Sharing the Limelight With a Robot

THERE'S a robot in my basement. The dust and cobwebs which encase this robot like a protective cocoon attest that it has not been activated for quite some time. Several of the electrical bulbs protruding from the power mechanism in its torso are cracked, while others are missing entirely. Telltale squeaking indicates a coterie of mice have taken up residence somewhere in its left leg. The entire unit has become so decrepit that the rusted Tin Man in ``The Wizard of Oz'' appears almost dapper by comparison.

My family has been nagging me for years to get rid of the crumbling contraption, but I just can't bring myself to do it. This robot was my costar in ``Above Alpha IV,'' a Super-8 science fiction film some high school friends and I made over 20 years ago.

Inspired by Stanley Kubrick's masterpiece, ``2001: A Space Odyssey,'' we decided to produce a movie which would make some equally profound statement on the human condition. The screenplay, which I coauthored, told about a spaceship on a peace mission to a planet aptly called Alpha IV at the outer fringes of a faraway galaxy.

When the crew of the spaceship Galileo attempted to reach out to the inhabitants in the name of universal fellowship and understanding, the planet's wary denizens summarily blasted the spaceship into smithereens with a cosmic death ray.

The film concluded with a voice-over deploring the Scylla of bigotry and Charybdis of fear which prevent the children of the Universe from recognizing one another as true brothers and sisters. Such a denouement, my script collaborator and I realized, lacked the panache of 2001's Keir Dullea transcending the bounds of time and space, but a total budget of $32 severely limited our creative expression.

A friend's garage was chosen as production site and swiftly converted into the studio of Mercury Films. I still recall the pride we felt that day as we hung a huge hand-painted sign over the door proclaiming MERCURY to the whole block, much to the bewilderment of neighborhood children and the annoyance of homeowners. At the time, none of us were familiar with Orson Welles and John Houseman's famed Mercury Theatre, so our choice of that name for our fledgling enterprise was purely a matter of coincidence.

When summer vacation arrived, we began building sets and props. The robot that was to be featured in our epic was originally patterned after the celebrated Robby from ``Forbidden Planet,'' but, once again, financial limitations dictated otherwise.

A rectangular box, spray-painted silver, comprised our automaton's torso with strategically arranged Christmas-tree lights giving the illusion of some powerful computer mechanism. Its head was an inverted plastic ice cream container over a pulsing red light to simulate a state-of-the-art electronic brain.

The set of the Galileo's interior was constructed along equally imaginative lines. Several long strips of painted cardboard held together by masking tape suggested the ship's main corridor. The control room consisted of a corner of the garage which we had painted pristine white and fitted with computer panels fashioned from small cardboard boxes whose cellophane windows shielded yet more twinkling Christmas tree lights.

Like all science fiction films, ``Above Alpha IV'' made use of miniatures. The good ship Galileo in space was represented by a heavily modified 7-Up can held aloft by a thin piece of wire. Space itself was a large piece of cardboard, which we painted black and then riddled with dozens of tiny holes; when illuminated by a strong light behind the cardboard, they vaguely intimated innumerable stars and planets.

I remember a mishap in the creation of this backdrop which ultimately lent our film a measure of scientific profundity it otherwise might have lacked. While puncturing the cardboard with nails to make these lights of heaven, one rather dull nail made a large crease in the black-painted cardboard instead of a hole, a crease which was all-too-visible in the film itself. Our high school physics teacher found the implications a crease in space presented for Einstein's Special Theory of Relativity thoroughly intriguing.

Finally shot in late summer and edited to a mere 15 minutes and 45 seconds, ``Above Alpha IV'' debuted before our sophomore class when school resumed and eventually was shown to all three other classes and even a few community groups. It seemed, however, that the film we had envisioned as another ``2001'' bore a much closer resemblance to ``The Three Stooges in Orbit.'' Our Super-8 camera was not equipped for sound so we tape recorded the dialogue while viewing the film and then crossed our fingers for synchronization during subsequent public showings. It didn't work. The end result was always a movie whose actors silently mouthed words which, a few seconds later, boomed from the tape recorder - sometimes even after a character had left the scene!

The portions of the film utilizing miniatures presented problems as well. Not only was the wire which supported the Galileo glaringly visible but the ship itself could actually be seen to sway slightly back and forth like the pendulum of a clock. For days after a showing, viewers would kid us about our high-tech spaceship of the future which seemed to possess just two gears: forward and reverse.

The cosmic death ray which destroyed the Galileo in the film's conclusion also proved to be something of an embarrassment. On paper, at least, the idea of having a tiny semicircular piece of wire covered with a gasoline-soaked bit of rag and then set aflame sounded adequate, but on film it looked as though the spaceship was being assaulted by a giant fiery horseshoe.

Depending upon its degree of benevolence, audience reaction to ``Above Alpha IV'' generally ranged from muffled chuckling to beam-rattling, raucous laughter.

A few years ago, some friends and I attended a revival theater showing of ``Plan 9 From Outer Space,'' the infamous camp classic popularly regarded as the worst motion picture of all time. In a caf'e after the film, a member of our party asked if I had ever seen more hilariously inept special effects. She seemed genuinely surprised and not a little incredulous when I replied that indeed I had.

The demise of Mercury Films involved a generous amount of internal squabbling - the kind of petty rivalries and jealousies often euphemistically referred to as ``creative differences'' - which gradually took its toll. We mutually agreed to dissolve our studio partnership. The studio itself briefly reverted to its pre-Mercury garage status, only to be torn down a year later.

The film remained in the joint custody of two members of the company through the remainder of our high school years. I have long since lost track of these two and have no idea if the film survived, although I like to think my friends valued it as much as I have treasured the memory of having helped make the film.

While I allowed all the other sets and props from ``Above Alpha IV'' to be destroyed when we dissolved the company, something compelled me to save the robot. Perhaps I sensed that in the years to come I would need a memento as tangible as this to help me recapture a special time in my life when a group of idealistic teenagers were bonded together by a common creative vision. And so the robot remains in my basement.

Our high school class will celebrate its 20th reunion in 1992. Say, I wonder if any of my old friends would be interested in making a sequel to our first film? I could dash off the screenplay for ``Return to Alpha IV'' in just a few days and the robot could be made operational in even less time. All it needs is a good dusting off and a new string of Christmas tree lights.

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