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Sunday, July 26, 2015

The Celluloid Zeroes Present: It's All True! (Except for the Bullshit.) Without Warning (1994)

At the instigation of Chad "Micro-Brewed Reviews" Plambeck, the Celluloid Zeroes are examining fiction presented as truth--the kind of film that gains its effectiveness by pretending that the events really happened, or are really happening. The most famous contemporary example of this type of film is probably The Blair Witch Project, with the Paranormal Activity films running a close second (and one of the granddaddies of them all, the inexplicably popular Cannibal Holocaust, serving as an inspiration for plenty of horror movies that work their audiences over by putting them in the mindset of the characters). The genre is flexible, with entries ranging from Lovecraftian horror to a ground-level look at a kaiju attack to 84C MoPic, a war movie presented solely from the point of view of an Army movie cameraman (and a film that I'd really like to see because it sounds like a fascinating evolutionary dead end on the way to films about prosumer-grade recording equipment in haunted houses).

Join us as we take a look at a few different examples of the form, from the "documentary" that's barely ten percent nonfiction by volume to found footage horror to a tribute to the "War of the Worlds" radio broadcast that allegedly convinced a nation that it was under alien attack. It's the kind of film that craft and technique work together to bring the audience into its world, and it's all true.

Except for the bullshit that someone made up to sell tickets.

Story by Jeremy Thorn, Walon Green and Peter Lance; Teleplay by Peter Lance
Directed by Robert Iscove

Sander Vanocur:  Himself
Bree Walker:  Herself

Jane Kaczmarek:  Dr. Caroline Jaffe
Dwier Brown:  Matt Jensen

This must have worked like a charm on its audience back in the day. It's an early-generation found footage horror movie that starts out like something entirely else. The title "Without Warning" fades up over TV-movie brass and oboe providing suspense music. One of those rainless storms where the lighting flashes synchronize with the thunder exactly is happening while a man with a gun sneaks up a staircase in a well-appointed suburban house in the dead of night. And about thirty seconds into the apparent TV movie, a "Special Bulletin" card gets cut in to the signal and a news anchor describes seismic events in a remote area of Wyoming, as well as Europe and Asia, though that's as exact a location as you're going to get for right now. Then the TV movie resumes, with a man and woman (an uncredited Loni Anderson) embracing in bed as passionately as network censors will allow.

Just as the gun-wielding man walks silently into the bedroom and points a gun at the couple, there's another break-in, from "Evening World News", a fictitious but real-sounding program that goes live to their Washington, D.C. studio to bring a special report. Sander Vanocur, a real-life television journalist playing himself in the film, describes a huge asteroid that broke into pieces and landed in three different spots on Earth during a meteor shower.

I bet that distant spot in Wyoming is one of those locations, don't you?

The meteorites have all crashed into remote areas; according to scientists, if any of the three giant space rocks had landed near a city, it would have been a horrific disaster (and, if you'll allow me to put on my Dr. Science lab coat and goggles for a moment, if any of the rocks had landed in the ocean they might have steam-cleaned the planet--yes, it's bad if a several ton chuck of rock and metal slams into the ground after falling out of orbit, but it'd be orders of magnitude worse to land in the sea. Gigantic tidal waves and huge clouds of steam scouring the coasts clean of life worse. Apocalyptically worse. And, just by the law of averages, two of those meteor fragments should have hit the ocean, because 2/3 of the planet is covered in water).

Over at Mount Palomar Observatory, another reporter stands in front of the building and describes the impact crater (with a satellite photo showing a big round hole in the dirt and flames in the forest and grassland around it). Then it's time for Bree Walker, a reporter in a helicopter (also playing herself); she happened to be on vacation sorta-kinda near the impact site and is now in the passenger seat of a news chopper, doing a report when she probably thought she had time to decompress and read a trashy novel or go skiing. There's too much static and interference to get anything useful out of her report, so it's back to Sander Vanocur at the desk. Is it just me, or would his name be pretty good for a James Bond villain? Perhaps someone trying to manipulate world finance?

Then the movie has what I'd call a "Spinal Tap" moment. The first time I saw This is Spinal Tap, I didn't realize it was a fake band and a fake documentary until I spotted Howard Hesseman in a cameo and put two and two together about the truth of the film's subject matter (coming up with the square root of sixteen)--in my defense, I was twelve years old and there wasn't anything in the film that seemed so oddball that it had to be fictitious rather than real. Anyway, John de Lancie portrays the next reporter on the scene (in Casper, Wyoming) and if I thought it was a real report up to that point I wouldn't think so after hearing his voice. I would have seen him as Q on Star Trek:  The Next Generation at some point before my hypothetical viewing of this film in 1994. Fourth wall, you are nice and busted now.

De Lancie's reporter is there to describe a massive wildfire burning around the impact crater; thousands of people's homes are being evacuated and measures are being taken to ensure that as few lives are lost as possible. Lots and lots and lots of property is going to be a complete writeoff, though. He wraps up his live remote just in time for Bree Walker to return with footage of the crater (called Impact Site Alpha now), near Grovers' Mill, Wyoming. And yes, boys and girls, that's a tip of the hat to a broadcast also made on October 30 (just like this movie originally was), and also presented as news when it was really fiction. Attentive and nerdy viewers just figured out what the actual plot of this story is going to be.

Bree, humorously enough, is in the helicopter describing what she's seeing. There's no real difference between a sequence too expensive to show and a live remote where they just want a journalist standing or sitting near something newsworthy. There's footage from the camera mounted underneath the helicopter (which means the effects sequence can be spliced in without having to superimpose Bree Walker into the blazing crater). It's also nice to see the static, picture roll and interference in this report as well--if everything was working perfectly for an unprecedented story like this, it wouldn't be nearly as convincing as the glitchy, static-riddled update with occasional audio dropout. Oddly enough, it's the flaws that make Bree's updates more convincing.

Bree's update includes shots of a helicopter flying some distance underneath her helicopter; it's got hastily scrambled HAZMAT specialists inside, who will be checking for radioactivity and other contaminants once it's safe for someone not from Krypton to approach the 1200-degree crater fire. She says there's some survivors / witnesses to the impact that have been located and teases their forthcoming interview before ending her segment and referring coverage back to Sander at the main desk.

Sander has a little more information about Impact Sites Bravo and Charley; one is in the Gobi Desert between China and Mongolia and the other is in the Pyrenees Mountains in southern France. The closest town to Site Bravo is Lourdes, with a stringer for Evening World News standing in front of a cathedral--if the drinking game was "do a shot every time there's a journalist standing in front of something" you'd be in a coma about twenty minutes into the film--describing the mood on the ground. One of the witnesses describes a massive fireball falling through the atmosphere and landing in the mountains; there's also the inevitable "if it bleeds, it leads" mentality that results in an interview with a tearful French woman whose husband is missing in the wake of the meteor impact.

In China, the state-run news media hasn't given any information beyond the time and location of their impact site. There's a satellite photo of the desert impact crater--at least in the Gobi Desert there isn't anything to catch on fire. The photo shows a blackened impact site inside a huge debris ring, but nothing else is known about that site for the time being. Full credit to the filmmakers here--it's night in Washington, D.C. and in France while the "Beijing" footage is a bright morning; they got the time zones figured out correctly, which leads to much greater verisimilitude (especially when they do the "anchor in one frame and reporter on the scene in another" two-shot. According to Denise Wong on the ground in Beijing, the crater is a mile and  a half in diameter and there were no reported human casualties. However, part of the reason there aren't any tragedies to report is the sheer inaccessibility of the crater; there's no rail service or sturdy roads leading to the area where that meteor came down.

For a change of pace, we've got a reporter standing inside a location now; Matthew Jensen is live on the ground at the Houston space-tracking room at NASA. Look at all the (for the time) high-tech beige computers with massive cathode-ray monitors! The effort to explain what's going on is just starting at NASA, with maybe a fifth of the terminals in use and the fluorescent lights in the tracking room currently dimmed. Jensen is there to ask why the meteor that fragmented and slammed into the earth wasn't noticed by any sky watchers until seconds before impact; there's some expository NASA footage of the (real-life) Shoemaker-Levy 9 comet impacts from July of 1994 that would have been used in legitimate news broadcasts if something like this had actually happened.

And the NASA scientist brought in to explain things is played by Philip Baker Hall, which had to be a "that guy is an actor, not an astrophysicist" moment for some of the viewers at home. Dr. Kurt Lowden tells the viewers at home the totally reassuring fact that it's difficult to see massive rocks hurtling towards the Earth because they don't emit or reflect light, and spotting a stone even a few miles across in the vastness of space is extremely difficult. Sander, back at the anchor desk, cuts in when he hears that explanation to do a little media fear-mongering by asking if there are any more undetected asteroids headed for the Earth at that very moment. Dr. Lowden obliges him by saying that the devastation from a meteor impact in a populated area would be orders of magnitude worse than a nuclear bomb dropped on a city.

Before they can ask another scientist about what the heck is going on, it's time to check in with Bree Walker. She's still in the helicopter and still having problems with static and interference. She's also got reports of three deaths--sheep ranchers in the area around Impact Site Alpha died in the massive forest fire touched off by the meteor impact. While getting footage of the ash-strewn wasteland that used to be a leased grazing area owned by the federal government, Bree's cameraman sees a person. Impossibly enough, they're unharmed in and the middle of dozens of square miles of scorched earth. Bree has the helicopter land in order to rescue the survivor, who turns out to be a little girl lost and crying in a field. The girl has sustained burns and is saying something that, through the trauma and interference, is completely unintelligible.

The screen goes to static again and Sandor winds up on Camera One recapping what just happened and telling the audience that it's time for the affiliates to break for commercials and pay some bills. The lone cornet and snare drum theme, camera work ("pull back and up, slowly, to show the anchor at that desk") and already-created title graphic of the burning crater are all pitch-perfect reproductions of mid 1990s news coverage. If the movie were made now, the commercial breaks would be more frequent and there would be some kind of logo and catchphrase already up on the screen (and, if it were aired on Fox, the meteor impacts would have been blamed on Barack Obama and Hilary Clinton).

When they return from the break, Sander's at the desk again. He sums up what already happened and the footage of Bree Walker wrapping her coat around the little girl who lived through unimaginable devastation gets shown again with a RECORDED EARLIER bug in the upper-left corner of the screen (this is another detail that wouldn't get used today; if there's forty seconds of a burning car at a protest rally, that forty seconds will be broadcast on a loop for six days and always get presented as if it's happening at that very moment). The survivor's being flown to a nearby hospital (and is unavailable for an interview, which is a real problem).

