Monday, 18 January 2010

The War of the Planets (1966)

There are few cult movie pleasures to rival that of 1960s Italian science fiction. One of my absolute favourites is Antonio Margheriti’s Wild, Wild Planet, so I was looking forward to his 1966 entry in this field The War of the Planets (I diafanoidi vengono da Marte). And I was not disappointed.

The plot is quite insane. The space stations of Earth have come under a very mysterious form of attack. Strange clouds of lights have suddenly enveloped them. These attacks were preceded by even stranger portents - negative radiation readings. After the lights appear around each space station in turn, contact is lost between the station and Space Headquarters. This all happens on New Year’s Eve, when the inhabitants of the stations were preoccupied with their celebrations, which seemed to consist mostly assorted romantic assignations between the various male and female crew members.

A spaceship is immediately sent to investigate the situation on one of the stations. The crew members appear to be dead, frozen into a rather spooky mannequin-like immobility. In fact they’re not dead, but are they alive? While this is happening several key personnel of Space Command are apparently taken over by some weird kind of hypnotic force.

While in the midst of their inspection of the stricken space station the crew members of the scout spacecraft find themselves targeted by the lights. Gaseous clouds penetrate the station, and crew members contacted by this gas take on the same zombie-like nature as the earlier victims. I must confess that I’m not at all clear whether the gas was a kind of emanation of the lights, or whether it was just a cheap special effect meant to represent the effect of the lights.

Some explanation of these events is forthcoming when Captain Dubois, who had disappeared just as he was supposed to be taking over command of one of the stations, suddenly reappears. He tells them that al has been done For the Good of the Whole, and it seems he’s been taken over by some alien force. These aliens are a kind of mind parasite. Dubois assures the Earth spacemen that the intentions of these entities are peaceful, but this assurance is met with considerable scepticism. From this point on the plot becomes even more delightfully silly.

Tony Russel, an American actor who worked mostly in Italy, makes an ideal hero for an Italian 1960s space opera. Commander Mike Halstead is very brave, but inclined to exceed his orders. Yes, he’s a bit of a maverick. It’s just as well that his dad is the overall commander of the space force. Franco Nero plays a supporting role as one of his officers (this was fairly early in his career). Lisa Gastoni adds a touch of glamour as another of Halstead’s officers, who also happens to be his gilfriend.

Margheriti directs with his customary energy and efficiency, and his equally customary lack of interest in boring things like plot coherence. This film was in fact a sequel to Wild, Wild Planet with many of the same actors, and many of the same sets and costumes. And the same wonderfully goofy but fun models. If only real spacecraft were as much fun as the spaceships in this movie. And it has really cool cars that look exactly like flying cars except they don’t actually fly. They just look cool, which is fine by me. None of the models look even remotely realistic, which adds to the enjoyment. If you’re going to be pedantic about tedious things like spaceships that look like cheap plastic toys, non-flying flying cars and a plot that makes very little sense then you really have no business watching an Italian science fiction movie from the 60s. This movie is all about fun and style.

The TCM print is unfortunately fairly poor. It’s fullscreen and very badly dubbed. The terrible dubbing is more or less traditional in Italian movies of this era and for me it only serves to enhance the movie’s entertainment value. It makes a very camp movie even more camp.

It’s all great fun and I enjoyed every minute of it.

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