|Pop Culture Gadabout|
Tuesday, March 08, 2005 |
( 3/08/2005 02:06:00 PM ) Bill S.
"THE TRIP WILL PROBABLY BE BORING ROUTINE" – Driving into work on Monday, I happened to mention to the woman with whom I periodically car-pool that my wife and I'd watched the DVD of The Empire Strikes Back over the weekend. Her response was not unexpected, since we talk movies and teevee all the time: "I never got into the Star Wars movies," she said. "Never saw what the fuss was all about."
My response was a fairly typical boomer geek one: "You need to remember what s-f movie fans had to put up with before George Lucas, the number of cheesy looking flicks that were regularly released under the sci-fi banner." And then I told her about also watching The Angry Red Planet on Sunday.
Released in 1960, Planet was a low-budget American International Pictures flick written by Sid Pink (also responsible for Reptilicus and the early 3-D pic, Bwana Devil) and its director Ib Melchior, who reportedly shot the whole shebang in ten days. The flick revolves around the first manned mission to Mars – which we see returning from its flight after sixty days of radio silence. Only two of the four-person crew are still alive, though one is not at all well: covered with a greenish fuzzy goop, he is near death with only his crewmate, Dr. Iris Ryan (a large-mouthed Nora Hayden), alive to provide a clue as to what's happened. Trouble is: Iris has suffered traumatic memory loss from the horrors she's glimpsed, so the only way to get the full story is for the doctors to drug her. "Her recall will be colored by reinterpretation," we're told – and so it is. . . a bright red color.
Our heroine's memories start out innocuously enough: with the foursome in the cockpit of the MR-1 (sometimes called the XR-1), a blandly walled studio set with a large reel-to-reel, a collections of gauges and a Bulova clock on the wall to provide that futuristic techno-feel. Accompanying Iris is hunky Air Force colonel Tom O'Bannion (Gerald Mohr), geezerly professor Theodore Gettel (ubiquitous B-movie actor Les Tremayne, who spends a lot of time sucking on an unlit pipe to look professorial) and proletarian stereotype Sam Jacobs (Jack Kruschen). The last is shown – in a bit of dramatic foreshadowing that even the kids in the audience can catch – reading a pulp serial on ship and wondering if he'll "get to see the next issue." Sorry, Sam, but if you have to ask, it ain't gonna happen!
Once our expedition lands on Mars, all these teeny bits of character shorthand are largely forgotten as our crew ventures out onto the planet, wearing space helmets that are fully open in the front. Red planet Mars is suggested through a process called "Cinemagic," which basically involved filming everything in solarized crimson. The technique was supposed to provide a modified form of 3-D, but on digital DVD, at least, it's hugely unsuccessful – especially with the large amount of heavily outlined painted backgrounds and images inserted into the frame. When the portrait of a gaping three-eyed alien appears in the spaceship portal, freaking out poor Iris, even the awkwardly inserted CGI images in Star Wars 2.0 look slick in comparison.
Despite the fake-y backdrops, though, there are some appealingly Basil Wolverton-ish fx in the movie: a forty-foot-tall spider/crab/bat-like creature that our bedazzled team first mistakes for a grove of trees (apparently, our team approached the beast while keeping their eyes on the ground, looking for dropped change?) and a great gloopy amoeba-like creature that rises from the ocean to pursue our crew through the phony Martian jungle. That painted alien head also has a living counterpart which we periodically see peering at our protagonists from behind a rock, but the only communication that we hear from the Martians comes from a recording that is played at movie's end, warning the people of Earth to never visit Mars again.
In short, Planet is the kind of low-budget, minimally plotted experience s-f fans endured for years before Lucas and his collaborators began the Star Wars saga. Say what you will about the occasional gawkiness of Star Wars dialog, but in comparison to the some of the stuff Pink & Melchior came up with, it's David Mamet. Consider this moment from stalwart Captain O'Bannion. Asked if he is nervous about their expedition into unknown outer space, the good Captain launches into a childhood reminiscence about the dog he had when he was but a lad. "I'm pretty sure people will be just as sure of space travel as I was of my dog," he says in all seriousness. No wonder the Martians don't respect us.
My on-the-road description of my DVD viewing experience did little to persuade my car-pooling friend, which is probably okay because if she considered it long enough, she might've thought to ask me, "Okay, I'll grant you the comparative coolness of Star Wars. But why were you spending your Sunday morning, watching Angry Red Planet?"
My answer would've been something along the lines of: "Grand futuristic epics and high-priced fx are great. But low-rent sci-fi cinema has its own whacked-out appeal, too. Particularly when it's aligned with moviemakers whose vision far exceeds their budget. In a world where viewers can choose between state-of-the-art moviemaking and desperation storytelling, sometimes you just wanna sit back and marvel at the lengths to which psychotronic filmsters will go to try and bamboozle their audience. Besides, that spider/crab/bat puppet is really neat to look at. . ."
I'm fairly certain she wouldn't have believed me, though.