Originally made as a television movie pilot, Universal Studios opted to release the film theatrically several months before the subsequent television series aired.
In 1987, NASA astronaut Captain William "Buck" Rogers is piloting the space shuttle Ranger 3 when he flies into an unexpected space phenomenon and is frozen for 504 years. In the year 2491, his shuttle is found drifting in space by the alien ship Draconia, which is headed to Earth for a trade conference, under the command of Princess Ardala and her aide de camp, Kane, a former native of Earth. Rogers is revived from his cryogenic sleep. Princess Ardala is visibly attracted to Buck, but Buck rebuffs the Princess and is put back on his shuttle and sent towards Earth.
It turns out though the Draconians are actually planning to conquer the Earth through staged pirate attacks on Earth's shipping fleet, forcing Earth to seek a treaty with the Draconians and unwittingly opening up their defenses to the invaders. They plant a homing beacon aboard Roger's shuttle to track a way past Earth's planet-wide defense shield. Buck lands in New Chicago and is immediately taken into custody by Colonel Wilma Deering of Earth's military forces. He is interrogated and learns that Earth has been rebuilt over the centuries in his absence following a nuclear holocaust, and now the only thing left is this big city surrounded by desert wasteland. Over the course of his time in detention, Buck makes the acquaintance of Dr. Elias Huer, the leader of Earth's Defense Directorate, the AI computer Dr. Theopolis, and the robot drone Twiki.
While recounting his encounter with the Draconians, Buck notices several discrepancies and suspects that the Draconians must be armed, contrary to the terms of the trade meeting. Against advice, Buck ventures outside the city to the ruins of old Chicago in an attempt to see that what he has been told is real, eventually finding his own parent's grave and having to be rescued by Wilma and her troops from the mutants inhabiting the ruins. Following Buck's return to the Inner City, the Draconian tracking device is found aboard his ship, and the authorities accuse Buck of espionage. Buck claims the Draconians set him up, and eventually Wilma persuades Dr. Huer to test Buck's claims by requesting a meeting with Princess Ardala and Kane aboard the Draconia. The Draconian marauders attack their flagship as a diversion, but Buck manages to destroy them single-handedly, thus earning Wilma's respect.
At the official diplomatic reception, Ardala, who is still attracted to Buck, invites him back to the Draconia, but Buck merely goes along to find out the truth behind the Draconians. On the ship, Ardala says she needs "a man, a REAL man" to rule by her side and offers Buck the position. After drugging Ardala, Buck explores the ship and discovers their plans to attack Earth, which is imminent. Dr. Theopolis and Twiki, who have followed Buck aboard, eventually meet up with him and alert Earth to the Draconian threat. Wilma immediately scrambles Earth's starfighters and attacks the Draconia, while Buck sabotages the Draconian bomber fleet prepared to attack Earth and fights off Ardala's bodyguard Tigerman. During the battle, the Draconia is critically damaged, but Buck, Theopolis and Twiki are rescued by Wilma before the ship explodes. Ardala and Kane also escape the Draconia's destruction in a shuttlecraft, while Kane vows to return and to take his revenge on Rogers.Gil Gerard as Captain William "Buck" Rogers
Erin Gray as Colonel Wilma Deering
Tim O'Connor as Dr. Elias Huer
Pamela Hensley as Princess Ardala
Henry Silva as Kane
Howard F. Flynn as Voice of Dr. Theopolis
Felix Silla as Twiki
Mel Blanc as Voice of Twiki
Duke Butler as Tigerman
Joseph Wiseman as Emperor Draco
Inspired by the massive success of Star Wars two years earlier, Universal began developing Buck Rogers for television, spearheaded by Glen A. Larson who had a production deal with the studio. Initially, Larson and Universal had planned on making a series of Buck Rogers TV movies for NBC. Production began in 1978, however, the pilot for Larson's other sci-fi series, Battlestar Galactica (1978), had been released theatrically in some countries and in key locations in North America, and had done well at the box office. Universal then opted to release the first Buck Rogers TV movie theatrically on March 30, 1979. The movie grossed over $21 million in North America and was later released internationally, which led NBC to commission a weekly series, which began on September 20, 1979 with a slightly modified version of the theatrical release.
The movie was originally slated for release for September 1978. There were several start dates for filming but it was repeatedly delayed due to casting problems. The movie was eventually released in March 1979.
Several shots in the film were filmed at the Westin Bonaventure Hotel in Los Angeles, California. Several other stock shots portraying futuristic buildings on Earth are that of remaining pavilions on the site of Expo 67, including the British and French national pavilion (now open as the Montreal Casino). These shots were also included in the 1979 Battlestar Galactica episode "Greetings from Earth", in which they were said to be a city on the planet Paradeen (though in production around the same time, the episode aired a month prior to the release of the Buck Rogers film). Buck's NASA shuttle, Ranger 3, was itself a prop that had been seen in this same episode where it was used as Michael's Lunar-7 shuttle though painted a different color.
Princess Ardala's father, Emperor Draco (played by Joseph Wiseman), originally had several scenes in the movie but most of these were cut. His only remaining scene was as a holographic image talking to Kane at the end of the movie. Despite this brief appearance, images of Draco appeared prominently in various Buck Rogers merchandise, and 12" and 3¾" Draco action figures were produced by the toy company Mego. Wiseman would later appear in the weekly TV series, playing the character Morphus in the episode "Vegas in Space".
The movie's opening credits featured a song, Suspension, sung by Kipp Lennon and co-written by Glen A. Larson. An instrumental version of the song was used as the main theme for the TV series that followed, though the vocal version of the song was used again for the end credits of the season one finale, "Flight of the War Witch".
The movie received a mixed reception from critics.
The film has been released on video several times since the 1980s, and was released on DVD in the Buck Rogers in the 25th Century series boxed set released in 2004. This was in lieu of the television broadcast version (entitled "Awakening") which contained some different scenes. When the first season was issued again on DVD in 2012, the boxed set still contained the theatrical version of the film. However, the television version of the film was finally released on DVD as a bonus feature in a re-issued boxed set of Season Two in 2013.