There was a time when my life was unsullied by Doomsday Machine; the air was sweeter, the stars shone brighter, food didn't taste like unsalted cardboard. In short, I was still able to experience joy. Then came the fateful day I loaded the tape in my VCR, and horror began to unspool itself across my TV screen.
Where to begin? So many moments of Doomsday Machine rush to the fore, like doomed passengers trying to get to lifeboats, that their shouting and wailing threaten to drown out all rational thought. I logged onto the Internet Movie Database, attempting to find some touchstone, some reason for the brain-numbing exercise that is Doomsday Machine, only to find that its entry is amazingly sketchy, as if no one could keep their mind on the movie long enough to organize pertinent details without doing harm to themselves in a fit of depression. So I'm afraid some of my casting assignments are going to be sheer guesswork, when I have tried at all. My apologies to all involved.
Now let us lock away all sharp instruments and potentially dangerous drugs, and start from the very beginning. And may God have mercy on our souls.
First, the block letters that proclaim the movie's title do absolutely nothing to prepare you for what is to follow, as they are plain, unadorned sans serif white letters. In fact, the first thing they bring to mind is an absolute lack of imagination, such as you would normally find in the titles of a made-for-tv movie, or a high school hygiene film. This does not dissolve, but cuts to a star field, with a lot of planets in rather close proximity. The rest of the titles roll as moody electronic music plays. Rather familiar electronic music, come to think of it. I know I've heard this stuff before, and it brings to mind.... hmmm.... flying saucer? Bridges over unimaginably deep pits..... ray guns playing "Jingle Bells"*.....
Oh, for Pete's sake! That's the music from Forbidden Planet!
Hang loose, oh my brothers, for this is not the only instance of cinematic kleptomania in Doomsday Machine. Let us just go with the flow and note all the familiar names that play before us. Starring ... BOBBY VAN. Oh dear. When the Odious Comic Relief gets top billing, you know this is going to go down hard. MALA POWERS. GRANT WILLIAMS - hey, I like him! Maybe this won't be so bad after all. Special Visual Effects by DAVID L. HEWITT. Forget what I said about it not being so bad. Hewitt doesn't do bad work, he just does not-bad work for bad movies. Cinematography by STANLEY CORTEZ? Wait a minute - Magnificent Ambersons Stanley Cortez? Flesh and Fantasy Stanley Cortez? Yes, and truth to tell, Navy vs. the Night Monsters Stanley Cortez. This is most likely going to require my complete toolkit of cynicism and general meanness to get through.
It might be noted that partway through the titles, the camera begins moving through the starfield, which is a nice, unexpected effect as the planets move to either side of us. Unfortunately, this also draws our focus to the spheres, making their sculpted clay origins far too obvious. At least one still bears finger marks.
Finally, the movie starts, and we find ourselves at the entrance of a super-secret Red Chinese base. At least, that is what we will assume this place is from the following events; given no establishing shots or explanation, I have to say it looks pretty much like the back door to my old high school, save that my old high school did not have a single guard posted there with a German Shepherd. Sneaking about is a Female Super Spy (identifiable by her total black ensemble, even though it is broad daylight), who gets rid of the guard by tossing a cat over the wall. Both the guard and the dog take off after it - I assume the human tags along in case the dog can't handle the cat - and our Super Spy is in.
Her first act is to visit a locker room and appropriate a lab coat with ID still conveniently attached. This done, she has to deal with a female worker who appears in the room under some pretense or another - heaven knows there's no reason for anyone to actually be in a locker room - after all, her only purpose is to stand there, looking cow-eyed in the wrong direction, so our Super Spy may grab her from behind and strangle her with her own pigtails. As she is a Super Spy, this act takes a mere five seconds or so. Leaving the body there (where it could be easily discovered), she gets into a nearby elevator, nodding to the uniformed operator. On a lower floor, another lab coat enters the elevator and kills the operator, taking his key so the two may go to a special floor. On this floor is the titular device, a nuclear weapon enclosed in a steel cage. As the Super Spy snaps away with her Minox camera, we are told that only two people have the key to the cage (and one is Chairman Mao!), and that the device is set to go off in 72 hours.