At the studio desk, Sander interviews the show's science editor--one assumes she was either already at work or showed up as soon as humanly possible once the story broke--in order to inform the World News Tonight viewing audience. Dr. Caroline Jaffe tells Sander about other meteor impacts in the past (including the massive crater in Arizona and the Tunguska blast of 1908); she saves the dinosaur killer of the Yucatan for the last. There's plenty of stock footage and licensed animation to show while Dr. Jaffe tells what's going on. Dr. Jaffe also mentions that there's a one in five chance of other meteor impacts based on what is known about the rock's trajectory and the way that objects in space cluster around each other. She gets cut off by the anchor right after mentioning that, however, because NASA has a press conference ready in Houston.

Matthew Jensen is in the much busier command center in Houston, where all he's got to add for the moment is that NASA has analyzed a lot of data very quickly and will have a statement soon. The reporters are all stuck in a big closed-off room for the time being while the scientists draft their speech that is due to be given shortly. Then it's back to Sander just long enough to say that another correspondent is standing in front of a massive deep-space-searching antenna (take a drink!) with some new information. Previously recorded footage shows a Marine helicopter landing at the dish an hour before the report was filed; two MPs ran out of the chopper, got one of the scientists from the facility, ran back into the helicopter and departed in a matter of minutes--the chopper went to a nearby Air Force base and the scientist was flown to the NASA command center in Houston. This new journalist doesn't know who the scientist was or why everyone was in such a hurry, but something is obviously up.

Sander asks why they couldn't have just used a phone to get information from the antenna complex; the journalist standing outside with the massive dish in the background doesn't know. There is a sketchy report of something to do with the meteors' trajectory, both before it broke into fragments in the atmosphere and after the breakup, while each piece was plummeting to the ground.

Dr. Jaffe has more reports about Impact Site Charley; no human casualties have been reported, but a hydroelectric dam forty kilometers to the southwest of the impact site was damaged from the sheer seismic force of the impact; power is out and China is requesting emergency aid from the Red Cross since seven and a half million people are in the affected area and no longer have power or access to clean water.

From the overwhelming scope of the disaster it's time to take a closer look at one victim--Bree Walker is at the hospital in Casper, Wyoming, where the lone survivor girl was taken for treatment. During the update (the girl has been badly burned and is being treated for her injuries as well as exposure to the elements), one can see at least one more TV journalist doing his own update in the background--a great little touch that shows it's not just Evening World News that's covering this story. There's also a hotline for people to call if they know who the little girl is, complete with an 800 number for tips.

There's also news from France. Jean-Paul Chounard, the missing skier thought dead in the impact at Site Bravo, has been found by rescuers. They don't have tape of that yet, so it's just an update with a photo of the skier in the air over Sander's left shoulder. They do have amateur home video from Newcastle, Wyoming, where a local man was taping his kids and wife in their Halloween costumes before a night of trick or treating (bonus points for having one of the kids sulking; not everyone wants to be on camera!). He catches the very tail end of the meteor impact, having turned just too late to catch the full event--which is incredibly realistic, and I wish more found footage movies would remember to have the frame cut things off or wind up just missing some important events from time to time.

Back at the main desk, Sander has an update about the scientist flown to the NASA command center; the man is named Avram Mandel and he's got a doctorate in astrophysics. He normally can be found at the Houston office once a month or so, but in this case he's been brought in out of schedule and with amazing haste (hitching a ride in an F-16 instead of a commercial jet). While they're waiting to hear from Dr. Mandel, the Evening World News staff has a man on the ground by Impact Site Alpha, where police are now allowing people to approach the crater. The various news crews are near the crater but not within sight of it; police are telling everyone to stay back for their own safety because of aftershocks, but not a single journalist or cameraman has felt anything. Intriguingly enough, it isn't just scientists at Site Alpha; one helicopter drops off several soldiers with assault rifles. I don't know how threatening that space rock is likely to be, honestly, but maybe it's better to be safe than sorry. The Wyoming correspondent also drops a couple other tidbits of information:  Cartographers have shown up at the impact site (how much damage did that meteor do, anyway?) and there's now an FAA-mandated no fly zone above the crater itself, to be enforced at gunpoint if necessary.

Before anyone can chew over the implications of any of that, the Johnson Space Center in Houston announces that they're ready to make a statement. Dale Powell, the official media spokesman for NASA, gets mobbed the instant he walks into the press room. He tells the assembled reporters that he won't be taking any questions, and that he's got a prepared statement. Before he even makes whatever statement he's going to make, Powell covers his ass by saying that none of the conclusions are final--they are vague sketches rather than a finished oil painting. Then he says the asteroid approached Earth from directly "above" it, dropping down towards the North Pole before splitting into three pieces that landed at three remote sites equidistant from each other, and on the same latitude each time. He doesn't make any conclusions beyond this, but it seems obvious to even an untrained eye that you don't get perfect distribution of three points on the same line by dropping a rock down on the Earth and breaking it into three chunks that will tumble randomly down. Looks like the three meteorite fragments were steered, one way or another (although Powell doesn't say anything at all about any of these points even when asked directly about them, and leaves after restating that no questions will be allowed).

Back at the anchor desk, Sander and Matt Jensen talk about what just happened, including the revelation that the scientist flown to Houston in a fighter jet was a member of SETI, the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence project. Several scientists at NASA were also members of SETI, so I'm guessing Dr. Mandel is either really high up in that organization or extremely well-regarded by everyone in it. The next commercial break gets teased with Sander Vanocur calling the coverage "Asteroid:  Fire From the Sky", which sounds about right for television news broadcasting.

When the narrative resumes, there's already a graphic worked up showing the impact sites on a world map, highlighting how unlikely it is that they'd all randomly wind up in a line (two points are always on the same line, but three or more don't have to be). Vanocur sends it to the correspondent in France, where the stranded skier Jean-Paul Chounard is being taken to a hospital. Looks like they aren't trusting to the miracle shrines at Lourdes; this is an alien-encounter movie, not a "Touched by an Angel" episode. All we really see of Monsieur Chounard is a limp form in a bright orange thermal rescue bag that looks for all the world like the hospital ordered a burn victim and they expect it in thirty minutes or less.

Meanwhile, in Wyoming, the little girl who shouldn't be alive (and who is badly burned) has been identified. Her mother saw the news reports and called in to the tip line to report the child's identity. She's an eight year old named Kimberly Hastings, and is from New Mexico; she was reported missing the previous week and lived 400 miles away from the impact crater. That's a mystery for a later time, though; Sander wants to talk about the strangely equidistant meteor impacts, and a Ph.D. from Cal Tech is on hand at an observatory to talk about it. Doctor Robert Pearlman is standing in front of a huge telescope (but he's not a journalist, so don't take a drink). He's also, along with the previously mentioned Dr. Mandel, one of the chairmen of the SETI project.

Dr. Pearlman says that the impossibly precise landing of the three asteroid fragments (or, possibly, "asteroid fragments" proves that there was some kind of intelligence directing their descent. He's got a sketch worked up to show just how precise the impacts were--not just in their location but in the angle of their descent, which was (in each case) a 45 degree angle from the breakup spot, which was itself directly above the North Pole. He claims that it's "unnatural" for this to have happened, and he's got a point. But Dr. Jaffe cuts him off pretty much immediately after he says that and I imagine the committee in charge of his grant funding just called an emergency meeting to have his funding pulled and for him to be beaten with a towel full of oranges.

Sander Vanocur and Dr. Jaffe both stress the importance of not jumping to conclusions with only a tiny fragment of brand-new evidence available (which is one of the chief differences between coverage of a big event in 1994 and one a couple decades later). Then it's back to Q on the scene in Casper, Wyoming. Turns out a crop duster reported a UFO sighting around the same time that the meteor landed at Impact Site Alpha--and ominously enough, as he's running the gauntlet of journalists outside the police station where he was questioned, he says "I already told those Air Force people everything I know". The crop duster drives away in lieu of giving any statement to the press, so a sheriff's deputy is the next best person to talk to. According to the deputy, the crop duster pilot saw some kind of aircraft keeping pace with his plane before leaving him and going straight up into the sky. The FAA, when asked if anything else was bopping around the lower atmosphere at that time, gave a hearty "no comment".

In what can only be a concerted attempt to discredit the crop duster, Dr. Jaffe reports that the National Enquirer bought his story for a hundred thousand dollars and then asks if there really was something in the sky earlier in the day. Obviously by asking the question right after invoking the name of the best-known supermarket tabloid in the country one is leading the audience to answer in the negative. Then there's a "talk to people on the street" feature asking if they believe in UFOs, because time needs to be filled up between commercial breaks.

Whatever the Evening World News was stalling for with the vox pops segment is ready to go; the next correspondent is at the Pentagon talking to the deputy undersecretary of defense for advanced technologies. The functionary says, in no uncertain terms, that anyone claiming alien involvement is either lying, crazy, or both. He also mentions various probes sent out as cosmic messages in a bottle like the Voyager program, and says that after moon landings and space missions from the United States and the USSR, there haven't been any first contacts. Of course, in cosmic terms a moon mission isn't necessarily something that aliens in another solar system would even notice. But it does sound convincing enough for television.

For the opposing view, the (fictitious) author Terrence Freeman has shown up; his (equally fictitious) book Messengers From Beyond is all about alien contact. Freeman is played by the awesomely named Ron Canada, an actor who is also in John Sayles' masterpiece LoneStar as a barbecue chef. He's the Ehrich von Daniken figure in the story, giving a quick summary of the theory that aliens had to teach primitive Earth people how to stack rocks on each other in order to build the Great Pyramids in Egypt and Stonehenge in Britain. Usually the proponents of the "aliens built my monuments" theory only mention structures built by nonwhites, so it's nice to hear Stonehenge getting lumped in with everything else that these people tend to point to. Freeman says that the aliens show up every few hundred years, and are currently overdue for a visit. Dr. Jaffe reflexively takes the opposite view, saying that simpler ideas tend to be correct.

Before the disagreement can boil over into a full on shouting match, Sander interrupts the pair and the scene shifts to Impact Site Alpha, where things have started happening. A radio signal strong enough to disrupt the news helicopters' navigation systems has started emanating from the crater; presumably it's also this signal that is causing yet more interference with the transmission of the live report. There's also a loud electronic noise that has been steadily increasing; it's noisy enough that the reporter on the scene has to yell just for his mike to pick up his own voice. He tries to get closer to the crater but the noise is so loud and so painful that he abandons the attempt after less than a minute; the static and interference with the TV signal is also considerably worse the closer he gets to the crater.

