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Hipster Holy Grail: Zone Troopers (1985)

The Hipster Holy Grail is a weekly experiment where I try to find and review a movie that's at least 10 years old and has less than 1,000 ratings on IMDb. I always hope to discover something amazing. Sometimes I don't.  This week, I watched....

The short bit for people who don't like to read reviews:

Zone Troopers is the very definition of a B-Movie.  Awhile back I bitched about how SyFy dreck is ruining what was once a fine and influential sub-genre, but I don't think I gave enough examples of movies that did the opposite.  This one is a perfect illustration.  It's cheesy, campy, overly-patriotic fun about a small group of WWII infantrymen who befriend an adorable(?) alien and zap Nazis with laser beams.  You're getting exactly what you expect here.

My Rating:  3.5 / 5

The longer bits for people who like film discussion:

The Bit Wherein I Introduce Things

Time for a confession, guys.  I, a guy who writes about movies on the Internet, am a fan of Charles Band's various production companies.  I already did write-ups on the Ghoulies movies and Arena, I was a huge fan of Robot Jox even if I never wrote about it, and I thought Troll was actually kind of an unironically decent movie.  So today we're going back to the Band well for 1985's Zone Troopers.

ZT is one of those C level cult movies that is known as a cult hit, but which is celebrated more for being a cult movie than for its own merits.  People aren't as vocal about their love for it as they probably could be.  Let's say that if cult movies were actual cults, and something like Troll 2 was Scientology, and Parents was the Branch Davidians, then Zone Troopers would be Wayne Bent.  Except that Zone Troopers touches you in a good way.

Alright, so I'll just accept that award for Best Joke on the Internet, now....

ZT was written and directed by Danny Bilson, the guy who made Trancers and who would later write The Rocketeer.  A common thread in Bilson's other work is a sort of clean-cut, 1950s Americana bravado / kitsch, and you're getting more of the same here.  Another common thread?  Underwhelming box office performance.

The Rocketeer is actually a pretty good parallel.  Aside from being set at around the same time, both movies share the rah-rah spirit of the US Army paired with outrageous comic book ideas.  More importantly, though, both movies died a quiet death in theaters and later found their audience on home video.

You can watch Zone Troopers on Youtube, so I'll give you this quick little litmus test: if you liked The Rocketeer, but you thought it was a little too grounded in reality, then set aside 80 minutes sometime and check out that link.

The Bit Wherein I Describe the Plot

A writer named Dolan, a young Jersey guy named Joey, a cranky guy named Mittens, and their tough leader named The Sarge are all American soldiers in World War II.  They're stationed in a European village where they sit around and try briefly to develop as characters.  It kinda works.

Suddenly, they're ambushed by Nazis!  Their unit is wiped out, and The Sarge is seemingly shot and killed.  But no - he's okay.  His helmet has protected him, which allows him to shoot the rest of those German bastards and walk away to safety.  I mention this only because the movie calls attention to it and it seems to be The Sarge's only defining characteristic.  Apparently, he gets into trouble all the time and never gets hurt.  He's becoming a legend in the Army, as Dolan later says.

All of this comes to nothing, by the way.  The Sarge's invincibility comes up a few times and is never explained.

Anyway, they end up stranded behind enemy lines and have to fight their way out.  But one night, Joey thinks he sees a creepy alien-like thing staring at him.  Instead of notifying The Sarge, he just shrugs it off and burns his comic book, thinking that maybe he's imagining things because he reads too many zany stories.

The next morning, Mittens and Dolan go off hunting for deer.  They come across a secret Nazi camp and stage a daring raid to uncover its secrets.  Unfortunately, they forgot that they are only two guys, so they get caught and detained pretty quickly.

In the meantime, Joey and The Sarge go off looking for their missing compatriots and stumble across the wreck of a giant spaceship.  And just like that, the movie is about aliens.

The odd thing is, this is ostensibly a movie about WWII soldiers who make contact with an alien species.  But the impact of the aliens doesn't even really come up until around a third of the way through - and even then, it's only indirectly via the spaceship wreck.  So until this point, Zone Troopers might as well just be a campy propaganda movie about four good boy Johnny Americas who beat up Nazis.

