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Popcorn Fall

Popcorn Pictures

Reviewing the best (and worst) of horror, sci-fi and fantasy since 2000

  • Andrew Smith

Unknown Origin (1995)

"Only one species can rule the Earth. It may no longer be human."


An underwater research facility set up in the year 2020 to mine for resources receives a distress call from a similar Russian base nearby. A team is sent to investigate and offer assistance but when they arrive, they find that most of the crew are dead. They take back the only surviving crew member but when they arrive back at the facility, the Russian has some sort of fit and a strange, parasitic organism escapes from his mouth. The science team discovers that the organism is actually an alien being which has been perfectly preserved for millions of years underwater until the Russians released it. What’s worse is that it needs a human host in order to survive, living off the victim’s bodily fluids until they die before moving on to the next host.


Made for television and shot in eighteen days, Unknown Origin is basically Aliens meets The Thing underwater but coming from producer Roger Corman I'd expect no less a shameless cash-in of far superior films. Undersea horrors had come and gone in the late 80s with a quick flurry of titles likes of Deep Star Six and Leviathan but, always one to milk an idea dry, Corman decided to go back to the cash cow another time to see if it had any pennies left. Sadly, this cow was short on change.

If you've seen The Thing, and most likely everyone who is visiting this site will have, then you'll be familiar with the set-up at a remote location, this time underwater instead of the Antarctic, and a crew of assorted individuals who encounter an alien life form which has the ability to imitate humans. There's little hiding it as the inspiration for Unknown Origin. Events happen almost like-for-like, with the crew visiting a foreign base (only Russians this time instead of Norwegians) where they find that those pesky foreigners have been digging something alien out of the rocks (or ice) which has been buried there for millions of years. Once the danger has been inadvertently brought back on board the station, all hell breaks loose as the creature finds new victims to consume.

Not content with rehashing The Thing, there is also an android crew member (Alien) and a slimy corporation calling the shots (Aliens) thrown in for good measure. They really did try and cover all of the necessary bases with this one. It's just a shame that they forgot to include anything fresh and worthwhile because the film is as mechanical as it comes, clunking through each set piece and scenario with a lacklustre drive. The film knows we've all seen this sort of thing before but instead of getting on with it, it tries to drag it out as though it’s original material, almost in petulant rebellion against the audience. At only seventy-five minutes long, you'd think the film would want to get on with things instead of dragging them out. But 'getting on with things' involves investing money into the production and that's one the film is desperate to avoid.

Despite the unashamed plagiarism of superior sources, Unknown Origin can’t even muster anything worthwhile to show for its efforts. The pace is dreary, the narrative uneventful and there’s a void of excitement and scares. The film is low budget and there’s little hiding it: the undersea station is too well lit, too sparsely detailed and looks too nice to live in (though I'm sure interior decoration was never a factor in the construction of the International Space Station) to even remotely come off as a threatening environment to be trapped in. There have been other knock-offs in the past, the likes of Forbidden World and The Terror Within, that at least made something of an effort to get audiences buying into the 'futuristic' scenario (and the fact that the 'future' in the film was 2020, a whole two years after my re-uploading these reviews to the new web site, is not lost on me!)

The penny-pinching continues as some footage is recycled from a couple of Corman's previous films, including the exterior shots of the underwater base and a couple of explosions. I guess if you own the rights to the footage, it's yours to do with as you please. Those expecting the miniscule budget to have gone towards the creature effects will also be sorely disappointed as the silly little toy alien that emerges from people’s mouths looks to have been purchased in a joke shop. As for the rest of the time that characters are being used as hosts, it’s just down to the actor to change their mannerisms a bit and pretend that there’s something ‘different’ about the character. It saves on money but doesn’t add any excitement whenever a character is revealed to be under alien control.

The cast is interesting. Roddy McDowall is the token big name on show and he looks like he'd rather be anywhere else. He has this permanent scowl on his face, delivers his lines with his usual softly spoken voice and looks disinterested as if the sooner he'd finished his lines, the sooner he could go and put his feet up. I'm sure McDowall wasn't actually like that but that's the impression you get here. William Shatner's daughter Melanie provides the glamour, Richard Biggs would go on to sci-fi fame in Babylon 5 and Alex Hyde-White has the dubious distinction of playing the first Mr Fantastic in Roger Corman's unreleased 1994 Fantastic Four movie.


Final Verdict

Unknown Origin is, unsurprisingly, a load of uninspired tosh. Devoid of ideas despite leeching off the best that the genre has to offer, it’s formulaic, pedestrian and ultimately a total waste of time. Those with a burning desire to see whether Captain Kirk’s daughter can act any better than her old man should really watch one of her other films.


Unknown Origin

Also Known As: The Alien Within

Director(s): Scott P. Levy

Writer(s): Rob Kerchner (story), Alex Simon

Actor(s): Roddy McDowall, Alex Hyde-White, Melanie Shatner, Don Stroud, Rodger Halston, Emile Levisetti

Duration: 75 mins


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