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Monday, October 25, 2010

Battle of the Worlds

We continue Digression Week with an oversight from 1963. Shortly after making his first sci-fi film, Assignment Outer Space ('60), director Antonio Marhariti put out a much more ambitious sci-fi tale: Il Pianeta Degli Uomini Spenti (Planet of the spent (dead) beings). Dubbed into english and retitled Battle of the Worlds (BotW), it was released in America in 1963. The extremely low budget takes its usual toll, prompting casual viewers to disparage the film. Actually, the story is much more ambitious -- perhaps too ambitious. In some ways, BotW is a bridge between Margheriti's very 50s-minded Assignment Outer Space ('60) and his very-60s "Gamma One" quadrilogy of the mid-60s.

Quick Plot Synopsis
A rogue planet is discovered entering the solar system. The news is no surprise to a crotchety old mathematician named Professor Benson, part of an astrophysics team. He had predicted it days early, calls it The Outsider. A base on Mars studies the Outsider. Two rockets narrowly avoid destruction from its gravity. The planet appears to be on a collision course with earth. Panic ensues. Benson says it will pass 90,000 kilometers away. It goes into orbit around the earth. Benson did not think it would. He is humbled, thinking he made a math error. The authorities send a rocket and crew to explore The Outsider. Benson realizes he made no error, but that the Outsider had to have been steered into orbit. Too late, he calls for the rocket to return. When they approach, a dozen or so flying saucers come out of The Outsider and laser-blast the rocket. Benson then tells the authorities that The Outsider's orbit is gradually decreasing. In 840 hours, it will hit the earth. Before that, environmental disasters will wreck civilization. Space Command sends some rockets to destroy the planet. The saucers defend again, destroying some rockets. Fred (on one of the rockets) figures out that they home on radio signals, so his captain turns all off and flies manually. They destabilize a saucer which crashes to earth. Benson's team study the glowing glass tube from it. Music, sonics. That's the secret controlling the saucers. Another squadron of rockets is dispatched. This time, they use sonic controls to confuse and finally destroy the saucers. Benson argues to be allowed to explore The Outsider. He is sure it's hollow and piloted. Reluctantly, the authorities agree, but with a time limit. After that, they launch nukes and blast it. The Benson expedition land on The Outsider. Benson follows signals and opens a secret door with his sonic controller box. Inside, things are totally tubular. The team find a control room with many dead beings. They left their dying world in hopes that their "Noah's Ark" would find them a new world. They died before it did. But, their planet-ship continued on autopilot. (Self-defense mode too). Time is up. They're ordered to leave, but Benson refuses. He wants the secret of the Outsider. The others flee amid cave-ins, but get to the rocket just in time. Benson finds the data core and is elated. The nukes are launched anyhow. The team's rocket blasts off safely. Benson is euphoric at his discovery. The missiles blow up The Outsider, and Benson. The rocket pilot gives a disparaging eulogy. The End.

Why is this movie fun?
Italian sci-fi movies (as in spaghetti westerns) are prone occasional irrational bursts of emotion, and BotW has plenty of those. Claude Rains gives a flamboyant portrayal of the eccentric Professor Benson. Yet, behind the hammy outbursts lurk some intriguing understated themes. (See Notes section)

Cold War Angle
There is an analogy in the threat of global destruction posed by The Outsider, which is emitting dangerous levels of radiation. In more of a bravado mindset than a gloom-and-doom mindset, the answer to the threat is massive nuclear missile strikes.

Shadowy Government -- A subtle plot feature is the somewhat sinister world government which is running things. They seem more of a military-industrial hybrid than civilian. Note that it was the not-very-remorseful General who decides to launch the nukes, even though the expedition team was pleading for just a few more minutes. Note, too, the rather 1984-like quality of the "council" which Benson communicates with. They're all cold, aloof, authoritarian talking heads. Magheriti was painting a rather dystopic picture of future government. This dark government idea would continue in his Gamma One quadrilogy.

Hidden Love -- Another of the subtleties in BotW is the relationship between young Eve and old Professor Benson. Nothing is stated overtly, but there is something there. Perhaps they've developed a father-daughter sort of attachment to each other. She rushes to him to share good news. He calls out for her to assist him. She frets over how he fared during liftoff, etc. Yet, it seems like something more. Magheriti gave us a long look at the opening of the film, of running her down the cliff stairs to her fiance, Fred. Later, after she's decided she cannot abandon Benson, Magheriti repeats the move, having another long scene of her running down stairs to Benson. Fred calls to Eve, but she doesn't respond. Mrs. Collins (the "black widow") tells Fred "You don't even exist to her." Perhaps Magheriti just liked how actress Maya Brent looked when she rushed down stairs. Or, perhaps he was drawing a symbolic parallel for his audience. She rushes to Benson the same way she rushed to Fred. He often directed them to walk arm in arm.

Ark of Death -- An intriguing plot element in BotW, is notion of a failed "ark." Other sci-fi movies have featured "arks". Sometimes, they're carrying earthlings (When Worlds Collide, or Space Probe Taurus (and more recently 2012). Typically, space arks carry aliens to earth, fleeing their dying world. The earthlings usually defeat them. In BotW, however, the ark arrives on autopilot. The beings it was to deliver to a new world had all died in transit. This rather poignant facet is easily overlooked.

Delightful Dis -- Cantankerous Professor Benson was quick with barbs and put-downs to his colleagues. He was usually unapologetically curt with Dr. Cornfield (the erstwhile head of their unit). But one of Benson' digs seemed amusingly subtle. They are all in their lab's communications room, watching TV reports of the rocket taking off to go explore The Outsider. Dr. Cornfield says, "The crew is made up of the very best scientific minds." Benson says, over his shoulder, and with apparent sincerity, "I don't understand why they didn't invite YOU, Cornfield."

Canards in Space -- BotW uses rocket models with a 50s style. They sport big wings near the stern and little canard wings on their noses. Such were the notions of 50s dreamers such as Bonestell. The reality of takeoff and re-entry into earth's atmosphere was proving such wings were impractical. Also still evident was the equally impractical notion of backing-down style landings. More fuel is burned than the ship could carry. Yet, this was how the moon rocket in Destination Moon ('50) landed. The pattern had been repeated ad infinitum. Watch for these canard rockets, still back-down landing, in Magheriti's Gamma One movies.

Bottom line? BotW is often branded a "cheesy" spaghetti sci-fi, but it has more to it than that. Look beyond the capricious acting styles and low-budget effects. Look beyond the (likely) poor quality of the public domain print. There are nuggets for the patient viewer.

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