Dr. Jaffe quotes a NASA scientist, who says that the same radio signal has been picked up hundreds of miles away from the crater on the FM band--her take on it is that the space debris is electrically charged and is somehow building in strength in the aftermath of the meteorite impact. Back at the Houston Space Center, the station's reporter says that the same signal has been noticed at Impact Site Bravo and Charley. There's some technobabble about charged ion fields caused by perfectly natural phenomena, but I think most people know when they're hearing something an authority figure has come up with just to shut up a persistent questioner.

Meanwhile at the headquarters of the Federal Aviation Administration, their spokesman is talking about the way this radio signal is disrupting airplane navigation systems, which is screwing up air travel nationwide (Chicago, Detroit and New York City are all mentioned when he's listing the affected areas; none of those are anywhere near Wyoming or Mongolia, right?). All of those cities are roughly on the same lines of latitude as the meteor impacts, though, and the FAA spokesman has absolutely no comment at this time when asked about this massive coincidence. Before going to another commercial break, Sander Vanocur points out that lots of things are unknown about the situation; right now, what is known for sure is that there were virtually no causualties from the meteor impacts and that the main effect they're having so far is an air travel crisis. He's doing quite a good job trying to keep a lid on things and actually inform his audience.

After another commercial break, Sander comes back to sum up again, and things are significantly more dire than they were when the meteorites first came down--now there's mass disruption of air travel; there's an Evening World News reporter in New York City, covering the way people are affected by the shutdown of air travel at LaGuardia. The JumboTron screen in Times Square gets used as a quick way to bring everyone up to speed--in short, the rerouted planes that would have gone to LaGuardia are causing backups at other airports in the region. The ripple effect from delays at those airports is affecting travel elsewhere. There's a series of gigantic traffic jams in New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and other places as people who can't use planes to get somewhere are either trying to go back home or trying to get to their destination the slow and earthbound way. The reporter also says that every off-duty police officer and firefighter is on the job making sweet overtime trying to keep order. Lastly, St. Patrick's Cathedral has heavy attendance during a hastily convened prayer session just in case the bishop has enough pull with God to get things taken care of.

With the arrival morning in Asia, the power outages and electronic interference leads to the reported suspension of trading on the Hong Kong and Tokyo stock exchanges. But that's way the hell over in foreign lands, so they don't even have stock footage to show while talking about it.

After that moment of international exposition, it's time for a historical overview of the UFO conspiracy culture in America, courtesy of Dr. Jaffe. The official government report, of course, says that nothing in any of the UFO reports contained anything harmful to American natural security. And the newsreaders leave it at that, rather than going for the "some say" double-talk and celebration of intentional ignorance.

The interference with electronic communications isn't so bad that an expert opinion from across the world can't be consulted. The next person to appear on the Evening World News big monitor is Arthur C. Clarke, also playing himself, brought in as an expert who has thought about alien contact in his career as a science fiction author, and who has considerable scientific expertise as well (True Fact:  Clarke is the one who first came up with the idea of artificial satellites as a method of relaying communications back in 1945, which makes him legendary here at Checkpoint Telstar). Clarke says something rather sensible during his interview--there's a near-certainty that intelligent life exists elsewhere in the universe because it's such a vast place. But for fifty years or so humanity has been broadcasting radio signals (and, later, television as well) but there hasn't been a response yet. Which means that there isn't anything in a sphere 100 light years across that was interested in talking to Earth if they got our transmissions. This all cheerfully ignores the fact that anything sending a response to our SETI receivers would need an equal amount of time to get their message to Earth; light speed is incredibly fast but space is so mind-bogglingly huge that it could potentially take centuries just for our radio / television transmissions to reach a place that could understand them (and remember, double that time for a response. It'd be like trying to carry on a conversation via Morse code where it took a year each time someone wanted to press the telegraph key). Awesomely enough, there's a "LIVE via Satellite" graphic on Clarke's image during the interview. Clarke also has a copy of the Voyager 2 record, which he holds up to remind the audience about that particular message in a bottle tossed into the cosmic oceans.

Whatever they want to talk about after Clarke has his moment in the sun gets pushed to the side when there's a White House press briefing; the press secretary announces that a second asteroid with a trajectory nearly identical to the previous one has been sighted and is streaking towards Earth at that very moment. It's going to impact in five minutes, according to the press secretary, and Air Force fighter jets have been scrambled in order to shoot down the asteroid with nuclear missiles before it smacks into the Earth. Several of the reporters in the chaotic press conference are playing themselves, which had to be an interesting day's filming.

At the Houston command center, Dr. Lowden is the only person willing to go on record and talk to the Evening World News reporter about what a terrible idea it is to try and blast a massive rock traveling fifty times faster than sound with nuclear weapons. Even if it works, there's going to be massive environmental consequences at the polar ice cap and so many things could go wrong that it seems insane to try the hastily derived plan. The press flack for NASA tells the assembled reporters that they'll be allowed to stick around and listen in on the transmissions from the F-16 pilots that will try to shoot down the asteroid. Meanwhile, at the United Nations building in New York City, an impromptu candlelight vigil is taking place as concerned people say that potential alien contact should be met with peace and a hope of understanding rather than a nuclear blast.

Back at the Houston command center, the pilots successfully launch against the plummeting asteroid (I like the grainy, low-fi look of the plane-cam footage; it looks a lot more convincing for being unclear and vague because nobody's going to make a great nuclear launch on a TV movie budget). As soon as the missiles are on their way towards the asteroid, that electronic noise starts up again and both F-16s drop out of contact with NASA. The reporters are summarily shoved out of the room and back into the holding tank they'd been in earlier and when one of the soldiers acting as doormen grabs a news camera the screen goes to black for another commercial break.

When the story comes back there's a mocked up ASTEROID:  Fire From the Sky animated bumper ready to go. It's awesome that the movie is 55 minutes in when that shows up; obviously, there were people in the graphics department woken up and put to work to make it and that strikes me as the kind of thing that would actually happen in this kind of situation. Sander Vanocur gives another summation of recent events; this time, he doesn't bother mentioning the asteroid impacts at the three sites or anything about the first 2/3 of the film. He's only got time to mention the presumed deaths of the two Air Force pilots and the destruction of the second asteroid before going back into the news. That's another great little detail that makes perfect sense within the context of the narrative.

The press conference in the wake of the pilots' demise starts with an Air Force general saying that the second asteroid was completely obliterated, so that the two pilots gave their lives in return for a successful mission. He also lets it drop that the radio signals have ceased from all three of the first wave impact sites and then somehow says this proves that it was all a completely natural phenomenon that happened. Multiple reporters immediately call bullshit on this, and the Air Force general immediately tries to turn the press conference into a commercial for the Reagan-era "Star Wars" missile defense program, which (as of 2015) is an extremely effective welfare program for defense contractors but hasn't ever shot down a missile successfully. The general says that they'll need the missile shield for the "next time", which doesn't reassure anyone in the briefing room, because that implies the military is expecting a third asteroid to come in on exactly the same trajectory as the previous two impossibly precise ones.

Back at the Houston command center, Dr. Mandel has arrived and gets hustled through a corridor past the reporters who all want to ask him lots of immediate questions. He stops long enough to call the destruction of the second asteroid "unforgivable" and says that there were obvious signs that the space rocks were being controlled by some intelligence rather than just being dumb slabs of minerals that just happened to hit the Earth. Mandel points out that the three impact sites were well away from significant population centers and that America just committed a war crime against a vastly superior alien force that arrived--at least at first--in peace. Dr. Jaffe makes sure to tell everyone watching at home that as far as anyone knows, at least right now, the asteroids were both just dumb chunks of rock that hit the planet in a weirdly identical sequence, and that there is no proof of alien contact at this time.

The next report is from World News Tonight's man on the ground in Wyoming; a small town in that state is completely and eerily empty, with not a single human being (or even any house pets) in evidence. The National Guard is checking for anyone who's still there, but so far it looks like the Rapture hit and took every living soul within the city limits. Just in case that isn't bad enough, the correspondent in Lourdes reports that Monsieur Chounard, the French skier caught in the impact blast who was then rescued and brought to a burn center, has died. The reporter has a tape recorder with the skier's last words and plays them for the audience at Chounard's widow's request. I didn't understand any of it, but I don't speak French.

When the newscast returns after another commercial break, it's time to check in with the reporter at the F.A.A., who reports that even with the electronic interference stopped it's going to be several hours before all the delays and cancellations at the affected airports work their way through the system. After that wraps up, it's time to go back to that gigantic satellite dish in the Mojave desert (do a shot! The reporter is standing in front of it!). The scientists at the SETI installation there are analyzing the tape of Chounard the fatally injured skier's last words and comparing them to those of Kimberly Hastings, the little girl found alive in the blast zone from the Wyoming impact.

Speaking of Kimberly Hastings, her condition has been upgraded to "stable"; her mother has arrived at the hospital and there's a moment where she recognizes Bree Walker as the reporter who pulled her daughter out of the smoking wasteland where she could have died. Of course the cameraman gets a great shot of their tearful embrace. After all, it's newsworthy and emotionally affecting. Right after that, Dr. Jaffe goes back to the astrophysicist from the first act, who has a computer graphics program that shows the triangular impact trajectories from the three meteor fragments breaking up; he compares the triangle of their descent paths to a triangle design on the Pioneer 11 space probe; they match perfectly. Looks like some spacefaring civilization did indeed find humanity's message in a bottle.

 Because this is a news program, Sander brings in the functionary from the Pentagon who oversaw the military effort to destroy the second "asteroid". That man takes a few cheap shots at the astrophysicist, trying to paint him as a conspiracy-theory lunatic before Sander Vanocur cuts them off and recaps everything that has happened so far (including lots of repurposed news footage, including shots of then-President Bill Clinton).

Back at the Houston command center, Dr. Mandel is walking out of the building, telling the mob of reporters that he's just resigned from NASA due to their handling of the situation. He seems near tears as he realizes that an unprecedented opportunity was lost thanks to warmongering politicians who wanted to look good and demonstrate their ability (when this was made, the Cold War had ended a couple years earlier; it's entirely possible that the military industrial complex wanted to make sure they were still top dog worldwide and demonstrated it by taking out the "asteroid" when they had the chance). Mandel refers to the situation as "an ongoing crisis" and gets put on the spot when the reporters ask what he meant; he surmises that the NASA press flack hasn't told any of the reporters what's really going on. Dr. Mandel, having resigned from his job, answers to his own conscience rather than NASA's desire to bury the story. He drops the mother of all news bombs:  Three two-mile-long asteroids are headed for Beijing, Moscow, and Washington, D.C. at that very moment. Not only are they headed for cities with huge populations, but the seats of government for the largest and most powerful nations on the planet--and the ones, as Mandel points out, that have first-strike nuclear capabilities.

