Abraxas: Guardian of the Universe (1991)

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three star

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As a fan of both Arnold Schwarzenegger shoot ’em ups and films of questionable quality starring pro wrestlers, I had very little choice but to partake in the doomed-from-the-start prospect of watching Abraxas: Guardian of the Universe when its cheap DVD sleeve caught my eye at the second-hand store. As a Z-Grade Terminator knockoff starring Jesse “The Body” Ventura, Abraxas had almost zero potential to be a decent sci-fi cheapie, but almost all of the potential in the world to be a fabulous trainwreck. Its plot synopsis of about “intergalactic police officers” & “a hybrid being that has the power to destroy the universe” boasted a special sort of promise for a campy mess. What was most surprising about Abraxas, however, was not exactly how irredeemably bad it was (it was pretty bad) but what it happened to get right & wrong about the Terminator franchise.

The original Terminator film from 1984 has a lean efficiency to it that makes it feel like an especially well-funded Roger Corman production, right down to the Dick Miller cameo in the gun shop. Part of what James Cameron does so well in that film is keep his audience in the dark. He allows questions about the exact nature of Schwarzenegger’s time-traveling robot assassin to hang in the air until they need to be answered. The gradually unfolding plot creates an feeling of dread & mystique that makes the original film a fun watch to this day (four sequels later), at the very least in admiration of how a familiar, but complicated story gets laid out in an unfamiliar, but understandable way in its initial telling. Abraxas: Guardian of the Universe has no patience for this sort of gradual roll-out & instead blurts every idiotic idea it his on its mind directly to the audience in its opening exposition.

In just a few short minutes of Jesse Ventura’s helpfully explanatory grumbling we learn that his protagonist (the titular Abraxas, of course) is an 11,000 year old intergalactic supercop, known as a “Finder”, who has to renew his vows to “defend all life” every 100 years. His latest mission is to “find” (read: “terminate”) an ex-partner, Secundus, who has gone renegade. Secundus’ evil plan involves impregnating an “Earth woman” in order to give birth to some sort of cyborg anti-Christ with the power to destroy the universe. Before Abraxas can leave for this mission, however, he must undergo a painful “reinforcement” of his skeletal & muscular structure through “short-wave irradiation” & “ozone layering”, a highly risky process that requires him to (I’m not kidding) play word association games with an A.I. surgeon (that helpfully give us some background info on his home planet of Sargacia) so he doesn’t lose his mind from the pain. If this sounds like a lot of info to lay on the audience in a single soliloquy, that’s because it is. The whole ordeal is nearly as exhausting as the restructural “ozone layering” or whatever the Hell he was babbling about.

As wrongheaded as Abraxas is about rolling out a Terminator-type plot in an understandable way, it’s also oddly prescient about where the series would go in its second installment, T-2: Judgment Day. Released just weeks before T-2, Abraxas has way too many similarities to the cult classic to not have been a direct mockbuster version of it. It’s as if the entirety of the film were written based on the promotional materials of what Judgement Day was going to be about. For some strange reason, the ad campaign for T-2 made no bones about the fact that Schwarzenegger was going to be returning as a “good guy” in the second film, despite that twist’s potential to make for a fun shock for an unsuspecting audience. Abraxas mirrors T-2‘s basic structure of two superhuman warriors fighting over the fate of a young child, except that it muddles the details of which warrior (good or bad) would be structurally superior & what the good guy’s relationship with the would-be victim’s mother would look like (I don’t remember Schwarzenegger’s cyborg falling in love with Sarah Conner, but Abraxas totally falls for her thousands-of-years-too-young-for-him equivalent in this dreck; typical male-female Hollywood age differences, right?).

Abraxas: Guardian of the Universe certainly does very little to hide the fact that it exists solely to wean off some of those sweet, sweet Terminator bucks. The film shamelessly uses the word “terminate” at least three times, there’s a scene where the evil “Finder” Secundus vaporizes a dude just to steal his clothes, and both Secundus & Abraxas are more or less directly impersonating Arnold’s very recognizable accent throughout the film (with Secundus’ attempts being a much more accurate interpretation than Ventura’s). Given the obscene cheapness of the film’s sets (warehouses, camp sites, offices, wilderness, etc.), the fact that the futuristic laser guns that don’t shoot visible lasers (they just set off sparks & explosions), and the batshit insane repetition of certain (costly, I’m guessing) identical explosions shots in the film’s montages & final conflict, it’s entirely believable that Abraxas was created in a rush as a composite of ideas from the original Terminator film & ideas lifted from the promotional material for the second. Their weeks-apart release dates pretty much seal that thought completely.

As for the film’s camp value outside of a Terminator-imitator, there are several things worth a chuckle. The repetition of the identical explosions is maddening, but also amusing. There’s also a completely needless side plot about space alien bureaucrats bitching about being assigned to “a planet no one’s ever heard of,” an over-the-top scene where not-Sarah Conner becomes pregnant & gives birth in the span of a minute at the wave of a hand, and an out-of-nowhere cameo from Jim Belushi as a befuddled principle that left me scratching my head. Most of the film’s non-Terminator camp value comes from “The Body” himself, though. Ventura could be a menace in the ring & on the mic ringside in his heyday, but in the early 90s he looked more like a bald stepdad confused with what to do with his gigantic body. As he tries to reconcile the super-serious “finding” mission at hand with his newfound tender feelings for an Earth woman, it’s pretty funny to watch Ventura try to make Abraxas out to be anything but a coldhearted robot, which the film often forgets he’s not. It’s not a knee-slappingly funny performance, but it’s definitely a fascinating one & definitely worth a look for a bored Terminator or oldschool WWF superfan looking to kill 90 minutes on an especially boring afternoon.

-Brandon Ledet

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