Battle of the Worlds/Il Pianeta degli Uomini Spenti (1961/1963) -**
Okay, now I think we’re getting somewhere. Battle of the Worlds may not actually be any better than Assignment Outer Space, and frankly it’s only marginally more entertaining on the whole, but at the very least, this second collaboration between writer Ennio De Cocini and director Antonio Margheriti points recognizably in the direction of what would make Italian science fiction movies enjoyable in the years to come. It shows the genre’s Mediterranean subspecies beginning to shrug off both its insecurities and the dreary pretensions engendered by them, leaving behind the earlier film’s misplaced ambitions to be accepted on terms not its own. Italian sci-fi is not yet flying its freak flag in Battle of the Worlds, but Margheriti and De Cocini have definitely taken it out of the closet and set up the pole in the front yard.
The time: the brightly sunlit pre-dawn hours of a morning in the unspecified future; the place: a stony little island dominated by an astronomical observatory. Dr. Fred Steele (Umberto Orsini, from Diary of a Cloistered Nun and Emmanuelle: The Joys of a Woman), the institution’s most disgruntled scientist, is celebrating his just-approved transfer to someplace less miserable with a little swim in the ocean in company with his girlfriend, Eve Barnett (Maya Brent). Eve works at the observatory, too, but so far as I can see, her job does not entail actually doing anything. Then along comes Mrs. Collins (Jacqueline Derval, from Duel of the Champions), a somewhat older and vaguely creepy woman whose role on the island is almost as mysterious as Eve’s— although in her case, we can at least say that her duties include serving coffee to the astronomers— to make noises at the couple that obliquely suggest a romantic rivalry between her and Eve. Nothing at all ever comes of that, though, so I’m honestly not sure why this scene was even shot. Shortly thereafter, Steele dries off and goes to work, where he finds two of his junior colleagues in a tizzy over something one of them saw via the electronic telescope. Battle of the Worlds follows the lead of When Worlds Collide by dancing around the topic for as long as possible, but here as there, what the telescope has revealed is an unknown, planet-sized astral body on a collision course with Earth. Strangely, however, chief astronomer Dr. Cornfield (John Stacy, from Yeti: Giant of the 20th Century and Revenge of the Dead) seems to be less alarmed by that than he is over who will have to tell “the Old Man” about the discovery. Steele hacks through the increasingly Gordian knot by volunteering. After all, he’s leaving tomorrow anyway.
The Old Man turns out to be Professor Benson (Claude Rains, of The Lost World and The Clairvoyant), arch-genius mathematician and irascible, overbearing asshole. He lives in a villa next to the observatory, to which he is attached in some indefinable capacity, and it’s just barely possible that the enigmatic Mrs. Collins is his housekeeper. And as it happens, there’s no need to tell Benson about the wandering planet; he already knows of its existence, and indeed has already calculated its mass, velocity, and general course, having deduced all of the foregoing from countless tiny perturbations in the orbital behavior of Neptune and Uranus. Since Steele has taken the trouble to stop by, however, Benson manages to find a few minutes in his busy schedule of spraying his garden with pesticide and scribbling formulas all over everything in sight to start an argument with the younger man over nothing in particular. Rather reminds me of a holiday visit from my in-laws, honestly.
Among those on whom Benson pours scorn in that unprovoked outburst of ranting are the staff of Mars Base Three, from which “the Outsider” (as the professor dubs the troublesome planet) should have been visible days ago. Commander Bob Cole (Bill Carter) and his people have an excellent excuse for missing its arrival, however, in that every piece of electronic equipment on the base has been rendered inoperative by a persistent magnetic storm that’s been raging all that time. The atmospheric disruption finally begins to clear just in time for Mars Base Three to receive an interplanetary freighter and its military escort— and just in time for Steele to radio Cole with the observatory’s findings. The latter data is all that enables the crews of the two ships to reach Mars alive, for the Outsider’s gravity has deformed the orbit of Deimos so as to put that moon directly in the convoy’s pre-programmed flight path. Benson isn’t happy about Fred’s call to Mars, because he wanted the Outsider’s approach kept secret until he had a chance to finish his calculations predicting its detailed course through the solar system, but the cat is well and truly out of the bag now. Perhaps the professor can console himself knowing that the first result when officialdom learns of the Earth’s death sentence is the suspension of all leave and transfers among the observatory staff. So much for Fred and Eve’s bureaucratically sanctioned elopement.
The United Delegation puts General Varreck (Carlo D’Angelo, from The Devil’s Commandment and Hercules Unchained) in charge of dealing with the situation, and the general soon finds himself with an unexpected ally in his efforts to keep a lid on worldwide panic. Benson, you see, disagrees with the otherwise unanimous opinion of the astronomical profession regarding where exactly the Outsider is headed. Sure it might look like it’s going to collide with Earth when you’re squinting at it though a telescope, but Benson’s mathematics prove to his satisfaction that it will actually pass us by at a distance of 95,000 miles— a near miss by astronomical standards, but a miss just the same. Varreck doesn’t really believe that himself, but it sure does make a useful talking point at press conferences and the like. Of course, we in the audience can already tell that De Cocini is not about to let Benson be wrong about anything, but in this particular case, he turns out to be only half-right. The Outsider does indeed miss Earth by 95,000 miles, but instead of speeding off into the infinite void, it slows down enough to fall into a spiral orbit around our world. Benson is flummoxed at first, but he soon comes to believe that the Outsider is behaving so strangely because it is being deliberately controlled.
