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Sunday, January 13, 2008

Planet Outlaws

This film is actually a compilation of the Buck Rogers serials that ran originally in 1939. The cliffhanger endings and recap beginnings have been edited out to make it flow better -- with partial success. Some new footage was shot for the introduction and summary. At the opening, there are some newspaper headlines about jets chasing flying discs, and the obligatory checkered V2 launch, etc. to add a modern segue. After that, it's pure 1939.

Sci-fi movie technology had come a long way in the 14 years since Buck's debut. Audiences had grown accustomed to sleek and pointy rockets, flying saucers, strange aliens, etc. The Buck Rogers style world-of-the-future must have looked oddly quaint. (if not laughable) Just why Universal Pictures thought re-releasing Buck Rogers was a good idea is a bit of a mystery. Kids who were 8 or so back in 1939 would be young adults in '53. Perhaps Universal was banking on those young adults would buy tickets for a trip down memory lane.

Quick Plot Synopsis
After a bit of modern ('53) footage about the wonders of modern progress and "flying disks," the old serial begins. Rogers and Buddy crashed in the arctic while on a transpolar flight. They were in suspended animation due to the cold and a vague gas. A patrol finds them in the year 2500 and revives them. In the world of 2500, a despot named Killer Kane is trying to take over the world. The forces of good are holed up in the "hidden city." Buck arranges a decoy maneuver to elude Kane's patrol ships. They fly to the planet Saturn in hopes of finding help. On Saturn, the Council sees Rogers and party as the rebels, and Kane as the rule of law. Rogers et al, escape Saturn, return to earth and seek to disrupt Kane's bamboozling of Prince Tallen, the Saturnian representative. Rogers sneaks into Kane's city, interrupts the treaty signing and convinces Tallen of Kane's evil by revealing Kane's "robot battalion" (slaves wearing mind-control helmets). Rogers and Tallen get to Saturn and the treaty is signed. Rogers escapes Kane's patrols via the Dissolvo Ray which rendered them invisible. Rogers and the war council plan for war. Rogers enlists the Saturnians to help. Meanwhile, Rogers sneaks into Kane's city and de-zombies Minister Krenco to lead an uprising of freed robot-slave-prisoners. Rogers storms Kane's palace and puts one of the robo-slave helmets on Kane. The End

Why is this movie fun?
The industrial vision of the future is delightful to watch. The heavily mechanical look of everything is so radically different from the sleek rockets and glowing acrylic audiences were growing accustomed to. The space ships look like they were built at locomotive factories or steamship yards. They spew roman-candle sparks and smoke and buzz as they fly. There are no computers, no radar or electronics. It's a fascinating snapshot of what pre-electronic-age people thought the future would be like.

Cold War Angle
When originally released in 1939, the Killer Kane character was a thinly disguised allusion to Hitler. In 1953, Kane was intended to represent a communist despot. It wasn't as tidy a fit. The narrator sums it up voicing a hope that scientists will develop the means for men to stand up to today's dictators and make the world safe for democracy. In the early 50s, there's little question of who they meant.

Simple Colors -- One endearing trait of Buck Rogers is the simplicity of the characterizations. The good guys do nothing but good. The bad guys are pure bad. The good guys are crack pilots and sharp shooters and tough as nails. The bad guys do nothing but bad, have trouble hitting a flying barn and are easily knocked out with one punch.

Industrial Baroque -- Somewhat like the baroque era's compulsion to decorate every square inch with swirls and filigree, Industrial Baroque sought to fill every space with heavy-duty hardware. The sets, and especially the rocket interiors are like flying boiler rooms. Valves, pipes, levers, dials, wheels, large flashing light bulbs. To look more "high tech" in the 30s meant cramming in more industrial hardware. Buck Rogers' ships show more affinity for Captain Nemo "steampunk" than the proto-space-age of the 50s.

Family Resemblance -- There is a noticeable similarity in the sets and costumes of Flash Gordon, Buck Rogers. Even serials of the early 50s, like Captain Video and the various Rocketman serials, look more like Flash and Buck than George Pal. The industrial baroque look and costuming are distinctive, making them almost a sub-genre of their own. In that regard, Buck has a timelessness.

Army of Zombies -- Kane's mind-control helmets turned his prisoners of war and political prisoners into obedient slave labor. This point didn't get much focus in Planet Outlaws. The "Robot Battalion" was more an object of pity than an object of fear. The idea of a captive corps of brain-washed minions would gain traction in the 50s. Invasion of the Body Snatchers ('56) would take this to disturbing lengths. 1939 hadn't yet seen the fear in it.

1 comment:

Randall Landers said...

An interesting point for me is that the Saturnians have a slave race of their own. Naturally, they would be allied with Killer Kane.

But their treatment of their own slaves is never questioned by the good guys.

And like "The Shape of Things to Come," the future is ruled justly by scientists, whereas Killer Kane is at one point described as a powerful businessman.