Thursday, July 30, 2015

Chariots of the Gods (1970)

It's pretty clear that it has always bothered white people to discover that other races they deemed "primitive" had thriving advanced civilizations thousands of years ago, while their own ancestors were busy shitting in their own water supply up until about the 19th century. How could this be?

Somewhere around the mid-20th century, a growing movement concluded that of course those brown people didn't make their own civilizations. They had help from "ancient astronauts"--advanced creatures from outer space that apparently decided it would be fun to teach humans how to stack rocks. And for some reason they just didn't like Europeans as much as the rest of the world, because they only taught them how to make Stonehenge.

It's sadly unsurprising that this idiotic hypothesis has held on as long as it has--after all, people still think the moon landing was faked despite the process of faking such a thing convincingly in 1969 would be more difficult than actually landing on the moon. Just turn on almost any "educational" channel and you'll see a guy who looks like a Babylon 5 extra presented as "expert testimony" while he claims space geckos built Angkor Wat.

Wait, maybe he actually does know what he's talking about...
I'm no expert on this phenomenon, but it seems like the biggest catalyst was the 1968 book Chariots of the Gods? by Erich von Däniken. Unsurprisingly, the book led to today's film, a "documentary" that was actually nominated for an Oscar.

The film opens with generic credits over a star field, while a song that I swear wants to be "Telstar" with all the soul sucked out of it plays. We here learn that this is actually based on two of von Däniken's books, Chariots of the Gods and Return to the Stars. I'm sure neither is actually intended as fiction but still contains less truth than the average pulpy sci-fi story. There's also credits for special effects, so I'm anxiously awaiting some ridiculous re-enactment sequences.

Interrestingly, the producer and director both have "Dr." before their names, no doubt to lend credence to this whole charade.

The film opens with a dramatic zoom into an image of a galaxy, before cutting to footage of an observatory in California accompanied by music that convinces me I was right in my earlier accusation of ripping off "Telstar." Our narrator for the evening drones on about the special road built to transport the telescope's mirror, and expresses how many zeroes there are in the expression of mileage for light years, before he finally gets to his point--the ages old question of how many of the billions of observable stars in the universe may have life on the planets orbiting them.

And the narrator makes his thesis statement: there are 50 million stars in the Milky Way alone that could support life, so it's entirely possible that some time in our planet's past we had visitors from one of these worlds. "Possible" does not mean "likely," but I'm sure the narrator doesn't care. We get more "ooh, ahh" shots of galaxies before the narrator begins quoting from random scientists whose statements back up the central thesis. My favorite being a quote from Hermann Oberth claiming that, "Scientists are quick to adapt a negative attitude toward new ideas," and using an obsolete fear of the dangers of train travel as an example. Because somehow "aliens did it" is supposed to be as revolutionary an idea as trains were and we all know scientists are big sticklers for never doing anything new ever.

This bit ends with them apparently ends with them accosting a Russian scientist outside in the cold, where the translation assures us he is saying that aliens definitely visited Earth because of the evidence they left behind. He then gestures at the spires of a cathedral, thanks to the mismatch between the translation and his gestures. Jesus confirmed as space alien!

The narrator then talks of how man has always wanted to reach the stars, and that learning to fly was never enough. This is followed, for some reason, by footage of rockets blowing up during takeoff. It kind of undercuts the narrator's assertion following these failures that mankind will be on Mars within the 20th century, and Venus by the 21st.

Sadly, we all know this film's predictions for the future are as full of crap as its claims about the past.

The narrator then asks, if human astronauts ever land upon a distant star, "will they be treated as enemies or as gods?" What? Why are those the only two options?

The film then asserts that we have seen this happen virtually every time an advanced civilization met a primitive one, which is how it segues into talking about Cargo Cults in the South Pacific during World War II. This includes a recreation with "natives" building wicker planes and crude runways. The natives almost look authentic except they're all wearing really damn obvious wigs. The film explains the idea of cargo cults and then explains that it's possible all Earthly religions started the same way.

So I guess I wasn't far off with the Space Alien Jesus joke.