But to our Super Spy and three Suits watching a slide show of the Doomsday Machine. These are obviously important Suits, as not only does one smoke a pipe, but there are flags in the room. As anyone who has ever had to sit through one of the damned things knows, it is practically impossible to make a slide show interesting, so the filmmakers try to compensate by having ever more dramatic library music play under the images. After a seeming eternity of industrial images, one of the Suits opines that this is a device which will act upon the geological faults in the Earth's crust, probably destroying everything (and our time limit at this point is 51 hours - Super Spy should have taken the blasted film to Walmart). Another Suit picks up the phone to call the President. The Suits deliver their lines in such a dreadful, flat manner, that I suspect we are looking at the movie's backers.
So now it's time to go the base for the Astra project, a two-year manned mission to Venus. Breathe a sigh of relief now, because some actual actors are about to pick up the reins. Oops, spoke too soon, as we meet Col. Price (James Craig?), the leader of the mission, and he is rock solid - which is to say he delivers his lines like a piece of granite. But we do have our navigator and mission dickhead, appropriately named Curt (Grant Williams), whom we meet when he is loudly complaining about millions of dollars being spent to send "a clown" into space. As the clown is Danny (Bobby Van), we immediately feel a rapport with Curt, and get fooled into hoping that he may be our hero. There's also Dr. Perry (Henry Wilcoxon), about whom there is some concern, as he is getting up in years. The rest of the seven man crew don't matter.
The reason they don't matter is, as the crew is thrown into chaos by their launch time being constantly advanced, they are also introduced to three women, Katie (Laurie Scott), Dr. Marian (Anne Grant?) (at last! A sci-fi female doc whose name isn't Lisa!) and Major Bronski (Mala Powers?), a Soviet cosmonaut (and, as Danny helpfully informs us, "the first woman on the Moon!" At least he didn't say, "Jeepers!"). These women are to replace the three zeros on the mission (At least one of whom does not gain any sympathy by quipping, "Women! Now I've seen everything!"). Price would like some answers, but the accompanying Brass (and one Suit in a serious hat) inform him that there's no time, as their launch has been moved up again, safety checks be damned. "There must be some practical purpose to having women along," Danny says naively. "You mean like having your socks washed?" says Dr. Perry, even more naively. Ah, the humor of 1966...er, 1975 (as Danny also helpfully informed us)! My knee is sore from slapping!
The launch goes off as planned, if hurriedly, everyone strapped securely into their futuristic La-Z-Boy recliners. Except for Dr. Perry, who, as anticipated, is having trouble coping with the gravitational forces (what? They expected problems with his health and they didn't replace him?) Dr. Marian calls over the intercom that Perry needs oxygen (the wimmenfolk have to ride in the back), and Price snaps back, "Let me run this ship!" Trouble is, they need Perry's calculations to hit their vector (or something). Bronski disobeys orders and unstraps herself, bringing an oxygen mask up to the cockpit, but as she is a Dumb Ol' Gurl (and a Soviet one, to boot), she needs Danny's help to open the valve. Perry's life is saved, he gets the proper numbers to Curt, and Bronski makes it back to her La-Z-Boy with seconds to spare. Yeah, good goin', Price, you jerk. Now that things have calmed down a bit, we can notice that for a spacecraft, the Astra has an astounding amount of wasted wall space.
Our hastily thrown-together crew starts to get to know each other. Curt, for instance, doesn't like the Russian, but he does like Katie, especially when he comes upon her after a shower (Things I Did Not Know #32: Female astronauts pack fuzzy pink bathrobes). Katie returns his come-on vibes; this against a backdrop of Astra trying to figure out the sudden shuffling of the crew. Dr. Marian and Bronski know more than they're letting on; it's Dr. Perry who sums it up: "Those Pentagon computers are pretty sharp..." he figures the mixed gender mission is a safety option amidst the heightening tensions back on Earth. Meantime, Price has time to run that tired old "Without your glasses, you're a very pretty lady doctor" routine on Dr. Marian*. And Bronski and Danny strike up a friendship. Perry, being older, of course has no sex drive (goldarned whippersnapper script writers!).
