Battle of the Worlds (1961)
aka Il Pianeta degli uomini spenti
Directed by "Anthony Dawson" (Antonio Margheriti)
Written by Ennio De Concini
Imagine with me, if you will, the following fictitious exchange between director "Anthony Dawson", aka Italian director Antonio Margheriti, of Cannibal Apocalypse (1980) and Yor, the Hunter From the Future (1983) fame, and myself a movie reporter back in 1961:
Me: So, how do you feel about Battle of the Worlds?
Dawson: Pretty good, really. I mean, we got it done, for one thing. And under budget, too. And having Claude Rains was something of a casting coup.
Me: Okay, but how do you feel about it as a movie? Do you think it's any good?
Dawson: Well, we... you know, it's done. We got it done... I'm not sure I understand what you're driving at?
Me: I mean, do you think it's a good movie? Are audiences going to appreciate it? Going to like it?
Dawson: [blink blink] "A good movie"? "Appreciate"?... I'm sorry, I think our translation is breaking down. These words... I'm not sure I understand the concept behind them.
I could really leave off the review right there. Battle of the Worlds isn't a supremely bad movie, but you certainly can't find evidence while watching it that anybody cared as to whether it was good, or entertaining, or worth paying to see at the drive-in.
(But of course, I'm NOT going to leave off the review right there. I sat through the thing, dammit, and the 'will to testify' won't let me leave it and walk away.)
Now, let it be said, things get off to a bang: There's a man! He's swimming! He good-naturedly pulls a girl into the water! Boy, that's entertainment! The man is Fred Steele (Umberto Orsini), an astronomer; the girl is Eve (Maya Brent), the something-or-other at the observatory, and Fred's fiancee; and the cliff from which they're swimming belongs to the island on which the observatory is situated. And the occasion for this light-hearted tomfoolery (as if an excuse is ever needed to pull a fully-clothed woman into the ocean) is that Fred has gotten a transfer approved to get away from this boring, godforsaken rock. The fact that the location of the observatory is described in such glowing terms, and then we're consigned to spending most of the movie here, just isn't fair, I tell you.
However, the course of true love (not to mention bureaucratic transfers) never did run smooth. When Fred gets back to the observatory, he finds that everyone is all abuzz about some anomalous readings. After conferring with Dr. Cornfield and other observatories around the world - which have noticed nothing out of the ordinary - he declares, "The Old Man must be told."
The Old Man is Professor Benson (Claude Raines) a cantankerous and thoroughly unpleasant scientist whose house is apparently the only other structure on the island. It looks like he spends his days puttering in his greenhouse, taking naps in his hammock, making life miserable for his personal assistant Eve (remember: Men look through telescopes, women fetch coffee), and haranguing everyone else within earshot for not being as brilliant as he is. As it happens, this "thing" of which Fred wants to inform him is something that the Professor has already figured out via longhand calculations on numerous sheets of paper: There's a big Something out there (the Professor has already dubbed it "the Outsider"), and it's heading toward Earth. Of course, the prospect of planet-wide catastrophe doesn't interest the Professor nearly as much as lambasting everyone else involved for not having his dazzling intellect. He even claims it's from another galaxy entirely; I suspect he added that mostly out of habit from his old grant application-writing days. (Does wonders for the funding, you know.)
Much of the Professor's abuse is aimed at Mars Base 3, which should have been the early warning observatory for rogue planets hurtling toward the Earth, but the base has been experiencing some sort of space storm, the kind which regularly plays having with subspace frequencies and transporter couplings and the like. The first that the base's Commander Cole (Bill Carter) finds out about the Outsider is when he's trying to guide a rocket convoy to a Martian landing, and the Outsider's gravity throws everybody's guidance systems off and pulls Diemos out of orbit. Only through masterfully shouting into the microphone does Cole help one of the space freighters avoid a collision. (The pilots aboard the other freighter get out before collision, thanks to their "depression chamber." Can't have those outer-space flyboys getting too boisterous, you know.) Giving props where props are due: The rocket ships shown here are probably the best rocket props ever constructed from paper towel rolls. Not those cheap paper towels either; these were probably made from the best quilted thicker picker-uppers available in Italy in 1961.
Now. Having opened the movie with the seeds of melodrama, we are duty-bound to return to it every now and again, to toss a chunk of it into our laps before returning to wholesale technobabble. Thus, Eve starts to feel that maybe she ought not leave the observatory with Steve while this crisis is going on. Their argument is cut short by the announcement that all transfers have been cancelled anyway. Boy, I love these little humanizing scenes showing how the approach of another planet toward ours spells disaster not only for the whole of the Earth, but also for the problems of two people in love.
Well, the Professor confidently calculates that the Outsider is going to miss the Earth by 95,000 miles, and though his calculations are at odds with those of every other scientist on the earth, the governmental High Command decides to trumpet the Professor's conclusions to quell the mass panic. (Not that we see any mass panic. Because we're stuck here on an island with no more than seventeen stoic, scientific types and the women who bring them coffee. But trust us, it's a panic outside. Really.) Ooh, and look, our numbers at the observatory are increased when Commander Cole and his wife Cathy (Carol Denell - oh, goodie, someone ELSE to serve coffee) rocket from Mars to Earth to watch things from the ground. Because, dammit, if there's a rogue planet hurtling anywhere in the world, I want to be under it!
When the Outside does in fact miss the Earth by 95,000 miles, the Professor is naturally smug -- until he finds that instead of merely passing on its way, the Outside has actually fallen into orbit around the earth. But it doesn't matter anyway, as the island on which the observatory is located and all of its inhabitants are destroyed by the resulting tidal changes and earthquakes... wait. That doesn't happen. Hmm. Apparently, having a body consistently described as "a planet" orbiting the Earth at less than half the distance of the moon has nary an effect on anything on Earth, even though it can pull Martian moons out of orbit without breaking a sweat. I guess my calculations aren't nearly as thorough as the Professors.