After the ambassadors in one of the smaller ships were nuked.

Dr. Mandel says the new asteroids are expected to impact in less than ten minutes at each of those sites; he also says that Earth declared war on that race and the response is expected shortly. Time for one last commercial break, I guess. When they come back, the viewer can't help but notice that there's a nice big representation of the Capitol dome on the Evening World News set; looks like Sander and Dr. Jaffe are at Ground Zero for whatever's going to happen in the next ten minutes or so. Curfews and looting are reported in Washington as everyone prepares for the worst (one assumes the shit is hitting the fan in Beijing and Moscow with equal velocity).

As the deadline approaches, there's a quick check-in with Evening World News reporters all over the globe. Red Square is empty while a few people have quietly gathered at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington; there's not much to do with only seven minutes before the apocalypse. The reporters all seem to be affected by the knowledge that their job has guaranteed that they'll never see their families again, but are bucking up and providing information while there is still information to go out. A noticeably disheveled reporter at the Houston command center asks Dr. Lowden what to expect if any of the three asteroids impact the planet; the news is not good.

Back in the Pentagon, the general who oversaw the original attack on the alien ambassadors is planning to launch nuclear weapons at the three "asteroids"; the reporters are baffled that he's even trying something like this. They cut away quickly from that fiasco to talk to Bree Walker in the hospital; it turns out that Kimberly Hastings suffered a massive cardiac arrest and died right around the time Dr. Mandel announced the arrival of the three gigantic alien ships.

And at the anchor desk, Dr. Jaffe takes the last moments she might ever experience to say goodbye to her husband and daughter at home. Sander says she doesn't have to stay through the end, but Jaffe (probably recognizing the futility of trying to flee) decides to stay at her post. Similarly, the reporter at Houston stays where he is at the big board, watching the submarine launches at the asteroids classified as X-Ray, Yankee and Zulu. Contact, unsurprisingly, gets lost with the Beijing reporter when the missile hits the ship targeting that city. The Houston reporter says that the first ship was destroyed, and when the Moscow stringer makes his peace with death it turns out that he didn't have to--the Evening World News desk stays in contact with him even after the missile detonates and the look of baffled relief on his face is pretty amazing. The final missile, the one aimed at the Washington ship, also goes off without a hitch and everything appears to be all right as people celebrate worldwide.

Appears to be.

The second-to-last thing shown over the airwaves is the decoded speech from Chounard the skier and Kimberly Hastings the young girl; they're each speaking part of a message (and there's a gap, because the survivor from the Mongolian impact site was never found). But there's enough information there for Sander to realize that they're reciting the message sent out on the Voyager 2 space probe; the message was found and the responders came in peace only to find that the world was prepared for war.

That's the second-to-last thing to hit the airwaves. The last is the big board at the Houston space command center, flooding with the images of dozens of ships, if not hundreds. There's just enough time for Sander Vanocur to quote Shakespeare about the fault in our selves rather than the stars before static overwhelms the image and the lights go out. Thank goodness there's a "directed by" credit right after that, or some people might have freaked right the heck out when they saw it the first and only time CBS broadcast the movie.

There's a truism when talking about movies that if you say "what a great effect", you haven't actually been impressed by the special effect. The real triumph of a special effect is when the audience accepts it completely as part of the film's world. By that metric, this film is a nearly unqualified success--other than some obvious cost-cutting measures like repurposing existing footage as shots of the panic and celebration at the end of the story, this looked for all the world exactly like a news broadcast of a huge event, complete with occasional emotional breakdowns on camera, people stumbling over what they wanted to say, and celebrity and man-on-the-street interviews. And there's a swerve or two for people who figured out things like the Grovers' Mill reference--yes, in the last fifty seconds or so, this turns into a War of the Worlds adaptation, but it only did so because of the actions taken by the American military earlier in the narrative.

But don't take my world for it completely--the film has been uploaded in its entirety to YouTube. Got a spare hour and a half? Watch a forgotten triumph of TV movie science fiction (and, at the end, horror).


This review is part of the Celluloid Zeroes roundtable celebrating fiction presented as fact. The other reviews going live for the event are:

The Bermuda Triangle at Micro-Brewed Reviews

Legend of the Chupacabra at Cinemasochist Apocalypse

A forthcoming look at Chariots of the Gods at Terrible Claw Reviews

Interested readers may well want to check out previous looks at found footage among the Celluloid Zeroes, which may be found here:

Alien Abduction:  Incident in Lake County / Micro-Brewed Reviews
...And God Spoke (The Making Of) / Micro-Brewed Reviews
The Bay / Checkpoint Telstar
Cannibal Holocaust / Micro-Brewed Reviews
Cloverfield / Terrible Claw Reviews
CSA:  The Confederate States of America / Checkpoint Telstar
Punishment Park / Checkpoint Telstar
Quarantine / Checkpoint Telstar
[REC] / Checkpoint Telstar

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Dr. Cyclops (1940)

Written by Tom Kilpatrick; uncredited contributions by Malcolm Stuart Boyland
Directed by Ernest B. Schoedsack

Albert Dekker:  Dr. Thorkel
Thomas Coley:  Bill Stockton
Janice Logan:  Dr. Mary Robinson
Charles Halton:  Dr. Bulfinch
Victor Kilian:  Steve Baker

According to Wikipedia, this is the first science-fiction movie to be filmed in Technicolor. Being a fan of all things retro and cool, that means sooner or later I was destined to see it. As you can see from the poster at the top of the review, the color film process was a bigger star than anyone in the movie--it gets top billing and bigger lettering. As well it should! Think about the fantastic spectacle that's synonymous with Technicolor--would The Wizard of Oz be as magical if it hadn't gone from sepia to vibrant, richer-than-reality color film stock? No. Of course not. And the 1938 Adventures of Robin Hood is still the high water mark for rousing adventure, at least partly because of the way all the knights and Merry Men have costumes that pop right off the screen. So of course I'm interested in seeing how this film looks (and the opening credits, flickering in eerie green, are about as cool as you're going to get as far as 1940 opening credits go--actually, the movie's copyrighted 1939 but was released the following year). The credits flicker in and out of existence exactly like the scan lines on primitive video displays, so even before the first image appears on screen we're getting SCIENCE!, which is wonderful to behold.

And then, joy of joys, a stout bald guy wearing protective goggles is looking at some kind of radioactive power source in a leaded glass tube, filling the screen with that same flickering green color. I wonder if this very movie is the reason radiation is a sickly green in pop culture (apparently in real life when you can actually see radiation from a nuclear power source it's blue). A second man, named Mendoza and not wearing Ether Goggles, enters and asks the unnamed mad scientist when he's going to give up his impossible plan to do whatever it is that he's doing. The bald man says that he's actually done it, so he doesn't have to give up doing it, and he was right all along (so there). Baldy says "it still lives" and tells Mendoza to look through a microscope to prove it, which the other man does.

Whatever the first doctor did, he says he used enough radium to "tear it to shreds", whatever it is, and yet it hasn't died. Mendoza takes this really poorly, saying that the bald doctor has Gone Too Far and Tampered In Realms Man Was Not Meant To Know (I'm guessing that this dialogue was old hat even in 1939); instead of destroying all his work and hoping that nobody else uncovers his techniques, Dr. Thorkel says he's now able to tamper with the very forces of life itself and has not just the right but the moral imperative to keep doing that. Mendoza says he won't allow Thorkel to keep doing what he's doing--and since it's his equipment and his radium deposit in "the jungle" in the Amazon, what Mendoza says goes.

Thorkel takes that pretty well, all things considered--he grabs Mendoza by the throat and slams his head into the glass tube full of green flickered radiation; the Expository Casualty dies of massive radiation poisoning in seconds (which is portrayed by making his face look like a skull thanks to a dissolve from the actor to the actor in the same position with makeup on his face). Which is just how you'd have to make that happen in 1939.

Then it's time to meet another scientist, one working at the North American Research Foundation (which I assume is the laboratory that eventually created Pinky and the Brain; after all, they are the N.A.R.F.). The awesomely named Doctor Rupert Bulfinch, another late-middle-aged white guy, has gotten a job offer from Dr. Thorkel, who he has never met. The head of the NARF says he worked with Thorkel, and found the guy to be weird even for an obsessed biologist. He also says Thorkel was insanely secretive about what he was working on, and wishes the other scientist would reconsider working with--or for--Thorkel.

The next person we encounter is Dr. Mary Robinson, who is introduced writing out a telegram to the aforementioned Dr. Rupert Bulfinch. She's signing on to supervise the microscope equipment and record keeping for an expedition (telegrams charge by the word, so she doesn't say which expedition that is; besides, the audience already knows). They team up and try to convince a young playboy mineralogist named Bill Stockton to work with them--Thorkel's original choice can't abide the high altitudes in Peru so he had to quit before the expedition started. Stockton isn't having any of it until Robinson threatens to have him jailed for unpaid debts (that she's acquired from the local American ambassador, who is a friend of the rock hound and has been trying to keep him out of legal trouble) if he doesn't sign on to whatever they're doing. He's a realist, so he decides to do some science.

The group goes on to the mule-rental shack where they were promised--and already paid for--a bunch of mules that Steve Baker, a miner, says are his and he won't let them out of the corral. Kendall tries reasoning with the laconic industrialist, and that goes about as well as you'd expect. Robinson offers more money as well and the guy won't take it. Finally Baker says he wants to go along on the expedition, which is not what any of the various scientists expected (I think he wants to get his hands on that radium deposit, myself). The expedition continues down a shallow portion of the Amazon on mule-back and there's a Komedy Interlude with a peasant (who pulls lots of Komedy Reaction Faces as he sees the party arrive) and his dog (who is more dignified and doesn't do that), who notifies Dr. Thorkel--wearing the Mark I Iron Man armor--that his helpers have arrived.

When the scientists (and the miner guy) arrive, the peasant asks if they've seen his horse on the trail; apparently it got loose at some point and he'd really like it back. He also tries to keep his dog nearby, because losing a horse is one thing but losing your dog is catastrophic. Thorkel comes out of his house / lab in a rumpled tan suit in order to greet everyone except the dog. Thorkel is the very picture of genteel scientific cooperation and enthusiasm, and tells Bulfinch and Robinson that his eyesight has deteriorated to the point that someone else has to look through the microscope in order to record any of the results he's been producing. The pair of scientists are naturally sympathetic and want to help, as anyone with a functioning soul would be in this situation.

