Saturday, May 20, 2017

Assignment — Outer Space (Ultra Film, Titanus, 1960)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night’s Mars movie screening in Golden Hill ( consisted of two Italian-made cheapies, Assignment — Outer Space from 1960 (released in the U.S. in 1961) and Battle of the Worlds from 1961 (released in the U.S. in 1963). Both films were directed by “Anthony Dawson” and written by “Vassiliji Petrov” — the reason for the quotes is that those were both pseudonyms for the Italians who actually did the work, director Antonio Margheriti and writer Ennio de Concini — and featured the usual crazy quilt of actors from various European countries, some of them given Anglo pseudonyms and some allowed to be billed in all their Continental glory. Assignment: Outer Space deals with Ray Peterson (Rik Van Nutter), a reporter for the Interplanetary Times in 2168 (this film’s prediction that there will still be newspapers 150 years from now is looking increasingly like something de Concini a.k.a. “Petrov” got wrong) who on an assignment to cover outer space ends up on a spaceship where everyone has an alphanumeric nickname — though, unlike the people in Just Imagine, they still have normal names like the ones we know — and where everyone else on board, particularly commander George (David Montresor), resents his presence. 

The one crew member of the first ship — there are at least three of them and it’s hard to keep track of which dime-store prop model is which — who actually gets along with Our Hero even though he calls him a “parasite” because he performs no useful function to facilitate the flight is named Al, nicknamed X-15 (which by coincidence, or maybe not, also happened to be the name of a quite famous high-tech experimental aircraft being tested by the U.S. Army when this film was made). Al is an unusual character for a science-fiction movie in the early 1960’s because he’s played by African-American actor Archie Savage, and until this film and 12 to the Moon (which featured an international space flight including a Nigerian played by Muzaffer Tema, billed as “Tema Bey”), both made in 1960, there had not, to my knowledge, been any Black people depicted in science-fiction films. (In the 1951 movie When Worlds Collide, the 40 people selected to keep the human race going after Earth is destroyed in a collision with a runaway planet from another solar system are all white, which probably escaped 1951 audiences but seemed quite infuriating to me the last time I saw that film.) There’s one other crew member who can’t stand Peterson at first but ultimately comes to like — or at least get the hots for — him, and that’s the token female in the cast, Lucy Y-13 (Gabriella Farinon), who’s there as a navigator and also as a botanist who keeps the crew supplied with air by cultivating flowers that change hydrogen into oxygen. (That drew a lot of laughs from our audience, who if not outright geniuses are certainly more scientifically literate than most Americans these days. There are plenty of scientific howlers in Assignment — Outer Space, but that’s the biggest and most egregious one — though if writer de Concini a.k.a. “Petrov” had said the plants were converting carbon dioxide into oxygen the scene would have been believable.)

The gimmick that gives this seemingly interminable movie (it’s only 73 minutes long but seems to last almost twice that) whatever semblance of a plot it has is that one of its virtually indistinguishable spaceships (the one that looks like a giant hypodermic needle with a bulb attached to one end) loses its guidance capability and is about first to enter orbit around Earth and then to crash into it, and the atomic fuel the rocket carries will incinerate and/or poison Earth and everyone and everything on it unless the rocket is somehow stopped. And guess who volunteers to stop it? That’s right, our reporter hero, who’s desperate to prove that he can contribute something to the mission besides being obnoxious and hauling the heroine’s ashes. He takes a two-person space vehicle (a sort of shuttlecraft but flown by people sitting in an open-space cockpit in full spacesuits) and flies it into the null region between the rogue ship’s two hourglass-shaped force fields so he can crash it into the rogue and destroy it — only just before impact he bails out (that’s right — this film is full of people “bailing out” in the middle of outer space and somehow managing to get back to their home craft), they catch him in time just before his spacesuit runs out of oxygen, and they revive him so he and the heroine can get together. Assignment — Outer Space is one of those frustrating movies that had potential, maybe not for greatness but at least for solid entertainment, but it goes wrong at virtually every turn: the props are horribly cheap (the main rocket ship’s nozzle looks like a shower head, and probably was one!), the model work unconvincing, there are a few lame attempts to explain why there’s no depiction of weightlessness (though it’s obvious that’s because the producers’ budget didn’t extend to the wire work that would have been necessary to show the real effects of zero gravity) and the actors — except for Montresor, who at least gets to portray attitude as the commander who wants no part of Our Hero — pretty nondescript. Charles applauded when “The End” credit came on (I miss “The End” credits), explaining later that seeing those words on screen were by far the best thing about watching this movie!