We’re Here to Explore Uranus

Journey to the Seventh Planet deals with a journey to the planet Uranus, and as anyone can tell you, it is the God-given right of people discussing this planet to make as many jokes as they can. Some movies will try and head you off at the pass, using the alternate “Urine Us” pronunciation, but as you can see, that pronunciation comes with its own cargo of hilarity. So it was with much disappointment that I discovered Journey to the Seventh Planet makes up a wholly new pronunciation for Uranus, something that goes a little something like “Your Ahhh Niss.” What the hell? That’s not even an existing or established alternate pronunciation of the word, as far as I know. Maybe the British pronounce it that way, but when the hell’s the last time a British guy walked on the moon? Nice going, Sid Pink. You stymied any opportunity I may have had to make jokes about John Agar guiding his rocket down the cracks of Uranus.

Journey to the Seventh Planet, it is true, is pretty dull, but it’s dull in that watchable way I find so much middling science fiction from the 1950s and ’60s to be. All you need to do is have a set full of blinking lights, populated by square-jawed astronaut-scientists-adventurers swapping meaningless techno-jargon, and somehow it manages to satisfy me. And heck, if one of those guys is smoking a cigarette while flying a spaceship, or if one of the guys unbuckles himself and floats up to the ceiling while the rest of the crew chuckles about how “Corky forgot there’s no gravity in space,” and that “jaunty hijinks have been concluded” musical sting plays, well then hell, I guess I really don’t have much about which to complain. Well, other than wondering how a guy can go through astronaut training and an extended space flight, and upon arriving at the destination, forget that there’s no gravity in space. That’s like making a scuba diving movie where one of your divers leaps into the ocean without his kit, so everyone can laugh about how “Ha ha! Jacques, he forget humans cannot breathe underwater!”

Journey to the Seventh Planet lacks a mechanic who forgets there is no gravity in space, but it makes up for that by enthusiastically devoting much of its running time to watching a group of bored middle-aged astronauts sitting around in the control room of their rocket while lights blink on and off. This particular group of interstellar adventurers includes B-movie legend John Agar, best known as the founder of the amusement park “John Agar’s Land of Kong” in Beaver, Arkansas . Right? Everyone remembers that place. It appears in It’s Alive, and its signature piece was the giant King Kong statue grasping Faye Wray and, I’m told, a noose from which dangled the Ayatollah Khomeini when such displays were still topical.

Agar began his career in “A” pictures like She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, Fort Apache, and Sands of Iwo Jima. Then there was a string of television work, a starring role in Revenge of the Creature, and before anyone knew it, the man was synonymous with cheap genre fare, appearing in everything from Tarantula to The Mole People to Zontar, the Thing from Venus. He was also married to Shirley Temple at one point in his life, though the marriage didn’t last. Coincidentally, his A-list film career began around about the same time as his marriage to Temple, and it ended pretty shortly after their divorce. Agar came from the “predictably dependable” school of acting. He rarely turned in what could be called a poor of half-hearted performance, mainly because his stiff acting style was well-suited for the role he frequently filled: stoic man of reason. He was a solid presence, someone you could depend on to deliver pseudo-scientific babble with conviction, even when he had to pause so he could punch a mole man in the face or set a giant spider on fire.

In Journey to the Seventh Planet, Agar is one of a team of UN astronauts bound for the inhospitable, gaseous surface of Uranus (just because the movie pronounced it “Your Ahhh Niss” doesn’t mean you have to read it that way; do what thou will). The crew is made up largely of representatives from a country known far and wide for their space program: Denmark. Agar’s matter-of-fact performance fits in pretty well with the rest of the cast, who were pronouncing their lines phonetically without any real idea what they were saying, just so they could have lip movements with which to sync up post-production dubbing by actual English speakers later on.

The crew’s approach to Uranus gets weird quickly, as approaching Uranus sometimes tends to do. First, everyone blacks out for what they assume to be a few seconds. While they are out, a glowing light dances around the ship and gloats about how they are so gonna get it when they land. When they awaken, one of the crew members, who was furiously fondling and contemplating an apple, notices that the fruit has completely rotted, suggesting that they were out far longer than they initially suspected. Being something of an expert on letting fruit lie around and rot, my guess based on the mummified state of that apple is that they were unconscious for a year or so. One has to be impressed, whatever the case, by the man’s ability to desperately cling to a single fruit while unconscious, where as most people probably would have dropped it. Dude loves apples.

