Journey to the 7th Planet

Before we get into this article, let me get something off my chest and, in the process, confess to you all that I am going into this movie with a considerable chip on my shoulder. You see, as can be ascertained from the title, this movie 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 “Uranus” jokes as they can (and believe me, I can make a lot of them). Especially when a movie turns out to be as dull and uneventful as this one, we who regularly engage in discussion of such films need those Uranus jokes to make it through to the end credits. Now some movies will try and head you off at the pass, using the alternate “Urine Us” pronunciation, but as you can see, even though it is less versatile, that pronunciation comes with its own cargo of hilarity.

So it was with barely contained boiling rage that I discovered Journey to the 7th Planet is not only dull, but it also steals, like a horrible goblin in the night, the one ray of joy it could have otherwise delivered to us. It does this by making up a wholly new pronunciation for Uranus, something that goes a little something like “Your Ahhh Niss.” What the hell? That’s not any fun! 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? The hierarchy for getting to decide how we pronounce space stuff begins with the United States, then goes to Russia. I guess China sent that one guy up there, but while that’s impressive as far as first steps go, they’re taking their first steps when the U.S. and the Russians consider space travel about as exotic as UPS shipping. Shit’s just part of the average work week, son.

So is there anyone else? The Greeks, maybe? I mean, they did contribute quite a bit to ancient astronomy. But then, they also saw a bear in a random bunch of stars, so I don’t think we need to be encouraging people who smoked so much weed. Everyone else is pretty much just hitching rides with the United States and the Russians. So the point is, whoever came up with Your Ahhh Niss gets disqualified. Nice going, Sid Pink. Not only did you bore me with your movie, but you also stymied any opportunity I may have had to make jokes about John Agar guiding his rocket down the cracks of Uranus. Thanks a lot, Sid. You’re lucky I like Reptilicus and Angry Red Planet so much, or I’d come over there and kick you in Uranus.

But no, forgive me. My blood is to angried up by this Uranus thing (Uranus blood is not something I otherwise want to discuss), and I’m slinging about insults that I don’t really mean. Journey to the 7th Planet, it is true, is pretty dull and boring, but it’s dull and boring in that inexplicably watchable way I find so much bad science fiction from the 50s and 60s to be. I don’t know what it is about these movies. 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 despite there being so little offered up for enjoyment. 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 I 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 forgot humans can’t breathe underwater!”

Journey to the 7th Planet has pretty much all of these things in spades, though it does lack a plucky, naive 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 somewhat bored, manly, old-school scientist-astronauts sitting around in the control room of their rocketship while lights blink on and off. This particular group of interstellar adventurers includes b-movie legend John Agar, best known to the rest of the world as the founder of the Beaver, Arkansas amusement park John Agar’s Land of Kong. Right? Everyone remembers that place. It appears early in the running time of It’s Alive, and it’s 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.

The Land of Kong eventually changed its name to Farwell’s Dinosaur Park, and finally Dinosaur World. It closed in 2005, which is a shame, because it looks like it was pretty fabulous, being at the time one of the largest roadside attraction dinosaur parks in the United States. I regret having never visited the place, even though I have gone back and forth across the United States visiting, among other things, plenty of dinosaur parks (including Dinosaur Land, in White Post, Virginia, that has its own Kong).

If you are a fan of b-movies, it’s likely you don’t need any sort of introduction to John Agar. So I’m not going to give much of one, other than to say that he started his career appearing in A film material 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 scifi genre fare, appearing in everything from Tarantula (his first true b-movie in my eyes, as Revenge of the Creature still clung to the tattered remnants of the respect people once had for Universal’s classic monster movies) 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 comes from the “predictably dependable” school of acting, in that he rarely turns in what could be called a poor of half-hearted performance, mainly because his acting style was somewhat stiff anyway and well suited for the role he frequently filled: stoic man of reason. He could be charming when he needed to be, as he was in Tarantula, but more often than not, he was merely a solid presence, someone you could depend on to deliver pseudo-scientific babble with total conviction without losing a beat, even when he had to pause so he could punch a mole man in the face or set a giant spider on fire.

Journey to the 7th Planet comes to us smack dab in the middle of his career and features Agar in a relatively bland and forgettable role, though that’s no real fault of his own. He’s one of a team of UN astronauts bound for the inhospitable, gaseous surface of Uranus (now look, 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 that is known far and wide for their space program — Denmark — and among whom actor Carl Ottosen is the most recognizable of the actors to anyone who is only familiar with Danish actors that appeared in genre movies distributed in the United States. I assume Denmark has other actors who appeared in other movies besides Reptilicus, but I’m not so sure you should really care, even if you are Danish. Ottosen appeared the year before in Sid Pink’s Danish monster movie extravaganza, Reptilicus (he also had a bit part in the German krimi The Fellowship of the Frog, but I can’t remember what the role was). 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 often tends to do. Is it cool? I mean, you can kind of ncht he rocket down to Uranus and see what the reaction it is, I guess. If everything seems cool, then…but umm, where was I? Oh yeah, the spaceship. First, everyone blacks out for what they assume to be a few seconds. While they are out, a glowing, wavering light effect dances around the ship and gloats about how they are so gonna get it when they land, or something to that effect. When they awaken, one of the crewmembers who was furiously fondling and contemplating an apple notices that the fruit has completely rotted and turned into a plum pit or something, 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, but that’s just me judging them based on fruit, something I tend to do a lot even though I took that class at work that warned against being bigoted toward people based on the type of rotten fruit they keep at their desk. One has to be impressed, whatever the case, by the man’s ability to depserately cling to a single fruit while unconscious, where as most people probably would have dropped it. Dude loves the apples.