The film proceeds to get even more inadvertantly hilarious as it asserts that all over the world religions are based around visits from advanced astronauts. 'They don't call them that, of course," the narrator admits. Yeah, funny how that works.

The narrator talks of so-called descriptions of spaceships and rocket launches to be found in the ancient scrolls of Tibet, the epic of Gilgamesh, and then hilariously talks about the destruction of Sodom and Gamorrah. After leading in with how Lot and his family were led to safety in the mountains, the narrator says, "We know now that mountains can protect against radioactivity [!]," before suggesting that the destruction of the two cities was describing an atomic explosion.

Well, assuming that the "angels" are actually "aliens" and that the Old Testament tells us the cities were destroyed at least partially because its citizens were trying to sexually assault the angels that visited Lot...then I guess the aliens decided the appropriate response to attempted anal probing was to take off and nuke the site from orbit. Only way to be sure.

We then see a fresco of Jesus on the cross, and the music--perhaps to make you so disoriented as to have no choice but to agree with the narrator--goes absolutely bonkers, loud and ill-matched to the footage as the narrator claims the two figures in the top corners of the fresco are clearly men in spaceships. If that's the case, they're engaged in a space battle or a drag race, which is a very rude time for them to choose to do that, what with the Savior slowly dying and all below them while his followers mourn him. The narrator directs us to look at the onlookers averting their eyes from the spaceships. The "onlookers" shown have angel wings, so either the narrator has lost the thread of his argument or these are aliens who are just appalled at the actions of Gleegark and Phil, Also, one is holding his nose so either rocket fumes stink or he's about to sneeze.

This is why nobody ever invites Gleegark and Phil to a crucifixion.
We next see a cave painting in Italy, which we are to interpret as showing two guys in "overalls" and helmets with antennae on them. Maybe it does, but it's so faded that it could be two Roman Emperors having a dance-off. The film quickly moves to Istanbul, where it claims some maps there from "the Orient" show things that could only be viewed from space at the time they were drawn, like a landmass the narrator assures us is Antarctica.

The film then lets the musicians freestyle a little before it gets to that favorite argument spot of ancient astronaut theorists: the Pyramids of Giza. (The narrator pronounces it "Gizz-uh" instead of "Geez-uh", so he's clearly lost all credibility) Now, as usual, the narrator argues that the pyramids would have taken 600 years to build with existing techniques. Even though, it's been figured out that the way the Egyptians transported the stones was by wetting the sand--in fact their hieroglyphics show them doing this but archaeologists assumed it was just a picture of a "ritual."

True hilarity results when the narrator tells us that, "if you multiply the height of the Pyramid of Cheops by one billion, it equals almost exactly the distance from the Earth to Sun; a mere coincidence?" Um, I'm gonna have to say a firm "yes" on that, Sparky.

"Tyrannosaurus Rex had two fingers. If you multiply that by 375, you have roughly the average number of legs on a milipede; a mere coincidence?!"
Leaving aside the fact that it's a totally arbitrary figure, the narrator tells us that the pyramid is 455 feet high. You multiply that by a billion and you get 455,000,000,000 feet or around 86,174,242 miles. The distance from the Earth to the Sun is 92,960,000 miles. So you're only off by around 6 million miles. That is not "almost exactly," but why are we assuming that ancient Egyptians and their alien buddies used the Imperial System of measurement in the first place?

Yeah, nice try, Sparky.

Of course, he then claims the pyramids sit exactly at the longitude dividing Europe and Africa, and if you divide the width of the base by the height of the pyramid, you get "exactly the figure Pi" centuries before a European mathematician discovered it. This is supposed to awe us, but--I'm sorry, "exactly the figure Pi'?! First of all, here's the first 100,000 digits of Pi--and keep in mind the reason Spock trapped the vengeful ghost of Jack the Ripper in the ship's computer by telling to calculate Pi out to the last digit is because we have no idea how it ends!

Even if the narrator means 3.14159, that's not that impressive because Pi or very similar concepts to it have been used for centuries--confirmed records of it in ancient China and, yes, Egypt, date back at least as far as 1850 B.C. So am I supposed to be surprised that a white guy discovered a concept in the 15th Century that even Archimedes had used and, coincidentally, is the height and width of a pyramid divided?

