Originally a 1960 Italian sci-fi movie called "Space Men", Assignment: Outer Space (AOS) is the title given to the english dubbed version released by Four Crowns. The film has a strong visual flavor of the late 50s. The winged rocket has a Bonstell style ala Conquest of Space and the interior sets are replete with surplus 50s electronics. The copy I watched had such washed out color that it was nearly a black and white movie. The story amounts to three loosely connected acts centered around a reporter sent on a routine space mission to get a story. The routine mission is cancelled, first for a rescue and then a mission to save the earth from destruction. This was Antonio Margheriti's first solo directing effort. He would go on to direct many more 60s Italian sci-fi space dramas.
Quick Plot Synopsis
Ray Peterson, reporter, is assigned to the crew of rocket BZ88, which is on a fairly mundane mission. He is smug and abrasive. The crew and commander already resent having a "leech" aboard. During a refueling stop, Ray saves a crewman from death by meteorite, but causes a huge fuel leak. The tension worsens. Ray finds out that the crewman he saved was the only female: Lucy. Romance develops. The routine mission is shelved as the BZ88 is called to effect a rescue. Rocket MS13 has engine trouble is going to crash on Mars. Ray uses pull in high places force his inclusion in the rescue. Tensions get worse yet. BZ88 cannot get to MS13 in time. One crewman bails out and falls onto Phobos. The rest die when MS13 hits the Martian atmosphere. BZ88 lands on Phobos and retrieves the bailed out crewman. The BZ88 must then rush off to Venus to help stop a rogue spaceship, the Alpha 2. For some reason, the Alpha 2's two "Photonic units" have set up a 5000 mile diameter heat sphere around the ship. The pilot is dead and the autopilot is set to bring Alpha 2 into earth orbit. This will incinerate anyone beneath it as it orbits, eventually killing all life on earth. Missiles fired at Alpha 2 blow up when they reach the heat sphere. Al deduces that there is a gap between the two hemispheres. He tries to fly his ship in the gap, but blows up. Ray volunteers to fly the space taxi in the gap. He reaches the pilotless ship and deactivates the autopilot and the heat spheres. This also traps him aboard. The others come save him before the Alpha 2 hits earth's atmosphere. The rocket BZ88 powers up with all aboard, to safety. The End.
Why is this movie fun?
The 50s flavor of cheap sets and minimal effects pervade the film, so fans of 50s B-grade sci-fi get a big nostalgia dose. The writer had evident ambition for attempting a serious space opera. This echos the "hard" sci-fi of the 50s, but with a farther-future scope, as would become more common in the 60s.
Cold War Angle
Lethal radiation from an errant man-made device threatens to destroy all life on the earth. The primary message in AOS has more to do with mankind's sense of character. The radiation threat has almost become a conventional trope for the characters to solve while engaged in drama.
Chevy In Space! -- AOS is famous for its low low budget effects. At one point, when the crippled rocket MS-13 is supposed to have crashed into Mars, the film cuts to an explosion. Trouble was, there was no matte. It's clearly just a fireball explosion in a parking lot. There is a building in the background, and the back end of 1958 Chevrolet Bel Air convertible in the right-foreground. It is a famous non sequitur.
Slow Talker -- The script is very slow paced and talky, especially in the first half. Action picks up in the second half, but a fair mount of the time, the camera is focused on two or more talking heads.
Say What? -- It may be that the english dubbing used contorted phrasing to better match the lip movements of the Italian actors. It may be that the original Italian dialogue assumed an Italian audience's perspective. Either way, the dialogue is at time bizarre and/or nonsensical. At one point, Al, gives a soliloquy: "Man, even in space, changes his position, but not his character. He is what he is, wherever he goes." Ray does not understand, so George tries to clarify. "To himself, every man is a whole world." What? Maybe it made more sense in the Italian. Later, when Ray is trapped aboard the Alpha 2, he can't regulate his oxygen tank, so begins to hyperventilate. "Too much air. My lungs are running wild. An orgy of air." Sakes man, get a grip.
Talk About EgoCentric... -- At one point, while Ray is trapped aboard the Alpha 2. He has shut down the ship's radiation sphere, so earth is saved, but also trapped himself aboard the doomed ship. He begins to weep like a big pansy. He utters a most un-heroic line. "What's the use of saving the world, if I'm going to be lost myself?" Now there's hero talk. He was only saving the word...for himself? Sakes again.
Inhuman Numbers -- A more pervasive theme in AOS is struggle the human spirit against the dehumanizing forces of modern technology. In AOS, people have numbers primarily. Life is presumed to be of secondary importance to whatever the mission is. For instance, the Commander upbraids Ray for saving cosmonaut Y13 because he spilled 500 gallons of fuel. Crewmen are expendible. In the end, however, the Commander, George, changes. At first, he's by-the-book and stoic. In the end, he defies high council orders to rescue Ray. Humanity triumphs over the dehumanizing future.
Bottom line? The pace of AOS can be agonizingly slow at times. The plot can seem fragmented (if not outright confused). Yet, the film has a 50s charm in its simple (crude) sets and models. It may be a movie only 50s sci-fi fans could like.