should have been an emotionally devastating moment is merely a twist.

(Spoilers) Welles goes to the government installation where Tuxan interrogated him, and in the psychologists’ office finds a tape with his name on it, on which Tuxan orders the psychiatrist to wipe his memory completely. Tuxan and his officers arrive, and Welles demands to see him one-on-one. Tuxan agrees and confronts Welles, who assumes Tuxan is the real traitor. In response, Tuxan takes Welles to a storage room where he reveals the mutilated corpse of the real Welles. He explains that “Welles” is really Peter Bellamy, a State Department employee working in Greece who lost the woman he loved in a swimming accident. Devastated, he accepted Tuxan’s proposal: become Welles’ double via plastic surgery and have his memory wiped, so that he could, upon ‘escaping’, serve as bait for the true villains.

Bellamy, disgusted by Tuxan’s fascistic techniques, wants to kill him, knowing it will mean his own death, but Tuxan replies that he has the opportunity to start all over, and after accepting a punch to the face, leaves Bellamy to ponder his fate. (End spoilers)

It all goes by too quickly. Done properly, the flashes of memory and the final revelation should have combined to make a real bombshell, but it feels pat. It has some intrinsic power of its own, but it isn’t the gut-punch it should’ve been. According to Moria, the source novel (The Alien by L.P. Davies) had the protagonist believing he was an alien, which sounds a bit more interesting than the film we have.

The awesome cover to the source novel, found here--the site also includes a review of the film.

The awesome cover to the source novel, found here–the site also includes a review of the film.

Which is not to say the film doesn’t have its redeeming qualities. Michael Reed’s cinematography is sometimes quite nice; the film was largely shot in and around Vancouver, and the scenes on the beach and at the government offices (a fine example of Brutalist architecture) allow for some agreeable compositions. Paul Hoffert’s score is uneven, sometimes becoming rather intrusive (and poorly synced with what’s happening onscreen), but other times adding to the off-kilter vibe; it’s reminiscent of Gil Melle’s great Andromeda Strain score. Cam Porteous’ set designs, looked at today, are pleasantly retro.

Michael Sarrazin had a rather odd film career; he rose to Hollywood stardom in the late 60s and was the male lead in They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (though he missed out on an Oscar nomination, unlike three of his co-stars), and continued to have solid parts until the late 70s, when he rather abruptly fell off the cinematic radar. He continued to work in TV (he was on an episode of Deep Space Nine) and in smaller film roles until he died in 2011, but never again reached the heights of his brief heyday.

He had a rather puppyish quality to him–not unlike Ben Whishaw–and he brings some definite pathos to Welles’ suffering at Tuxan’s hands, while having a solid chemistry with Belford which makes their relationship reasonably compelling. It’s not quite the tour de force it should’ve been, but Sarrazin does pretty well.

The rest of the cast is generally adequate, but nothing more. As a character, Tuxan has some interesting dimensions; his essentially fascistic mindset precludes any regard for the right to privacy, with him quipping “If I had my way, there’d be a bug in every bedroom in America”, and later stating that he would deprive his own family of their privacy if it meant keeping America safe. The idea of security vs. privacy is a relevant one, more so now than ever, and the symbolic conflict between Tuxan and Welles is one of the more interesting elements of the story–that Tuxan is not a completely unsympathetic character actually does make the film a little more thought-provoking–but the film doesn’t capitalize on it.

Peppard’s performance is a bit wooden; at times it’s fun to watch Tuxan operating, but after a while his relentless coldness becomes a bit monotonous. The swagger Peppard showed to fine effect in the underappreciated Home From the Hill or The Blue Max is deprived of any shading here.

Belford has her own hurdles to overcome: there’s no real resolution for Nicole as a character (several IMDb commenters argued that a scene reuniting her and Welles would have been welcome–I don’t totally disagree), and her supposed link to Welles is a red herring, but she’s not bad. Furthering the connection with The Andromeda Strain, James Olson, who played the smug Dr. Hall in that film, plays a smug senator here. And, because there weren’t enough connections to other 70s sci-fi, Cliff Potts, who was one of the people who wasn’t Bruce Dern in Silent Running, is a government spokesman who tries to hit on Nicole and has or two of his own.

The script is by Douglas Heyes, under the pseudonym of Matthew Howard. Other reviews (especially Leonard Maltin’s) have criticized the film for having unusually bad dialogue; I didn’t notice any unusually bad lines, so much as the frequently stiff (and possibly overdubbed?) delivery of them. In any case, I consider the script’s failure to meet its full potential a greater fault than the quality of the dialogue.

Ultimately, The Groundstar Conspiracy is quite watchable and has a compelling enough premise. If it hadn’t been for the eternity it took me to track it down, I might have graded it a little higher. But I think it belongs right around here; a solid film, but not a really memorable one.

But hell, I got what I paid for.

Score: 69/100

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