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:: Saturday, September 27, 2003 ::

Journey to the Far Side of the Sun

In the late sixties, a single film changed the way we think of science fiction. Part puzzling and part profound, ths film featured breakthrough work in miniatures and a languid, evocative score. The script introduced high concepts and asked difficult questions, like do we have identical, yet opposite twins on another planet?

Journey to the Far Side of the Sun is a truly unforgettable film: made in 1969, its effects are only a fraction diminished. In its day, it must have set a visual standard for subsequent films. And you'll not soon stop wondering: "who wrote this junk, and does he or she (actually both) think we're idiots?"

Part of the problem with Journey is its ambition. The film wants to be more than it can accomplish in less than two hours. I suspect the initial shooting draft (if filmed in its entirety) would have timed out at six or more hours. Since that's far longer than the endurance of the average human's bladder, something had to go. And that's the second of Journey's problems: the film has been edited as if to increase bewilderment. It's obvious large chunks of the script have been removed, but the remaining sections aren't properly mended together.

For example:
* A failing marriage between two main characters -- obviously intended to be presented as a full fledged plot element -- is reduced to two or three scenes. You can easily tell there are pages missing from what remains on screen.

* A romance between one of the above spouses and his paramour is gone. Its absence is obvious: whenever these two characters are together, they're making moon eyes at each other. And holding hands. And kissing. Did this relationship cause the marriage to fail? Or did he jump from a dying marriage into the arms of a pretty stranger? Don't expect this movie to supply the answer...

* The wife even takes a lover. Maybe. She keeps giving one particular guy the look. But without any context, she's behaving ridiculously.

* The protagonist is supposed to have an episode where he questions which is right: reality or his memory. We can tell because the plot implies the conflict. But even while the film shows us none of his inner turmoil, towards the end of the film it resolves the conflict by presenting the evidence the protagonist needs to confirm his sanity. In fact, the film shoves the evidence right in the viewer's face, as if to say "notice me. I am significant. I resolve the protagonist's conflict of character which I deleted from the final cut of the film.

* There's a bit of espionage, so brief as to make you wonder why they took the trouble. And more stuff, but by now I think you get the idea.

So the only way to evaluate this film is on its own terms. It's really a six to twelve hour miniseries, but the director won't let you see it all. Instead he'll fast forward from highlight to highlight. Frustrating? You bet.

Also problematic is the film's science. With my willing suspension of disbelief, I'm especially generous to science fiction (hello Star Wars). But Journey is a film which takes your good faith and abuses it. And doesn't stick around or call you the next day or bring you flowers and an apology. I'm not so keen on those kind of films. How 'bout you?

With that out of the way, let's look at the film.

Journey begins with a prologue set in Portugal at the European Space Exploration Complex. Right off the bat you begin to suspect this is going to be one of those boring talky French films. I'm happy to say it isn't, but sad to say your troubles are only beginning.

Here's our spy, Doctor Hassler (Herbert Lom), trying to sneak into the library. He's not in the film very long, but he does move the exposition along. Here's the kind of security you can expect from EUROSEC.

Typical European government efficiency: infrastructure protection and family planning in one convenient scanner!

Dr. Hassler smuggles a camera in his eyeball and takes pictures of secret EUROSEC data by tapping his head. Then he goes back to his house, develops the film and, by watching a slide show, studies the same documents he was just reading. End of prologue, roll the main credits.

I'd like to mention that the credits end at about the eight minute mark. No problem in a miniseries, but this is a 100 minute film. That means we're close to a tenth of the way done with this movie and we haven't met a single main character, nor have we been introduced to the plot. C'mon film: fix it already!

Here's Jason Webb (Patrick Wymark): action bureaucrat with EUROSEC. He kicks off the film by attending a meeting. Actually it's a teleconference and a big cheat on the part of the filmmakers. It's well past time they introduce the main characters and explain the plot. A scene in which the main characters introduce each other by name, sit down and start talking about the plot is simply lazy writing. On the other hand, it is a teleconference (probably novel enough to be neato in 1969). And when the EUROSEC delegate from Bonn announces he won't fund a manned flight to examine the curious results brought back by Sun Probe One, Jason uncorks a mild ethnic insult.