Also, you'll be amazed to discover that the height/width division does not equal 3.14 at all. It seems that all the facts presented in this documentary could only have passed the smell test in an age before Google. Mere coincidence?!

The film goes on to talk about actual history, including burial chambers that were painted by sunlight through the use of mirrors to reflect light deep into tunnels. But then it gets stupid again, by advising that the mummification process was thought to be a religious ritual until it was recently discovered to be Egyptians unsuccessfully attempting to recreate a physical preservation method used by their alien visitors.

And by discovered, the narrator means that someone pulled that "fact" out of their ass.

Seriously, if ancient Egyptians were supposedly imitating the process of preserving a body for later revivification--as the narrator is suggesting--then their alien visitors didn't bother to explain to them that you need your brain and internal organs in order to come back to life. One of the frst steps of mummification, remember, was pulling the brain out through the nose with a hook and then discarding it. Implying this was the Egyptians poor imitating advance alien visitors is pretty insulting, on several levels.

The film then talks of various structures that could not have been moved by ancient Egyptians because in the 20th Century it took modern man 3 years to move them when they had to be relocated for the construction of a dam. I guess it's impossible that the Egyptians could have just simply taken longer? Also, if you take a shot every time the narrator says, "No one knows how," in this sequence, you would probably be pretty buzzed before the film gets bored of Egypt and moves on to Greece.

However, rather than wondering how the Greeks built their buildings, the narrator observes that the buildings were built on top of an even more ancient terrace. So, naturally, this terrace was the landing pad for spacecraft. Because of course it was.

The film drifts over to Djanet in Algeria to some cave paintings that the narrator insists are aliens. The music drops the harpsichord it's been tinkling on since Greece so someone can slow jam the main line of "Telstar" on an electric guitar. This does not convince me that I am seeing aliens and spaceships, especially since one drawing is clearly a stylized snail. Even the narrator admits there are other explanations, as if that makes his argument stronger.

There are much talk of cave paintings that "clearly" show astronauts, which just makes me wonder why the filmmakers are so convinced that ancient astronauts would look so much like modern ones? Why are we assuming that they would have the exact same configurations of legs, arms, and heads that humans do? What if the aliens were giant tardigrades?

Hey, look, an astronaut!
Then the narrator gives up doing his job, which is speaking, when we next see an ancient ruin in Zimbabwe where he trails off in the middle of what is clearly a "Was it thing A, thing B, or thing C?" line in a such a way that leaves you waiting for the "or thing C" that won't be coming. Also, clearly aliens built that ruin because no human could stack bricks like that.

Next up, it's time for the Aztecs to get their intelligence insulted as the narrator ponders if they had extraterrestrial help in creating their damn calendar. Seriously, you may have picked up on it by now, but this film's thesis is literally "if I don't completely understand it, that means aliens did it." Pretty ironic given that they're suggesting Earthly religions are all cargo cults, but their evidence is just as baseless as "if I don't completely understand it, God did it."

Next, the narrator tells us the pyramids of Mexico were clearly influenced by the intervention of Quetzalcoatl, whom the narrator describes as a light-skinned bearded man (of course) from the stars who taught the Aztecs everything they knew about anything of value before returning to the stars after promising to return one day. Never mind that, in many myths--Quetzalcoatl being one of those Gods who really got around--he killed himself, usually for the betterment of humanity. The narrator mentions the fact that Quetzalcoatl is always portrayed as a feathered serpent but does not offer any bullshit explanation for this. Sadly, I doubt this means the film is suggesting an actual feathered serpent came down from the stars to aid humanity.

Maybe if David Icke had been involved.

The filmmakers are also basing their description of Quetzalcoatl as a space honky on the claims that the Aztecs believed Hernán Cortés was the return of Quetzalcoatl. You'll be totally shocked to know that historians now mostly believe that a self-important, greedy mass murderer might have been making shit up to make himself sound more awesome. Especially since the Aztecs didn't actually have any doctrine that claimed Quetzalcoatl would return. But that's inconvenient to the thesis here.