That would certainly be consistent with the squadron of flying saucers that the rogue planet disgorges to intercept and destroy the reconnaissance rocket that Varreck sends up to investigate. Even this latest display of the professor’s inevitable rightness is not enough to persuade the United Delegation to hand over control of the response effort to Benson, though, no matter how forcefully he grumbles at their images on his telecom screens. Nevertheless, they do tacitly adopt his 840-hour timetable for the remaining lifespan of human civilization in guiding their own efforts. That’s how long Benson calculates it will take the Outsider’s spiral orbit to bring it within 45,000 miles of Earth, unleashing an apocalyptic tide of stock-footage natural disasters.
With Varreck retaining his command, it is only to be expected that the emphasis will continue to be on blowing up the Outsider, but that also remains something far more easily talked about than done. Commander Cole’s fleet of war rockets fares only a little better against the alien saucers than the earlier recon mission, and is forced to withdraw after downing only a single enemy spacecraft. At first, the authorities entertain high hopes for communication with the pilot of this saucer (which conveniently crashes on Earth rather than its homeworld), but opening up the craft’s hull reveals that the Outsider’s defenders are nothing more than robots. That brings Benson back into the game, though, because if anyone can figure out how to “talk” to a robot, it’ll be a guy who habitually thinks in mathematics anyway. What Benson discovers by studying the crashed saucer’s CPU is that the machines’ functions are sonically coordinated. Hit them with the right frequency, and you can make them turn on each other instead of fighting the real enemy.
Battle of the Worlds’ biggest defect is that it isn’t nearly as streamlined or orderly as I’ve just made it sound. This movie is simply littered with subplots that have no impact whatever on the main action, and with boring digressions both pseudo-philosophical and romantic. Fred and Eve break up for no intelligible reason, and then get back together again for no intelligible reason, either. Commander Cole has a lover, too, and although he and Cathy (Carol Danell) gobble up oodles of our time talking about their imagined future together, we never get a very clear picture of what that future might be, or of why we should even care. In the end, it’s just a really roundabout variation on the old “two weeks away from retirement” trope familiar from a thousand lame cop movies. Steele and Cole have a history together, as the latter was the former’s main academy instructor before he left the military to pursue a career as a civilian scientist, and Benson is constantly holding the bond that remains between the two men against Steele. That might have made sense if De Cocini had written Benson and Cole as rival mentors for Steele, but Benson is consistently shown to hold Fred in exactly the same amount of contempt as he does the rest of the human race. Professor Benson would never willingly mentor anybody. The most glaringly pointless thing on which Battle of the Worlds wastes both its energy and ours, however, is the ongoing squabble between Benson and his colleagues, for lack of a better term, over the relative worth of mathematical modeling and direct observation. It’s one of the best illustrations I’ve ever seen of the principle that all the average motion picture writer knows about science is that he personally doesn’t understand it. To begin with, Benson habitually refers to calculus as if it were either his household god or perhaps some newfangled species of black magic that he alone can command— instead of, you know, the essential mathematical basis of all modern engineering, physics, and (that’s right) astronomy. But beyond that, observation vs. modeling is a dichotomy so false that no one with any genuine scientific training would ever think of it; without observation, physical scientists would have no basis from which to derive their mathematical models, and without mathematical modeling, they’d have no way to organize their observations into testable statements about how the universe works. We’re here to see Battle of the Worlds, not Battle of the Half-Assed Strawman Arguments!
Nevertheless, Battle of the Worlds does have a few redeeming features, given an admittedly very eccentric definition of that term. Claude Rains, turning in what almost has to be the worst screen performance of his entire career, sets the pattern and precedent for 30 years’ worth of slumming has-beens from the American and British movie industries paying off their boats and bar-tabs with starring roles in crummy Italian genre flicks. De Cocini doggedly throwing one sci-fi cliché after another at the wall in the hope that one or two of them might stick is an approach better suited to his and Margheriti’s talents than the tight focus and forced seriousness of Assignment Outer Space. The varied environments on display here collectively add up to more visual interest than could be generated by the sterile rocketship and space station interiors of that movie, too, even when one of the environments in question is a styrofoam-walled cavern inexplicably festooned with jumbled knots of brightly-colored rubber tubing. There are even a couple of things here that honestly sort of work, including more nifty model spaceships (the BZ-88 is back, of course, and we also get the debut of The Wild, Wild Planet’s Jupiter-class rocket cruisers) and a third-act plot twist that cries out for a much better movie to wrap around it. Battle of the Worlds is still probably a film for completists only, but I can honestly say that it isn’t quite as big a letdown as its predecessor.