Star Pilot, Pietro Francisci

‘Star Pilot’: Sixties Sexy Italian Space Opera a Go-Go

Sixties sexy Italian Space Opera had a budget as skimpy as the costumes and the actors play the high-pressure take-offs as though they’re all mid-orgasm.

Star Pilot
Pietro Francisci
Kino Lorber
4 July 2023

Raro Video, a company specializing in Italian cinema, graces us with what they’re calling Star Pilot, actually Pietro Francisci’s 1966 space opera 2 + 5 Missione Hydra. Their eye-popping 4K transfer is now on a Blu-ray distributed by Kino Lorber for our edification.

Be warned, however: Star Pilot is nobody’s lost masterpiece. The package calls it “kitschy”, which implies bad taste. Perhaps this adjective refers to the fact that most of the budget went into the women’s half-costumes, so that budget was very skimpy. Star Pilot is at times deliberately campy, in keeping with the Pop-Art era of the Batman television series, and some elements are amusing and eye-catching. Others are boring. Adjust your expectations accordingly.

Our biggest clue that Star Pilot doesn’t intend to be taken seriously comes from all the “meta” business at the beginning. The pre-credit sequence shows a farmer on a horse fleeing from a spaceship, an earthquake, and a big hole in the ground. Newspaper headlines tell us this incident occurred in 1964, two years prior to the “now” storyline.

After the opening credits, we’re regaled with two bizarre musical sequences staged for a soap commercial. The commercial stars a model named Luisa Solmi (Leontina Snell), who rises from cardboard waves like Venus in a body suit and then dances with a fishnet-and-boa chorus line chirping an inane jingle. The score is by Italian singer-songwriter Nico Fidenco, and Star Pilot benefits from his lounge magic. Writer-director Pietro Francisci cameos as himself, directing the commercial.

Some big director visits the set and suggests he might use Luisa in films. Next, Luisa drives recklessly around Rome with handsome blond pal Paulo (Anthony Freeman, aka Mario Novelli) as he peruses photos of real-life actors who’ve worked with that director. Luisa singles out Leonora Ruffo, and this moment is a nod and wink to the fact that top-billed Ruffo will dominate the second half of the story.

Luisa is the over-the-top wild card throughout Star Pilot, and sometimes she’s the only interesting character onscreen. She changes outfits and wigs every five minutes, and she believes in continual calisthenics, especially leg lifts. She can’t just cross a room or pick up a kettle without twirling in place and extending one limb or another. She grasps that fishnet stockings and red boas make the perfect spacewear. If she weren’t around, the visual value of the first half would plummet.

Another curious quality of Luisa is that she’s the only one who understands what’s going on, although everyone assumes she’s brain-dead. In a thoroughly pointless scene where her crew gives a car ride to a random prostrate stranger, she insists it’s a set-up. She’s right, but a set-up to what? This plot thread drifts out into space like so many of the others do in Star Pilot.

Later, Luisa, Paulo, and her brilliant professor dad (Roland Lesaffre) discover a spaceship in an underground cave, and she’s the only one who knows it’s a spaceship. She’s clearly the only person who’s ever seen a movie, but nobody benefits from her savvy.

Jumping to the interesting part, it turns out the ship’s commander is Kaena (Ruffo), in a fetish-leather body suit and green eye shadow. Actually, her whole crew – both of them – are into leather. Belsy (Kirk Morris, star of many a muscleman picture) and Artie (Alfio Caltibiano) are immured in black leather, perhaps in homage to Mario Bava’s Planet of the Vampires (Terrore nello spazio, 1965).

Their Hydra race expresses no emotions like love or fear, so the guys mostly just flank Kaena like statues or impassive concubines, occasionally taking a tongue-lashing for their clumsiness. As the wackiest scenes prove, they don’t even need to breathe or wear helmets in space! Shades of Hanna-Barbera’s Space Ghost series.

Artie won’t do much besides blunder, but Belsy will gradually learn human emotions courtesy of Luisa, who gives him the eye from the start. Don’t worry about Paulo because Kaena finds herself strangely ruffled by the cut of his jib. I’m prepared to swear that Francisci directed them to play the high-pressure take-offs as though they’re all mid-orgasm.

Oh, we haven’t mentioned the interloping Chinese agents, who like to shoot everybody first and ask questions never. In keeping with the era’s Communist China-phobia, they announce themselves as from the People’s Republic, the biggest country in the world – except in the Star Pilot English dub, where they insist, “We’re Orientals, not Chinese”! Eh?

You see, 2 + 5 Missione Hydra managed to avoid distribution in the US or possibly anywhere outside Italy until Star Wars changed the rules a decade later. Then somebody pulled it out of mothballs, recut it, and dubbed it as Star Pilot for a 1977 US release that people still missed. Despite the Blu-ray’s title, that incarnation of Star Pilot isn’t on the disc, although prints of it can be found all over YouTube. This version chops out a few things, like the opening musical bits and the tour of a post-atomic Earth with weird photo-montage rubble, and it throws in footage from irrelevant films for padding.

What the Blu-ray does include, besides the Italian version, is an alternate English dub prepared by the film’s producers back in the day, when they optimistically believed they might sell 2 + 5 Missione Hydra to America, and that’s still the title on the print. That version cuts the business about the musical commercial, but it includes the blasted Rome sequence when the film suddenly becomes a serious message picture.

In the random free-for-all that constitutes the last part of Star Pilot, when the story has finally taken off (literally), one of the oddest segments involves a planet of vicious ape-men. This scene will surely remind viewers of both Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1967) and Franklin Schaffner’s Planet of the Apes (1968), so what’s odd is that it pre-dates them both. I’m indebted to sharp-eyed reviewer Glenn Erickson for pointing out these ape-men probably harken back to a similar scene in Francisci’s Hercules, a big hit of 1958.

It should be clear that Star Pilot is absurd, which isn’t bad in itself, but it’s only fitfully inspired by its absurdity. Francisci should have grasped the film’s sexy, wacky, eye-candy strengths and been willing to emphasize them consistently while dropping some of the pedestrian elements. It’s over in 90 minutes and could well have been shorter. Still, this transfer looks good and, in certain scenes, very retro-future chic. Those with a weakness for this sort of thing know who they are.

The commentary by film authors David Del Valle and Matteo Molinari is so amusing that you may want to switch to it during scenes of fisticuffs or endless cave action. They insist Star Pilot is satirical, which is a good way to look at it. Del Valle points out that the fights look just like the Batman series but without the “Bam” and “Kapow” signs. He catalogs better films with similar elements. I’m struck when he notes that a scene with bright orange silos suddenly looks like a Luis Buñuel film; it’s true, and I’d add Buñuel crossed with Jacques Tati. We film buffs are hopeless.