While test piloting a new jet, Fred Norwood (John Ericson) sees something he can't explain: a flying saucer, one which requires some tricky maneuvering to avoid. Unfortunately, when he touches down, his bosses are furious: the radio transmissions he was sending describing the incident didn't go through, the radar was a storm of static, and his test pilot partner was busy investigating something else. Still, he knows what he saw, so after being unceremoniously fired, he digs into his savings personally investigating every unidentified blip he can find in the skies. After a second encounter with the craft, he's put in touch with Hank Peters (Dan Duryea), who is also a believer, and has the resources for the both of them to really investigate. They land in communist China, where the ship is believed to have landed, hoping to make the scientific find of the century...only to run into a gang of Russians on the same mission.
What is The Bamboo Saucer? Is it a science fiction thriller about the investigation of a UFO? A war picture about the tensions between the Americans, Russians, and Chinese? Maybe the opposite, about different cultures learning to accept one another? Or it might even be an unlikely romance, between Fred and Russian scientist Anna Karachev (Lois Nettleton)? All of the above, only not very well. That's not to say there's no fun to be had with this low-budget hodgepodge, especially when it comes to its impressive roster of character actors, but it's also remarkably uneven, and frequently less than exciting. Director / writer Frank Telford does a decent job of setting up suspenseful scenarios and a poor job of paying them off, splitting time between whatever happens to catch his fancy.
The film's primary conflict is between Peters and the Russian general, Zagorsky (Vincent Beck). Zagorsky can only communicate through Anna as translator, and both men are deeply suspicious of the other. Zagorsky's comrades, including Anna and brilliant scientist Dubovsky (Rico Cattani), are more than willing to collaborate for the greater good, but Zagorsky decides fraternization between the Americans and Russians are unacceptable, keeping tensions high. There's promise in this thread (the film ends with a John F. Kennedy quote that summarizes the point I expected the film to make) but Telford never approaches that idea with much focus or precision, so the message feels unearned. Frankly, Telford trumps himself with the introduction of a group of Chinese soldiers, whispering to one another and approaching in the dark when the Americans first land, only for the leader to introduce himself as Sam Archibald (James Hong) in perfect English, a much more succinct examination and / or subversion of racial tension.
The film's more entertaining threads are not particularly successful either. There are some fun touches (an electric razor generates the frequency that opens the spaceship's door), but the budget frequently gets in the way, and Telford's direction is often a little flat. At one point, a gravitational field is activated inside the ship, and the actors press themselves against the walls inside the saucer in a fairly silly pantomime. Later, a loss of ground stability leads to the camera shaking while the cast throws themselves around the cockpit. An unexpected action sequence reuses shots that are optically zoomed to underwhelming effect, and the Red Chinese patrols that could discover the group at any moment make for a sparse-looking threat. Duryea, Hong, Cattani, and several others are also more interesting and charismatic than Ericson and Nettleton, whose courtship is awkward and sometimes flat-footed.
Of course, being thematically weak, cheap, or poorly acted is not necessarily unexpected for a 1960s sci-fi movie; what really sinks The Bamboo Saucer is its lack of focus. It's the kind of film that suddenly throws in a sick baby or an unexpected injury simply because two people need to talk or a character has to be sidelined. It stems from nothing, giving the entire movie an arbitrary feel. Without giving too much away, the movie goes big in the last 20 minutes, but the results only emphasize the film's general aimlessness. It's a go-for-broke string of action, drama, and wonder that flatlines because none of it is rooted in character or story. Instead, a good chunk of the movie's so-called grand finale is spent randomly pressing buttons...not exactly the spectacular finish one is hoping for.
The Bamboo Saucer's original theatrical poster art amps up the action quotient, because I guess people theorizing doesn't make for an exciting piece of key art. The single-disc release comes in a standard Viva Elite Blu-Ray case, and there is an insert inside the case advertising other Olive Films releases.
The Video and Audio
Much like Bang! Bang! You're Dead!, this 1.78:1 1080p AVC transfer is good, but not great. The primary culprit here is speckling and scratches throughout the movie, which become heavier during the film's early optical sequences, which have vertical lines running through the image and some desaturated colors. There is at least one shot that is either an optical blow-up to turn a wide shot into a close-up, or from a different source. Grain sometimes appears chunky, but is generally well-managed, although there is not much depth to the image, and detail is good but not great. More persistent than any of the picture issues is a distinct hiss throughout the film's DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0 track, which is not drowned out by dialogue, music, or sound effects. The track has no other issues, but the hiss is really quite pervasive. No subtitles or captions are included.
The Bamboo Saucer has some interesting ideas and characters in it, but none of them gel. The film not only has little idea what it wants to say, but believes what it has to say is important, ending on a note of puffed-up importance that the film itself fails to support. Add in the disc's audio problems, and you've got one to skip.
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