When they land on the surface of the planet, which they expected to be frozen 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 — or nearest he can remember — 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, more impressively, the forest ends suddenly with what appears to be a black force field (because it was really just 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 the home to a hideous pulsating blob that likes to taunt people and use its psychic powers to conjure up images from their subconscious mind. Somehow, this is supposed to enable the brainlike 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. In fact, the thing 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 foiling his 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, tat 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 getting’ 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 that Uranus is actually a wasteland covered with razor-sharp, multi-colored spikes and sparkly quicksand that will suck you down into the depths of Uranus, never to return. The brain 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 the statement, “If you don’t eat it, you will insult the chief,” directly applies to me. I’m scared of it, but I don’t really think you can parlay my fear of tooth loss or having to eat mushy bugs into conquering a planet, at least not a planet that has Bear Grylls at its disposal.

When their initial foray into the realm of the brain thing proves futile, the guys bully the imaginary hot chicks until they get all the info they need to mount a more successful final attack. Which means that even when the brain thing conjures up hot women to do his bidding, he can’t keep them from divulging all his secrets. Why would imaginary women stolen from the memories of the astronauts 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 he’s going to take over Earth? How…quaint. 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 7th Planet isn’t very good. It moves at a snail’s pace toward a predictable conclusion. The characters are pretty dull. The special effects are pretty 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 Cherrios. (What? Like you don’t consume that when doing your vacuuming, too)

The movie comes to us courtesy of a guy named Sid Pink, one of the first true independent filmmakers. Journey to the 7th 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. I think both Angry Red Planet and Reptilicus are genuinely 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 7th 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 7th Planet tones the barry 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 7th 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, as I said, was one of the first of the true independent filmmakers. He 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 otehr hand, was under the impression that his ghoulies were state of the art and totally awesome. Arkoff scrambled to have some footage scrapped and 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.

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 infinitely better with the same screenwriter, but that’s Mario Bava. What can you do? Pink’s direction is generally competent and unobtrusive, and he does what he can to conceal just how limited in scope the film is. The best moment, besides the laughable rat-dinosaur monster and the ample cleavage 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.

But then again, 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. When are our astronauts finally going to start packing? I know the cosmonauts do, or at least they did, owing to the fact that one of the Soyuz capsules of old returned to earth somewhere on the steppes, and the crew was set upon by wolves; ever since then, Soyuz capsules were kitted out with a shotgun or two.

Melchior’s script is a good idea poorly written. 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 7th Planet is going to get you very far in life. I think Melchior 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. In particular, Melchior leans very heavily on Ray Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles, but I’m not going to go into detail on that, because honestly, I haven’t read The Martian Chronicles. I did see the mini-series when it first aired, but that was in elementary school, and all I remember is a guy in sparkly Sun Ra robes with a traffic cone on his arm.

I love Pink and his movies. Well, I love Angry Red Planet and Reptlicus, and I think Journey to the 7th Planet has a certain peculiar charm despite being pretty feeble and admittedly a tad boring. Pink just loves this stuff. Whether as a huckster or a true believer, he loves making these movies, and he doesn’t let any limitations — least of all, those on his own ability as a writer or director — stop him from making his movies. This frustrates a lot of people. Pink, especially when working with Melchior, has a lot of good ideas. Indeed, Journey to the 7th Planet is full of good ideas poorly (or dully) realized. If Pink was better at his job, he’d be turning out sci-fi classics. But he wasn’t better than he was, and so his work remains relegated to the ranks of curiosities and side notes.

I suppose that’s what he gets for setting a film about astronauts with raging libidos probing a mysterious planet populated by wanton Scandinavian chicks on Uranus, but then pronouncing it Your Ahhh Niss.

Release Year: 1962 | Country: United States, Denmark | Starring: John Agar, Carl Ottosen, Peter Monch, Ove Sprogoe, Louis Miehe-Renard, Ann Smyrner, Greta Thyssen, Ulla Moritz, Mimi Heinrich, Annie Birgit Garde, Bente Juel | Writer: Sid Pink, Ib Melchior | Director: Sid Pink | Cinematographer: Age Wiltrup | Music: Ib Glindemann, Ronald Stein | Producer: Sid Pink, Sam Arkoff