Like any good project manager, Jason needs projects to manage. Now that the French and Germans won't pay for his new rocket, Jason tries to bring the Americans into the project. But they aren't buying either.

Did I mention Jason's a real jerk? It almost works. He brags about his people skills, and demonstrates them by yelling and trying to make people feel ashamed and embarrassed. Dale Carnegie ain't got nothing on our Jason. Besides he's got cool toys like rocket humidors and cardiac watches.

Patrick Wymark died the following year of a heart attack

In the meantime Jason resolves the espionage subplot by dispatching his assassin. I didn't know they issue assassins to bureaucrats over there. First the corner office, then the company car, and lastly the assassin. It's the least you can do for a man who devotes his life to public service.

By killing Dr. Hassler, Jason proves the existence of a spy at EUROSEC. One must assume the Sun Probe One data is compromised. The other side knows or will soon know. Deftly turning the discovery into a race, Jason invites NASA to reconsider. Indeed it does, but at a price: one of the two Astronauts must be American.

As you know Astronauts like to make an entrance. Our American protagonist arrives in a transatlantic VTOL jet/bus.

It's Colonel Glenn Ross (Roy Thinnes), and his wife Sharon (Lynn Loring). Don't they make a nice couple? Not for long!

Glenn meets up with Jason and "Scientist" John Kane (Ian Hendry) to take a tour of the space complex.

By the way, Jason has decided to make John the Astronaut copilot. Is he even a pilot or an astronaut? No, but he's a scientist, and I hear they pick up stuff pretty quick. At any rate, he better. As Jason quips: "training starts tomorrow!"

Cut to some obligatory centrifuge training. I won't post a picture. Seen one, seen 'em all. Glenn takes it in stride, while John gets a bit weak in the knees. But things get worse for John on the rocket sled.

Here in America, we use rocket sleds to test ejection seats. But over there, they train astronauts on them. Go figure. John really suffers for his new calling. Note the wind-blown, flappy-mouth effect.

Yes, that'll happen if you ride the rocket sled. But not if you're sitting in an enclosed cab, as John is in the above picture.

At the end of the day's training, Glenn heads home. Sharon's not there. In fact she's on an unfilmed subplot. Glenn even makes a veiled reference to it as she steps through the door. Unfazed, Sharon heads for the shower. Glenn follows after, touting the good news about the results from his flight physical.

Everything works... Everything.”

Sharon’s not having anything to do with that double entendre. In fact, she spits at length about all the radiation Glenn’s soaked up on prior missions. “And that’s why you’re sterile!”

Actually, I would have fingered EUROSEC’s full-body scanner as the infertility culprit. But listen to her: Yeow! Both barrels.

How can Glenn respond? With the ace up his sleeve. Or if not an ace, one of these:

And with that, Glenn wins the argument, does a victory dance and slaps her for good measure. Okay, I was kidding about the victory dance.

That’s what the audience paid to see: a likeable hero.

After some more training and flirting with young Lisa Hartmann (Loni von Friedl), Glenn reports to surgery for his Heart-Kidney-Lung machine interface.

It’s a long trip to the far side of the sun (three weeks). Both astronauts need to hook themselves up to the HKL and zonk out for the whole trip. Plausible, really.

Now 45 minutes into the film (or ~45% done) it’s finally rocket day. Note all the cars and trucks parked next to the launch pad. I think they’ll need a washing, don’t you?

Glenn and John blast off, strap into the HKL machine and go to sleep. As their spaceship (“the phoenix”) cruises to the far side of the sun, the filmmakers slap up some psychedelic images.

Hey, you loved this stuff when Kubrick did it. So no sense complaining about it here!

Arriving 1 AU out from the far side of the sun (2 AU from Earth, if you get my drift), they discover a new planet. The following picture is brilliant, and only emphasizes this movie’s wasted potential.

After a few orbits, Glenn and John collect enough data to conclude that the new planet can support their respiratory requirements. They decide to land, using the lifting body (“the dove”) thoughtfully tucked in the back of the Phoenix.

