Unidentified Flying Oddball

Unidentified Flying Oddball.
Walt Disney Pictures 1979.

Before watching the movie:

While the title isn’t very indicative of what the movie is about, upon reading that it’s about an astronaut accidentally winding up in the time of King Arthur, I’m incredibly unsurprised that it’s an adaptation of A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court but jazzed up with space. And a robot too, for good measure. I hope the “android double” won’t be too ridiculous.

I’m not sure if I’ve actually seen Jim Dale perform in anything, but of course I know him pretty well as the audiobook narrator for the Harry Potter series in the US. I would not have expected him for Mordred though. A few of the other names are vaguely familiar but I can’t tie them to anything specific.

After watching the movie:

In order to get funding for a faster than light space capsule that Congress refused to risk humans on, the NASA scientist in charge of the project orders Tom Trimble to build an android capable of replacing a human’s responses in every way, physically modeled after Tom. Unfortunately, this leads to the android, Hermes, refusing to cooperate with the launch out of fear, and when Tom goes up to the spacecraft to talk him into it, a bolt of lightning ignites the rocket and sends Tom and Hermes into space. Their planned trajectory would have compressed 30 years on Earth into 10 years in the craft, but instead Tom finds himself landing in the 6th Century in the domain of King Arthur. Emerging in his spacesuit, Tom is mistaken by all for a strange monster with a bug head and tentacles, and after briefly speaking with a girl named Alisande who believes her goose companion is her bewitched father, Tom gets captured by Sir Mordred and brought to the king’s court. Tom attempts to explain himself, but his outlandish story is dismissed and he’s sent to the dungeon to await a burning in the morning. In the dungeon, he meets Alisande’s actual father, imprisoned and tortured by Mordred to force a false confession that would forfeit his lands to Mordred as part of a plot to build a base from which to betray and overthrow King Arthur. Using his 20th century knowhow, Tom has to not only save his own neck, but also foil Mordred and Merlin’s treason.

This is a lot more genuinely fun and less campy than I expected. When I first found out about Hermes I was expecting more of a Robbie the Robot type stomper, and then when I saw he was a duplicate of Tom, I thought there were going to be fast-paced mistaken identity hijinks probably including a scene where they keep entering and exiting a room and mistaken for the same person. But this is a pretty solid adventure and while Hermes is a bit of a stereotypical deadpan, he’s still charming in his own way and he’s only crucial to about a third of the gimmicks.

The Arthurian mythos is used rather differently than I can recall ever seeing it. Arthur and his men are all rather cruel until they come to see Tom’s usefulness and tentatively begin to trust him. I especially can’t recall Merlin being an antagonist set up against Arthur, as his biggest role in the legend is in setting Arthur up to become king and then warning him fruitlessly about the seeds of his downfall. He’s also a more mundane magician than usual, coming off as a parlor magician who happens to have the king’s ear about matters of court. I don’t know much about Sir Gawain in the source material, but he’s the only other Round Table knight besides Mordred appearing here, played as a craven comic relief and my favorite supporting character.

This is a movie that benefited greatly from low expectations. Just about every element was more agreeable than I thought it would be, and the overall movie was a fun time. Questionable applications of magnetism aside, I appreciated the ways they updated the “modern-day science wins the day in ancient times” gimmick and I really don’t have anything to dislike. An odd hidden treasure I can see myself coming back to.

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