There's also an odd lull here where it seems like Bilson thought people might need to be eased into buying off on the movie being about aliens.  For about ten or fifteen minutes, there's a lot of back and forth where Joey tries to convince The Sarge that they found an alien ship, and The Sarge just doesn't buy it.  Not even when they're exploring the interior of the ship and finding dead alien bodies, bizarre alien technology, and undecipherable alien text.

While that's happening, Mittens and Dolan are interrogated by the Germans.  See, the Nazis have pulled an enormous alien egg out of the wreck and are trying to figure out what it is and where it came from, and they figured that a couple of dumbasses out in the woods would know.  (To its credit, the movie hangs a decent lampshade on this by having Dolan say something to the effect of, "As long as we pretend we know things, we'll stay alive.")

The interrogation doesn't go anywhere except for the part where Hitler comes in to personally question them, and then Mittens punches him in the head.  That was kinda funny.

Anyway, the point is that it really isn't even until around minute 45 - just over halfway through - that the aliens become A Thing.  They've made brief appearances before, but now the egg hatches and The Alien becomes a character.

The Alien does not talk.  It gurgles and coos and makes gross wet sounds.  Joey adores it.

So, Joey and The Sarge eventually make their way back into the movie and rescue the others.  They steal a Nazi truck and immediately crash it into a tree, then run away with The Alien.  While hiding out in a cave, The Alien trades some of its technology with Mittens in exchange for a cigarette, and Joey tries to become its friend.

This entire sequence is bizarre because The Alien immediately identifies and sympathizes with the Americans for no real reason.  You might argue that The Alien only trusts the Americans because it distrusts the Germans, who put it in a cage.  Except that The Alien wasn't even born yet when it was shoved in the cage, and it doesn't speak English, and how would it even know that the Americans are fighting the Germans in the first place?  From its point of view, wouldn't it just think there were a bunch of humanoid weirdos that were killing each other?

By the time they leave the cave, the movie is already almost over.  But there hasn't been much of a conflict, so they arbitrarily invent a couple at the last minute.  First, they stumble across another alien - this one is a sort of blue-gray Dude Alien with a universal translator in his ear.  He explains that The Alien is actually a female, and that's just how the female of their species looks.  He also explains that they're leaving Earth now, and there's really not anything stopping them, so.... goodbye forever, I guess.

The soldiers want the aliens to help them fight off the Germans, but the aliens want to stay out of it since it's not their fight.  This leads to a brief and not-very tense standoff in which everybody just shrugs and goes about their way.

Then a bunch of Nazis show up and get in the way of the soldiers' escape.  Joey is killed.  They exchange fire, but the Americans run out of ammo.  The Sarge makes a last-ditch effort to buy time for his men to get out by taking a grenade and carrying it over to the Germans' commanding officer, thus blowing them both up.  (But The Sarge is fine.  If you remember from way back when, he can't be hurt.)

The soldiers are about to escape... but oh, no!  There's more Nazis!

Just then, the aliens come back and hand out some ray guns.  They team up with the Americans and everybody starts zapping away at their enemies.  Anything hit by the rays gets swamped in blue light, makes a popping sound, and then vanishes.  They pop-vanish all of the Nazis and then have a good laugh about it.  The aliens say goodbye again and then leave for real, and everybody has learned nothing.

The Bit Wherein I Have Unanswered Questions

So, is the Sarge a mutant or something?

Really, were they ever planning paying that off?  That he can't die?

Also, was Joey fawning over the femalien?  If not, why was he making googly eyes at her?

Since matter cannot be destroyed and there was nothing on screen to indicate that the things that got shot by ray guns were transformed into energy, is it safe to assume that the ray guns were actually just portable transporter devices?  And if so, where were they transporting everything that they shot?  Is there a Prestige field somewhere with a bunch of Nazis with broken legs?

What does the "Zone" in Zone Troopers refer to, anyway?