When they land on the surface of the planet, which they expected to be ice cold and full of good Uranus stuff like lightning and frozen hells and acid and such, they discover it’s actually a flourishing forest full of ferns and conifers. It looks less like the home of hostile aliens and more like a scene through which Father Christmas would come barreling on his sled, tossing gifts at our flustered adventurers as he zipped by. This turns out to be the case because, as one of the astronauts soon discovers, the forest is an exact replica of the woods in which he played when he was growing up. The others are skeptical until they stumble upon a scene he has described in advance, right down to the rock in the middle of a crystal clear bubbling brook. The fact that something screwy is up is clenched when they discover that the plants have no roots and the forest ends suddenly with what appears to be a black force field (or a sound stage wall). One of the guys foolhardily plunges his hand through the barrier, only to shriek and withdraw it to find his entire arm has been frozen solid. I bet you wish you’d just made the “space has no gravity” blunder instead, don’t ya, smart guy? With that important lesson learned about not blindly thrusting your paw into mysterious force fields on alien planets, the lads settle down in front of a campfire to figure out just what the hell is going on.

What’s going on, of course, is that Uranus is home to a hideous pulsating blob that likes to taunt people and use its psychic powers to conjure up images from their subconscious. Somehow, this is supposed to enable the blob to take over Earth, even though there’s never really much of a show of the creature being able to use this power in any way that would threaten an entire planet. It can’t even move, really. Has this thing ever even been to earth? It knows we have, like, hydrogen bombs and stuff, right? And perhaps spoiling its plan even more is that the men he finds himself having access to aren’t thinking, for the most part, about hideous death and nightmares. No, they’re thinking about hot, scantily-clad, big-bosomed Scandinavian women, as some men will do when exploring Uranus. And so the hideous brain-monster assaults our intrepid heroes with hot, scantily-clad, big-bosomed Scandinavian women, for which the men seem especially grateful. So grateful, in fact, that even though they quickly figure out these women are merely figments of their imagination (because whether or not women you knew back on Earth suddenly appearing on Uranus are real, is such a hard mystery to tackle), they don’t see any real reason to let that stop them from gettin’ some.

Eventually, the men tear themselves away from Spaceboobs Town long enough to don their space suits and venture out beyond the boundary of the force field. It is then that they discover Uranus is actually a wasteland covered with razor-sharp, multi-colored spikes and sparkly quicksand that will suck you down into the depths, never to return. The brain-blob tries to attack them with horrors plucked from their subconscious, but the best these guys can do is a giant tarantula, and as we know, John Agar already knows how to deal with giant tarantulas. The brain also sends an hilarious stop-motion rat-dinosaur thing after them, looking less like a fiend from the blackest pit of subconscious terrors and more like something that would have appeared at Agar’s Land of Kong. Still, at least the brain monster got that much out of them. My own subconscious fears tend to be considerably less dramatic, like having all my teeth suddenly fall out or being in a situation where someone tells me, “If you don’t eat it, you will insult the chief.”

When their initial foray into the realm of the brain thing proves futile, the guys bully the imaginary space ladies until they get all the info they need to mount a more successful attack. Which means that even when the brain thing conjures up busty space women to do its bidding, it can’t keep them from divulging all its secrets. Why would imaginary women stolen from the memories of the astronauts even have any information at all about the brain, and if they are just manifestations of the brain’s psychic powers, why would they be the least bit susceptible to John Agar or Carl Ottosen grabbing them by the shoulder and barking, “Tell me what I want to know!” This brain really thinks it’s going to take over Earth? We’ve been attacked by far greater brains than this. Heck, one of them even tangled with John Agar, so it’s not like he doesn’t know how to deal with brain monsters as adeptly as he deals with giant tarantulas. Between Agar and Doug McClure, there’s not much in the universe that the representatives of the human race haven’t punched in the face.

Journey to the Seventh Planet isn’t very good. It moves at a snail’s pace toward a predictable conclusion. The characters are dull. The special effects are awful, on the rare occasion that they make themselves known. And yet, as you can guess, there is something strangely compelling about the movie. It’s like an album you put on in the background. You don’t really listen to it, but when you notice it’s there, it’s sort of inoffensively pleasant. You really don’t care if you miss a couple songs while you run the vacuum cleaner, but you also don’t mind if you hear a song or two when you sit down for a break of bourbon and Honey Nut Cheerios. (What? Like you don’t consume that while doing your vacuuming, too).

