Starring Mark Lindsay Chapman, Susan Blakely, Catherine Mary Stewart, Lisa Blount, Geoffrey Lewis, Nicole Eggert, (maybe) Brion James
Directed by Michael Chapman
The new fall television season has begun and NBC already appears to have a potential new hit on its hands with “This is Lost.” Oops. I meant to type “Manifest.” The premise of this new series has an airliner managing to land safely after experiencing major turbulence only for the passengers and crew to soon discover that their flight had been missing for over five years. Now they’re forced to try and pick up where their lives left off and solve the mystery of what happened to their flight that led to this missing time, which involves some sort of otherworldly force that seems to want to help them help the world, perhaps.
The reason I bring up “Manifest” is because this isn’t the first time NBC has tried using the lost time airliner/passengers return changed mystery as the set-up for a weekly series. Let’s do a little time traveling of our own back to 1986 when NBC produced a feature-length pilot for a proposed program about a commercial flight that goes missing only to land with no one onboard aware anything strange has occurred. Of course, given the title of this potential series was “Annihilator,” suffice to say, the twist was much darker than the dramatic, feel-good, fantasy mystery “Manifest” is shooting for.
Mark Lindsay Chapman, perhaps best remembered for playing Dr. Anton Arcane on USA Network’s “Swamp Thing: The Series,” and what a thing to be best remembered for, stars as San Francisco newspaper editor Richard Armour. Awaiting the arrival of his reporter girlfriend Angela, played by quintessential 80’s actress Catherine Mary Stewart (Night of the Comet, The Last Starfighter); her flight mysteriously vanishes off radar for several hours only to land without incident with nobody onboard aware anything out of the ordinary has occurred.
The returning passengers are no longer themselves, as Richard will soon discover. Angela kills their dog because it won’t stop barking at her. She then pens a rather questionable editorial advocating for scientific experimentation on lower life forms and even people. Richard, who, if we’re being perfectly honest, was not written to be the sharpest knife in the drawer given he’s supposed to be a highly distinguished newspaper editor yet doesn’t seem to fully grasp something is very, very wrong with his girlfriend until he accidentally discovers she’s a robot duplicate that then goes full Terminator on him.
Ramming android Angela with a jeep and blowing her to kingdom come solves that problem, but now Richard finds himself wanted for her murder, on the run from the law, and the only way to prove his innocence is to hunt down every other passenger on the plane and reveal the truth, whatever that may entail. Except the truth hurts, literally, in that everyone on that plane has been replaced with an evil robot and they all want to kill him for discovering their sinister secret — even the one female robot that begins helping him because she’s experiencing emotions for the very first time and is very confused by this thing we humans call love.
What we have here with “Annihilator” is a clever but, sadly, not smart mishmash of “The Fugitive,” The Stepford Wives, and The Terminator.
Exactly who is the titular “Annihilator” in this case? Richard, as sets out to locate all the robot replacements to presumably annihilate all of them? Certainly not the genocidal duplicates since we come to learn they call have a name: Dynamatars.
But are these robots with their glowing eyes and mechanical internal parts actually robots? What I mean is the writers also appeared to be angling for a possible supernatural origin to the Dynamatar threat. Religious imagery permeates the pilot and during the climactic denouement that sets up the potential weekly series Richard describes these obvious cybernetic doubles as “demon spirits.” Had “Annihilator” gone to series would we have discovered that Dynamatars were created by extraterrestrials plotting to use them as instruments of world conquest, or, perhaps, the Dynamatars were the creation of evil time travelers trying to reshape the past to help them control the future, or, maybe, just maybe, Satan had decided to branch out into the tech world to enslave our world long before Amazon, Facebook, Apple, or Google set about to do the same?
According to the credits, the late Brion James (The Horror Show) is billed as “Alien Leader” yet I do not recall ever seeing him. I can only guess that his role may have been cut so as to preserve the mysterious origins of the devious duplicates had it been picked up for series.
We’ll never know for sure because NBC passed on picking up “Annihilator” to series leaving us with just this lone 90-minute movie pilot that only aired once and is very hard to come by today; although it does appear to have been given a VHS release in parts of Europe. Rather a shame because the premise even to this day holds tons of potential. I strongly suspect a big reason NBC passed was that they also couldn’t help but notice the pilot kind of squanders so much of that potential. Chapman made for a stiff leading man, the tone would shift from serious thriller to unintentionally silly, the plot was presented in needlessly clunky fashion thanks to a non-linear storytelling technique that gets abandoned mid-movie, and, to be perfectly blunt, the premise just wasn’t fully thought out. Heck, right as things are taking a dark dramatic at one point the story abruptly grinds to a screeching halt for a full-length MTV music video montage set to David Bowie’s “Ashes to Ashes.”
This pilot really begins sliding off the runway the moment Richard battles Angela’s best friend Celia, also now a Dynamatar doppelganger. Hard to take anything about this show seriously once you’ve seen Celia rip off her own robot arm and hurl it at Richard like a club; followed moments later by Celia stepping into traffic and getting rundown by a bread delivery truck in a scene staged nearly identical to Bela Lugosi’s uproarious off-screen demise at the outset of Ed Wood’s Plan 9 from Outer Space.
This won’t be the last we see of Celia as she returns later to kill a woman who was also a passenger but somehow didn’t get replaced with a nefarious robo-twin because she slept through the whole flight. That raises a whole slew of questions that will forever go unanswered. Your pontificating on the prospects of sleep somehow avoiding alien android abduction will quickly be disrupted by the preposterous sight of one-armed Celia murdering this woman with nothing more than a weak-looking slap to the face. Death by pimp slap is a little hard to believe even when delivered by an inhuman killing machine.
The climax finds Richard at a farmhouse confronting a professor turned Dynamatar portrayed by the late Geoffrey Lewis who is kind enough to give Richard a lecture providing the only hints we’ll ever get as to what Dynamatars are and what their agenda is. Simply put, specific people in positions of power and influence have been replaced with robot doppelgangers that answer to an unspecified force seeking world domination. Honestly, I think we could have figured out that much on our own. Just as it appears Richard is going to get the full truth, a prepubescent, pre-“Charles in Charge” Nicole Eggert attempts to run him over with a bulldozer.
Coincidentally, I think middle-aged, post-“Charles in Charge” Nicole Eggert wouldn’t mind running over one of her former co-stars with a bulldozer, if you catch my drift.
Another weird Dynamatar quirk that will also go forever unexplained: Why do female Dynamatars scream like wild animals when in a killing frenzy?
For all its shortcomings, “Annihilator” makes for a reasonably entertaining albeit quite schlocky made-for-television movie pilot with a concept that still holds so much potential I’m surprised no other enterprising writer or producer has ever tried duplicating this idea of machines masquerading as humans with plans to–
Oh, right. “Battlestar Galactica.” Yeah, kind of. Okay. Never mind.
ANNIHILATOR FUN FACT: Mark Lindsay Chapman was cast by NBC to play John Lennon in a big television movie they were planning. In case you thought the outrage mob was strictly a modern internet creation, Chapman was dismissed after the network after an angry public outcry all because the name Mark Lindsay Chapman was deemed too similar to Mark David Chapman, the name of the man who murdered Lennon. It also didn’t help having Lennon’s widow Yoko Ono deem his casting “bad karma” even though she initially approved of it. He was then given the lead role in “Annihilator” as compensation. That didn’t really work out for him, either. Oh, well. There’s always “Swamp Thing: The Series.”