January 23, 2024

UFO Storage Wars: Hangar 18

Poster - Hangar 18 (1980)
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Hangar 18 (1980)


Pros: Leverages UFO and government conspiracy lore to concoct a reasonably decent sci-fi thriller; Notable performances by Robert Vaughn and Darren McGavin
Cons: Has the look and feel of a TV movie; Woefully inept alien spacecraft exterior

There’s been a lot of interesting news on the UFO/UAP front since we last checked in on UFO cinema here at Films From Beyond. 

Following up the release of eye-opening footage of U.S. military encounters with UFOs, an honest-to-goodness government whistleblower, former Air Force intelligence officer David Grusch, has testified before Congress that the federal government maintains a secret alien craft recovery program, and that we’re in possession of the remains of crashed vehicles and the bodies of non-human occupants.

To make things even more interesting, at least one element of the federal bureaucracy, The Office of the Intelligence Community Inspector General, found Grusch’s complaints credible, which paved the way for his going public.

The mainstream media’s general disinterest in this astounding story, and the various attempts to impugn Grusch’s character, makes me think there is really something there.

Of course, ever since the incident in Roswell, New Mexico in 1947, tales of crashed spaceships and recovered alien pilots have occupied the outer edges of UFO lore and challenged investigators to come up with hard evidence.

Screenshot - Alleged Roswell alien autopsy footage, now debunked
Okay, so this isn't real, but the Truth, and real preserved alien bodies, are out there... maybe.

Some researchers, citing reports from military personnel involved in the incident, maintain that pieces of the Roswell spacecraft, along with the bodies of its occupants, were transported to Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton Ohio, where they allegedly ended up in a top secret location, Hangar 18.

Not long after Steven Spielberg turned UFOs into box office gold with Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), the people at Sunn Classic Pictures decided to hop aboard the interstellar gravy train with a UFO epic of their own.

Sunn Classic, known at the time for cheesy Biblical and paranormal documentaries (more on that later), wisely leveraged Hangar 18’s notoriety for their film, but instead of making another documentary, they went the dramatic route, relocating the infamous hangar to a remote Air Force Base in Texas.

Hangar 18 tries to set up a documentary feel with an opening title card, but what follows is pure B drama (don't get me wrong, that's not a bad thing).

Screenshot - Beginning Hangar 18 title card that gives the impression that what follows is a documentary.

The film opens with a space shuttle mission that is preparing to launch a satellite out of the cargo bay. One astronaut is in the bay attending to last minute details, while two others, Bancroft (Gary Collins) and Price (James Hampton) are driving the spacecraft.

Right before the launch, instruments show a large, mysterious craft taking up station next to the space shuttle, and Bancroft confirms with Mission Control that they can see the strange object.

The satellite’s engines fire, sending it straight into the UFO, resulting in an enormous explosion that **GULP!** decapitates the astronaut doing the EVA. The surviving astronauts execute an emergency re-entry while Mission Control tries to figure out what happened.

Screenshot - Hangar 18 (1980), aftermath of the disastrous satellite launch
In space, no one can hear you lose your head.

Mission Control tracks the mystery object, which hasn’t been destroyed in the explosion and appears to be under intelligent control, to a landing site in the Arizona desert. The Air Force sends in a team to secure the area and whisk the craft to Hangar 18, which in Sunn Classic’s universe is located on a base in the middle of Nowhere, Texas.

At this point the film alternates between two plot lines. One features a conspiracy by Washington higher-ups to blame Bancroft and Price for the satellite disaster, while the astronauts in turn try to track down the recovered alien craft in order to clear their names. The other plot line dives into the minutia of ancient astronaut theories as a team of NASA experts examines the intact craft stored in the hangar.

The first storyline seems to have been inspired by Capricorn One (1977), in which an unscrupulous NASA administrator, fearing a budget-crippling mission failure, fakes a Mars landing for public consumption, but then must deal with the astronauts who, fearing for their lives, threaten to spill the beans.

Robert Vaughn plays Gordon Cain, an assistant to the President of the United States, who, in collaboration with the Air Force, is trying to cover up the existence of the recovered UFO. The President is a known UFO skeptic, and Cain figures that if word got out, somehow his boss’ re-election chances would be damaged (as if the government had no other reason to keep something like that secret).

Screenshot - Robert Vaughn in Hangar 18 (1980)
In the '70s, Napoleon Solo quit the spy game and got a Washington, D.C. desk job.

The Capricorn One vibe is strong in scenes where Bancroft and Price discover unaltered NASA telemetry data showing the presence of the UFO during the mission, and are shadowed by federal agents in black suits (Men in Black?) as they check out the Arizona crash site. As the astronauts get closer to discovering the recovered spacecraft’s location, the stakes get higher and they realize the fight is not only for the Truth, but for their very lives.