Science sequence! Thorkel has the trio of researchers check out something he's got on a microscope slide; Bulfinch spots cellular deterioration and Stockton recognizes tiny pieces of crystallized iron. Thorkel nearly collapses when he hears that, but says it's for a good reason--Stockton's eyesight and knowledge mean that Thorkel knows how to fix whatever it is that's gone wrong. He refers to the iron crystals as "my only error", which suggests that he's got a touch of the Hubris. Thorkel also turns out to have only wanted his colleagues to journey ten thousand miles to look at that one microscope slide; he thanks them for their time, says he's got an experiment that needs constant supervision, and tells them all he hopes to spare a minute or two in order to say goodbye when they leave the following morning. Did your brain just make a record-scratch noise when you read that? Because mine sure did when I saw it.

Thorkel says that he doesn't actually need any other help, walks back to his lab and shuts the door. I can only imagine the profanity that a real scientist would have let loose at this point. Bulfinch is fuming; Stockton is happy to be done and ready to leave, while Dr. Robinson says nobody should set one foot outside of Thorkel's compound without some kind of acceptable explanation for what he just had them do. Dr. Robinson also points out that none of the three scientists know what the hell Thorkel is up to, but Baker thinks he's got it figured out. He's spotted telltale signs of mining activity but neither Bulfinch nor Robinson think he's got a theory worth listening to. So the miner sneaks out of the compound fence and sees that flickering green light through the windows in Thorkel's lab, and there's at least two different Science Noises emanating from there.

Baker checks out a mine shaft and happens to be there when Thorkel turns off the Science Stuff in his lab, then comes out to manually haul up what I assume is the reactor that powers his equipment--the mad doctor makes some adjustments to it and lowers it carefully back down to the bottom of the well. He never notices Baker hiding behind a barrel (that terrible eyesight comes in handy for the protagonist here), and scoops up some mineral samples before returning to the compound.

And in Thorkel's lab, it turns out that the missing horse is right here all along, but it's only about a foot tall now! Damn, that really is tampering in God's domain! The shot of Thorkel removing the cloth covering the mini horse looks to be a forced-perspective effect rather than matting in a horse--and the edit between the scientist putting the tray down on his desk and the shot where he pulls the cloth away is very deftly done. I imagine that shot completely blew the audience members' minds in 1940.

The next morning, Bulfinch is rummaging through the ore samples that Baker retrieved, and has found tiny bone fragments of the native wildlife. Bulfinch thinks he's tripped over the discovery of hitherto undiscovered species of micropig, since the bone fragments are from a mature animal. He decides to name it after himself, of course, as scientists do. Thorkel overhears him and chuckles indulgently (of course he, and we, know what's really up with those bone fragments). Bulfinch says that the main difference between a mouse and a whale is their size, and I'm no biologist but I think there's probably a few other differences that someone could probably spot.

For one thing, the Enterprise didn't need to find mice in the past.

It's also very difficult to make scrimshaw from a mouse.

Thorkel wasn't just there to tell Bulfinch that he probably didn't find a brand new species of single-serve bacon strips on the hoof; he was also there to thank everyone again for their service and to show them the door. Bulfinch figures that Thorkel's treatment of the three researchers means he doesn't have to consider Thorkel's feelings when deciding what to do. Thorkel counters by saying if Bulfinch is still there in an hour, whatever happens to the biologist is not Thorkel's fault. Then Pedro the peasant hears the micro horse neighing and figures out at least part of what's up (in that he knows what Pinto sounds like). Baker peers through a gap in the fence and sees Dr. Thorkel looking for the horse in his back yard, with a butterfly net. He motions the others to come look at this weird shit, and they do. A convenient clump of grass means they don't actually see Pinto in his newly reduced state before he gets caught and put in a pet carrier, but all of the observers think at the very least that Thorkel's out of his goddamned mind.

Pedro offers another piece of the puzzle--it turns out that he was originally hired to bring a bunch of rats, chickens, dogs and cats to Thorkel's compound. His own dog and a fat black cat named Satanas are the only remaining creatures from that shipment, though Pedro doesn't know what happened to all of the animals he brought to the lab. And Pedro also says he's been working for Dr. Thorkel for about five and a half months, but still has never been allowed inside the laboratory building. Everyone just kind of shrugs and decides to get the hell out of town while the getting is good, but while packing up his sample case, Stockton realizes that the lumps of rock that Baker brought back from outside the compound are pitchblende, which is what people call uranium ore when they don't want to frighten the shit out of the poor suckers mining it for them.

Baker and Stockton want to keep their knowledge of the pitchblende deposit on the DL, but Bulfinch and Robinson have figured out the presence of radioactivity on their own (and Bulfinch is even able to tell that the ore samples--which were literally just picked up off the ground--have a higher concentration of radium than anyone could logically expect to find). That pair of scientists quickly say they've decided to stick around and care for Dr. Thorkel; Stockton sees through their jive instantly and Baker takes it with equanimity, figuring the paycheck from a four-way split of a multi-million dollar jackpot is still plenty of money. Robinson doesn't just want the money; she's also thinking of all the Science! that could be done with a brand new supply of uranium. Bulfinch, for his part, doesn't like the idea of a massive source of radium left exclusively in the hands of someone who is batshit fucking loco (I am paraphrasing here).

Incidentally, that's an extremely up-to-date thing for this movie; although uranium was discovered in 1789 and its radioactive properties in 1896, its use as a power source didn't occur until 1934 (and the Manhattan Project, which spent billions of 1943 dollars to build the first atomic weapons, was first started in 1941 (which probably means at least some of the politicians who funded the project had seen this movie and were expecting miniature horses to be developed as a sideline to the nuclear bomb research).

Everything comes to a head when the five protagonists sneak into Thorkel's cabin / laboratory while he's out goofing with his reactor thing and start poking around. Pedro sees the prints from his horse's shoes in the dirt floor of the lab leading into a locked room; Baker sees a drawer full of extra glasses ground to Thorkel's coke-bottle prescription and Bulfinch finds his notebook. Interestingly enough, the biologist takes the notebook as further proof of the mad scientist's delusions, not as evidence that he really has been able to shrink a horse down to the size of a medium-sized dog.

Thorkel shows up and is furious beyond belief; Baker tries to make piece but Thorkel isn't interested in listening to anyone about anything right now. He goes even more incandescent when he sees that Bulfinch was reading his notebook, but becomes (apparently) calm after Baker and Stockton grab his arms and start looking for a holding cell. Then he decides to explain himself rather than face a few years in an insane asylum.

Turns out that Thorkel knew the super-rich radium ore was in the area because of its reputation as a cursed locale--lots of gold miners dug in the ground and died at a time when most people didn't have any idea about radioactivity or the hazards of exposure to the pitchblende. The reactor-thing down at the bottom of his well turns out to be a device that absorbs and channels the radioactivity of the ore; it doesn't look like Thorkel's done anything to refine the pitchblende and he's still getting that eerie green glow of SCIENCE! whenever he turns the equipment on (and again--don't forget that uranium enrichment was pretty much science fiction when the movie was written; I'm willing to let the details slide when there's no way anyone in Hollywood could have been expected to know about them).

When it comes time to demonstrate what Thorkel is actually doing with that radioactive power, he brings everyone but Pedro into the room where he built a huge metal thingy that directs and releases the atomic energy once he's got it condensed by his other metal thingy in the well. WhenPedro discovers his now tiny horse in a storage box, Thorkel tells the peasant to go into his Science Room as well; once everyone's looking at his atomic-powered equipment with polite interest he leaves the room, locks the door and turns on the machine. Ever the scientist, he puts on his safety hood and watches what's happening from the outside. The next we see of him, he's stuffing everyone's clothing into a sack and telling Satanas the cat to wait her turn; she'll see the people in the cellar soon enough. That's probably a much better deal for the cat than it is for the scientists.

The scene where Thorkel opens the cellar door and reveals that all five people are now a foot tall, and wearing togas made of handkerchiefs (Pedro, not being white, gets stuck with a diaper, the poor sap) is another marvel of split-screen and forced perspective effects. It's worth noting that Ernest B. Schoedsack also directed King Kong and Son of Kong; he was likely a go-to guy for the studio when the movie called for effects and camera trickery. Of course, in this case he's making people look small instead of making an eighteen inch stop-motion ape model look bigger than a subway train.

Thorkel picks up the cat (which was growling hungrily at everyone) and kneels down to discuss the impossibility of his claimed results with everyone. They're too stunned to speak, which I can fully sympathize with. At the first opportunity everyone high-tails it out of the cellar and climbs the stairs while Thorkel observes that they're all physically unharmed and still capable of the complicated physical tasks involved in climbing chest-high wooden steps. He also tells everyone not to worry, because he's shut the cat in the basement so they aren't going to be torn apart and devoured.

There's some neat interplay between the set where Thorkel is sitting in a chair and talking reasonably to his victims and the shots of the shrunken-down scientists (and Pedro and Baker)--I'm assuming that a quintuple-size duplicate set was built so that all the miniaturized characters would be in the proper scale. By using similar camera placement while shooting Thorkel and the protagonists, it's possible to make the scenes look like they match closely together.

Thorkel tells the hiding victims that he's being perfectly reasonable towards them and they sneak out from behind a crate to talk to him. Bulfinch decides to ask why God hasn't smote the crap out of the good doctor for doing blasphemous science; Thorkel chuckles indulgently and admires his spirit. After a drink of an unspecified "stimulant", Thorkel tells the shrunken people that they're the first shrunken beings that lived through the process and lies down for a nap. Everyone looks at the locked and bolted door and realizes they need to get the equivalent of twenty feet off the ground to work it (they stack books up until Stockton can reach up with a pencil and shoot the bolt). Once outside the lab building, the quintet looks around the yard of Thorkel's compound and tries to figure out what to do next. The now-enormous-relative-to-them roosters in the yard are scary enough, but it's the presence of Satanas that really freaks out the victims.

The animal noises are all mixed to sound louder and more threatening, by the way, even the chickens. It's interesting, and also makes the familiar sound alien (which helps the audience get into the same mental place as the protagonists).

