The Phantom Planet (1961) **
I think I’ve finally figured out what’s really wrong with American sci-fi movies from the first half of the 1960’s. Except when they’re doing the proto-steampunk thing, they’re usually exactly like the ones from the previous decade— and even when they are getting their H. G. Wells on, they still owe a lot to a few early adopters from the 50’s. I freely concede that this is an odd criticism for me to level, given my abiding love for 50’s sci-fi in nearly all its forms, but science fiction is uniquely vulnerable to the principle of diminishing returns. The whole point is that it’s a genre of ideas, so if the people working within it haven’t had a new one in about five years, that’s a real problem. Take The Phantom Planet as a case in point. This film spends most of its energy being a straight-up rehash of This Island Earth, made for a fraction of the cost by an independent production company with nothing like the resources commanded by Universal International. That was an especially ill-considered gambit to start with, seeing as This Island Earth itself had very little to offer beyond glossy spectacle— the very thing Four Crowns International would have to forego in their cheap knockoff. The situation is considerably worsened, though, by the fact that those few things The Phantom Planet doesn’t lift from the Universal film are lifted every bit as obviously from other sources, most notably Gulliver’s Travels and the “Rocky Jones, Space Ranger” serial The Gypsy Moon. The result is a rather dreary exercise in déjà vu, enlivened only by the unexpectedly credible production design of its spacecraft interiors and some ingenious use of stock telescopic photographs as backdrops for the space-flight scenes.
On March 16th, 1980, the American rocketship Pegasus III is destroyed under mysterious circumstances. In his final transmission to Colonel Lansfield (Dick Haynes), his commanding officer back on the moon, Pegasus III’s pilot reports being seized by an anomalously powerful gravitational force, and drawn off course toward an uncharted planetoid which had somehow failed to register on the ship’s long-range sensors. The unknown object is apparently normally invisible to the more powerful radar at Lunar Base 1, too, for only at the moment of impact are the colonel and his staff able to see the thing that destroys the rocket. What’s more, Pegasus III vanishes so completely that it leaves not so much as a debris field to mark the site of its demise.
Now this is the second rocket that Lansfield has lost this month, and it doesn’t take a genius to suspect that the phantom planetoid will continue to make a pest of itself if things go on as they have been. The American space agency (interestingly depicted here as an autonomous branch of the Air Force, despite the high public profile of the civilian NASA at the time of The Phantom Planet’s release) obviously can’t have that, so Lansfield’s superior back home orders him to send his best space pilot, Captain Frank Chapman (Dean Fredericks, of The Disembodied and Them!), on a mission to find and study the celestial nuisance. The voyage to Mars on which Chapman was previously scheduled to embark will just have to wait.
Chapman’s search proceeds like a cross between Captain Farragut’s monster hunt in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and the voyage of the titular spacecraft in Rocketship X-M. The captain and his navigator, Lieutenant Ray Makonnen (12 to the Moon’s Richard Weber), start off by following the Pegasus III flight plan, but doing so turns up no sign of anything unusual. Eventually, the astronauts are forced to conclude that their quarry is somehow not bound to any predictable orbit, and they enlarge the scope of their investigations. Unfortunately, this carries them through a magnetic field that scrambles all their instruments, a meteor shower that threatens to destroy the ship, and a swarm of hurtling micrometors that not only disable the rocket, but kill Makonnen and seriously damage Chapman’s breathing equipment when the astronauts venture outside the hull to make repairs. Only then, with the Pegasus IV helplessly adrift, one crewman dead, and the other incapacitated, does the rogue planetoid wander into view. Chapman is naturally in no position to observe this in his semi-delirious state, but far from crashing the ship with its freakish gravity, the planetoid suddenly emits some kind of energy beam which brings the crippled rocket in for a safe landing in the middle of a sandy dale ringed by forbiddingly ragged cliffs. The surviving astronaut recovers sufficiently thereafter to drag himself from his vessel, but given how quickly he lapses back into unconsciousness, I doubt there was much in the way of deliberate thought guiding his actions.
