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Monday, November 23, 2009

The Phantom Planet

The style and spirit of 50s B sci-fi carried on into the early 60s. The Phantom Planet (PP) could easily have fit in among late 50s rocket adventure titles such as, Missile to the Moon, The Flame Barrier, and War of the Satellites. Despite an obviously limited budget and marginal acting, PP has a screenplay that tries to be much more. Like This Island Earth ('54) and Not of this Earth ('57), alien civilization is depicted as having enemies of its own. And, similar to many other films, alien women fall in love with a hunky earth man.

Quick Plot Synopsis
Rockets around Moon Base One have been disappearing mysteriously. Captain Chapman is sent out to investigate. His rocket suffers damage in a meteorite storm. While attempting repairs, his co-pilot is lost in space. Chapman gets inside, but is unconscious. His crippled rocket is pulled down to an asteroid by a gravity beam. Chapman steps out onto the asteroid, but collapses. His visor pops up. Exposed to the alien atmosphere, he shrinks to 6 inches tall. The asteroid, called planet Rheton, is inhabited with 6 inch tall people. Chapman is put on trial for fighting with the Rheton men who tried to take him out of his suit. He's sentenced to remain on Rheton, to preserve their hidden existence. The blonde Liara takes a liking to Chapman, which only upsets Herron who loves Liara. The pretty brunette, Zetha, loved Chapman at first sight, but as a mute girl, cannot compete with Liara. Much romance and palace intrigue comes to a head when Chapman and Herron duel. Chapman wins but spares Herron. They're now friends. Herron plots to help Chapman escape (so he can have Liara). This is interrupted when the Solarites attack Rheton. The Solarite attack is thwared, but a Solarite prisoner escapes during a power interruption. He carries off Zetha, injures Liara's father (leader of Rheton) and almost gets Chapman. Herron saves him. Everyone helps Chapman get back to his earth people. He, however, is torn. He wants to go home, but also loves Zetha. The star-crossed lovers part. Chapman is rescued by a rocket from the moon, but realizes no one will believe his story of the little Rheton folk. Was it all a dream? The End.

Why is this movie fun?
Much of PP has the look and feel of classic 50s rocket adventures. The acting is campy at times, and the effects minimal, but the plot tried hard to be thoughtful along many threads.

Cold War Angle
One of the underlying themes is more of a technology cautionary tale. There is little of nuclear angst or invasion fears, unless one considers the Solarites' persistent desire to obtain the Rhetons' gravity technology as a loose parallel to communists trying to get nuclear secrets. That's a bit of a stretch, though.

Notes
Space Babes -- PP belongs, in part, to that sub-genre of films which imagined that space was populated with pretty women in short skirts. The trope of a hunky earth man landing on a planet of love-starved women, was hardly new. In PP, not all the women are smitten with the earth man -- just two important ones. The rest just stand around in short skirts. Writers Telaak and De Gorter don't stoop to fantasy pandering (as in Missile to the Moon or Fire Maidens From Outer Space), though the poster artist did. "See the Moon Maidens!"

Pity the Solarites -- The monster-bad-guys are the large pig-snouted Solarites (who squeal like pigs too). They're not mindless monsters though. Sessom explains that their planet is spiraling into their sun. So, they want the Rheton's advanced gravity control technology. Without it, the Solarite world is doomed. Yet, they seek to take it by force. When the Solarite attack is thwarted (all ships blown up), you could almost feel sorry for them. Losing the battle means their world is just that much closer to oblivion.

Lilliput In Space -- An unusual plot twist is that the Rhetons are only 6 inches tall. This lets them all live on a mere asteroid, which is handy. It creates a bit of a Gulliver mood, but also provides a sort of unarguable separation at the end. Chapman could not take Zetha back with him, as there was just his one space suit with the oxygen that would restore him to earth size.

The Taint of Tech -- There is a little moralizing half-way through the story. The Rhetons used to have a highly techno-aided culture, but with all their leisure time began to fight amongst themselves. To improve social peace, the Rhetons forsook techno-comforts beyond food production on the barren planetoid. This more spartan life made them strong. Chapman muses that Earth may be learning this lesson too.

Beauty and the Beast -- PP includes the time-honored scene of the monster carrying off the beautiful young woman (swooned) in his arms. Here, the vicious Solarite seems captivated by the tender beauty of Zetha. He attacks and fights everyone else. Monsters (or aliens) are captivated by pretty women.

Star Gazing -- Dean Fredericks stars as Captain Chapman. Fredericks was already famous as TV's "Steve Canyon". Coleen Gray (Liara) was the "Leech Woman." Tony Dexter (Herrom) starred as Luther in Fire Maidens and as Dr. Vargas in 12 to the Moon. Richard Kiel (in the Solarite costume), played "Jaws" in later Bond films. The pretty young Delores Faith (Zetha) was only 19 at the time, and quite a beauty. it's a pity she did not do more than a dozen films. She will show up later, however.

Bottom line? The Phantom Planet might be too low-budget and nearly campy for some viewers. If you look beyond the cheap sets and marginal acting, the plot has many little sub-stories which are intriguing.

2 comments:

Brian Bartlett said...

great story. acting is not great but you soon become used to it and don't notice. effects are mostly bad. but still like this movie alot.

John Drake said...

Howdy Film Fanatics,


First off, let’s dismiss the holes in the story line.

That said, what a cool post 1950’s movie that could have been made right in the middle of the Golden Age.

The plot is good as well as the acting, good not great.

A fun story with some dark parts, the astronaut floating away from the space ship praying after he saved his friend.

A planetoid with an atmosphere that causes you to shrink – who knew?

Liara – the two faced lovely who will go where the wind blows.

Zetha – woo, woo, woo.

Herron, first an enemy and then a friend.

Capt. Chapman, a good leading role, sort of.

The Solarite – Richard Kiel in costume. What a great actor in other venues.


Pop in a dvd and have a good time.


See you at the movies, I will be the one complaining to my wife about the long wait in line.

John