CAUTION: CAN YOU HANDLE THE SECRETS OF HANGAR 18?

Erich von Däniken and his best-selling book Chariots of the Gods? hover over the parallel storyline of the examination of the captured alien craft. NASA administrator Harry Forbes (Darren McGavin), is tasked by the Air Force to assemble a crack team to investigate the alien technology.

Unaware of the trouble Bancroft and Price are in, Forbes hops to it. The scene in which the scientists first set eyes on the craft is clearly meant to evoke a Close Encounters-type sense of awe and wonder, but unfortunately Hangar 18 only evokes wonderment that the filmmakers thought they could get away with such an uninspired design.

As Forbes and a couple of scientists in hazmat suits approach the thing, it looks like nothing more than a large, industrial grade HVAC unit with flashing lights at the base. Considering the force of the explosion that tore the satellite apart and took out the unlucky spacewalking astronaut, there is hardly a scratch on the alien furnace, er, spacecraft.

Screenshot - Alien spacecraft exterior in Hangar 18 (1980)
"Gentlemen, behold the Sunn Classic 3000, the most powerful heating and air conditioning unit in the galaxy!"

Fortunately for the team the thing opens up on its own, and they’re able to marvel at advanced alien heating and cooling, er, space technology. I won’t get into too many spoilers, except to say that at least the craft’s interior and instruments are better conceived and are a couple of grades above the usual low-budget spaceship that looks like it was outfitted by Radio Shack.

Also, the team’s linguist, Neal Kelso (Andrew Bloch) is able to decode the alien language incredibly quickly, and his discoveries are pretty much a laundry list of von Däniken’s ancient astronaut theories.

Coming at the end of the turbulent ‘70s, Hangar 18 is an encapsulation of the post-Vietnam/Watergate distrust of government and the surge of interest in UFOs, the paranormal and assorted alternate “realities.”

The company behind Hangar 18, Sunn Classic Pictures, had already established a reputation for sensationalistic documentaries such as The Mysterious Monsters (1975; a survey of a whole range of paranormal creatures and topics), The Outer Space Connection (1975; more ancient astronauts), In Search of Noah's Ark (1976), and The Bermuda Triangle (1979).

During that period, Sunn Classic interspersed the documentaries with family-friendly, rural-oriented dramas like The Life and Times of Grizzly Adams (1974) and The Adventures of Frontier Fremont (1976), but after the company was bought by Taft Enterprises in 1980, the theatrical output turned almost exclusively to sci-fi and horror, with such notable releases as The Boogens (1981), Cujo (1983) and The Running Man (1987) following on the heels of Hangar 18.

Hangar 18 is the ultimate Sunn Classic picture, combining Watergate-style conspiracies, Roswell rumors, alien autopsies and speculation about ancient alien visitations into one dramatic package (although how well the parts fit together is open to debate).

Screenshot - Alien spacecraft interior, Hangar 18 (1980)
Marveling at the alien viewscreen's crispness and clarity, Phil suddenly realized he would need to upgrade his TV before the Big Game.

The film’s ending is abrupt and violent, yet a radio broadcast voice over as the end credits roll strikes a note of cautious optimism. Hangar 18 seems like a pop culture bridge between the pessimism and cynicism of the ‘70s and Reagan’s Morning in America which was just dawning (and which itself turned out to be as phony as a Sunn Classic documentary, but that’s a discussion for another time).

Speaking of ‘70s signifiers, Hangar 18’s acting leads exemplify the decade as well as anyone. In the ‘60s, Robert Vaughn vaulted to fame as the suave spy Napoleon Solo in The Man from U.N.C.L.E. After that stint, he shed the action star veneer for character roles, especially authority figures. Perusing his IMDb resume for just the '70s alone, he portrayed two U.S. presidents along with a multitude of senators, military officers and corporate executives, many of them corrupt like his character in Hangar 18.

On the flip side, one of the highlights of Darren McGavin’s career came in the early to mid-’70s with his portrayal of bedraggled newshound Carl Kolchak in two Night Stalker TV movies and a short-lived series. Kolchak was the paranormal world’s answer to Woodward and Bernstein, constantly fighting to unearth stories of strange creatures and supernatural forces that the authorities preferred to keep under wraps (the X-Files’ Mulder and Scully would take up the cause in the ‘90s). Unlike Vaughn, who had a facility for portraying human snakes, McGavin was naturally cheerful and gregarious, so he was almost always cast as a reliable, if somewhat put upon, good guy.

Screenshot - Darren McGavin as Harry Forbes talks to fellow scientists in Hangar 18 (1980)
Harry Forbes (Darren McGavin, right) channels the inquisitive spirit of Carl Kolchak in Hangar 18.

