At some time in the future the starship Quest is sent on a rescue mission to the planet Morganthus. A ship has crashed and they are to locate the crew and save them if still alive. But after homing in on a distress beacon and nearly crashing themselves, the crew finds only corpses around the ruined ship. A huge pyramid-shaped structure nearby draws their interest and, since it appears that the remaining missing crew might have taken shelter inside, they decide to explore the creepy place. Once inside the various members of the Quest's crew begin to experience horrifying visions ending in violent attacks and, even after returning to the ship, a kind of madness starts to manifest for each survivor. Before long they are being attacked and killed by slimy monsters, re-fighting old space battles to the death and just generally facing their strongest fears in inexplicable ways.
This short synopsis doesn't really get across the joys, frustrations and outright confusion Galaxy of Terror has to offer the first-time viewer. At times completely disconnected and random, the movie will have almost anyone asking obvious questions repeatedly. Why is such a clearly loony captain given charge of this mission? Why does said captain treat the mission liftoff from Earth as if she were attempting to beat a high score on a video game? And why doesn't the pissed off crew talk to her about her erratic, dangerous actions? And these are just the questions that occur to the observant (i.e. non-drunk) viewer in the first 15 minutes! The confusing and bizarre sidesteps the film takes are so unpredictable I often found myself unsure if certain characters were still alive even after I'd seen them ripped apart by slavering beasts.
But although GOT lacks a coherent story structure or a logical, lucid sense of movement from one event to another, it does manage to consistently hold my interest. This may be only because it occasionally slings blood against the walls or tosses a severed arm across the room — but that's OK. Those are the elements I expect from a Corman-produced SF/horror rip-off. The truly unexpected elements are the cast assembled for this barely comprehensible story and the already mentioned excellent technical credits. The cast is stunning in its eclecticism, featuring TV stars, cult icons and great actors slumming for no good and/or discernible reason. The unforgettable Grace (Twin Peaks) Zebriskie plays the half-crazed Captain Trantor; Edward (Butterflies Are Free) Albert is the levelheaded, mustachioed hero; Zalman (Blue Sunshine) King is the hotheaded man of action; Erin (Happy Days) Moran is the crew's psychic agent with a phobia just begging for attention; Bernard (The Changeling) Behrens is the older commander in charge of the rescue; Corman veteran Sid (The Devil's Rejects) Haig is the mysterious, nearly mute master of the throwing crystals; pre-Freddy Kruger Robert Englund is bland crewman Ranger; and acting legend Ray (Fast Times at Ridgemont High) Walston plays the ship's cook. Or does he? That brings us to the oddest ingredient in this spicy stew. The film opens with a sequence in which we learn that the future Earth is ruled over by The Master — some kind of dictator/divine right king who has final say over any and all things. This is the mysterious man that assembles the Quest's crew and sends them on their way. There seems to be a reason he wants them on planet Morganthus and this reason only becomes clear in the final few minutes. Of course, this opening scene is so out of left field and unlike everything afterward that I had completely forgotten about it until the 'surprise' ending. Trust me — when a film features a maggot growing to human size and raping a woman to death you forget all about the man with the hidden face from 45 minutes before. I'm tempted to claim that this was a slick bit of storytelling designed to whipsaw the audience but it's far from that level of brilliance. It is chuckle-inducing, though.
Besides the nasty R-rated deaths, sexual attacks and generally sleazy tone the real reason to watch this film today is to marvel at the effective set design and special effects. A team headed by the young James Cameron really did a fine job creating very believable sets for the ship, the planet and the interior of the pyramid building. The ship looks both functional and well worn with lots of details that give the sense of a real place instead of a set. The crater-pocked planetscapes are beautifully dark and creepy with mist or fog adding to the feeling of immense size. The fine points of the carefully sculpted walls of the alien structure make things look rock-solid and alien at the same time. The pyramid's vast interior is often stunning in its scope with the characters fitting into view with a credible reality. As I've said, this is a very good looking film that hides its low budget and it's easy to see that Cameron tried out some ideas for his Alien sequel's look and feel. You might even call Galaxy of Terror a test run for some of the ideas that made that film such a success.