The shrunken people hide in a convenient cactus patch so the cat won't get to them and Tipo the dog frightens Satanas off; the poor dog gets horribly confused when he sees his owner is now smaller than he is. Thorkel wakes up after his nap and goes looking for the fivesome so he can hassle them again about being tiny and sees that they've gotten out of his cabin. They've rigged up clothing for themselves out of other fabric; now, instead of all of them wearing white cotton shifts they're clad in different colored togas (and Robinson in a dress; Pedro is still in a big diaper, for some reason). This means that it'll be easier to tell any of the five apart in long shots.

While everyone else does something practical like disassembling a pair of scissors to make two single-edged swords that the shrunken men or women can wield or gathering food, Bulfinch is working his way through a scientific text and telling the others that Thorkel's theories are completely inaccurate. Well, that's possibly the case, Rupert, but on the other hand you're now about a foot tall and that's hard to ascribe to sheer coincidence.

Bulfinch walks away from the group to "reason with" Thorkel, saying that he won't go into the cabin to be weighed and measured by Thorkel; he demands a trip back to civilization. Thorkel says the mules are gone and nobody's going anywhere. Looks like the nearly blind but full-sized mad scientist has the upper hand in this discussion. Bulfinch, fittingly enough, is the one to refer to himself and the other four victims as "prisoners in Cyclops' cave". Thorkel thinks that's a crack about his vision, but the professor says it's more a signal that Polyphemus thought being bigger and stronger than the people under his power would be enough to keep him on top. And we all know how that worked out, or at least we should, I hope.

Thorkel orders Bulfinch to come into the lab for his examination; when the professor refuses Thorkel busts out the butterfly net again and goes hunting. At least for the time being he's more interested in recording the results of his inadvertent experiment than just stepping on the quintet and calling it a day. The scene where he reaches out of frame with the net so an oversized prop butterfly net can catch Bulfinch is another really nifty use of forced perspective and matting to achieve the effect. I doubt that anyone watching it now would be fooled (heck, I bet people had it pretty well figured out in 1940) but it's still an interesting thing to see and I applaud the low-tech ingenuity that went into the sequence.

Thorkel takes a quick measurement of Bulfinch's height and weight; the poor sucker is now thirteen inches tall and weighs only a pound and a half (which doesn't make a huge amount of sense to me, but I'll roll with it). Thorkel is concerned instead of jovially chiding the man who is utterly and completely in his power; Bulfinch is far from stupid and figures this out pretty much instantly. Another neat rear-projection / giant prop scene ensues when Thorkel picks up the protesting Bulfinch (who jabs him with a metal-tipped fountain pen rather than meekly submit to the examination).

Thorkel realizes that the shrinking process is temporary, and that Bulfinch (and, presumably, the other four people stuck in the same tiny boat) will grow back to full size eventually. I assume the horse is going to get big again too. Bulfinch says there will be a settling of accounts when that happens, and Thorkel agrees that it seems like a likely outcome. He says that's "most unfortunate", and has also killed at least one person that was opposed to his experiments, so if I were Bulfinch I'd likely keep my mouth shut while I was still small enough to get killed with a single strike from a hammer.

Thorkel presses a cotton pad soaked with chloroform over Bulfinch's face, killing him. When Dr. Robinson sees this she screams, which alerts the mad scientist to her presence (as well as the remaining three men). They flee for the cactus patch in the corner of Thorkel's yard, but that refuge doesn't last when the full-sized villain grabs a shovel and starts smashing the cactus leaves down. Thorkel (and the audience) see the drain hole in the base of the wall when the cacti are cleared out of the way, and now the four shrunken people are out in the jungle, unprotected, just in time for a rainstorm and falling tree to imperil them even further. They wind up taking refuge in a small cleft in some rocks and go forth to meet the following day.

They come across Pedro's canoe, and figure that if they can get it in the water and hop inside, at the very least they'll be out of Thorkel's influence and can hopefully get back to civilization before a leopard eats them. Dr. Robinson figures out a way to rig up branches and vines into a lever and windlass that the three men can use to push the canoe into the river (since it's far, far too heavy for them to move now). Unfortunately an alligator picks that time to go into the river itself. Nobody notices it approaching the men lifting the boat until it's almost too late; the men make it back into the rock pit but the alligator is standing there anticipating a tasty snack, so they're trapped. Robinson distracts the reptile while the three men pick up their stockpile of firewood; they dump burning sticks on the alligator's head and it sensibly enough retreats to the river.

Now it's time for yet another complication; Thorkel is out hunting with a shotgun, looking for the surviving victims. He's using Pedro's dog to track them down, which is actually really smart of him. The quartet of protagonists hide in the tall grass where there's space to hide and Pedro runs off so the dog will follow him instead of leading Thorkel to everyone. He distracts the doctor at the cost of his own life and Thorkel shoves the canoe into the water with one hand, stranding everyone where they are (and doing more in seconds than the protagonists managed in hours of strain and effort). Then, because he's tired of looking for them, Thorkel sets fire to the tall dry grass they're hiding in. In a stroke of genius, the three survivors hide in Thorkel's sample case because they know he won't look in there. He eventually gives up looking for the shrinking victims and returns to his lab.

Back in the lab, Thorkel is looking for something he wrote down earlier, and moves some heavy medical books around in order to find it. Unfortunately, the books go right on top of his sample case, so the three remaining shrunken people have to cut through the mesh window on the front panel in order to escape. When Thorkel's out screwing around with his atomic accumulator thing in the back yard again they seize their chance. Dr. Robinson and Baker get ready to run back outside while Stockton decides that he's going to stay behind and figure out a way to kill Thorkel with his scissors-blade sword. Stockton's courage means that Dr. Robinson and the miner decide not to run off and abandon him.

While Thorkel continues farting around with the atomic whatsit, the three shrunken people rig up his shotgun so it'll be pointing at him in bed. Once he's out cold, they'll pull the trigger, murder the shit out of him and at least be free from one source of danger in the Amazon jungle. Since Thorkel doesn't know they're in the cabin with him, he would have no reason to suspect any danger. It's just bad luck that Thorkel doesn't go straight to bed. He falls asleep in his chair at his work table instead.

While Thorkel's out cold, the three remaining protagonists take all his spare spectacles out of their drawer, and Stockton does the suicidally dangerous theft of the mad doctor's remaining glasses from his hand while he's out cold. The doctor can't see any of his victims once Stockton throws his glasses to the ground, but hears Dr. Robinson warning the man to look out when he wakes up. Thorkel's too ticked off to work in his own best interests when he finds out the trio of shrunken people are back in his cabin, and tells them that they're going to grow back to full size eventually. He figures it won't make any difference because he's going to find them and kill them before it's an issue.

Thorkel trips over a crate while looking for the survivors, and soon enough realizes that he's missing every single pair of glasses in the cabin. He decides that he can't use the shotgun effectively when he's blind and removes the barrels to use 'em as a club. He also winds up with a pair of glasses with one lens left unshattered, and he refers to himself as Cyclops at that point. Enraged, he overturns everything in his cabin while looking for the trio of victims. While he's rummaging around for stuff the shrunken characters run out of the cabin through a hole Thorkel blasted in the front door; he hears them and follows them out to the yard, where the scaffolding over the radiation well gives way. The mad doctor is hanging to the well rope with one hand when Stockton cuts the rope on the lanyard arm with his scissors-sword, dropping the mad scientist into the well to die horribly. And good riddance to him.

Cut to a title card reading "months later", where the restored survivors decide not to tell anyone where they really were over the last few months because nobody would believe them. Baker wants to keep all the pitchblende mine money he's got coming to him, and if he's locked up in an asylum for his own protection he won't be able to spend it. Dr. Robinson and Stockton aren't listening to his reasoning, though; they only have eyes for each other. Fade to the "THE END" title card and credits as the miner asks if they haven't had enough danger in their lives yet.

Alas, I can't really recommend this one to anyone not already interested in the history and sociological aspects behind the movies as I am. It's pretty neat, and the Science! props look cool, but other than Albert Dekker's performance at Thorkel there aren't any notable performances to speak of. The film takes a third of its length to get moving. After seeing the novelty of the extra-big set for the five (then four, then three) shrinking victims to interact with for a few minutes, there's not a lot for the film to do. Even the occasional REALLY OBVIOUS DOLL for Thorkel to interact with only really breaks up the monotony of the good effects without providing much in the way of campy amusement. It's really too bad. The film's a small success, I guess, but I was hoping for something more impressive, given the director's masterpiece when he was dealing with things that were really big rather than small.

Friday, July 10, 2015

War of the Satellites (1958)

Story by Irving Block and Jack Rabin; Screenplay by Lawrence L. Goldman
Directed by Roger Corman

DICK MILLER!:  Dave Boyer
Susan Cabot:  Sybil Carrington
Richard Devon:  Dr. Pol Van Ponder

With Beach Dickerson, Bruno VeSota and Roger Corman himself (as a ground control crewman)

I'm positive that nobody working on today's movie expected it to be remembered five years after it came out. It was one that got made because Roger Corman knew the value of an irresistible title. According to his invaluable autobiography, he placed a call to Allied Artists Pictures the day that American newspapers reported the launch of Sputnik I, the first artificial satellite and a major victory in the space race and Cold War.

Well, Corman couldn't put another technologically created moon in the sky but he could sure as hell sell some movie tickets based on the story of the decade. But he told Allied Artists that if they cut him a check that day he could have a movie called War of the Satellites in theaters in twelve weeks. I imagine they asked him what it would be about and he said he didn't know yet (not a syllable of the script had been written), but were they going to pay him or not? Corman got his check, AAP got this movie (which made plenty of money because it was the first one to hit the screens about satellites when the USSR gave them hundreds of millions of dollars of free publicity), and I got a natural movie to review for Telstar Day this year.

Plus it's a rare starring role for Dick Miller, the living avatar and patron saint of "you know, that guy, who was in that movie with the other actors". If you've only seen ten movies in your life, chances are Dick Miller was in three of them.

Special love to Shout! Factory, by the way, for releasing this film on a three-movie DVD set with Attack of the Crab Monsters and the original Not of This Earth. It's great to see the disposable culture of decades gone by treated with reverence and made available to current and future generations. With the rise of infomercials on early-morning TV and cable broadcasts taking away one major gateway drug to B movie fandom, it's wonderful to think that anyone could order these movies from Netflix, get 'em at their local library, or possibly even find them at a "video store", if you live in a town that still has one.

This film was made under such a time crunch that the credits are just block lettering with a circle, triangle or abstract shape on the screen--a far cry from the cool undersea paintings from similar-period Corman efforts. And at 65 minutes, it's barely feature length. Everything about this one says "we were sprinting as fast as we could in order to make money off being the first ones to the theater exploiting this subject".