Next we see some statues that the narrator insists appear to be wearing strange helmets, have boxy control units on their chests, and are carrying tools or weapons unknown on Earth. The filmmakers clearly have no concept of artistic license or stylization, and would go mad if presented with abstract art.

"Could Duchamp have witnessed a rebellion at an alien robot factory? How did he create this image without a computer to digitize his colors onto the canvas? No one knows how."
We've insulted the Aztecs' intelligence enough, now time for the poor Mayans to get it. After assuring us that a building is a Mayan Observatory and looks nearly identical to a modern day one, the narrator points out a figure that he claims is pulling a lever and wearing a helmet with antennae. It does not look like that at all, but thanks for playing!

Next the narrator points out a deep well that Mayans supposedly threw sacrifices into, and claims that the perfectly round cylinder that the well forms proves it was not natural--and therefore the product of an enormous rocket firing. So our ancient visitors were incredibly careless with their massively destructive rockets? Hot-rodding assholes.

The mysterious collapse of the Mayan civilization is brought up, but oddly the film drops it almost immediately. The mysterious stone heads in the jungle, that are 80 miles from any known quarry, are also quickly glossed over. That's two actual, unexplained mysteries that the movie quickly skips over so it can try to sell you on the stunning find of "The Winged God of Palanque," a mural it is increasingly desperate to sell you on as a representation of a man in a rocket capsule. This includes claiming he is wearing a jacket that fits tight at the wrists, when anyone can clearly see the figure is not wearing anything above the waist and the "cuffs" are bracelets.

"Look, you can plainly see his arm says 'NASA' on the bicep!"
At this point, I just feel embarrassed for the narrator. However, it's now time to go use Easter Island as evidence. Per our narrator, the famous stone moai could not have been made by humans, there are legends of priests who could manipulate mana, the island is strangely magnetic--it's just boring by this point so the film even stops to play you more knock-off "Telstar" over footage of the moai.

Why was somebody credited with special effects, again? Because there haven't been any to speak of.

We now go to Cuzco so the narrator can insult the intelligence of the Incas by telling us that the bricks left behind by their ancient cities could not have been made with anything less than modern technology. Worse, he once again trots out the interstellar cracker hypothesis when he says that the Incas told Pizarro that the masons were light-skinned, bearded, red-headed men. Look, as a ginger, I am well aware that my people seem to be ill-suited to the planet Earth, but this is all proving my original point far better than I expected.

It's not enough for the filmmakers to declare that aliens helped ancient brown-skinned civilizations to be awesome. No, those aliens must not only be humanoid but white. Because surely only white people are allowed to be technologically resourceful.

After assuring us that Machu Picchu was also supposedly built by these astro-gingers, the film dawdles a bit in a temple on the shores of Lake Titicaca without actually bothering to do more than say, "Hey, isn't that carved figure odd-looking?"

Then it's time for a brief stop-over in Australia. Here the film talks about a rock painting of a Goddess who supposedly came from the stars to teach humanity her wisdom. Despite the fact that even the few paintings that we see of the Goddess don't match each other, the narrator wonders who the model for the painting was and why so many representations look like her across the world. Never mind that even the brief cutting between the various "aliens" we've seen so far doesn't disguise the fact that none of them look alike. If we're supposed to be convinced that the similarity of figures all over the world means aliens visited us, maybe they should actually look alike?

We then see a figurine called a Dogū from Honshu, Japan, while the crazed Russian who collects them is translated for us as he explains that the Dogū clearly show people in space suits with "Eskimo"-like slit goggles and mechanical claw hands. The Russian has an answer for those who object that the figure is just a God, by asking how the sculptors could have created all the details on the figurines "without seeing the model?"

Did he just ask how Japanese sculptors could have sculpted something without having something just like it to base it on? Does he think the ancient Japanese didn't have imaginations? I mean, two can play at that game. Clearly Godzilla was real because how could the Japanese have designed him without seeing the model, huh, smart guy?!

Next up, the narrator brings our attention to the ol' ancient battery in a clay pot and a polished lens that was cut with some precision instrument. Again, these are proof of aliens because Europeans didn't discover how to make these things until centuries later! Clearly, if it happened before white people did it, the only explanation is aliens!

