In 1965 an American fighter squadron encounter an enormous spaceship flying over the Bermuda Triangle. During a skirmish Captain Jack Grayson (Brian Bloom) is shot down. On government orders his fellow airmen agree to keep these events a secret. More than thirty years later a covert ops team unearth wreckage both from Grayson's plane and a UFO, attracting the interest of his son Naval Commander Dallas Grayson (Michael Madsen) much to the displeasure of the evil Colonel Rosewater (R. Lee Ermey). Dallas goes on to witness Rosewater and his team murder a group of conspiracy theorists on the orders of Lockwood (Steven Williams), a silver-haired, shades-and-lone earring-sporting mad scientist. Barely escaping with his life, he visits the hospital where his cute little daughter Lisa (Erica Everage) has miraculously recovered from cancer. Lisa claims an angel helped cure her. What Dallas does not know is Angel (Shelli Lether) happens to be an alien woman in a silver jumpsuit and disco wig who visits Lisa at night to help hone the child's paranormal powers. When Rosewater leads a strike team to abduct Lisa, Angel appears to Dallas to reveal that his half-alien daughter is a 'sender': a human transporter beam able to move spaceships across the galaxy.
Back in the Nineties the PM Entertainment Group, co-founded by producer-directors Richard Pepin and Joseph Merhi, were your go-to guys for glossy low-budget direct-to-video trash. The Sender, not to be confused with Roger Christian's cult 1983 psychic-themed horror film of the same name, ranks among their more ambitious films although as cheesy as one might expect from the team behind A Time to Kill (1991) and Bikini Summer (1991). Released at the height of The X-Files-induced vogue for paranoid science fiction thrillers the film draws from a familiar well of UFO lore, government conspiracies, genetic mutations and paranormal powers. Co-writers Nathan Long, who wrote cult favourite Guyver: Dark Hero (1994) and Pepin's television show L.A. Heat, and Richard Preston Jr., the scribe behind Dark Breed (1996) starring PMEG regular Jack Scalia, family friendly romp Little Bigfoot (1997) and the animated series Mystic Knights of Tir Na Bog, touch on some interesting ideas. They also recycle themes from the iconic The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) as Angel reveals the alien council fear human beings are a threat to galactic peace although she herself comes to appreciate earthly feelings.
Unfortunately Pepin proves less concerned with developing these ideas than maintaining a constant barrage of car chases, explosions and fight scenes that drag on forever. The Sender is more or less one long series of chase sequences, some better than others (e.g. a well-executed dogfight between helicopters and Angel's CGI spaceship), leavened by Michael Madsen's lame wisecracks. In terms of production design and visual effects the film is more accomplished than many DTV efforts but awkwardly paced. The plot is swamped in soapy, sub-TV movie melodrama while Pepin renders the science fiction elements in the kitschiest manner possible. Madsen squints and staggers through events like a punch-drunk prizefighter, seemingly as bemused as the audience and rather obviously stunt-doubled in his action sequences. Even so The Sender is distinguished by an offbeat sense of humour along with an intriguingly quirky supporting cast. Rance Howard appears as one half of a mismatched hit-men duo while Robert Vaughn and a miscast Dyan Cannon play husband-and-wife secret agents who figure in the film's one interesting, albeit thrown away twist. It is kind of cool to see the paunchy, former Napoleon Solo trade bullets with bad guys again. Shelli Lether is also quite watchable as the comely space babe who strips off in the desert to absorb energy from the sun in front of a bemused Madsen while Gremlins (1984) veteran Steven Williams gives a pleasing comic book turn. Though Madsen's constipated demeanour scuppers the would-be emotional Field of Dreams-style climax the film does end on an amusingly silly gag. It is junk but inoffensive junk.