Phantom Planet (1961)
File this one under: science fiction, classic science fiction, alien invasion, wandering planet
I’ve just thought up a new classification scheme (as a recovering archeologist, I love doing stuff like this) that may make your reading experience more pleasant as it enables you to see right away if the movie I’m reviewing fits into any of your personal favorite sub-genres. Yes, I know that it’s sort of like tags, but these are categories I thought up myself so I like them better. They’re all self-explanatory, though I should mention that “classic science fiction” is anything that predates Star Wars. If this catches on, we can start referring to things in general in these terms. Like, 2010 AD would be 33 SW. Something that happened in, say, 1950, would be 27 BL, which could stand for Before Luke, Before Leia, or Before Lucas, take your pick.
Right away we find something of a misnomer in this movie as the phantom planet of PHANTOM PLANET is actually an asteroid, but that is the least of the film’s worries so we’ll let it go. The phantom asteroid is encroaching upon our space somewhere near the moon and for no particular reason destroying random space ships, so the powers that be on Luna Base send Captain Frank Chapman out to do something about this.
Right away we run into one of the film’s bigger problems. Dean Fredericks, who plays our hero, is possibly the stiffest, most awkward-looking actor I have ever seen. He had a somewhat successful career, though I don’t recall ever seeing him in anything so I don’t know if it’s his or the director’s fault. I suspect it’s something of both their faults. He usually stands with his hips canted, his head thrust forward on his neck, his arms crossed or hanging awkwardly, glaring. His default expression is sullen and he always looks like he wants to pop someone in the nose. Maybe he’s just pissed that he’s in this movie.
Second big problem is the director, William Marshall. He appears to have been something of a triple threat, having IMDB credits as an actor, director, and writer, but his main claim to fame would seem to be his marriage to Ginger Rogers (1961-1969). The two other movies he directed (one of which he wrote) were Erroll Flynn pics from 1951. In PP he favors extremely static shots showing people standing around talking. Which leads us to the film’s third major problem. The plot, which is aided, or rather hindered, by a script which is in turns idiotic and hopeless.
The hopelessness is expressed in dialog like this: “You know, Captain, every year of my life I grow more and more convinced that the wisest and best is to fix our attention on the good and the beautiful. If you just take the time to look at it.” Or so Lt. Makonnen tells Captain Frank. Fortunately, he dies soon, so we are quickly rid of his philosophizing.
The idiotic is spread liberally throughout the movie. When Captain Frank lands on Rheton the phantom asteroid, he sees tiny little people about four inches tall. Not to worry, because he immediately shrinks to their size. Sessom, Rheton’s leader (played by Francis X. Bushman who no doubt spent most of his time while making this film longing for the return of the silent era) tells him this is because of the asteroid’s great gravity and heavy atmospheric conditions. They are able to communicate because, as Sessom also says “We are able to translate all languages with voice tone waves.”
They tell him he can’t leave. I’m not sure why. But, to make up for this they hospitably offer him his choice of two babes, Liara (Coleen Gray fresh off her triumphal appearance in 1960’s THE LEECH WOMAN) or Zethra (Delores Faith, an Elizabeth Taylor near look alike who is the best thing about this movie).
Zethra, unfortunately, is mute. Liara gloms onto Captain Frank with such alacrity that she disturbs her boyfriend. Twenty, thirty minutes later they fight a not very impressive duel over her, which Captain Frank wins, but he obligingly spares his adversary. The nature of the duel is that each man grabs this stick and tries to use it to push the other one onto plates stuck in the floor which emanate gravity waves so strong that they cause anything that steps on them to instantly disintegrate.
One of the highlights of Captain Frank’s Rheton captivity occurs when Liara serves him supper. She explains that they don’t eat or drink very much since they take their nutrition out of the air (apparently this comes from existing on an asteroid with an utterly barren surface), but, here, we synthesized this food for you. It’s like breadfruit. Breadfruit? What the hell? Where’d they get the sample to synthesize it from? And if you can synthesize food, take this crap away and rustle me up a porterhouse, medium rare, with steak cut french fries and buttered mushrooms on the side. Breadfuit?
That’s about the only thing that happens for quite a long stretch, besides Captain Frank barking sullen speeches at everyone at the drop of a hat. Except for Zethra, because it turns out that she’s the one he really digs. Maybe it’s because all she does is mope around silently gazing at him with her big Elizabeth Taylor-like eyes. But Captain Frank (no doubt humming “Did You Ever Have To Make Up Your Mind?” to himself) finds his idyll interrupted when the Solarites attack.
It seems that the Solarites, one of the goofiest-looking alien races ever put on celluloid, are after Rheton’s scientific secrets. In fact, one of them is held prisoner in the caverns that house Rheton’s population of about half a dozen.
Of course, in the midst of the Solarites’ attack, the prisoner (nascent movie star Richard Kiel moving about very gingerly and awkwardly in a funny suit) escapes, grabs Zethra as she’s reclining on her extremely uncomfortable-looking stone slab bed, and lugs her around. Captain Frank and Liara’s boyfriend come across him in the room where they fought their duel. The plates are still stuck in the floor, without even a sawhorse or two to warn people away from them. In one of the worst battles between man and alien ever filmed, Captain Frank and the Rheton kind of lightly poke and prod poor Richard Kiel until he steps on the plate, and sure enough, vanishes.
In the meantime grumbly old Sessom, using science, totally disintegrates the entire Solarite fleet. The end, almost. They decide that Captain Frank is a swell guy after all, so he can go home. Sure, he tells Zethra he really loves her and that he’ll never forget her and that he won’t be happy alone without her, but he’s gotta go. She gives him a little rock to remember her by. Liara’s boyfriend (they’re great pals by now) takes him back up to the surface where he climbs back into the spacesuit that he’d abandoned when he’d shrunk. Fortunately, there is still some Earth air in it, so he grows big again, just in time to be picked up by the rescue ship sent by Luna Base.
When Captain Frank wakes up after his growing experience he’s all woozy. Was it real? Was it a dream? He climbs out of his spacesuit, and in his hand is A LITTLE ROCK. He stares at it as the narrator’s voice comes up and says, “What the future will reveal of this story is only the beginning, only the beginning…” FINIS
I didn’t hate this movie. There was nothing morally reprehensible in it, so that’s something I suppose. It actually has kind of a nice look, disregarding the Solarites and even if the rocket instruments are neatly labeled like the Bat Cave in tv’s Batman. Dolores Faith (Zetha) is extremely easy on the eyes, though she doesn’t say much (being mute for most of the film) or do much (like everyone else in the film). I’m surprised she didn’t have a more successful career (an even dozen IMBD cites from 1961-1966, including a MAN FROM UNCLE appearance).
Overall, that’s about all there is to like about this film. Available in several cheap DVD editions, if you dare.