The Man from Planet X (1951) **Ĺ
1951 was the year in which the makers of American sci-fi movies came to the astute realization that one Destination Moon was plenty, and that the genre was going to have to present something a bit more compelling than the naked fact of space flight if it was going to remain viable at the box office for more than one season. All that was necessary in order to find that compelling something was a quick look back at the sci-fi pulps and movie serials of the 1930ís. As their creators had already discovered, the easiest way to make stories about space travel exciting is to populate space with non-human lifeforms. And thus, in 1951, the pendulum swung quite rapidly away from movies in which the main conflict was between the logistical rigors of space flight and the scientists and astronauts called upon to overcome them, toward films that featured the arrival on Earth of alien astronauts, who did not necessarily come in peace.
The best, and best known, of these early films are The Day the Earth Stood Still and The Thing/The Thing from Another World. Both were major-studio productions with medium-sized budgets and accomplished, experienced filmmakers in the directorís chair. (Though the screen credits for The Thing list newcomer Christian Nyby as director, most of the work was done by credited producer Howard Hawks.) But big studios never have a genre to themselves for very long, and only a few months passed before much cheaper independent and small-studio variations on the alien invasion theme began appearing. The independently produced, UA-distributed The Man from Planet X was among the first of these films, and it makes a surprisingly credible showing for itself, standing among the ranks of eccentric director Edgar G. Ulmerís more enjoyable movies.
The catalyst for this movieís story is the discovery by an astronomer named Elliot (Raymond Bond, of Flight to Mars) of a hitherto unknown planet hurtling through space in Earthís general direction. There is little indication that the two planets will actually collide, but ďPlanet X,Ē as Elliot calls it, will certainly come awfully close. According to Elliotís calculations, the part of the Earth that will be nearest to the alien world at the point of its closest approach is the small island of Bury, off the coast of Scotland. So it is to Bury that Elliot goes, setting himself and his daughter, Enid (Captive Womenís Margaret Field), up in a long-abandoned keep out on the moors. And because he owes the man a favor, Elliot also sends word to an American journalist named John Lawrence (Robert Clarke, from The Hideous Sun Demon and The Incredible Petrified World), inviting him to come out to the tower for an exclusive story.
Lawrence and Elliot go way back. The scientist was a meteorologist during the war years, and when Lawrence was serving in the 8th Air Force, it was Elliot who supplied his unit with information regarding the weather conditions they could expect over their targets. Enid was a teenager at the time, and she was awfully taken with John, so itís pretty clear whatís coming when she goes to pick him up at the dock upon his arrival on Bury. But Enid and Elliot arenít the only people living in the old keep, and it turns out the third resident is known to Lawrence as well. The man in question is another scientist, a certain Dr. Mears (William Schallert, from Tobor the Great and Gog), and the screenwriter wastes no time in setting him up as the movieís human villain. No one will say just what he did, but Mears has a bad reputation, and even did time at one point; indeed, John thinks the crooked doctor got off rather too lightly for his undescribed crimes. So when Lawrence finds a strange metallic objectó a sort of rocket, it looks like, about 30 inches long, and weighing only a few pounds despite its apparently stout constructionó out on the moors, it is only to be expected that Dr. Mearsís eyes instantly light up with little dollar signs in anticipation of the licensing checks that will be his if he can figure out what the thing is made of and how to synthesize it commercially. That last part is sure to be a problem, because Dr. Elliot believes the thing is of extraterrestrial origin, possibly from the rapidly approaching Planet X. At the very least, the object is made of no material Elliot has ever encountered.
