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Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Space Probe Taurus

American International Pictures was cranking low budget movies, aimed at the television market. Space Probe Taurus (SPT) is one of them. It may have had a brief theatrical release as well, given that there are posters. SPT, shot in black and white, is an anachronistic offering. It looks and plays like an early 50s space drama more than a mid-60s sci-fi. It is a testimony to the slim pay-back of the television market. SPT is, by necessity, a bit slow and talky, prone to drama in lieu of action.

Quick Plot Synopsis
The fatally injured captain of the Faith One rocket asks Earth Control to push the destruct button. The planet they landed on is fatally toxic. They do. Space exploration is fraught with risk. The next mission, Hope One, takes off with the same mission: to seek an earth-like planet. The crew of four include, Hank as captain, John as co-pilot, Paul as old science guy and Lisa as beautiful lady scientist. Hank resents Lisa's presence because he's a chauvinist. Lisa bristles about equality. Hope One encounters an alien craft. Hank and John investigate. It appeared deserted, but a lone big-brain alien appears and attacks Hank. John shoots it dead. The crafts starts getting radio-active, so Hank plants a bomb on it. Blamo. Back en route to Taurus, Hope One encounters the obligatory meteor shower. A shock to the ship makes the computers push full throttle. By the time the crew regain control, they've flown "millions of miles" off course. They find an earth-like planet to land on for repairs, but wind up landing in the ocean. While down there, Hank and Lisa decide each other aren't so bad. Kiss. Hank and John, however, dislike each other. Giant crabs mill around. John dons scuba gear to gather surface samples. On his way back, a reptile man attacks and wounds John. He gets back to Hope One, but dies. His samples prove that man could live on this planet. With the computer repaired, and reactor back online, they can return to earth. After, that is, the giant crabs are shocked into letting go of the ship. Hank calls Earth to report their success. He names the new planet, Andros One, in honor of John. The End.

Why is this movie fun?
SPT could be mistaken for a product of the mid 50s, so it has some nostalgia value. Many of the old tropes are on parade. One can almost admire how much movie was made with so little budget.

Cold War Angle
There is a subtle dark undercurrent in SPT. The space agency is a military affair (commanded by Generals). There is an unexplained, but evidently urgent need to find other planets that people can live on. John delivers a Cold-War-weary isolationist rationalization for having shot the first alien they encounter:."Figures a new race would just bring more opportunities for friction and conflict. After all, one of us is going to be a minority. We've got enough troubles now, without someone else trying to bring us theirs."

Cliches In Space -- Writer/Dirctor Leonard Katzman recycled previous props and costumes to save money (see Alien Redux below), but also recycled old sci-fi tropes for his script. The mission to find a new earth. The lone pretty woman scientist aboard and inevitable romance angle. The hostile aliens. The obligatory meteorite menace. The engines out of control. The bad landing. The noble sacrifice. Even the Divine Hand (see below), and much more. Such leftover medleys are faster to write. In some ways, SPT is like a Chex Party Mix made of 50s B sci-fi.

Identity Crisis -- Symptomatic of being a medley of previous tropes, SPT suffers a sort of identity crisis. This is reflected, too, in its many alternate titles. The First Woman in Space, Space Probe Taurus and Space Monster. Is the movie about equality of the sexes? Finding new worlds? Battling monsters? The story isn't really about Dr. Lisa Wayne's success as an astronaut. The story isn't really about monsters in space. The aliens get only a few minutes of screen time. In fact, they never make it to Taurus.

Alien Redux -- To save money, Katzman reused props from prior films. One such recycling was the big-brained martian head used in The Wizard of Mars earlier that year. One rumor is that the mask's creator kept it lack of a final payment from WoM's producers. Use in SPT offered a minor recoup. A second recycling was the aquatic reptile man costume. It came from A.I.P's own closet, being used in their earlier 1965 film War Gods of the Deep. One of the posters suggests that there might have been a third monster (a rock-reptile thing?) but these scenes did not survive editing, apparently.

Sexism In Space -- An amusing bit of contradictory messaging centers around women. On one level, SPT is the usual liberationist story of an equally capable professional woman clashing with an old-world chauvinist man-in-charge. Yet, the men privately smirk about how well she fills out a apace suit and how pretty she is. At one point, it is Lisa who hands out the food pills. (Women's role is still to cook for the men). Hank softens his chauvinism, and as a reward, Lisa becomes the traditional love interest. Message? Women can be professional, but they should be pretty, shapely and ready to kiss back.

Divine Hand -- An interesting little nugget for fans of 50s sci-fi, is a repeat from Rocketship X-M ('50). In RXM, Dr. Eckstrom muses that there must have been some divine hand guiding them to Mars when their engines ran wild after a meteor hit, instead of hurtling off into the empty void. This way, they were able to see the warning of nuclear war. In SPT, Dr. Martin muses: "Surely some hand must have guided us here too. It must be more than an accident that in all the lifeless galaxies, that we have to land on this planet. We were meant to find this place and return to earth."

Bottom line? People who liked rudimentary 50s films like Rocketship X-M, Rocky Jones, Project Moon Base, etc., will find a familiar look and feel in SPT. People annoyed with cheap sets, talky scripts and minimal effects, will probably want to steer clear.

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