Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Random Movie Report #96: Journey to the Seventh Planet

There's an entire subgenre of science fiction movies, in which a group of astronauts lands on a planet controlled by some powerful psychic intelligence, which throws hallucinations, disasters, and monsters at them until they defeat it or all die in the process. It runs from such early efforts as Angry Red Planet and The Wizard of Mars all the way to the Roger Corman sleazefest Galaxy of Terror, and possibly Event Horizon. (Whether Stanislav Lem's Solaris counts is arguable.) Journey to the Seventh Planet, a Danish/American production from 1961, is in some ways a standard telling of this timeless and universally relevant story, but some odd decisions and budget woes end up with a much weirder- and frankly more entertaining- picture than probably would have resulted from a slick approach.

In the year 2001, the UN sends a spaceship to investigate strange radiation readings coming from Uranus. (And they pronounce it with a long a, so never mind that.) The multinational-and-yet-all-white-male crew, featuring the ever-cocky John Agar, makes it into orbit around… said planet, and in a brief moment of weightlessness, is contacted and probed by a strange force. The intelligence guides their ship to land in a paradise drawn from their own memories, a realm of forests and creeks and easily accessible European locations, and eventually starts populating it with beautiful women. Suspecting something is up, the crew start exploring beyond the protective force field surrounding the woods, and in the hazardous wastes of the seventh planet, discover a cave inhabited by a gigantic cyclopean brain creature capable of conjuring up just about anything, including hideous giant monsters with which to defend itself. Working out that the brain is hostile, the astronauts set about trying to destroy it before it can travel to Earth and conquer all of humanity.

The first sign that something's not quite right with this movie comes when highly billed Danish sexpot Greta Thyssen is introduced… as a photo, since she's not on the voyage. She naturally appears in the "flesh" as one of the planet's dream women, and is referred to by her own full name, meaning she is playing herself, which doesn't even make sense because this is supposed to be forty years in the future. Perhaps they could only trust her to remember her own name, though she seems okay as an actress, but she's arguably not even the most prominent female character in the movie. Just the one with the best agent.

Adding to the slightly meta nature of the movie are the special effects. Some of them are genuinely good, including a briefly-seen stop-motion rat monster and some of the surreal Uranian vistas. At other times they're intensely inconsistent, failing to keep the appearance of a creature or object consistent from one shot to the next. A good example of this is a spider thing the brain sends after our heroes; we see glimpses of claws and eyestalks, but apparently the whole thing didn't work very well, so it's played mostly by stock footage of a tarantula from Earth vs. The Spider (complete with that monster's distinctive scream.) The brain itself seems to change appearance depending on the technique used to shoot it, and it goes without saying that the budget basically never extended to process shots, so interactions between the astronauts and the strange miniature things around them are kept to a minimum, and in some cases kept offscreen with expository dialogue that would be intrusive in a radio play.

It's not that the film is entirely poorly made. It has a strong visual sense, colorful, and the setting has interesting touches like razor-sharp trees of glass and "quicksnow". The story holds together, basically, and moves pretty fast. But eventually the spare, cobbled-together nature of the thing takes a toll on the atmosphere it tries to generate, and too often they go to stock "space voyage" elements that were becoming worn down just as the actual space race was heating up.

I've talked before about some bad movies being good-bad movies, but Journey to the Seventh Planet is a good illustration of just what qualifies a film for this honor. The fact that it's falling apart at the seams, in terms of production and staging, the fact that characters have to describe what's supposed to be happening but they can't afford to show, that Greta Thyssen is Greta Thyssen and also apparently immortal- it's a case of a structure collapsing in such a way that the wreckage looks rather pretty. Journey to the Seventh Planet isn't a complete failure- there are moments of beauty and even wonder to it- but it's a case where what doesn't work is as fascinating as what does.

Story by Sid Pink
Screenplay by Sid Pink and Ib Melchior
Directed by Sid Pink

Grade: C+

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