What follows next is a scene many critics have used as an example of the film’s myriad faults. We may grant that it may take the astronauts several minutes to move from the command module to the cockpit of the spaceplane. But that’s no excuse for displaying every second of the process on the screen. The point could easily be conveyed in less than the nearly five minutes of ponderous weightless ballet squeezed into this scene.

Remember: the filmmakers decided to cut out whole subplots in favor of this stuff. Amazing.

The landing does not go well. In fact, it’s a crash. Barely surviving the ordeal, and scrambling to get a safe distance from their exploding spaceplane, our heroes notice an eerie light approaching the wreck.

A strange humanoid figure floats down, snatches Glenn and drags him skyward. When they arrive at the alien’s ship, Glenn is about to cold cock the fellow, when the alien announces he’s part of Ulan Bator’s Air-Sea Rescue.

What the heck? Really, what is going on?

Ulan Bator is the capitol of Mongolia, a land-locked country hundreds of miles from the Pacific. What use have they for an Air-Sea Rescue?

Oh, and what are they doing on Earth, three weeks ahead of schedule? That’s what EUROSEC would also like to know.

Snatching our astronauts out of Mongolia, EUROSEC whisks them back to Portugal for medical tests. They even wheel out the machine with lots of unlabeled switches.

Remind me what that one does?

While John recuperates in a hypo-baric chamber, Glenn reports to the interrogation chamber.

Whoa there. the EUROpean Space Exploration Complex has an interrogation chamber. And assassins. In these departments, NASA is woefully behind.

EUROSEC just won’t believe Glenn’s story. He needed three weeks to fly to the new planet and three weeks to return. That’s a journey of at least six weeks (more if they stayed to take pictures). Why has Glenn returned in only three weeks? Not even Glenn has a good answer. Not yet anyway.

Sharon arrives to collect Glenn and take him home. On this Earth she’s surprisingly friendly (oops, spoiler). Kind of the opposite of the way she was on the other Earth (oops again). Glenn doesn’t notice she’s driving on the opposite side of the car, but he does object to her driving on the opposite side of the road. Like any man, Glenn is fastidious about critiquing his wife’s driving.

When Glenn gets home, he’s annoyed to discover the whole house is rearranged. That darn wife again! She even put the labels on his bottles on backwards. The only way he can read his cologne bottle is by holding it up to a mirror.

Place your bets: who thinks Sharon’s gonna get what’s coming to her? Sharon bets wisely, calling the EUROSEC police. They send looney bin guards to subdue Glenn.

Note the fish tank embedded in the wall. You don’t see that here. We Yanks are such unsophisticated rubes.

In the aftermath of the explosive Glenn, Sharon announces that the marriage is over. That’s a bit confusing.

While I might be inferring too much here, I think the writers want to stress that on this identical-but-opposite planet, people are their opposites. The original Sharon is cold, while opposite-Sharon is kind. Other characters behave in opposite ways. Jason likes to say “never trust the computers.” Later he says “always trust the computers.” Of course it’s the same opposite-Jason contradicting himself, but I think the filmmakers want to stress something about the duality of man. Like the rest of the film, this aspect is introduced and left unresolved.

Meanwhile, EUROSEC is wondering if Glenn’s opposite-planet theory is plausible. So they pump him full of drugs and force him to flashback the movie. Twice. Yep, while under the influence of hazy, psychedelic images he imagines a super-condensed version of the entire film up to this point. And again. I think they are trying to emphasize that EUROSEC really doubt his story. I think they want to convey that EUROSEC force Glenn to repeat his experience many, many more times just to make sure. But think what an opportunity they miss here. Think of all the other lost opportunities in this film. At least one of them could be recovered and resolved instead of introducing this doubly (even triply) redundant scene. My head hurts.

Meanwhile, John dies. That’s it. No dying words. No scientific advice to clear up the mysteries (why else put a scientist on this mission). At least we’re lucky he dies onscreen. Think of all the other useful stuff we don’t get to see and be grateful.

