Narcissism can manifest itself on screen in a variety of ways, and over the years Bill Shatner has dealt in most of them. But there's nothing like a passion project to bring out the best in a ham.
Country: USA | Runtime: 92m | Director: William Shatner
Starring: William Shatner, Dan Gauthier, Amy Acker, Tom Towles, Dick Van Patten
Spoil the plot for me: The Arizona desert, present day. Kate (Acker) is on a road trip with her boyfriend Andy (Gauthier) after being given six months to live. They come upon a strange town with a secretive military base run by Gossner (Shatner). Andy crashes the car acting like a dick. He goes to find help and soon sees a UFO. Kate also sees it, and is then raped by local bumpkins. Gossner is holding a strange, glowing man in his base, and also testing some sort of spaceship. Andy returns to Kate and takes her to the doctor in town before wandering off for some reason. In his absence Kate is taken by men in black who seem to work for Gossner. Andy is pursued by the same men but escapes, then breaks into the Groom Lake military base to rescue Kate. He is helped by local moron Dietz (Towles), who is obsessed with proving the base harbours aliens. It transpires Gossner has been building a spaceship in order to send home his alien buddy, whose spirit resides in the glowing man but is transferred into some sort of space costume. Andy rescues Kate and Dietz kidnaps the alien, taking it into town and starting a riot in the process. Gossner, Kate and Andy rescue the alien and he returns safely to his own planet. The experience gives Kate a fresh perspective on her imminent death..
"I gotta get my Suzuki.”
Groom Lake, the official name for notorious UFO hotspot Area 51, is a highly classified remote detachment of Edwards Air Force Base located in Lincoln County, Nevada. Traditionally used to develop experimental aircraft, it's also the setting for a very silly story dreamt up by William Shatner. Although TV writer and producer Maurice Hurley was hired by Kirk to write the screenplay, the resulting movie is clearly the work of a single deranged mind. When an auteur with a vision, however inept or insane, works on a tiny budget, there tends not to be anyone on set to say no to them. That's one of the reasons Neil Breen's movies are so... idiosyncratic. Filmmaking is usually a collaborative process. While it may be fair to say modern blockbusters strive to accommodate the views of too many executives, producers and writers (which presumably explains why most become trapped in the same cul-de-sac of indistinguishable mediocrity), too few opinions on set can lead to different, but no less terminal, problems.
"What craziness have I invented?"
In the case of Groom Lake, the problems (at least those that can't be blamed on the miniscule budget) are related to an apparent lack of development and expertise. It feels basic and slight, like Shatner accidentally shot a pitch for a prospective Star Trek episode. You can't imagine any of the handful of characters existing outside of their scenes, they're all just archetypes introduced to perform specific functions. Even the leads, Kate and Andy, fail to conjure any sense that they existed as people before arriving at Groom Lake. The camerawork is purely functional, with the objective seemingly to capture what's happening as quickly as possible. There's no style, no aesthetic system, no technique; it's as amateurish in its simplicity as home video footage. The nonsensical plot features pointless diversions that seem to be attempts to inject poignance, pathos or some other sort of emotional depth. But because they're handled so poorly, and never explained or developed, they just amount to strange distractions. Kate's horribly misjudged rape scene is a prime example. It comes completely out of the blue, serves no purpose and is soon forgotten. It all reeks of a frustrated, egotistical filmmaker who finally has autonomy, and is determined to celebrate it by ignoring the advice on offer. And, of course, that's exactly what it is. It could have been called Groom Lake: Bill Knows Best.
"That's all we are; liquid in a bag."
Speaking of Bill, it's interesting to see a seasoned pro of a certain age do the egosploitation thing. At least he didn't cast himself as the romantic lead. Shatner claims he only took a role in the movie to attract finance, but his supporting character gets top billing and, in his own way, is no less an idealised dream-cypher than the more overtly narcissistic creations of people like Breen. Gossner is the big man; honourable, self-sacrificing, important and very powerful. Shatner has been around long enough to understand the value of imbuing his egotistical avatar with superficial modesty. But he doesn't have the self-awareness to avoid making him the bestest guy ever all the same. Gossner may be the product of a more mature and judicious mind than Breen's, but he's no more humble or well developed than the likes of Double Down's Aaron Brand. Just as The Room shows us that Tommy Wiseau wants to be loved and Double Down shows us Neil Breen wants to be cool, Groom Lake suggests Shatner wants to be important and self-sacrificing, involved in grand and righteous schemes. Having outsmarted an alien superbeing in Star Trek V, he makes one completely dependent on his gallantry in Groom Lake.
It's a vaguely interesting idea that could have worked with contributions, both technical and creative, from talented professionals. But with no stakes, and the vague spiritualism that must have been intended to provide the movie's intrigue falling completely flat, it ends up a laughably amateurish vanity project full of pseudo-philosophical nonsense.
EGOWATCH: Shatner takes the iron fist in a velvet glove approach. His narcissism isn't as conspicuous as it could be, but he's still the only one who can save the good guys, the alien and the day. Ultimately he's an all-powerful hero, but one who knows he doesn't have to shout about it. And this is a classic example of a movie that exists thanks to its creator's profile, and in spite of its own limitations.
It's too unusual to be all that cheesy. The acting could be worse, but not by much. It has the feel of a TV special so it's pretty tame (apart from occasional outbursts of sexual abuse... poor cows). But it's very inept and equally peculiar. You kind of want to know what's going on, so there's an element of successful B-movie. But virtually all the enjoyment stems from its deficiencies.
Video: Groom Lake in Around One Minute
Video: Three Scenes from Groom Lake
Full Moon Entertainment