Red Planet Mars

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(1/10) In a nutshell: Jesus lives on Mars and solves all the Earth’s problems by reading aloud from the bible. That is the notion that this 1952 trainwreck of a film is trying to turn into a pathos-filled and solemn fable about politics, science and the human condition. Fairly well designed, filmed and acted for a low-budget effort, but boy, you can’t polish a turd. (1/10)

Red Planet Mars (1952). Directed by Harry Horner. Written by John L. Balderston & Anthony Veiller. Based on the play Red Planet by John L. Balderston and John Hoare. Starring: Peter Graves, Andrea King, Herbert Berghof, Walter Sande, Marvin Miller, Morris Ankrum. Produced by Donald Hyde and Anthony Veiller for Melaby Pictures Corp. IMDb score: 4.9

Walter Sande, Andrea King and Peter Graves in Red Planet Mars.

Walter Sande, Andrea King and Peter Graves in Red Planet Mars.

Red Planet Mars is – just like another film I recently reviewed, Invasion U.S.A. from the same year – a perfect time capsule of the hysterical atmosphere of the cold war. It has all the trappings of the most obnoxious, xenophobic, conservative, bible-thumping propaganda movies at the time – and then turns it up to eleven. It’s difficult to know where to start with this one, so I’ll begin with the plot. Continue reading

When Worlds Collide

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(6/10) In a nutshell: Producer George Pal returns with his second sci-fi epic in 1951, still worried about nuclear war. A crack team of scientists and entrepreneurs are mocked by the world as they prepare for doomsday as an approaching rogue sun threatens to turn the world into dust. A modern retelling of Noah’s Ark by way of rocketship, this early Hollywood space travel film stumbles on an illogical and stilted script, weak characterisations and a failure to bring the movie to a satisfying philosophical or moral conclusion. Heavy on religious imagery, but since the source novel is a retelling of a biblical story, this can be excused. A fun apocalyptic adventure, but don’t expect much depth.

When Worlds Collide. Directed by Rupolph Maté. Written Sydney Boehm. Based on a novel by Philip Wylie and Edwin Balmer. Starring: Richard Derr, Barbara Rush, Peter Hansen, John Hoyt. Produced by George Pal for Paramount Pictures. Tomatometer: 77 %. IMDb score: 6.7

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Noah’s Ark anno 1951, heavily influenced by the rocketship i George Pal’s previous film Destination Moon.

1951 was a special year for science fiction: it produced three of the major classics of the fifties’ sci-fi films. The Thing from Another World came out in May, The Day the Earth Stood Still (review)was released in September and When Worlds Collide got its premiere in November. The first two dealt with aliens, one hostile, the other benign. But producer George Pal wouldn’t touch that subject until 1953. Instead he continued where he left off in 1950 with the first American moon landing film. In When Worlds Collide he takes us to a different planet. And if you think the title is a witty metaphor for two different world views or social classes colliding in the movie, you should’t expect such subtlety from the Michael Bay of the fifties. No, when George Pal says two worlds are going to collide, he is being literal. Continue reading

Things to Come

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(6/10) In a nutshell: Screenwriter H.G. Wells, producer Alexander Korda and director William Cameron Menzies take us on an epic journey through the future in this pompous 1936 social prophesy. The most expensive film ever made in Britain in 1936, Things to Come boasts incredible sets and miniatures, great effects, high quality filming and a team of great actors. But ultimately the movie trips on its clay feet, which is the impossibly stiff script, lacking in emotion and real dialogue. Wells is using his biggest sledgehammer to pound in his message, and prevents the audience from doing any thinking for themselves.

Things to Come. 1936, UK. Directed by William Cameron Menzies. Written H.G. Wells, based on his own novel The Shape of Things to Come. Starring: Raymond Massey, Edward Chapman, Ralph Richardson, Margaretta Scott, Cedric Hardwicke. Music: Arthur Bliss. Produced by Alexander Korda for London Film Productions. Tomatometer: 92 %. IMDb score: 6.8

In the future the world will be ruled by stiff philosophers decked out in gowns and big shoulder pads.

In the future the world will be ruled by stiff philosophers decked out in gowns and big shoulder pads.

Things to Come was Great Britain’s most impressively epic science fiction film to date – without even a close rival – when it came out in 1936. It had a budget of about 350 000 pounds, equal to about 21 millions today; an absolutely astounding amount of money to put on a film back in that day. And thus it would remain all the way to 1968 when Stanley Kubrick made 2001: A Space Odyssey in London. Penned by the 70-year old sci-fi master H.G. Wells from his own 1933 novel The Shape of Things to Come, it was however more an ideological treatise and a futuristic prophesy than a dramatic film. Although time has conjured up a good deal of latter-day apologetics who hail Wells’ vision and – rightly so – praise the production design, the simple truth of the matter stands: Wells was an awful screenwriter. Continue reading

Cosmic Voyage

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(7/10) In a nutshell: Kosmichesky Reys: Fantasticheskaya Novella is a stunning, costly Soviet moon landing adventure from 1935, inspired by Fritz Lang’s 1929 film Woman in the Moon. Thanks to the collaboration of a noted space and rocket scientist, it is impressively accurate. The film is aimed at a juvenile audience, and it’s a very enjoyable and exciting space adventure movie.