Captain Chapman awakes to the last thing he would ever have expected to see— a tiny man peering into his helmet’s plexiglass visor as if through the domed window of some small building, while several more equally diminutive people watch trepidly from a reasonably safe distance. Even that is nowhere near as weird as what happens when Chapman unthinkingly opens his visor, though. No sooner have Chapman’s lungs filled with the strange alien air than his body begins shrinking! Within moments, the interplanetary castaway is no larger than one of the natives, and the welcoming party (if such it may be called) is hauling him— certainly kicking, if perhaps not literally screaming— off to the caves wherein they make their homes. The next thing Chapman knows, he’s being taken before Sessom (Francis X. Bushman, also of 12 to the Moon), the ruler of the aliens, and Judge Eden (Al Jarvis, a bit-player in The Twonky), their highest juridical authority. The presence of the latter is necessary because the Earth-man, much to his ire and astonishment, is about to face criminal charges.
We’ve already had a hint of Gulliver’s Travels in the circumstances of Chapman’s awakening, but it’s in the trial scene that The Phantom Planet truly detours into Swiftian absurdism. Although the crime for which Chapman stands accused officially has to do with the pummeling that one of the natives received while bringing him in, it’s clear enough that his real offense is being a foreigner— and the sentence handed down when he is inevitably found guilty is to be made “a free citizen of Rhetan!” You haven’t heard the half of it, though. Chapman, horror of horrors, will eventually be expected to choose a mate from among Rhetan’s most eligible young women. In particular, Sessom suggests either the outgoing, blonde, and generally Miss Missouri-ish Liara (Colleen Gray, from The Vampire and The Leech Woman) or the mute but otherwise perfectly delectable Zetha (Dolores Faith, of The Human Duplicators and House of the Black Death). Could even Qusay Hussein have devised a punishment more fiendish?
Actually, there is a downside to Rhetanian citizenship— apart, I mean, from the dismal Burlap Planet Spartanism that characterizes life there. Among the “privileges” of citizenship is that you’re never allowed to leave, which pretty much sucks if you happen to be from… oh, let’s say Earth, perhaps? Also, one of the men of Rhetan seems determined to make himself a pain in Chapman’s ass, mainly on the grounds that he wants Liara for himself. This guy’s name is Herron (Anthony Dexter, of Fire Maidens from Outer Space and— there’s that title again— 12 to the Moon), and he spends the bulk of the movie looking for convenient ways to get his rival killed. Finally, and of the greatest consequence, there are the Solarites, a second race of aliens who perform essentially the same story function as This Island Earth’s Zagons (although they look more like tacky copies of the latter film’s mutants). The Solarites have been at war with Rhetan for who knows how long, intent upon capturing the secrets of Rhetanian gravity-control technology, and unbeknownst to Sessom and his people, they’re gearing up for another major offensive.
To be perfectly honest, I’m having a hard time finding anything to say about The Phantom Planet beyond to reiterate how worn-out and boring it is. Even some of the props and costumes are drearily familiar, having been recycled (along with a sizeable fraction of the cast) from producer Fred Gebhardt’s earlier 12 to the Moon. Matters are not improved by a hero who’s kind of a jerk, two thoroughly uninteresting love interests, and a villain with no very good reason for his villainy. The plot is anemic in the extreme, and Captain Chapman is more a spectator to most of it than an active participant. The dialogue is wretched throughout, alternating between non-sequitur and nonsensical, and the uninvolved and uninvolving performances of everyone in the cast are no help at all. The one thing that sort of salvages The Phantom Planet is that it’s often a surprisingly good-looking movie within the tight constraints of its miniscule budget. The cinematography is nicely moody, verging at times on film noir, and the producers certainly got their money’s worth out of those gorgeous high-resolution photos of the moon. Meanwhile, I’m inclined to suspect that either production designer Robert Kinoshita or somebody working under him had served a stint in the navy or air force, because the Pegasus rockets’ cockpits are commendably cluttered with authentic-looking instruments and electronics. It’s still a far cry from the bridge of the Nostromo, but it’s also a huge advance on the Challenge 142 or the rocketships from Project Moon Base. At the other end of the spectrum, the tragic Solarite creature costume is right up my alley (it resembles something that might have turned up in a second-season episode of “The Outer Limits”), and I got a kick out of the bizarre notion of the space monsters zipping around the solar system in hollowed-out meteors fitted with heat rays and rocket engines. There’s just enough good stuff here to make The Phantom Planet merely mostly a waste of time.