Having figured out the uber-purpose to their mission, our crew starts using the Backward Peek-a-tron to spy on Earth... conveniently so, as they are watching when the Doomsday Machine goes off. Even for the far-flung future of 1975, the Backward Peek-a-tron is a marvel of technology, as it can effortlessly flip between a global view of Earth blowing up to a ground-level close-up of tidal waves engulfing a city (they probably sprang for the extra Stock Footage Insertion Option). "It's gone," Price whispers, which seems a bit premature, as we are still watching tsunamis eat away at models. When the Earth finally does blow up (a rapid cut from a flashing globe to a brief fireball), our actors are called upon to emote. Now, acting out that you have just seen your home planet explode and realizing you have no way back is not an enviable assignment for any actor; there are a handful of thespians that could pull it off well, and sadly, none of them are in this movie. Bobby Van, in particular, should never try to emulate tears.
As a digression, one wonders why the US government didn't share the information with any other govs - particularly, say MI5, as we are pretty certain that, even with only 51 hours on the clock, 007 would have found a way to save the world. Not to mention, as Dr. Strangelove points out in his movie, what's the use of having a Doomsday Machine if you keep it a secret? This also begs the question of why Mao blows up the world - 'course in 1967, you had to be crazy to be a Commie. Bah. Now my head hurts.
The dice thus cast (and with great finality, no less), Price has a little meeting to enlighten the (very) few remaining crew members who haven't figured out their new mission of restocking the human race. Katie responds bitterly, "I've gotten myself railroaded into a stud poker game!", which is a surprising statement coming from a woman who earlier, when she was admonished to take the mission seriously because it was 'no hayride', coquettishly replied, "What could be more serious than a hayride?"
Perry discovers that the radiation from the exploding Earth has become quite extreme, and has Curt and Danny "put up the radiation shielding", by which I mean they unroll some shiny fabric and hang it on a wall. Perry nods, satisfied. "That's cut it 5%," he tells the two. Curt meantimes is getting a bit crispy around the edges, snapping at Danny and panicking during a sudden maneuver to get them out of the path of a blazing chunk of burning Earth. He also continues to try to make time with Katie, only to rebuffed again and again by the suddenly non-compliant meteorologist/slut. So, you see, those Pentagon computers actually are pretty sharp - they certainly matched up the two sullen, whiny ones.
Perry continues his examination of the radiation problem and comes to a sobering conclusion: given their current exposure rate, they will all become sterile by the time they reach Venus; goodbye, human race. The answer, according to his cold equations, is to go on constant burn (as if the ship weren't already, to judge by the exterior shots), using up all their fuel. "It's not like we'll need it for the return trip," quips Danny. "Shut up," explains Curt. The real problem is, even though they can use the fuel slated for the return trip, the only way they can outrun the radiation and have enough left for the landing is if there are fewer of them. Three, to be exact.
Perry programs the computer to choose which four of them shall die, but Curt sneaks a peek at the results, and when he finds that he is not one of the chosen survivors, finally has the breakdown he's been building up to, and assaults the recalcitrant Katie (who has been chosen). Katie seeks shelter in the airlock, to no avail, as Curt forces his way in. A struggle ensues, during which Katie is thrown against the button which opens the outer door.
We might surmise that there would be some sort of safety interlock or cover for something so important as this button, but none of us are rocket scientists, and we are wrong. What is provided is a nice plaque which basically proclaims, DO NOT PRESS THIS BUTTON. Thus Curt and Katie find themselves hanging from wires (apparently, atmosphere is somehow linked to gravity) and bleeding from the eyes. Actually, a fairly unpleasant sequence.
The crew is understandably sobered by the deaths, and Price decides that no one else is going to die on his watch, casting aside the computerized lottery results. Instead, they start jettisoning every bit of excess baggage (no, Bobby Van stays). Once again, I must cite my pursuit of Mad Science rather than Rocket Science, as it seems to me that such a course of action is better suited to an earthbound adventure, such as Around the World in Eighty Days, or something involving zeppelins.
