It was 1983 when British filmmaker Alex Cox turned in his first feature film to Universal Studios. That same week, Cox optioned the rights to one of his favorite science-fiction novels for a future project. The movie was Repo Man. The book was Harry Harrison’s Bill, the Galactic Hero, Harrison’s satirical response to Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers, a book that Cox describes as “a turgid sci-fi tale madly in love with all things military.” Bill reportedly caused Heinlein to never speak to Harrison again and in 1997, Starship Troopers was adapted for the big screen while Bill was deemed an unmarketable product and gathered dust.
Thirty years later, Bill the Galactic Hero finally made its way to the screen thanks to more than 1,100 Kickstarter backers and the students of the film studies program and Department of Theatre and Dance at the University of Colorado Boulder, where Cox is a teacher. Funny how these things happen.
Bill the Galactic Hero is an antiwar, antiauthoritarian tale. Theater major James Miller plays Bill, a pizza delivery boy—Cosmo’s Pizza, of course—tricked into joining the Space Troopers, a military organization, in a galactic battle against a reptilian race. Not an ideal trooper, Bill is injured in battle and loses his left arm, which is replaced with a second right arm. Bill goes AWOL, falls into a job as a garbage man, then a spy, then a war hero, and finally a model-recruiting agent for the troopers. Combat transforms the naïve and fragile Bill into a drunken, demonic patchwork of two right arms, a fake leg, and a couple of tusks—spoils of war from Deathwish Drang (Devon Wycoff, a sophomore film major). If absolute power corrupts absolutely, then war turns us all into Frankenstein’s monster.
Bill the Galactic Hero may be a student film made on a shoestring budget, but it is a solid piece of filmmaking chock full of ambition and imagination (not bad for a feature produced for little over $104,000). Bill combines color animation, black and white photography, and lots of lo-fi special effects, which is where Bill draws its greatest strengths.
French critic and filmmaker François Truffaut famously pointed out that it was impossible to make an antiwar movie because, “to show something is to ennoble it.” Cox and company subvert this dilemma by making combat sloppy and comical. The enemy is not 10 feet tall and deadly, the blasters are not high tech precision weapons, and there is no ballet of destruction. Nothing in Bill glorifies war or combat. I doubt anyone seeing Bill will feel the need to take up a cause, head off to war, and, as General George S. Patton put it, “Mak[e] the other poor dumb bastard die for his.”
Cox has been touting Bill as “the world’s biggest student film” and I suspect he is correct, but I don’t have the research to back that up. Instead, I would offer that Bill the Galactic Hero is quite possibly the world’s biggest home movie. One that will hopefully function as a jumping off point for these students and for Cox, the satisfaction of seeing a project he started 30 years ago finally come to fruition. Streaming on Vimeo.
Bill the Galactic Hero (2014)
Directed by Alex Cox, Danny Beard, Merritt Crocker, Amanda Gostomski, Alicia Ramírez, Raziel Scher, Jordan Thompson
Screenplay by Alex Cox
Based on the novel by Harry Harrison
Produced by Brigid Igoe, Kaleb Tholen
Starring: James Miller, Devon Wycoff, Jesse Lee Pacheco, Katie McManus, Eddy Jordan, Hayden Winston, Brittany Handler, Nicholas Wagner, Shayn Herndon
Bitting Sheep Productions/University of Colorado Boulder, Not rated, Running time 90 minutes, Premiered Dec. 12, 2014 at the International Film Series.
The above review first appeared in the pages of Boulder Weekly Vol. 22, No. 19, “‘The world’s biggest student film.’“
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