After the credits, a starfield fades into view. A round beeping thing zips from screen left to screen right, giving the audience what they wanted (a satellite) less than two minutes into the running time. The scene then shifts to an observatory run by Project Sigma, where six concerned white guys in suits are watching a monitor that displays the same shot we just saw of the spinning satellite. Dialogue among the scientists reveals that nine previous satellite launches went bad, destroying the orbital payloads and that this is the tenth launch. One of the observers puts the price tag at a half a billion dollars for the wasted effort and materials so far, which is probably lowballing the figure by a significant sum (Telstar I, launched in 1962, cost about $200,000,000 in early-Sixties dollars when all was said and done).

One of the Suited Worriers asks a slide-rule toting woman what she thinks is going to happen next. She says that as a scientist, her purpose is interpreting data rather than making predictions. The German-accented scientist played by Bruno VeSota says the men on the satellite are going to die, just like the last nine crews (holy cats! Crewed space flight in 1958! Corman obviously wanted to have something more compelling than the real story--which was just that a tone generator in a metal sphere was whipping around the Earth every 98 minutes, but damn! This movie is leaping forth with vigor and abandon into speculation about what anyone could do to get into orbit!). The German says that if the tenth satellite is destroyed, the United Nations, which is funding project head Dr. Pol Van Ponder's research, is going to find some other recipient for its research grants.

Looks like Dr. Van Ponder is going to have to hit Kickstarter, because the tenth satellite runs into some kind of distortion field in orbit and blows up. I kind of wonder who volunteered for, say, the seventh launch when the first six all got blown into dust so far above the Earth. I'm pretty sure I would have shot myself in the foot or kissed a dude to get out of the Space Army if it were me. Van Ponder says that he's going to continue working towards the satellite program until there's a success, which means that there's going to be as many futile launches that get disintegrated as he can get the RAND corporation or AT&T to pay for. Another scientist considers the repeated loss of life to be unconscionable and tells the project lead that he'll fight any effort to continue Project Sigma at "the Council".

Then two necking "teens" in a car see a descending light in the sky; the boy realizes that it's not Sputnik because the TV listings would have mentioned it (huh?). The two crazy mixed-up kids watch whatever it is crash into a California mountain range and explode. The girl tells her boyfriend to go see what impacted, which is the kind of thing people do in monster movies ALL THE TIME (both versions of The Blob as well as Killer Klowns from Outer Space have this happen in the first act). The girl gets her boyfriend to go look for whatever is making the electronic noises on the soundtrack by implying that he's a fraidy cat for not going. This works, because testosterone poisoning makes you stupid. The boy finds a crashed projectile and calls his girlfriend over ("I hope you know what you're doing--you flunked Chemistry twice!"). The kids pull the rocket out of the sandy impact crater and Dollar Store Archie reads the Latin inscription on it.

Whoa! Sudden jump cut to the United Nations building, which in 1958 would have still been something of a novelty itself. Stock footage of the General Assembly leads to Sybil Carrington reading an address to the people of Earth from "the masters of the Spiral Nebula Aganna". The Masters don't want humans getting off-planet and have quarantined the Earth with their forcefield. The Masters also say that any future attempts to leave Earth will meet the same fate, but don't give any reason for why they're doing this. Well, the word "infected" comes up when describing the third rock from the Sun, so maybe the Masters are treating our world as a planet-sized leper colony.

The American delegate doesn't cotton to that disease talk, and that alien races don't have the right to keep anyone from Earth out of the stars. What exactly he plans to do about it, I'm not sure. The movie isn't sure either, because the scene shifts to reporters asking Dr. Van Ponder about the situation rather than continuing that first reaction from the American diplomat. Van Ponder thinks that the message might well be a hoax (why would aliens write it in Latin?), and says that in order to be certain that Sigma Eleven works properly, he'll be going up in it himself.

I hope he left detailed notes with his subordinates, because chances are the next satellite isn't coming back either.

Dr. Van Ponder ends the press conference immediately after saying he'll captain the next ship himself and the reporters leave in order to file their stories. Van Ponder's assistants (Dr. Carrington and Dave Boyer) say they're volunteering to join him on the next launch. When talking privately to his people rather than to the journalists, Van Ponder drops a bomb. The metal that the message capsule was made of is something none of the scientists working on it can identify; it's nearly indestructible and extraordinarily resistant to heat. As for the Latin, he just assumes the aliens don't know any of the more recent Earth languages (a fair enough bet, I guess).

The budget-conscious device of a series of newspaper headlines let the audience know that time is passing, and the Sigma XI launch is getting closer. Dr. Carrington has crunched some numbers for him about how fast the satellite can expect to travel in a vacuum, and Van Ponder says he wants information for rates of travel up to and including lightspeed. Since the previous Sigma launches have all been destroyed in orbit, nobody knows exactly how fast the satellites are going to be able to go once they're in actual outer space and working as designed.

This meeting is interrupted by a call from the UN delegate, who says that some of the Sigma backers think that a suicide mission isn't the best use of planetary resources. Van Ponder leaves for the UN building immediately to try and talk sense into everyone who thinks he should possibly not go off on a death charge into space. A passing flying saucer (or other alien craft) fires a ray at his car (using the iconic sound effect of the 1953 War of the Worlds heat ray) and Van Ponder drives his 50s road yacht off the road for a fatal crash. The American delegate to the UN tells the gripe session that Van Ponder died while driving there to address them (and, politicians being politicians, the ones saying Sigma needs to be shut down say that without the project head, there's no reason to keep the project going).

So when Dr. Van Ponder walks through the door to get to his speech, the UN delegates are just as confused as the audience. He might be acting a little different now, but it's genuinely hard to say. The viewer really didn't spend all that much time with Van Ponder before the auto crash but seeing an energy projection of the doctor emerge from his body and turn into an exact physical duplicate probably means that something's up. The two different Van Ponder entities walk off two sides of the screen in a nifty shot that might have been split-screen, or might have just been careful blocking of the real actor and a stand-in that looked enough like him for the shot to work. Even with a ten-day shooting schedule for the entire feature, a Corman movie tries for neat little things like that.

Another headline lets the audience know that the next Sigma mission is proceeding, and the faux Van Ponder sits in his office speaking into a flickering Boom Tube that makes another noise pinched from the George Pal War of the Worlds. Fake Van Ponder says the humans didn't listen to the first warning, and the disembodied voice says it's time to try a stronger one. All they need is eight more plans and they'll be joining up with Eros and Tanna, firing electrode guns at corpses.

After the conversation between alien intelligences ends, Dave Boyer walks in to talk with Van Ponder (Dick Miller gets to deliver the requisite "I thought I heard you talking to someone in this room right before I walked in but there is nobody else around" line, and he does it like a champ). He's there to ask his superior to forbid Dr. Carrington to go on the mission; Boyer doesn't think it's a suicide mission or he wouldn't have volunteered. But he does believe it's horribly risky and doesn't like the idea of Carrington facing those insanely high risks. "Van Ponder" says that Dr. Carrington is a grown woman who knows the odds better than anyone, since she's a mathematician and engineer. If she wants to try breaching the orbital barrier, she gets to try.

Speak of the scientist, and she appears. Dr. Carrington says there's something important on the radio, and she's understating the case significantly. The announcer says that volcanoes are exploding all over the world; apparently the Soviet Union accused the USA of somehow triggering the seismic events until they found out that America's reeling from the same damage, as are unnamed other countries. This being a cheaply shot drive-in movie, there's no way we get a look at any actual eruptions, but there's visibly poor-condition stock footage of a forest fire, surging waves, and stuff like that.

The announcer says that the disasters out of nowhere (and at the same time) seem to be directed by some kind of intelligence because there's no way for them all to strike at exactly the same time. "Van Ponder" takes a phone call and says he's going to call off the mission rather than risk any more destruction; when Boyer tries to talk him out of it the scientist tells his assistant that the aliens causing this damage could wipe out the human race without apparent effort, and it's better to stay on Earth and not tick them off than to launch another Sigma project satellite. He writes a speech for the American delegate to the UN to deliver (and, ironically, all of Van Ponder's friends are sad and angry for him when the see the speech, since they don't realize his body's been hijacked by an alien life force).

Boyer takes the prepared statement to the UN when the delegate refuses to deliver the speech. He gets there just as the Soviet delegate is winding up his "no society on Earth can withstand the awesome force of whoever is quarantining the Earth" speech, and responds by going way off his provided script and saying that because the aliens are trying to stop Sigma, that alone is the reason that it must be supported to the fullest by all the governments of Earth. The six guys standing in for the entire UN General Assembly burst into applause and the anti-Sigma diplomats grudgingly put their hands together for rocket science. "Van Ponder", in his office, listens stone-faced as a radio announcer delivers the news of Boyer's speech and the renewed funding and support for Sigma.

Back in his office, "Van Ponder" and Boyer are working on some kind of mathematics table for the mission; another scientist comes in and claims he could have sworn he saw Dr. Van Ponder in another building. Boyer chides him for working too hard, saying the eyes fail first under stress tests like the one they're all undergoing. When "Van Ponder" gets called away to another building, Boyer notices that he's got one mole on his arm that's always been there, and an identical one on his other arm that wasn't there before.

The wheels start turning in Boyer's mind, and if he saw "Van Ponder" burning the shit out of his hand on a blowtorch flame without noticing it, those wheels would go into overdrive. (the makeup effect looks pretty gnarly, but I was really impressed with the simple and cheap way the burn was delivered--the actor holds his position in a scene where the flame will be superimposed and black burn marks are just animated on his hand). The fake doctor heals himself up before the medic gets there and stonewalls both the doctor who wants to know what's up with this "fake" report of a burnt hand and the technician who saw "Van Ponder" get an extra-crispy appendage. The technician knows what he saw, but good luck telling the doctor (who can see with his own eyes that the project head isn't injured) what happened before you left the room in a panic, buddy.

Boyer, for his part, takes a trip to the wrecking yard where Van Ponder's car was towed after the wreck; he seems to realize that nobody was walking away from the crash and calls Dr. Carrington to mention his suspicions. She tells him that the launch has been moved forward and he needs to be at the base in 45 minutes(!), so he just tells her they need to talk before the next Sigma mission goes up. Six minutes before Carrington's rocket goes up (there are three on the launch pads, all far too close to each other for it to be safe once ignition starts), Boyer still isn't able to tell her much more than that he needs to talk to her. She's scheduled for Rocket One; Dave is in Rocket Two and the technician that says he's no longer hallucinating wicked burns on Van Ponder's hand is ready to go into space as well. Van Ponder duplicates himself so that he can be on board his rocket and talk to people at the ground station at the same time (and Boyer sees it happen, so he's now absolutely certain that something completely unprecedented is going on).

