The Bad Movie Report



Well, come on, with a title like that, we've just got to watch this movie.

Some of you will recall that I mentioned this film way back in The Wizard of Mars. It turns out that Space Monster had more titles than your average drive-in movie. Originally titled as Space Probe Taurus, it's also been known as First Woman Into Space, Flight Beyond the Sun, and most disturbingly, Voyage Into the Sun. What brain surgeon came up with the last title mercifully remains unknown. Thing is, this was never a drive-in movie. Imagine my surprise when I discovered it was a made for TV movie. Well, everybody else seemed to know that, but it took me by surprise.

A helpful narrator kicks things off by informing us that Man has gone beyond "the planet Mars, and Jupiter... Saturn! And countless others!" and is in fact setting his sights on the galaxies of Andromeda and "Triangula". He later informs us that this is "sometime in the year 2000", which just goes to show you that since 1965 we have been nothing but a bunch of goddamn lollygaggers.

By way of providing something of a backstory, we begin with the fate of probe ship Faith I, which has had the bad luck to land on a planet with not only a caustic atmosphere, but radiation "beyond roentgens!" The sole surviving member of the crew radios Mission Control, relating the ship's sorry fate and begging them to use the Remote Destruct, as the ship's controls are completely buggered and his agony is too great. Mission control complies, blowing Faith I to smithereens.

Is this how you call room service?Now, I only recently watched noted cinematic barf bag The Crawling Hand, which opens with a remarkably similar moment. In both cases the DESTRUCT button is situated on a control panel amongst other buttons, with no safety cover or other nicety, merely a label marked DESTRUCT. This seems to me to be simply asking for trouble, but hey - I ain't no rocket scientist.

Science marches on, and soon we are witness to the launch of Hope I, this time bound to explore the planet Taurus. At least I think it's Taurus, as everyone insists on pronouncing it "Tyros". Anyway, General Stillwell (wait... isn't NASA a civilian organization?) is only too happy to tell the news media about the innovations of Hope I, the best being that the various chambers aboard the ship are spherical and will rotate to accommodate the ship's orientation: doors are available for when the craft is horizontal while in flight, and ladders for when it lands and is vertical.

I thought this was unconscionably cool when I first saw this movie as a kid. As an adult, when the general mentions that artificial gravity is involved, I wonder why the orientation of the ship matters at all.

Credenzas...of the FUTURE!But never mind that, let's meet our crew. First, there's Cap'n Hank (James B. Brown), our square-chinned hero, and the sole military man aboard. Dr. John Andros (Baynes Barron), who is his own PR man, constantly reminding us how the book he writes about this mission is going to make him rich. "Doc" Martin (Russ Bender), the elder scientist aboard (and who is going to subject us to more lame footwear jokes, just like the scientist in Reptilicus). And Dr. Lisa (Francine York), The Chick.

Dramatic tension is scored right off the bat, as Cap'n Hank feels that "on a ship carrying only four crew, there is no room for a woman", and Dr. Lisa feels that a goodly portion of the billion dollars spent for this mission went for larger helmets to accommodate Hank's "fat head". "Ha ha! Deadlier than the male!" chimes in Doc Martin.

Insert marital aid joke here.Ah, enough of this light-hearted shilly-shally. We've space to explore! And right on cue... another spaceship! After verifying that there are no other Earth ships in the vicinity, Hank and Andros don their spacesuits and jet over to the mysterious vessel. One big cue that this is an alien ship, besides the fact that it looks like the clubhouse of the Legion of Super Heroes, is the fact that the airlock, in fact the entire ship, is wide open to the vacuum of space.

And now, a moment to contemplate the spacesuits. One of the reasons to Hey, Hank...does this make me look fat?watch movies of this sort is to see what the suits look like (in my opinion, anyway). Each space movie, you see, tries to put its own spin on spatial outerwear. In the case of Space Monster, the suits are predictably baggy, but the spherical helmets do give a nice field of view. My major cavil is the backpacks, which seem to be made of three oxygen tanks. (Actually, in this sequence, we find that the bottom two are a jet pack) But the top tank is connected to the helmets by what seems to be a longish piece of unprotected vacuum cleaner hose. It's the most dangerous looking piece of space hardware I've seen since that episode of The Time Tunnel in which moon walking astronauts had to carry their breathing apparatus like a briefcase, again connected to their suit via the high-tech VC hose.

Ah, but I digress (what? Me? Surely not!). Inside the ship, Hank and Andros find many budget conscious alienBlah!  Blah blah blah! wonders, including the alien itself. It was this creature that caused me to begin my search for Space Monster back during my viewing of The Wizard of Mars. Not only is the creature recycled from that film, but it attempts to communicate with our astronauts by rapidly sticking its tongue in and out! Hank extends his open hand to the creature (no, no, you idiot! Stick out your tongue!), with the result that the alien jumps Andros and attacks that oh-so-vulnerable air hose. Hanks does what he has to, and uses that fancy gun he's been carrying around, revealing it to be nothing more than a tricked-up .45 automatic (which actually kinda makes sense...) (extra credit essay question: would a conventional handgun work in a vacuum? I've heard it both ways...)