Cosmic Voyage. 1935, USSR. Silent. Directed by Vasili Zhuravlyov. Written by Alexandr Filimonov and Konstantin Tsiolkovsky. Based on the novel Beyond the Planet Earth by Konstantin Tsiolkovsky. Based on the novel Woman in the Moon by Thea von Harbou (uncredited). Starring: Sergei Komarov, Ksenya Moskalenko, Vassili Gaponenko, Nikolai Feoktistov, Vasili Kovrigin, Sergei Stolyarov. Produced by Boris Shumyatskiy for Mosfilm. IMDb score: 7.0

Cosmonaut Andryusha (Vassili Gaponenko) is a child actor who actually managed not to be annoying.

Cosmonaut Andryusha (Vassili Gaponenko) is a child actor who actually managed not to be annoying.

Kosmicheskiy Reys: Fantasticheskaya Novella, known internationally as Cosmic Voyage or The Space Voyage, is without a shadow of a doubt the best science fiction film to come out of the USSR in the thirties. More so, it is probably the best sci-fi movie to come out of Europe in the thirties, which is a pretty sad statement on the European science fiction scene in that decade (though we sort of did have other stuff than moviemaking to think about at the time …). Although aimed at a juvenile audience, the film is based on hard (albeit speculative) science, and depicts a journey to the moon as realistically as was possible in 1935. Fritz Lang came even closer to reality with his eerily accurate 1929 film Woman in the moon (review), but Cosmic Voyage isn’t far off the mark. Released in late December 1935, the film was the last all-out science fiction film to be released in the Soviet Union until Nebo Zovyot (The Heavens Call, released re-edited and with additional footage as Battle Beyond the Sun in the US), released in 1959.  Continue reading

Aerograd

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(5/10) A daunting, but visually stunning, piece of bolshevik propaganda, Alexandr Dovzhenko’s 1935 film Aerograd is basically an operatic Soviet version of a John Wayne frontier film. Not much sci-fi in this vaguely futuristic tale, but a treat for lovers of poetic cinematography.

Aerograd. USSR, 1935. Directed by Alexandr Dovzhenko. Written by Alexandr Dovzhenko, N. Simonov. Starring: Stepan Shaigaida, Sergei Stolyarov, Stepan Shkurat, Evgeniya Melnikova. Produced by GUKF, Ukrainfilm, Mosfilm. IMDb score: 6.2

Stepan the bolshevik tiger killer, played by Stepan Shagaida.

Stepan the bolshevik tiger killer, played by Stepan Shagaida.

Of the many subtle sci-fi films I’ve reviewed on this blog, Aerograd is without doubt the one that’s come the closest to getting the axe. Despite the Metropolis-sounding name, anyone who is expecting a thirties version of Cloud City will be utterly disappointed to find Russian bear hunters chasing Japanese spies in the Far Eastern forests of the USSR while engaging in long monologues about the socialist creed. But still the film did make the cut, since it can very well be interpreted as a futuristic take on the frontier myth, all leading up to the construction of a new utopian city on the western shores of the Pacific Ocean. Continue reading

Master of the World

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(4/10) In a nutshell: A mad scientist, an army of killer robots, a grieving widow and a dashing hero. There are the ingredients for this German 1934 film by the self-styled action hero Harry Piel. Perhaps his darkest movie, and one of the few where he doesn’t appear on screen. A predictable script and flat filming, but the acting is good and the special effects not bad either.

Master of the World (Der Herr der Welt). Germany, 1934. Directed by Harry Piel. Written by Georg Mühlen-Schulte, Harry Piel. Starring: Siegfried Schürenberg, Sybille Schmitz, Walter Franck. Cinematography: Ewald Daub. Editing: Erich Palme. Art direction: Willi Hermann. Music: Fritz Wennels. Makeup: Arnold Jenssen. Produced by Harry Piel for Ariel Films. IMDb score: 5.8

The robot attacks.

The robot attacks.

Officially the last German science fiction film released before the Nazis killed off the genre for years to come, Master of the World (1934) is not the most glorious of its kind. Directed by the prolific action film writer, producer, director and actor Harry Piel, it shows many similarities with the successful Gold (review), released just months earlier, but lacks its predecessor’s flair and wit.  Continue reading

The Mysterious Island

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(4/10) In a nutshell: Borrowing the name of Jules Verne’s bestseller, this problem-ridden 1926-1929 production features good acting, some remarkable special effects and a solid-ish script, but alas, the schizophrenic semi-talkie-semi-silent financial disaster is just as equally horrible in many ways, with toy submarines, crocodiles substituting for dinos.

The Mysterious Island. Directed by Lucien Hubbard, Maurice Tourneur, Benjamin Christensen. Written by Lucien Hubbard, Carl Piersen. Loosely based on several novels by Jules Verne (but not The Mysterious Island). Starring: Lionel Barrymore Jacqueline Gadsden (as Jane Daly), Lloyd Hughes, Montagu Love. Produced by J. Ernest Williamson (uncredited) for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. IMDb score: 6.1

Attack of the 3 foot Donald Duck oompah-loompas of the depths!

Attack of the 3 foot Donald Duck oompah-loompas of the depths!

The jury still seems to be out on this film, judging from the few reviews on the interwebz. Many pro reviewers seem to like it, while more amateur writers find it dull and clumsy. When it was released in 1929 critics heaped praise on it, while the audience failed to show the same enthusiasm. And in truth, it is a hard one to appraise. On one hand there are clear qualities in both script, acting, special effects and sets – indeed it was a very expensive film that took over two years to film. But on the other hand this very very loose adaptation of a mix of Jules Verne books had monstrous production problems that are equally obvious, and simply cannot be forgiven. Continue reading