The big moment arrives, and the button is pressed to start the countdown for the next stage's ignition. However, the Suits shouldn't have skipped those safety checks, as the prior stage isn't disengaging. Danny volunteers to go out and fix things; when Dr. Marian asks if he'll be all right, a depressed Bronski explains that he's just signed his own death warrant.
So Danny winds up hanging on a wire outside the ship, carrying some manner of big rifle-like gun. The purpose of the gun remains unexplained, as Danny begins working on the seam between the two stages with a common crowbar (given the government's track record on such things, the crowbar probably cost several hundred thousand dollars). Now, my Suspension of Disbelief had organized, called in Union Representatives and gone on strike quite some time before, so I found myself pondering, not the Mystery of the Space Crowbar, but Why Was Danny Doomed? It is assumed by the characters that he will remain on the jettisoned stage, a castaway on a raft, but there are a number of ways Danny has a chance at survival. Mainly, since Danny is not using any sort of jets to maneuver around the ship (just the wire attached to his back), the ship must have any number of places to tether an astronaut on a EVA (Extra-Vehicular Activity to you laymen). Danny could have lashed himself to the main ship and gotten back in after the stage separation - risky, but better than out-and-out suicide.
None of that matters too much, as Danny finds out he's not packing enough mass to prise apart the two stages, or whatever it is he's attempting (and what's with the rifle thing? I assume it's for Danny to kill himself, rather than suffocate slowly; then, I also suspect I'm pouring more thought into this movie than the filmmakers ever did). Enter Bronski, who has decided to help her new friend and keep him company while he dies. The stages separate, and Danny and Bronski find themselves adrift among the stars.
All may not be gloom and doom, however, as they spot a ship floating not too far away - we are led to believe that this is an earlier Russian Venus mission that went missing, although it is patently not a Russian craft, it's obviously an Apollo vehicle. Danny and Bronski push off for their new best friend... and it is here that Doomsday Machine takes a turn from the merely bad to the f*cking disastrous.
The craft's door opens to admit our two wayward astronauts, and our suspicions are first prickled by noticing that the spacesuits are a little...different. Danny opines that there should be power, as the craft has solar cells... and it's not Bobby Van's voice! Neither of the two actors supply their voices for the remainder of the movie. Now, Doomsday Machine makes use of a lot of footage appropriated from other movies - I'll get on to this later - but our first really major clue that this is from another movie is not the metamorphosing suits or the fake Danny and Bronski voices... it's when they find a frozen corpse at the controls and the chair he's sitting in is not a La-Z-Boy recliner... it looks like it might actually belong on a spaceship.
This segment is presented uncut, without any edits, as the fake Danny sits down at the controls and sets about the making the ship work. Never mind that this is a Russian ship, and Bronski should be doing this, it's 1967 and she should be washing socks, remember? Fake Danny's re-starting the ship is presented in real time, with only the occasional snippet of dialogue... what we in the trade refer to as dead air. This is wildly unnecessary, as it had been established earlier that Bronski was close to the dead pilot, but the filmmakers probably felt if they supplied more dialogue, we might begin to suspect that they weren't using the actual actor's voices.
Fake Danny gets in touch with the Astra and prepares to home in on their signal, so they can all go to Venus together, but then loses touch with them; anxious minutes pass as the anonymous space-suited figures continue to move out of sync with any dialogue that may trickle out of the movie. Then a voice heavy with reverb announces, "Last of man! The ship you seek to communicate with no longer exists!" This Voice tells us that Astra "no longer exists" twice, probably because they expected the viewer's brain to be experiencing the equivalent of a muscle cramp at this time.
The voice goes on to say that It is the Collected Minds of Venus, that they saw the Earth Blow Up Real Good, and that Earthlings are basically not welcome there. They won't cause the Fake Danny and Bronski to "no longer exist", but rather something "great and wonderful" awaits them "beyond the rim of the universe". After another eternity, the engines on the Russian Apollo fire, and we find ourselves once again in the clay planet starscape of the beginning of this picture. After a minute or so, somebody finally decides to put up a THE END card. The end.