The Bit Wherein I Discuss Thematic and Cultural Relevance

ZT is a pretty straightforward movie for the most part.  There's not really a lot of subtext in here until you get to around the 50 or 60 minute mark.  And that's when the movie very briefly compares the aliens to immigrants who are coming to America.

Joey makes some comment around this time about how the aliens are just like his grandparents when they came to Ellis Island.  And then the movie is briefly sentimental about the idea of finding justice, freedom, and opportunity in America.  It contrasts this with the imperialistic and fascist intolerance of the Nazis.

It's a shame that the movie doesn't run with this metaphor in more detail.  Granted, Alien Nation covered this one pretty well already, but it's a fine vein to run with.  Why not?  It's not like they would've had to put too much effort into it.  Just throw in some back story about how the aliens were trying to escape Space Hitler, and they were looking for a place that would tolerate their kind.  But then they crash landed in 1940s Germany and found bitterness everywhere, so now they're leaving to look for Space America.

What's really odd is that by using the aliens as a metaphor for immigrants, the movie actually sets up a fairly awful insult.  And I don't just mean the obvious insensitivity of "the aliens are literally aliens." What I mean is this: The aliens in ZT don't really matter.

They are basically non-entities.  They remain insular and form only a tentative friendship with their American compatriots.  At best, the aliens' gifts are exploited by the Americans for completely selfish reasons (escaping the Nazis) and are never repaid (Remember that the aliens don't need the Americans' help to leave the planet).  Any hopes, dreams, or fears that the aliens might experience are never actually communicated at any point in the movie, and their entire existence is marginalized as "one of those weird things that happened."

I guess ZT is saying that immigrants are hard-working, self-sufficient people who could succeed as long as they don't let white people distract them from their goals.  That might be a good lesson, actually.

Zone Troopers is not a cynical story, but I think you could easily misinterpret its energy as being ironic or insincere.  Its messages about immigration - whatever they might be - are misguided, but its intentions are good and warm.  It's a naive child of a movie that wants to be friends with everybody, and that's at least on the right track.

The Bit Wherein I Conclude Things

Patriotism is a strange thing.  You think it's going to sell tickets, but sometimes it doesn't.  Zone Troopers was not a massive failure (you need to spend money in order to lose it), but it wasn't a huge hit, either.  It seems strange to me.

1985 was the same year that we re-fought and won Vietnam in Rambo II and beat the crap out of Communism in Rocky IV.  It was right after Ronald Reagan was re-elected in an unprecedented sweep of the Electoral College.  I'm not saying that Zone Troopers should have been a hit, necessarily, but certainly I would have expected it to gross at least as much as, say, Remo Williams.

I don't want to read too much into its performance, since that's a silly game to play.  The truth is, nobody ever knows why anything succeeds or fails.

But I do think it's interesting that ZT, a movie that portrays Americans as heroic because of our willingness to give aid to aliens/immigrants, faded into the background while Stallone vehicles that portrayed Americans as heroic because of our willingness to punch things hard ended up making all the money.

How Much Hipster Cred Is It Worth? (Added March 2017)

Hmm, this is a tough one.  See, on the one hand, it's not terribly obscure.  It barely fits in my Hipster Holy Grail criteria, and it actually incurs a 20 point penalty for having over 900 IMDb ratings.  It's a cult favorite among B movie fans and has been pretty widely shared in the last thirty years.  So, if you're looking to name drop something to prove yourself the most hipster of all the movie hipsters, well, you're an amateur, kid.

But on the other hand: it's definitely got hipster content.  The tone, the special effects, the cast, the production company - between all of them, there's easily 40 cred.

So, let's just give it a modest 20 hipster cred out of a possible 100.  But there's a rapidly ticking clock on this.  As of today, Zone Troopers has a precariously-close-to-the-limit 994 ratings on IMDb.  That means if just six more people in the world can be bothered to rate it, it'll reach critical mass and it's disqualified from hipster cred altogether.  So, better watch it ASAP if you want that 20 cred.