Autopilot, a super podcast from the super Frogpants Studio family of shows. Today's musing is on the 1959 classic (color!) sci-fi film Angry Red Planet, which I would never had heard of if I weren't a fan of FilmSack. Per the web site, "Each week, the FilmSack crew picks a strange movie from the bowels of Netflix streaming and splatters it all over your inner ear. Sometimes it’s a long forgotten horror movie from the 70′. Sometimes it’s a under the radar gem of brilliance from last year. One way or the other, this is not your typical movie show." Atypical goodness=podcast brilliance.
Anyway, I thought I'd do my homework early for once and, since I got up far too early in order to photograph cats in the snow before it melts away, watch this bad boy. It's only 83 minutes, so it's not a huge time commitment. Bonus: if you're of the drinking persuasion, there is much drinking games potential in this one, but more about that later.
The story starts out promisingly enough for a late 50s sci-fi film. Yes, there's lots of stock footage, but the editor really made an effort to blend it in with the new footage in a way that makes sense. They even looped decent sound and FX with the stock stuff. The Air Force officers are all played by actors who are firm adherents to the "look at me...I'm ACTING!" school of acting. There is one gem of on-screen talent in this cheese fest, though, and that is the supporting role of Prof. Paul Weiner, played by J. Edward McKinley. We meet him in the backstory-laden initial briefing, in the control center when the rocket is recalled and landed by remote control, and then in various moments throughout the rest of the story. He plays the character straight and natural, in contrast to the rest of the cast, pretty much stealing that opening scene and setting a serious and believable tone that, alas, doesn't last for long. If they'd sent him to Mars, instead of the four ninnies they did send, it would have been a completely different story.
That this film is a festival of tropes is no surprise, but the first five minutes or so are Citizen Kane compared to the rest of it. The character types are all stock tropey characters. Do we have a rugged, wry, vaguely (or not so much) lecherous expedition leader? Check. Vaguely European older scientist with Prussian facial hair and fatal disability? Check. Smack-talking, rough-hewn yet lovable fireplug of an engineer/security guy? Check. Token hot chick who talks tough and then screams and/or faints at the first sign of threat? Check. Superior aliens warning Earthlings that they are "not ready to leave Earth because they're too violent and stupid"? Check. Random technobabble cherry-picked from medical dictionaries and Popular Science? Check. Recycling now commonplace tech to represent Space Equipment? Check. Strange rocket design that makes no logical sense other than to make it easy to frame shots? Check. Who puts the access hatch in the engine area?! The FilmSackers think the sets look like they were assembled by kids,
and they really do, at least to our 21st-century eyes, look pretty
juvenile. They do get some points for using chairs that actually look like shipboard gear, unlike the hilarious deck chairs from 12 to the Moon (see the MST3k version). However, I might have to subtract those points because they are ejector seats, and when my spouse saw them he immediately said, "Where are they supposed to eject to?" Oh, well; at least they tried.
My favorite bit of set dressing is a panel over Sam's workstation labeled "Oxygen Consumption". It sports two lights, the green one marked "Normal" and the red one marked "Excessive". No guages of any kind, just sternly-labeled idiot lights. I had a vision of Mission Control calling them up on their magical instant communication radio saying, "Hey, you guys pipe down up there. Your O2 consumption is EXCESSIVE!" Obviously two-dimensional drawings and paintings stand in for landscapes, buildings, and even the ship, and of course we can't leave out the classic "reverse the rocket launching footage to simulate a rocket landing".
Speaking of special effects, almost all the FX in this thing are appalling, with one exception: the amazing giant spider bat thing, an elaborate puppet designed by marionettist Bob Baker. It's so much better than everything else that it looks like it wandered in from another movie. The giant amoeba thing that chases them out of the lake takes us back to goofyville with it's top-mounted eye that rotates like a tank turret on speed.
Biggest annoyance: Captain Smarmypants leching all over Dr. Redhead every minute. Seriously. He makes Cpt. Kirk seem subtle by comparison. There is more than one shot of her, say, descending a ladder backward with Cpt. Smarmy checking out her hinder, or gazing out the porthole (a popular spot on this ship) looming over her from behind.
On the plus side, this movie is a goldmine for drinking games. Take a drink a) every time you see stock footage (you'll be drunk about five minutes in), b) every time Cpt. Smarmy sweeps his crew with his Colt 1911 pistol (all the astronauts carry them, along with their space machetes**) in some of the worst weapon handling I've ever seen on screen, c) every time Cpt. Smarmy committs an act of sexual harrassment (you'll be hospitalized before the end credits).
Do catch this on Netflix streaming while you can. It's a gem of an example of the tail end of the golden age of 1950s sci-fi and a time-capsule of the social climate before feminism really started taking a stand against the truly egregious sexism in popular culture.* Plus: giant bat spiders!
* It's MY run-on sentence and I stand by it.
** 02-10-2014 Changed "sabers" to "machetes" upon further reflection and a word from the spouse.