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, Comrade Dubovski (Rico Cattani). Dubovski can only communicate through Anna as translator, and both men are deeply suspicious of the other. Dubovski's comrades, including Anna and brilliant scientist Zagorsky (Vincent Beck), are more than willing to collaborate for the greater good, but Dubovski 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, Beck, 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.
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