At the autopsy, the doctor reveals to Jason that John’s organs are reversed. With this conclusive evidence, Jason has a heart-to-heart with Glenn. After Glenn explains his opposite-worlds theory, Jason admits he’s come to a similar conclusion. If you haven’t figured out by now that the solar system has two Earths, each directly opposite another in orbit, the film helpfully projects a second, ghostly Glenn to hammer home the point.

Now that everybody’s on the same page, only one thing remains: get Glenn home. It takes a while to put together a new mission. Glenn kills the time with opposite-Lisa.

Three things here:

1) Nobody’s told Glenn that his wife left.
2) Shouldn’t opposite-Lisa be cold to him?
3) If someone did tell him about Sharon offscreen, he’s sure taking the news well.

Since the original lifting body is toast, EUROSEC prepares a new spaceplane to take Glenn back up to the Phoenix. Unfortunately, it’s an opposite-spaceplane, and nobody knows whether the electricity in its systems flows in the same direction as the electricity in the Phoenix.

Hey hold on. I know next to nothing about electricity. But if EUROSEC were worried that the electrical connections on the opposite-spaceplane were reversed from the fittings on the Phoenix, they could build an adapter. Glenn could park the spaceplane next to the Phoenix and spacewalk over with a meter and test the theory. With his results, he could decide whether or not to install the adapter. Problem solved, right?

Electrons are electrons all over the universe. Even on opposite-Earth. Unless of course the film is proposing opposite-electrons. To do that, this film would (in 1969) have to propose a heliocentric view of the universe. A view in which electrons in one half of the universe flow in one direction, and the opposite way in the opposite half. And the dividing line would pass straight through the entire universe, bisecting our sun.

And yes, that appears to be what the film asks the viewer to accept. And no, they don’t wonder whether the sun itself is composed of both electrons and opposite-electrons. I bet you wondered about that too. Well they didn’t.

Either way, Glenn’s off. He executes a fuel-guzzling VTOL take-off (less passenger mass, I guess). He approaches the Phoenix to dock.

Note the retro’s exhaust rising, as hot gasses do in an atmosphere (as opposed to low Earth orbit). Yes, at this point I’m getting spiteful.

When the spaceplane mates with the Phoenix, the electron flows don’t match. Ouch.

Separated, both the Phoenix and the spaceplane descend into the atmosphere with fiery results for the former.

Meanwhile, EUROSEC locks onto Glenn’s spaceplane and guides it down using a homing beacon. Technically that shouldn’t be possible after a total electronic failure. I give up.

Since the beacon will guide the spaceplane back to EUROSEC (a place filled with things that burn), the range safety officer takes no chances. He orders everyone to the retractable blockhouses. Retractable blockhouses?

Glenn can’t disengage the beacon. Without it, he could manually fly the spaceplane -- even safely ditch it somewhere. But the total electrical failure zapped his radio, and he’s out of luck. He strikes a vehicle assembly building and ricochets onto a fully-fueled ersatz Saturn V. The end for Glenn.

The ersatz Saturn V falls over (neato) and demolishes most of the complex. Glenn’s taken most of his friends with him. After all, audiences hate happy endings

But wait: that’s not the end of the film. Because (as I suspect) this film was to be much, much longer, it includes an epilogue. We get to see what became of Jason.

It’s unsaid but implied that Jason’s fiasco forced him into an early retirement. We meet him years into the future, when he has become embittered and decrepit. He mutters about how all the data from Glenn’s mission blew up with the complex. He can offer no proof about the existence of an opposite (read: our normal) Earth. Even his nurse ridicules him about his stories.

When she leaves him alone for a moment, Jason spots his reflection in a mirror down the hall. “Hey, that’s an opposite me over there,” he deduces.

Trust me, I am telling the truth. Here’s how the movie ends.

Jason reaches out. Seeing his opposite respond in kind, he barrels his wheelchair down the hall. With tremendous speed, he hurls himself into the mirror.

Does Jason cross over into the opposite world, or is he impaled on shards of glass and reflective coat? Since you didn’t have to sit through the film like I did, I’m going to be mean and withhold the answer.

Two ears down. Unless you like drinking games. In that case, this film is rich fodder. Spot the plot hole. Spot the whanging implausibility. And endless variations.

:: Anna 10:11 PM [+] ::

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