Next, we see another crazed Russian who claims to know of two relics that are astounding in their implications. One is an ancient bison skull that the narrator claims was killed with a bullet. I have my doubts that "round hole in skull" equals "bullet" and that's all the visual evidence we are given of this claim, but okay. The other is supposedly a cave painting from Uzbekistan, but when we see it--or what is supposedly a copy of it--it is so obviously bogus as to make you laugh aloud even before a quick Google tells you it's several different kinds of phony. I'm just shocked that these people would lie to me, man.

Aliens take chess very, very seriously, man.
The film does a quick rundown of the various sites they've taken us to thus far, perhaps to distract us from obviously fake that cave painting is. Then it randomly shows us a supposed cave painting from Japan of the Futurama space ship that looks no more authentic than the Uzbeki-beki-stan-stan job. Then we see a gold sculpture of a "flying machine" that is supposedly aerodynamic--but it sure looks like a shark or skate to me.

Incredibly, the narrator assures us there is still more evidence. Oh God, why? The evidence he means are the Nazca Lines in Peru. While it is true that the patterns can only be seen from the sky and no one knows why, the narrator's assertion that it was clearly a landing field is pretty laughable. For one thing, if that was its intended purpose then whomever built it would have made it durable enough that Greenpeace's recent little climate change stunt wouldn't have resulted in them facing criminal charges for defacing it. Meanwhile, the narrator earlier claimed alien rockets could cut holes in rock, so...

After assuring us that "we may doubt the conclusions, but we cannot ignore the evidence," the film does a final montage to the knock-off "Telstar" theme. The narrator concludes the film as we watch a spinning galaxy effect, by trailing off with with the mind-numbing, "Were the Gods astronauts? Do you suppose, once upon a time...once upon a time...once upon a time...?"

Because nothing sells your super-serious documentary like fairy tale language.

I came into this film convinced it was full of shit, but you know, when I left it I was convinced it was really, really full of shit. I mean, from willful misrepresentation of evidence to outright lying, this film couldn't be more amazingly pathetic in its attempt to convince me.

Naturally, like most proponents of "ancient astronaut" theory, it doesn't bother to offer any explanations or even hypotheses for why. I mean, why did its proposed star mayonnaise people come to Earth, teach us how stack rocks and draw them, and then return to the stars--never to be seen again? If they came all that way, influenced cultures all over the world--apparently for long periods of time--why did they then just bugger off forever?

As a "theory" there's nothing to it beyond a little bit of "how did they do that awesome stuff before white people did it" mixed with "wouldn't it be cool if..." and a touch of "a wizard did it." I could just as easily argue that the ancient Egyptians had telekinetic powers but lost them due to breeding with mundane humans. There's as much evidence to support that claim as there is to support, "aliens did it," and it's no less ridiculous.

Still, even a dumb concept can at least be entertaining. This isn't. The film makes a lot of pretense of it being a part of an expedition and revealing stuff for the first time, but it doesn't feel that way at all. There's also no focus. It jumps back and forth between continents with no rhyme or reason. There's not even an attempt at, "If you look at this, it makes sense of that!" It manages to have a short attention span and drags on past the point of any interest.

The music is at least trying to be interesting, but not only does it seem weirdly derivative, its very attempt to be interesting means it feels more out of place than the soundtrack to a Jess Franco film.

I suppose if you find loony conspiracy theories fascinating or hilarious, you might get a kick out of this. For me this film felt more like having to watch something for homework than a lot of the truly awful films I've subjected myself to over the years. I can't even call it terrible, just boring.

It's not really the film's fault, but in a world where we have channels that can devote an entire broadcasting day to shows based on these silly conspiracy theories, there just isn't anything that stands out about it. Maybe someday we'll move past this obsession and this crap will all seem new again.

Was there a time when we weren't bombarded with this crap? Do you suppose, once upon a time...once upon a time..once upon a time...

Take a look at the other true bullshit that the Celluloid Zeroes dug up for you!

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Cinemasochist Apocalypse looked into whether there's any truth to the Legend of Chupacabra.