Sunday, March 02, 2014

Film Sack: "The Man From Planet X", or "I'd Run a Mile for a Cuppa"

This is appearing a bit late in the week because life got in the way. Stupid "going places and doing things"! It's been a week since I sat down with the spouse and took in the wonder of The Man From Planet X (1951), but the experience lingers fresh in my mind like a pine cone on the noggin launched by an angry squirrel. As usual, the Film Sack treatment made up for any trauma experienced by viewing the film du jour. Just what the movie doctor ordered.

This movie tries so hard to be Serious Science Fiction but fails on almost every level. I'm fairly easy to entertain, but this cinematic relic is dangerously close to dull. From the overly formal and pretentious language of the principal characters, to the loving pans across the artificially moody "Scottish" landscape, to the slow-motion tussles of the listless alien with various ineffectual humans... I found myself checking my watch for the first time since The Thin Red Line.


Best to begin at the beginning, I suppose, and we don't have to wait long for the WTH? moments. Before even the first shot of the actual film, we're treated to a credit sequence created entirely from one inexplicable font, which I'll call Hobo Plank Sans, or maybe Paper Chain Rivets Extra Bold. Not just the main title, but the entire credit sequence uses this inappropriately whimsical type style. Somebody was dang proud of that font.

On to the first establishing shot, which is clearly a lovely stretch of the California coastline near Monterey. They immediately cut to an adorable model shot of the Scottish Moors: the comparison between the two shots does not reflect well on the model. Fog machines are used abundantly in this movie, but it doesn't really make things better. It just looks like a bad model/set with lots of fog. Also, I believe this is supposed to take place on an island. To my knowledge there are no "moors" on any small islands in the UK. You can have a rugged island setting or you can have creepy moors, not both, but the filmmakers were making use of leftover sets from Joan of Arc so there you go.

We then cut to an interior shot and an ominous voice over from "John", our male lead. The tone of this monologue is reminiscent of the opening words of H.G. Wells' War of the Worlds, and indeed the rest of the film is basically a flashback, but the rest of the film never really delivers on the promise set up here. Mostly we get a bunch of bad fake science gobbledegook that wouldn't impress the average primary schooler, a lethargic alien, the requisite smarmy male lead, and the requisite screaming ninny female lead.

There's really no excuse for the bad science and lazy characterizations in this. Actual good movies were being made in the early 50s, even good sci-fi like The Day the Earth Stood Still. When I saw William Schallert was in the cast I was kind of excited: Patty Duke's TV dad! This is an early role for him and he plays totally against type as a sneaky bad guy who, you guessed it, wants the alien tech to Rule the World! Yeah, I drop spoilers. You've had since 1951 to see this. Deal.

The usual parade of tropes are all present and correct: Leading man who is supposed to be worldly and wry but comes off as smarmy and patronizing ("Your face has changed, but I remember your legs...wink wink"): check! Frail old scientist with pretty daughter: check! Aforementioned Evil Scientist who screws everything up: check! Rustic but charming local rubes who alternately show the only common sense or get out the torches and pitchforks: check! Rustic locals with bad accents: check! Spaceship that wouldn't be safe at any speed: check! Terrible fake car driving: check! Female lead who screams at every little thing and exists solely as eye-candy and for the leading man to paw and condescend to: check! This female lead really takes the cake, too. Not only is she a screaming ninny, but she's so traumatized by being LOOKED AT by the slow-moving, not really scary alien that she spends a goodly portion of the film off-screen under sedation.

The Film Sack crew didn't care much for the score under this film, but I thought it was fine for the grade of film...with one caveat. The "lightening counting" scene. Every flash of lightening is accompanied by trilling flutes. Ouch. Treading dangerously close to Hannah-Barbara SFX there. We don't need musical punctuation, thanks. I didn't like the Don Ameche-esque mustache on the male lead, either. This is 1951, not 1931, and this guy is not old enough to work a look like that properly. Ronald Coleman called and he wants his look back! Clarke looks great without the 'stache. With it, he just looks like he's trying to be a 1930s leading man. My opinion, but there it is.

There's the requisite amount of 50s-era sexism here, too. It's not worth over-analyzing, but there are some cringe-worthy moments. The "I may not be much of a cook, but I can brew a mean cup of tea!" moment isn't particularly surprising or onerous, but the male lead basically leering at her every minute is beyond patronizing. It's an artifact of the times in a way, but there are plenty of films from the 50s that don't fall in to these traps, too. The actors are doing their jobs, and the director could have asked for more nuanced and less clichéd performances. Especially irritating was the female lead, "Enid", who drove me nuts with a really annoying yodeling/warbling vocal technique for conveying distress, excitement, or happiness. Picture Bobby Brady's voice cracking, with a forced trans-Atlantic accent, when he hit puberty. It gets really old after a few lines.

The movie ends with the "we must withhold this distressing knowledge from humanity for their own good" trope, which is so last century. The US government has been preaching this for years and it's not exactly a secret that they're keeping secrets. In 1951 we were just getting in to the age of the "flying saucer", MJ-12, and Project Blue Book. The epilogue of Man From Planet X is a perfect kick-off to this era.

The truth is out there, but it's kind of slow and can't reach its air valve.

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