The movie comes to us courtesy of a guy named Sid Pink, one of the great independent filmmakers. Journey to the Seventh Planet forms what I like to think of as the Pink Trilogy, which began in 1960 with Angry Red Planet, continued in 1961 with Reptilicus, and concluded in 1962 with this movie, the most threadbare of the three. Angry Red Planet and Reptilicus are enjoyable movies, though Reptilicus does require one to reach for the fast forward button whenever the “wacky janitor” hijinks fire up. Not surprisingly, Journey to the Seventh Planet has a lot in common with Pink’s earlier Angry Red Planet, not the least of which would be the theme of mentally manipulative aliens none too pleased to see us landing rockets on their planet. Angry Red Planet was a tour de force of Pink’s no-budget cinematic trickery and enthusiasm for dreaming up eye-catching gimmicks then figuring out how to bring them to life without much money. In the case of Angry Red Planet, he used a trick that resulted in footage coming out looking like someone hit the “solarize” button on a camcorder then tinted the whole thing red, purple, or blue. It gave the movie a unique look to be sure, and it had the added benefit of allowing Pink to use remarkably cheap special effects — some of the aliens we see are just still sketches, for crying out loud — that look better because they are so obscured by the optical weirdness. Journey to the Seventh Planet tones the effects down considerably, but it shares the same basic plot as Angry Red Planet, delivered with less glee and goofball oddness. The rat-dinosaur thing is a far cry from the rat-bat-spider monster that appeared in Angry Red Planet and was made forever famous when it adorned the cover of The Misfits’ Walk Among Us album. Say what you will, I always thought the rat-bat-spider monster was awesome. The rat-dinosaur…less so, though I bet if I looked out my portal and saw the rat-dinosaur mounted atop of the rat-bat-spider monster and galloping at me full speed, I’d change my tune pretty quickly.

Pink uses a largely Danish cast and crew for Journey to the Seventh Planet, as he was still in Denmark after the making of Reptilicus and figured he might as well throw together another movie before he went home. Pink sunk his own time and money into the movie, with American International Pictures eventually picking it up for distribution — but not before substantially redoing much of what was handed to them. According to screenwriter Ib Melchior (who wrote a number of enjoyable sci-fi romps, including Angry Red Planet, Robinson Crusoe on Mars, Death Race 2000, and Mario Bava’s Planet of the Vampires), AIP honcho Sam Arkoff was aghast at the quality of monster miniatures that appeared in Pink’s finished movie. Pink, on the other hand, was under the impression that his ghoulies were state-of-the-art and totally awesome. Arkoff scrambled to have some footage replaced (he did the same thing with the music score, replacing the original with previously used tracks composed by Ronald Stein), which is where the rat-dinosaur thing came from. I’d love to see whatever abomination Pink and his crew came up with that was so bad it had to be replaced by this hair-brained monstrosity.

The laser guns the crew wields are realized by scratching scribbles directly onto the film, resulting less in laser effects and more in the look of shooting white goo. Umm, given the Uranus jokes we’ve made, and the fact that this is basically a movie about horny astronauts set upon by gorgeous and willing imaginary women, I don’t want to delve too much further into those laser guns they carry. Other aspects of the film aren’t as laughable, though. Despite being obviously cheap, I like the sets once they venture outside their cozy little make-believe forest. Although he doesn’t lay it on as thick as he did with Angry Red Planet, Pink uses multi-colored lighting and weird structures to create an interesting alien world. Mario Bava, of course, would do it better with the same screenwriter, but that’s Mario Bava. What can you do? Pink’s direction is generally competent, and he does what he can to conceal how limited in scope the film is. The best moment, besides the rat-dinosaur monster and the space lady outfits of the phantom women comes when Carl Ottosen’s Eric is waxing nostalgic about a place back home. As he rattles off his boring story, the rest of the crew look on in amazement as everything he describes fades into existence in the distance. A surefire way to make a boring story more interesting is to have elements of it materialize out of thin air in the background. Keep that in mind next time you tell someone about a dream you had or the last time you were drunk.

Melchior’s script is a good idea poorly written. He was aiming for something intelligent, but it came off, ultimately, like someone who had read better, more thoughtful science fiction and then tried to make it up again. Only instead of being an accomplished writer of science fiction, the guy making it all up again was in middle school. It has little in the way of internal logic. I already mentioned the thing about constructs of the alien brain’s powers being able to rat the brain out when faced with simple questioning, but there’s also things like how the astronauts can use materials from the imaginary forest to fashion weapons they then carry outside the barrier and use to fight the very brain that has created them. But I don’t guess dwelling too terribly deeply on the realism and logic of Journey to the Seventh Planet is going to get you very far in life.

I love Pink and his movies. Well, I love Angry Red Planet and Reptlicus, and I think Journey to the Seventh Planet has a certain charm despite being pretty feeble and admittedly a tad boring. Pink just loved this stuff. Whether as a huckster or a true believer, he loved making these movies, and he didn’t let any limitations — least of all, his own — stop him from making his movies. If Pink had been better at his job, he’d have turned out scifi classics. But he wasn’t better, and so his work remains relegated to the ranks of curiosities and side notes. I suppose that’s what he gets for pronouncing it Your Ahhh Niss.

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