Elliotís hypothesis gets strong support later that night. On the way home from driving John to the inn where he has booked a room, Enidís car blows a tire, and she is forced to walk the remaining distance back to the keep. On the way, she sees a strange glow out on the moors, which an inspectional detour reveals to come from something that rather resembles an old-fashioned diving bell with rocket fins. When Enid takes a closer look, she finds the strange machine to be occupied by its pilot, a humanoid creature in an incredibly shoddy space suit, with an expressionless, immobile face. Scared out of her wits, Enid runs back to the keep, where she tells her father and Dr. Mears all about what she saw. Professor Elliot insists on seeing for himself, and gets his introduction to the Man from Planet Xís secret weapon, a ray that deprives its victims of their independent wills, leaving them in such a state that they will obey any command given them by anybody at all. Fortunately for him, that also means that Enid can order him to follow her home, and thus they are able to get themselves out of what might have become a very sticky situation.
The next day, John and Professor Elliot go back to the alien ship to give contact another try. They succeed after Lawrence helps the alien get the regulator valve on his breathing equipment unstuck, and the grateful spacefarer then follows them back to the keep so that they can attempt to communicate with each other in slightly more comfortable surroundings. Eventually, Dr. Mears hits upon the idea of using geometry as an ice-breaker. After all, no civilization capable of space travel could be ignorant of such things as the Pythagorean Theorem, and while sitting around talking math with a spaceman might not be your idea of a good time, it would at least lay some kind of groundwork for future communication efforts. But unfortunately for everyone, Dr. Mears is a complete bastard, and once he makes his big breakthrough, he loses patience and switches tactics, torturing the alien into revealing whatever ďsecretsĒ he might possess that could make Mears a buck or two after the whole Planet X affair is over. Big mistake. The alien decides he doesnít like humans after all, kidnaps Enid, and heads back to his ship.
Thatís when the cops come to Elliotís keep. It seems that Enid isnít alone in her captivity, as the villagers of Bury have begun to disappear without a trace as well. Constable Tommy (Roy Engel, from The Flying Saucer and Zombies of the Stratosphere) doesnít believe Lawrence at first, when he tells him that the man behind the kidnappings comes from another planet, but a quick trip out to the moors convinces him. By this time, Dr. Mears has become a hostage as well, and it turns out that all of the captured humans have been zapped with the alienís mind-control ray, and made to work erecting field fortifications around the spaceship. Eventually, Scotland Yard and even the army are called in to help, as it is revealed that the alienís mission on Earth is to lay the groundwork for a full-scale invasion. Planet X, as if you couldnít have guessed this, is dying, and its inhabitants need a new place to live. Why they settled on Earth when they canít even breathe its air is anybodyís guess. But ours is the planet they want, and they mean to have it, even if they have to zombifiy every single last one of us first. The alienís spacecraft apparently contains a radio transmitter of some sort, so that his comrades back home will have something to zero in on when Planet X comes close enough to Earth for the main invasion force to make the trip. What this means is that Lawrence and his newfound friends from Scotland Yard have only a few hours left in which to free all the hostages and destroy the alien ship, depriving the invaders of the beacon they will need to properly effect their landing.
All things considered, The Man from Planet X is an unexpectedly good film. For one thing, this appears to be the very first of the ďReal Estate Agents from a Dying PlanetĒ movies, and I always think a bit of extra respect is due to any movie that establishes its own subgenre. Secondly, thereís an unusual amount of intelligence on display here for a film on which absolutely no money was spent whatsoever. However, The Man from Planet X also has one big internal contradiction that seriously harms its ability to stand as a respectable work of serious science fiction. Early on, we are led to believe that the alienís hostility stems from his treatment at the hands of Dr. Mears, and Mearsís later fate certainly bears all the marks of karmic comeuppance. But later, we are told that the alienís people deliberately wrested their planet out of its natural orbit, so that they could cruise the galaxy looking for new worlds to make their own, and that Earth is currently at the top of their list. If thatís the case, then it matters not a bit how big of an asshole Mears is; the X-ites are here to take over, and thatís the end of that. So Enidís final lines, in which she asserts her belief that the Man from Planet X was friendly, and that it was only the doctorís actions that made him turn on his human hosts, is absurd on its face, no matter how fervently the filmmakers seem to want us to agree with her. It doesnít push the movie into Robot Monster territory, but it does put it on the opposite side of some kind of dividing line from The Day the Earth Stood Still.