One of the Van Ponders tells the technician to have a good trip right before the launch, then buckles himself into the acceleration couch next to Carrington; the following launch isn't going to give Destination Moon anything to worry about but it works fine for what the movie needs. Boyer makes his way to Rocket Two (and it's a neat way to get more use out of a single set; the two acceleration couches in Rocket Two are transparently the same ones from the first launch but it makes sense that each rocket would be built identically). When the various rockets move through their launch phases and converge in space it's Roger Corman on the ground describing what's happening. Also, if the shots of the model rocket nosecones stopping on a dime and hanging in front of the star field background don't make you giggle, you're a tougher B movie fan than I am.

Each nose cone jettisons a section of a massive orbital vehicle that floats over to a junction point and glues itself to the other pieces, which means that the Sigma project is making a fresh crewed space station with each launch. I think that "half a billion" figure was significantly lowballing the actual cost of this venture, yeah...

I'm a sucker for scenes where a mission commander says for an underling to do something and they do it while repeating the command or just acknowledging that they're doing it (it's one of the reasons I dig SpaceTeam as much as I do). But this sequence does go on a bit long, especially because the model satellite looks pretty damned chintzy to have so much stuff going on in it. Soon enough it's time for everyone to unbuckle from their launch couches and start doing science (and hopefully not running into the Sigma barrier and dying).

Once everyone's up and about on the satellite, "Van Ponder" goes looking for the technician that knows some of what's going on with his boss. He paralyzes the technician by gesturing at him and tells the guy--now that it's way, way, way too late for anybody to do anything about it--that the warning came from a civilization so advanced that they can effortless change matter to energy or vice versa. Whatever happens to everyone else on the satellite when it smacks into the Sigma Barrier, the entity that made clone bodies of Van Ponder at will is going to live through it. And with the deaths of everyone important to the continuation of the Sigma launches turning into an exo-ring of frozen corpses and shrapnel around the Earth, there won't be a twelfth Project Sigma launch to try and get out into space. "Van Ponder" says it's for humanity's own good that the Sigma launches have all been destroyed, but the technician is less than impressed ("You can go to hell!". Well, that sums it up, pretty much.) I swear it's the first use of the phaser sound effect when the technician gets telekinetically murdered by "Van Ponder", who blames hyperacceleration for the man's death when Dr. Carrington walks in on them seconds after the body hits the floor.

"Van Ponder" gives orders to the remaining crew that they'll be doing a two phase plan to defeat the Sigma Barrier; he then reports the technician's death and orders all available crew members to attend the "space funeral", which is probably the most awesome kind of funeral anyone can ever have. Then it's the alien's turn to walk in on someone at the least convenient moment; he goes through the door behind Dave Boyer as he's telling Dr. Carrington that the satellite's captain is some sort of inhuman Dr. Manhattan creature that can bilocate himself.

Incidentally, I really like the design of the satellite sets. Despite the fact that nobody who had anything to do with this movie at any point knew what a satellite was, I dig it. The sets look bland and utilitarian, which makes sense if they're $50,000,000 Quonset huts assembled in space for the crews to use. The war-surplus controls and props also make a huge amount of sense--outer space is the least forgiving environment imaginable and anything that's going to be exploring there should be rugged rather than delicate. All those Bakelite dials and switches look like they belong in this film's milieu. So to the jumpsuits that everyone's wearing (though I would imagine rank patches and some kind of insignia would be there if there had been more time for the costume designers to come up with something).

"Van Ponder" tells Boyer that the mission is down one man already with the technician dead; if Boyer gets chucked in the Space Brig then they're down two and everything gets riskier for the remaining crew members. There's also the wonderful line "I remind you that I am the captain of this ship, and that astro-planetary law gives me supreme and unquestioned command" dropped here, and I bet Richard Devon loved being the one who got to say it. Boyer stomps off to fulfill his duties and Dr. Carrington says everyone's under a lot of stress as a way to (unsuccessfully) get "Van Ponder" to go a little easier on him.

At the space funeral, Boyer and the ship's doctor sneak off in a COMPLETELY OBVIOUS MANNER while "Van Ponder" gives the eulogy for the man he murdered. It's not quite up there with Captain Kirk mourning his best friend, but it's hard not to get at least a tiny bit emotional thinking about the poor sucker giving his life for the future of humanity. And of the hypocrisy of his murderer being the one to say the official words over his plastic-sheathed body before it gets dropped down a floor hatch out into the void.

While Boyer and the doctor are talking about the dead crewman's physical results (he was in phenomenal shape, as was everyone on the crew), Boyer tells the doctor that the dead man was murdered. He points out that "Van Ponder" has a perfectly symmetrical face--which is impossible for a human to have--and that each of his fingerprints is completely identical to the other, which is even more impossible. With the evidence literally in front of his eyes, the ship's doctor has to accept Boyer's admittedly insane-sounding theory (and says that he's going to give "Van Ponder" a checkup at this point; only an emergency page from the control room preserves the alien's ruse for any length of time). Turns out there's some kind of signal interference in the control room, but "Van Ponder" says it's probably just cosmic dust--whatever that is--and leaves to remake his human form to include a cardiovascular system. I love the idea that the simulated body was basically a golem of solid undifferentiated flesh that the alien mind manipulated second-by-second to move and talk, by the way. That's just from the screenplay and didn't cost a penny.

Once "Van Ponder" gets back to his command chair he lets the doctor listen to his brand new ticker and blames Dave Boyer for the doctor's (fully justified) suspicion. It looks like the Death Touch doesn't work once the alien has turned his body into something more flesh and less barely-contained energy, but he strangles the doctor quite effectively as a Plan B. That's going to be harder to pass off as acceleration damage, so as a stalling tactic "Van Ponder" accuses Dave Boyer of killing the technician and sending a pair of security officers after him.

Boyer gets thrown in the Space Brig and Dr. Carrington, looking for the ship's medical officer, finds him when "Van Ponder" is dumping his body into the floor-hatch-covered launch tube. A neat little claustrophobic chase through the ship's narrow corridors and bulkheads follows. Dr. Carrington hides in the "Solar Energy Room", which is too dangerous for anyone to stay in it for long. Boyer knocks out the two security officers and takes their gun, chasing down "Van Ponder" just as the flesh golem discovers that having a functioning nervous system and genitalia is so much better than just being a space brain energy field. And all this is happening while the satellite is rushing towards the Sigma Barrier!

While "Van Ponder" starts making alien mating dance moves on Dr. Carrington, Action Dick Miller is skulking around the satellite's corridors with a gun and the navigator and helmsman call the captain to the controls for consultation on what exactly they're supposed to do in order to avoid or punch through the Sigma Barrier. The captain radios them to stay the course, which inspires as much confidence in them as it would in, say, a random American in about 2006 or so.

With all these crises rearing at the same time, "Van Ponder" duplicates himself again and sends the sunken-eyed, evil looking one out to wreak havoc while the trembling one with a heart (and pancreas and spleen &c.) stays in the Solar Energy Room to tell Dr. Carrington that he's surprised himself to find that he's become human now that he's been in the same room with her while wearing a meat suit. That happens to all the aliens, doesn't it? Even Ro-Man, which was a gorilla with a diving helmet on his head, developed a crush on the young woman in his movie--though, to be fair, Ro-Man was just as confused at that plot point as anyone else in the film or the audience.

Boyer comes across the Id Controlled version of "Van Ponder", who gets to the captain's chair and asks the astrogators for information on the cosmic windshield they're about to smash into like a bug. With five minutes to go, the evil Van Ponder duplicate orders the ship to crash into the dead center of the Sigma Barrier; Boyer shoots the evil flesh golem (which didn't realize that it was vulnerable to bullets when the other "Van Ponder" became physically human). Both of the duplicates manifest a wound when one is shot. During a scuffle with the mean clone, Boyer loses and regains his gun--shooting the duplicate three times kills it as well as the other "Van Ponder" in another section of the ship (witnessing this causes Dr. Carrington to faint, because she is a woman and this movie was filmed in 1958--at least she didn't spend the whole film fetching coffee for the men).

Boyer takes command of the ship and orders the genuine Van Ponder's plan to break through the Sigma Barrier; both of the alien duplicates fade into nothingness as the satellite approaches the Barrier. It turns out the new plan involves accumulating, focusing and directing a massive amount of solar energy to punch a hole through the barrier. Dr. Carrington is unconscious in the Solar Energy Room, so it's up to Boyer to haul her out of there before she's burnt to a crisp.

Does the Sigma make it through the barrier? Does Dr. Carrington wind up barbecued? Yes on one and no on two--this is a movie meant to make Americans feel better about getting beat in space by a political system that was supposed to be inferior and uncreative compared to our square-jawed heroes of capitalism. But what exactly the Sigma is going to do once it's out there in the universe, I have no idea. I hope they packed plenty of food and water. Otherwise it's going to be one gruesome trip.

What a neat little film! I mean, I'm a complete sucker for anything with the early Space Race in it, but given that this was a Corman film with a ludicrously fast production cycle and a torn-from-the-headlines gimmick I wasn't expecting a heck of a lot. Instead there's an alien invasion movie, stock footage of disasters, the UN General Assembly represented by maybe fifteen middle-aged men in suits, an alien that puzzles over This Thing We Humans Call Love, Dick Miller turning into an action hero briefly at the end, and vindication of the real Pol Van Ponder's plan to smash through the Sigma Barrier and bring humanity out into the cosmos at large. That's an amazing amount of stuff to pack into a single feature and I'm happy to say it's much better than anyone would have any right to expect given the less-than promising origin story.

And lastly, I was very pleasantly surprised by one more factor:  There's almost no jingoistic Cold War chest-beating. Sure, it might have just been that Corman and company were making the film as fast as it was human possible to make it, but somewhere there were still artistic choices being made. Yes, there's a Soviet diplomat who wants to buckle down under the alien demands, but he's all talk. There's never any attempts at sabotage from evil Commies when the rockets are going up; for that matter, even though Van Ponder is probably an American scientist, the program is funded by the United Nations--yes, they have their headquarters in New York City, but the space program, in this movie, at least, was a cooperative venture for the entire world instead of a pissing contest between the US and its allies and the Soviet bloc. I absolutely would not have expected that from a movie that started with a phone call because America was losing its collective shit over a scientific achievement from our ideological enemies.