What was I saying? Oh, yeah. When the Professor finds out about the Outsider being in orbit, he immediately starts shouting at the High Command to destroy it without a second glance. A little hesitant to blow a nearby planet to chunks (maybe they know just how luckily they dodged a bullet with that whole "tides and earthquakes" thing), the High Command instead sends a recon flight. And that recon flight is intercepted by - flying saucers! Really spinny flying saucers which shoot animated beams and cause animated explosions. The Professor gravely announces that the Earth only has 840 hours before the saucers take over. (How did he arrive at that number? I dunno. Nobody questions it, though; I guess nobody wants to be confronted with page after page of longhand calculations in support of his conclusion.)
If you're looking for the one scene which shows any sort of cinematic talent, this is it: The Professor trying to convince the High Command to give him absolute control over the operation to destroy the Outsider. See, each of the members of the High Command appears on a different television monitor mounted high on the wall, and the Professor walks around the room, speaking to each TV in turn... Granted, it makes very little sense as an efficient model of communication, but I'd be very surprised if these scene wasn' a direct inspiration for the "Jorel and the Council" scenes at the start of the first two Superman movies.
Instead, command is given to Commander Cole, who recruits Fred to come along with him into space. Fred's okay with it, because the last chunk of melodrama we got tells us that Fred and Eve are on the rocks because... um... they... uh... (Melodrama so bad, it makes the special effects look competent!) (And why is an astronomer being invited along for a space combat mission, anyway? Because, you know, these seventeen people are the only competent space pilots on the whole earth. And they even have to recruit an astronomer for the mission. And you can just bet that the rest of the world is NOT having their coffee served adequately, either.) So after another sequence of paper towel roll rockets evading spinning saucers, they manage to bring down a saucer. After the off-screen crash, the astronauts enter it and find no inhabitants; just a pulsing light-beaming thingie at the center. This, naturally, the Professor takes as his own to study. Because, again, he's Professor of Everything, and there are no other scientists in the world who should have any input into saving the planet.
And there is some urgency to his research, because the Earth is finally being effected by the Outsider's proximity, in the form of a veritable assault of stock-footage hurricanes, volcanic eruptions, and catastrophic fires. (Fortunately, the island on which all of our protagonists are situated only gets a good downpour.) The Professor soon discovers that the pulsing light-beaming thingie is the computer brain of the remote-controlled saucer, and it can be controlled by some sort of radio-wave oscillation. The scene in which he demonstrates this kind of backfires cinematically, as the sound effect used for the radio oscillations sounds just like the "ominous" sound effect in the film's score that we've been hearing almost continuously (and more than a little like the generic "we've beamed down to an alien planet" background noise from the original Star Trek). But he convinces the High Command to outfit a set of rockets with oscillators which will cause the flying saucers to go haywire, and of course, the entire crew of this multi-rocket mission is comprised of the personnel from the observatory, including the Professor himself. I'm starting to think that this is taking place in a future depopulated down past the margin for genetic sustainability.
Off they go, then, and the oscillators work just like the Professor said, causing the saucers to spit out their animated beams at random as they spin and thus destroy each other. The Professor then insists that they land and examine the Outsider to find out its inhabitants, despite his earlier insistence on its immediate destruction. ("Do you really think there's someone inside?" Eve asks, wide-eyed. Ah, shut up and pour some coffee.) Mind you, the Professor's own time limit is coming up; in fact, from the time they touch down, there's only three hours left until they have to destroy it, or... um... Whatever.
The innards of the planetoid seem to be rock-walled tunnels, draped with flexible plastic tubing. Wow. Truly, an advanced race decorated this set. Then they come to the startling revelation: The inhabitants are all dead. After all, the Outsider has been hurtling from another galaxy, so naturally the beings for whose benefit it was constructed have long since died and become dessicated, vaguely humanoid lumps in a room lined with crumpled tinfoil.
The Professor is all a-twitter at the prospect of discovering the central computer which now controls the Outside and the demolished flying saucers, and ignores the rest of the team, who remember that whole ticking clock deadline. Even though the tunnels start collapsing (for no reason except the infamous Closing Credits Proximity Effect), he runs off and stares at the glowing lightbar which is the computer core, babbling something about understanding the formulas at the heart of it, while everyone else hightails it back to the last ride off the doomed planet. (They radio back to earth and try to get them to delay shooting the missiles until they've been able to drag the Professor's sorry carcass back, but whoever they put in charge of pushing the button is one of those "the trains must run on time!" types, and fires anyway.)
The camera cuts away as the Outsider begins to explode -- and a good thing, too as it's another one of those underwhelming animated effects -- and... well, the end.
The various petty incompetencies which make up this movie come together in an almost Perfect Storm-like product. The meanders around only to give us enough footage between the opening and closing credits. Aside from Claude Rains, who almost uses the paper-thin script as a launchpad for improvising his scenery-chewing performance (unfortunately, he forgot to pack "dramatic range" for his Italian holiday), the rest of the cast acts with all of the aplomb of a leftover burrito. While there is a potentially good idea to be found in a space ark with nothing left but the central computer presiding over aeons-old corpses, it's nothing more than a throwaway moment at the end of a feature-length exercise in tedium. And did you notice that there was no attempt at resolution of the ill-fitting chunks of melodrama? Well, if you didn't notice on your own, you can't escape it now.
I watched this with my sons, and together we concluded that, while it isn't technically one of the "worst" movies ever made, it lacks entirely any feature which could be considered redeeming; even our efforts to mock it fell flat in the face of its concerted dullness. (And they decided I don't get to pick the movies anymore.)