Saturday, November 22, 2014

The Phantom Planet (1961)

Note:  This review was originally posted to my Epinions account.


Warning:  I’m going to be giving away a lot of details in this review.  If you don’t want to know every last detail, you might want to stop reading now.



In the future, it always seems like we have some sort of space travel.  In some cases, we’ve explored the galaxy.  In others, we’re just starting out.  In the Phantom Planet, the year is 1980 and the United States Air Force has a lunar base and is sending out people to have a look around.  When several ships go missing, the commanding officer pulls Capt. Frank Chapman off the Mars mission to go out looking for answers.

He and his navigator, Lt. Ray Makonnen, follow the flight plan exactly, but Chapman has a feeling that sticking to the exact course won’t do anything.  So, they deviate and are promptly hit by a meteor shower.  When they go out to fix the damage, they don’t use any sort of tether. Makonnen is able to save Chapman, but pays the ultimate price when he’s sent drifting off into space.

Due to an oxygen leak, Chapman passes out.  He awakens to find Makonnen gone and the ship being pulled into a large asteroid.  He makes a recording for posterity as he lands on the surface.  After crashing, he passes out only to awaken to some really small people.  We’re talking smaller than his helmet people.  After breathing in their air, Chapman shrinks to their size.

In an effort to defend himself, Chapman assaults one of the people.  He’s tried and convicted only to be handed down the horrible sentence of being able to walk freely among the native population.  He’s told that he can’t go back.  When he presses the issue, he’s told that his spacecraft has been sent off into space.

Rhetton is the name of the planet and the people of Rhetton are very advanced compared to Earth.  The reason they’re so small is that the atoms in their world have electrons with tighter orbits, meaning that everything is more compressed.  (I think this is supposed to explain why Chapman appears to shed so much mass.)  They have the ability to control gravity, which lets them move the planet around at will.  They also have the ability to synthesize food, which explains how they can live on a barren planet.  (It doesn’t explain how they evolved there, though.)

Chapman is given the choice of two women to marry.  Both Zetha and Liara are attractive women.  Zetha, however, is mute.  Thus, she can’t flirt with him making Liara the seemingly better choice.  Liara’s main drawback is that she’s also the object of affection of Herron.  Herron challenges Chapman to a duel to the death.  Chapman wins, but spares Herron’s life.

As a sign of gratitude, Herron offers to help Chapman to escape.  Yes, his ship is missing, but his suit is still around.  If he breathes in some oxygen from his suit’s tank, he’ll return to normal size.  The real challenge is getting the Rhetton close enough to the lunar base that someone notices and comes to rescue Chapman.  Before that can happen, the Solarites attack.  It seems that they’ve noticed Rhetton’s advanced technology and have wanted it ever since.  Will the people of Rhetton defeat the Solarites?  Will Chapman get back to Earth?  You’ll have to watch to find out.

Overall, the movie was pretty good.  Being a product of 1961, there are a few things that people will notice when watching it today.  First, the project is handled by the Air Force.  From what I understand, the Air Force was a frontrunner for the space program until NASA was formed in 1958.  I’m wondering why the Air Force was used.  Even if it was based on a book or short story, it wouldn’t have been that hard to change a few words.  (I suppose it’s possible that the program is run by NASA and staffed by the Air Force.)

One thing that I found on IMDb is a goof wherein Chapman’s ship, when landing on Rhetton, is pointed sideways and going full blast.  This would normally defy what we know of physics not to mention that a ship probably wouldn’t land this way.  It occurred to me that Chapman didn’t really want to land on the planet.  Instead, the people on Rhetton pulled him in against his will.  The sideways-pointing rocket was probably more of an attempt to escape.  The real question is why the people of Rhetton didn’t just deflect his ship and send him flying off in some other direction.

Another issue, also pointed out on IMDb, is that there’s seemingly normal gravity when Chapman and Makonnen go out to fix the ship.  Either they used magnetic boots (which they didn’t seem to) or they should have used a tether.  I know that they’ve mastered gravity on Rhetton, so I think it’s safe to assume that they can manipulate the planet’s gravity to suit their needs.  As for the lunar base and the ship, I’m assuming that since we’ve mastered space flight, we’ve also managed to create artificial gravity.

The acting was a little wooden throughout most of the movie.  The aliens can get away with it, being that they seem to live in a relatively sterile society.  There’s no mention of what they do for fun.  I didn’t see any night clubs or malls or anything.  You’d think that Chapman would get bored and ask if there was a movie theater or something.

While the Solarite ships looked pretty fake, the Solarite costume looked pretty decent.  It did seem like the actor in the suit was having problems as if his visibility was severely limited.  (Notice that the actor hesitated when walking down a few steps.  I don’t think this was the character being cautious.)  Many of the caves also looked like they were made from Styrofoam.  I have to wonder if people of the time accepted this as cutting-edge special effects.

I don’t know that I’d go out of my way to rent this.  If you get it as part of a larger set, like I did, or if it comes on TV, I’d say watch it.  There are worse ways to spend 82 minutes.  The only thing of any interest here is that clips from the movie were used for a La Quinta advertisement.  You may remember the series of ads where La Quinta took a few clips and dubbed over them.  If you’ve seen the ads, you should recognize the scene they used immediately. 




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