ANYWAY. With the alien's death, the ship's power core seems to go berserk, forcing Hank to blow it up before it falls into Earth's gravity well. Then there's some After Failed First Encounter downtime for our crew, during which Andros makes a play for Dr. Lisa, and Dr. Lisa and Cap'n Hank attempt to mend fences. Then, it's time for our Mandatory Meteor Shower (hey! These are on fire! Cool!) Hank activates the ship's forcefield to get them through, but somehow this and the impact of the meteors seems to put a brick on Hope I's accelerator, as it goes wildly offcourse on full burn; as Dr. Lisa later estimates, at least a million miles. Now that's a rocketship!

The incident has also damaged the ship's computers, so now we're in a pretty mess, and the best strategy is thought to be to find someplace to set down for repairs and to allow the power core to "regenerate". Luckily, the scriptwriter is on our heroes' side, and a planet immediately presents itself, which, remarkably enough, is three-quarters water (sound familiar?). Of course, this also makes landing tricky, as they overshoot the landmass and land in the ocean, which doesn't seem too troublesome for the plucky spacecraft.

Hi!  I'm delicious in a red sauce!  Come on out!What could be troublesome is that Hope I is attracting the attention of some of the local fauna: giant crabs, to be precise. And here we see one of the problems with filming the actor scenes first and the FX later. Dr. Lisa moans, "What a horrible looking creature! What is it?" "I think it's some species of crab," answers Dr. Andros. DUH.

That evening, Hank and Dr. Lisa finally make amends and agree to be boyfriend and girlfriend. While working on the computers, Hank and Andros get into a fight; Andros feels their predicament is Hank's fault, and Hank feels that Andros is nothing more than an empty glory hound. Doc Martin steps in (lame footgear joke!) and calms everybody down. Dr. Lisa's tests prove that the water is drinkable, the air is breathable, and Andros puts on his scuba gear to go get some samples from the land.

The force field is employed to stun the crabs so Andros can safely get away; unfortunately, they miss the gill man on loan Well, at least he got to make another movie.from War Gods of the Deep, who waylays Andros on his return trip (what is it about this guy and aliens?). Andros manages to chase it off with an underwater flare and struggles his way back to the ship, revealing that the planet is habitable by man before he expires. Everyone mourns Andros' passing; Lisa for turning him down, Hank for calling him a glory hound, and Martin for not having a meaty scene with him like the other two.

Well, the computers get fixed, the core regenerates, and after a last-minute wrestling match with one of the giant crabs, Hope I blasts off, and radios to Earth that they have finally found a planet to colonize - a planet that Hank dubs Andros One. The end.

Hey...isn't that Nick Nolte?One of the things that most strikes me about Space Monster is, remarkably, the quality of the writing. This is one of director Leonard Katzman's few writing credits, and that's a shame, because although each and every scene carries with it all the clichés of the space movie, the dialogue is never leaden or dull. In fact, in most movies of this kind, The Chick would be a unsatisfying role to play, but Lisa proves to be a remarkably strong character, and even shows herself to be a competent scientist - unusual for a film of this kind. In particular, the scene where Lisa reveals her fears about their predicament after splashing into the ocean is much better handled than similar scenes in any number of movies.

And for that, a measure of credit must go to the actors, who are a solid lot. James B. Brown - Hank - is the only one with a one-picture filmography, and he is quite serviceable as the hero. Bender's Doc is sadly underwritten, but he gets through it like a pro, and Francine York is by turns attractive, witty and smart. Baynes Barron's Andros is another stock character in the space movie: the guy who's only in it for the money (parodied so brilliantly in Joe Dante's Amazon Women on the Moon), although in the end Andros proves himself just as dedicated to the mission as the rest. In spite of a number of annoying things he does, you find yourself liking the character, which is a testimony to Barron's skills. And for those of you who have been paying attention, yes, Barron was also the villainous Chief Maranka in From Hell It Came.

Now that I have built the movie up, it is time to do some tearing down. Although I have lauded the writing, it is also informedChemistry sets...of the FUTURE! with the sexism of the period, from Hank's Neanderthal beliefs about wimmins in space, to Andros' discomforting pass (which Lisa handles quite well), to the not one, not two, but Three unwilling kisses planted on her by Hank before she melts - Lisa is damn near an ardent feminist by crap movie standards.

There is, of course, more about the movie that doesn't age well. The computers, apparently built around reel-to-reel tape decks, can be forgiven (at least they don't use punch cards). There is a constant sonar ping going on, as if we're on a submarine. Everything on the ship - the slow-moving automatic doors, the mechanism that aligns the ship's chambers - sounds like a milk shake machine. While underwater, there seems to be a alarming amount of air escaping from the spacecraft. And by the year 2000, we will have figured out how to make instantaneous radio contact between transmitters light years apart.

Aaaah, who am I fooling? I love these movies. This is the kind of thing that doesn't seem to get made any more: the space exploration adventure flick. Perhaps because every movie of this sort will inevitably be compared to Kubrick's 2001. Perhaps because they spoke to something that we lost when we somehow decided space was not going to be the place. Although there seems to be a tinge of desperation in Hope I's search for a livable planet, we're never given a reason why; there's not talk of an ecological disaster, overpopulation or rogue asteroids. It is simply assumed that we will colonize the stars. Perhaps there'll be a renaissance of the genre once the Mars mission finally gets underway. I, for one, am looking forward to that.

Space Monster is treacherously hard to find. For that reason, among others, I can only recommend it to those, like me, who owned astronaut helmets when we were kids and were fairly certain we'd be vacationing on the Moon by the time we were adults. I mean, come on, they even make a Tom Swift joke; I love this movie.



Best if you remember the future like I do.

- June 20, 1999


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