Astronauts Bancroft and Price were played by two solid character actors, both of whose career heydays were in the ‘70s. Gary Collins guested on some of the decade’s most iconic TV shows, including Hawaii 5-0, The Six Million Dollar Man, The Bionic Woman, The Love Boat and Charlie’s Angels (he also starred as a paranormal investigator in the short-lived series The Sixth Sense).

Similarly, James Hampton was all over TV and low-budget movies, but scored a couple of memorable supporting roles in two big hits, The Longest Yard (1974, with Burt Reynolds) and The China Syndrome (1979, with Jane Fonda, Michael Douglas and Jack Lemmon).

Hangar 18 tries valiantly to be a taut sci-fi thriller, but the effort is hampered by TV movie-grade chase scenes, the prosaic-looking alien craft, and some dull stretches. 

Screenshot - Gary Collins and James Hampton in Hangar 18 (1980)
Bancroft and Price take a breather between encounters with Men in Black.

Vaughn and McGavin give it their all playing the impassioned bureaucrats (is that an oxymoron?). They each have their moments, but too much dialog and too many close-ups of furrowed brows slows down the middle part of the movie considerably. 

Perhaps the most fun to be had with Hangar 18 is counting the various homages and references to UFO lore. Additionally, it’s a great artifact of late-'70s paranoia (some would say sober realism). Maybe that’s enough to recommend it.

Where to find it: DVD | Streaming

10 comments:

  1. Another very well-written review, Brian. This is a film I've never seen, but it certainly has an impressive cast of actors. To be honest, Close Encounters is the most amazing alien encounter movie I've ever seen, and it's kind of the definitive work of that genre. I don't think any film will ever match it. It had such a hopeful, satisfying ending. I'm not so sure the real truth "out there" will be all that hopeful. I hope I'm proven wrong!

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    1. Thanks Mike! Hangar 18 tried to capture some of the Close Encounters magic, and it had a big budget for its day, but it couldn't shake that TV movie vibe.
      The first time I saw Close Encounters was at the theater. My friends and I got there late, so we had to sit in the front row. Somehow, trying to lay back in non-reclinable seats and crane our necks to look up at what was playing on the huge screen made it all the more awesome (but my neck was sore for days afterward). 😅

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  2. I haven't heard of this film, but Hangar 18 sounds like a variant of Area 51, one of those sites of Mysterious Government Doings In The Desert. I like your comparison of the alien spacecraft to a sophisticated HVAC unit. My own idea would be to market it as the latest in luxury houseboat design (maybe an indoor swimming pool included?). My sense of whenever there are government 'confirmations' of alien aircraft or sightings is that they're to serve as mass distractions for an uninformed public from whatever real nasty project is going on (financial chicanery, sex scandals, forever wars...). I always enjoy your posts that unearth relatively obscure 1970-1980s low-budget sci-fi/horror movies. Such films really are a kind of zeitgeist signpost, indicating the low-lying cultural obsessions of our various decades.

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    1. "That's the zeitgeist signpost up ahead - your next stop, the Twilight Zone!" Sunn Classic's movies and The Night Stalker, which in turn led to things like The X-Files, contributed in their small ways to today's zeitgeist, a growing distrust of authorities and gatekeepers (which can be healthy or not, depending).
      I don't know if recent UFO revelations are a psy-op or not, but it's one more thing that's makes the past several years seem like we're living in a very looooonnnng episode of The Twilight Zone! 😱

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  3. Absolutely fascinating review, Brian! I've never heard of hangar 18, but I definitely need to see it, if anything for the reason of Vaughn and McGavin! Plus, some of those Sun classic documentaries sound very intriguing and ridiculous!

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    1. Thanks John! The cast is definitely a plus for Hangar 18. Of all of Sunn Classic's documentaries, In Search of Noah's Ark I think made the biggest splash nationwide. I forgot to mention in the review itself that Sunn Classics was a leading practitioner of "four-wall" distribution, where they would rent theaters up-front and keep all the ticket proceeds for themselves. That sustained them throughout the '70s.

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  4. Excellent review, with a lot of interesting context! Admittedly, my skepticism has grown in recent years, but I still find the prospect of alien visitors fascinating. Like you, I think Hangar 18 is worth a look, even if the parts are greater than the sum.

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    1. Thanks Barry! Hangar 18 was perhaps a UFO stew with a few too many ingredients, but you have to admire the chef for trying. As for UFOs in general, I go back and forth between relative credulity and skepticism. Maybe it's better not to know. Mystery is good. 🤔

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  5. Hey there, love you to join us, https://weegiemidget.wordpress.com/2024/02/05/mismatched-couples-blogathon/

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    1. Hi Gill! I'm still deliberating on an appropriate movie -- will be letting you know soon. Clever theme by the way!

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