If nothing else, Doomsday Machine provides a rejuvenating experience. After suffering through the ending, I found myself a five year-old again, jumping up and down and screaming, "CHEATER! CHEATER!!!" at the TV screen.
After taking a draw off my rescue inhaler and calming down, I began to assay the weighty task of unraveling the mystery of Doomsday Machine. Not merely the mystery of why such a twisted, crippled wreck of a movie is even allowed to exist, but how it got that way.
After all, it's not like the central portion of the movie is terrible - the scenes on the base and in the ship are not much worse than many low-budget films, but are only rendered mythically bad by the near-constant intrusion of footage from other movies once the mission gets underway. As the Astra leaves Earth orbit, it passes a space station of some sort - in fact, it passes it several times - an event unreferenced in the dialogue that plays out underneath it. Astra itself begins as a stock footage Saturn V rocket, then miraculously metamorphoses into a Starduster class finned rocketship. The number of fins it possesses will change over the course of the film, though for a good twenty minutes it remains constant as the Astra assumes the form of the spacecraft from The Wizard of Mars, which could form the basis for David L. Hewitt's credit at the top of the movie, for all I know. Astra? The ship would be better dubbed Proteus.
The constant, almost careless slugging in of appropriated footage is complimented by the dreadful bookend scenes, especially the maddeningly torpid end sequence, which squanders any and all momentum the movie may have built up - squanders? Nay, waylays and beats it to death with a club - and the segment concerning the discovery of the Doomsday Machine itself, which is chock-full of more bad acting than local TV commercials. Our central story is, by and large, peopled by competent actors, including (surprisingly enough) Casey Kasem as the Mission Announcer and a young Mike Farrell (later of M*A*S*H* and Providence) as a reporter (and no, his basic delivery hasn't changed in 30 years).
I was originally disappointed that Grant Williams was not playing the lead (as he has done so quite well many times in the past), but I eventually came to realize that Curt needed a fairly accomplished actor to pull off; the Strasberg-trained Williams filled this bill. Williams' next stop after this was Al Adamson's Brain of Blood, and it was a rare actor that could emerge from the Land of Adamson unharmed; after this last movie, Williams vanished from the movie landscape. As a bit of a fan, I can only wonder, what happened?
Aorry, it is easy to get distracted from my main subject. The point I was attempting to make is that the end segment and the Red Chinese base opening play out like later additions appended to an unfinished film; although there is footage of the remaining crew on the Astra reacting to Danny's broadcast from the Russian craft, there is not a scrap of film involving Van or Powers on what would have been another, costly set. Thus I feel that the major portion of the film ran out of money (or ran afoul of any number of setbacks that can kill a film), and was picked up later by someone who thriftily produced the opening sequences utilizing existing sets and friends, and hired a minor league Roger Corman to yank footage out of other (possibly foreign) films to pad out the remainder of the running time - and supply us with that dismal, out-of-left field ending.
The resulting mess is a shambling, Frankenstein's monster of a movie, stitched together poorly, and shot through with enough electricity and adrenalin to make it dance in a ghastly simulacrum of life, with the hopes that the audience might feel enough pity to toss a few pennies at it rather than light torches and demand the monster be destroyed. It has damned little entertainment value and serves only to demean itself and its audience.
After I watched Doomsday Machine for the first time, I sent Ken an e-mail saying, simply, "Sweet Jesus, that went down hard." His reply was equally concise, stating that he looked forward to my review so he could "enjoy another's agony, like sweet candy." (phrasing approximate) Misery, of course, always loves company, so if you choose to seek out Doomsday Machine, I cannot stop you, but I felt that for the sake of my immortal soul, I had to at least try.
And now that I am finished, I can finally read Ken's version of this review, which is linked below. Sweet candy, indeed.
File this one under "whimper".
- December 26, 1999