Planet on the Prowl / War Between the Planets / Mission Wandering Planet / Il Pianeta Errante / Il Mission Pianeta Errante (1965/1966) *½
Planet on the Prowl, the third of Antonio Margheriti’s Gamma 1 movies, is probably the hardest of the lot to sit though. As its title suggests (unless, of course, you see it under the highly misleading name, War Between the Planets), the film is basically yet another take on the venerable theme of large astral bodies careening through space in the direction of the Earth, a sort of 60’s Italianate When Worlds Collide. It also isn’t even as well made or entertaining as that rather oafish early example of the form.
All over the world, earthquakes, tidal waves, and other seismic and meteorological disasters are wreaking incalculable damage, and the top priority of practically every scientist who is remotely competent to do so is to figure out what’s causing the whole mess. There appears to be nothing geologically amiss, nor is there any noticeable abnormality in the atmosphere, and some researchers have begun to look to outer space for an explanation. One such man is Dr. Schmidt (John Bartha, of Mission Stardust and Eyeball), an astronomer in the employ of the United Democracies Space Command. Schmidt’s theory is that somewhere in our solar system, there is a new planet (or possibly just a very large asteroid) which has drifted across space from some distant star, and that the gravitational interference from the wandering body is behind the Earth’s current troubles. Certainly the disturbances which Schmidt has observed in the asteroid belt between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter— which occur in close synchronicity with the terrestrial disasters— seem to indicate that the answer lies out in the interplanetary void. Schmidt places a call to General Norton (Enzo Fiermonte, who by this point had appeared in all three Gamma 1 movies, each time as a different character) in the hope of convincing him to devote some of the UDSCO’s orbital resources to the search for the unknown object. Norton agrees, and he sends a top-secret coded message outlining Schmidt’s theory and his plan for investigating it to Commander Rod Jackson (Giacomo Rossi-Stuart, from Kill, Baby… Kill! and Caltiki, the Immortal Monster) of Space Station Gamma 1. (We may assume that Planet on the Prowl takes place long after the previous two films, and that Mike Halstead, Connie Gomez, and Jake Jacowitz have either retired or moved well up in the ranks.)
These days, Gamma 1 is far from the harmonious place it was during Halstead’s tenure. Jackson is a surly martinet who spends nearly as much time flouting orders from above as he does cracking down on insubordination from below, and morale is in a state of shambles that can only partially be explained by the desperate situation down on the surface. And perhaps it is understandable to some extent that Jackson would be as big a bastard as he is. After all, he’s in love with communications officer Lieutenant Terry Sanchez (Obretta Colli, from Goliath and the Rebel Slave and Atlas Against the Czar)— evidently the communications console on Gamma 1 is especially reserved for sexy Spanish redheads— but he’s engaged to General Norton’s beautiful but harpy-like daughter, Janet (Halina Zalewska, of An Angel for Satan and Hercules, Samson & Ulysses). Jackson receives his orders to go looking for a rogue planet right about the time that the ongoing macho pissing contest between him and his first officer, Captain Emil Dubrovsky (Pietro Martellanza, from The Bloody Judge and The Paris Sex Murders) is escalating to fistfights-in-the-locker-room levels, which I personally consider to be fantastic timing. These folks seem like they could really use something important to occupy their time just now, you know? Dr. Schmidt reports that Outpost Echo has spotted an unidentified asteroid some 25 miles in diameter in about the right spot for it to be the big interplanetary pest, so Jackson takes a squadron of Jupiter-class rocket cruisers out to have a look.
Meanwhile, General Norton has flown up to the station— with Janet in tow, I might add— since there isn’t a whole lot of point to him hanging around headquarters now that it’s been leveled by an earthquake. Gamma 1 itself is now feeling the effects of Schmidt’s planet, and the scientist estimates that it is only a matter of hours before the Earth is rendered uninhabitable. That makes it more than a little inconvenient that the asteroid reported by Outpost Echo is almost certainly not the culprit, but the picture brightens a bit when Jackson’s recon squadron unexpectedly stumbles upon a second unknown stellar body that might fit the bill. It looks small, but its gravity is proportionately immense— so strong that one of Jackson’s rockets gets ensnared and dragged down to the dense, gelatinous surface, which then swallows it whole. (Strangely, this disproportionate gravity doesn’t seem to cause the astronauts any difficulty after they land, but I’m getting ahead of myself now.) Convinced that this is the killer planet they’ve all been looking for, Captain Dubrovsky (who has just learned that his wife was slain in the latest round of disasters) loads up the fleet flagship with antimatter bombs, and takes it out to rendezvous with the commander; Terry accompanies him mostly because she hasn’t had enough screen-time as yet to justify Ombretta Colli’s salary. But it apparently isn’t possible simply to bomb the shit out of the planet from orbit, and Jackson, Dubrovsky, Sanchez, and Gamma 1 chief engineer Captain Perkinson (Goffredo Unger, of Hercules Against the Moon Men and Devil of the Desert Against the Son of Hercules) are forced to descend to one of the mystery world’s few patches of solid crust and deposit their ordnance below the surface. Needless to say, it complicates matters just a little when it turns out that the wandering planet is actually some sort of living organism, capable of defending itself against the armed intruders.
The trouble with Planet on the Prowl is that apart from that business about the planet being alive, it has nothing to offer that we haven’t seen done better (or at least not in such a desperately illogical manner) at least a dozen times before. Furthermore, that one glimmer of originality doesn’t show up until the home stretch to the closing credits, meaning that most of the movie just plods on by amid a welter of rickety old cliches. The cliches aren’t even presented on interesting or impressive terms, either, for there wasn’t anywhere near enough money in the budget to give us more in the way of disasters than a few clips of stock avalanche and tidal wave footage. You know what that means… scene after scene after scene of one character or another describing the damage inflicted by the rogue planet as it passes through the solar system. Planet on the Prowl also suffers notably from the change in principal cast. Tony Russel, Lisa Gastoni, and Franco Nero may not be anybody’s idea of top-flight acting talent, but Giacomo Rossi-Stuart and company will make you look back on them with fond longing. It doesn’t help that Commander Jackson, Captain Dubrovsky, and Lieutenant Sanchez are all extremely unappealing characters, but the lead players’ performances are, if anything, less appealing still. In the final assessment, the endearingly quirky production design is just about all Planet on the Prowl has going for it, and that simply is not enough.