Appellate Judge Erick Harper tried to pick up chicks at a drive-in movie the one time he went, but he had little success—probably because his mom made him put on his pajamas first so that he could fall asleep in the car on the way home.
A great double feature of almost-forgotten drive in sci-fi goodness!
With drive-in movies a faded, distant memory in most places, several companies have started tapping the vein of nostalgia for warm summer nights of bad movies under the stars. Dark Sky Films, a relatively new imprint specializing in lost and/or novelty films, brings us this sci-fi double bill of drive-in schlock.
Facts of the Case
War Between the Planets is a fine example of Italian-made sci-fi from the late 1960s. While Clint Eastwood was cutting his teeth in the "spaghetti westerns," other sectors of the Italian film industry were turning out respectable if low-budget variations on other popular genres. War Between the Planets begins with a series of natural disasters on Earth. When their source is revealed as a rogue planet headed for Earth, the United Democracies Space Command dispatches a mission to investigate. Commander Rod Jackson (Giacomo Rossi-Stuart, credited here as "Jack Stuart") leads the mission, but also spends a fair amount of time trying to sort out his personal life, with such complications as Lt. Terry Sanchez (Ombretta Colli, anglicized as "Amber Collins"), his subordinate and old flame; his fiancée Janet Norton (Halina Zalewska); and his future father-in-law (and commanding officer), General Norton (Enzo Fiermonte). The human (read: "soap opera") drama is never far from the limelight, but it doesn't overshadow the importance of Jackson's mission.
Creation of the Humanoids transports the viewer to a future Earth where a dwindling human race depends on a caste of intelligent, blue-skinned androids to carry on the work necessary to maintain civilization. Like artificial constructs from Pinocchio to Mr. Data, the androids, more than anything else, want to improve themselves to the point of becoming human. Human society, especially the hardline Order of Flesh and Blood, opposes any sort of equality for the machines they disparagingly refer to as "Clickers." When Cragis (Don Megowan), one of the leaders of the Order, finds out that his sister is "in rapport" with one of the reviled automatons, the revelation could seriously jeopardize his position and prestige, but not as much as an even bigger secret that will be revealed about the Creation of the Humanoids.
Both of the movies presented on this disc are in some respects ahead of their time. War Between the Planets, with better effects, cheaper sets, and cheesier uniforms, could easily be at home as an episode of Star Trek. It presents a professional, more-or-less military organization, under the control of a united and democratic Earth government, in charge of space exploration and defense. Commander Jackson, with his brash command style and romantic entanglements, could give Jim Kirk a run for his money. This film does a good job of showing the strain that Jackson and the crew of Space Station Gamma face as they attempt to prevent the destruction of Earth and all that they know and love back home. Command decisions under these circumstances are difficult, with real consequences for characters that seem like real people.
Creation of the Humanoids presents a thinly-veiled commentary on race relations and racism in the U.S., using the problems of the robots to parallel the problems of black people from slavery to the present day. The movie makes no attempt to conceal its message: the Order of Flesh and Blood dress in Confederate uniforms and hold secret meetings in the dark under an insignia that looks suspiciously like a stylized representation of a Klansman's hood. Even the epithet "Clicker" is clearly meant to mirror the use of the "n-word" in real life. Yes, it is ham-handedly, painfully un-subtle, but making a film with this message in the early 1960s, with the storms of the civil rights movement still raging, required considerable courage on the part of the filmmakers.
Picture quality for both films is surprisingly good—Dark Sky Films must have found some very well-preserved prints, or spent a lot of time and effort restoring them. The transfers are sharp and clear, with vivid, faithful colors and an adequate level of detail. Overall the image is a bit too dark, but that's only a minor problem, and may be related to the source prints anyway. Considering that this disc is billed as a "drive-in double feature," the picture quality is excellent, certainly much better than anyone watching these films outdoor ever saw. The various drive-in promos, snack bar ads, and coming attractions reels don't fare nearly so well, however. Audio is likewise surprisingly good for the features and unsurprisingly imperfect for the drive-in material. There are no other special features.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Both of these films are attempts at serious, honest filmmaking, not throwaway hackwork. Still, they are doomed to fail in one respect or another.
War Between the Planets (which, it must be pointed out, features no actual war) suffers from the usual limitations of budget faced by productions of this kind; special effects like rocketships and space stations have a cheesy-but-serviceable look, and supporting wires are clearly visible on both ships and spacewalking crewmen. The threatening "planet" itself is a mass of goo and steam straight out of a Roger Corman cheapie. The dialogue is a bit technobabble-heavy, but it at least sounds mostly believable, reminiscent of NASA mission control communications; on the other hand, it does seem to have lost something in its migrations between Italian and English. A voiceover narration (laden with technobabble of its own) helps explain some details and events as they occur, but as usual, this material could have been dealt with more skillfully. These are minor quibbles, however, in what is a surprisingly engaging grade-B sci-fi adventure.
The goals of Creation of the Humanoids are laudable, but the filmmakers commit a number of critical errors. I'm willing to forgive the low budget and the overall look of the production, but the script and the overall approach to the serious subtext sink the film. This is absolutely the talkiest movie I have ever seen. The outcome resembles not so much a sci-fi flick as the extended cut of the Lincoln-Douglas debates. Most important action or discoveries happen offscreen, and then we get loads of exposition as characters explain events to each other. Even scenes purporting to showcase important character interactions or plot developments, such as Cragis confronting his sister over her relationship with a "Clicker," get bogged down in longwinded speeches. As if this weren't bad enough, these scenes are also often badly edited, or rather not edited at all. We get many extended shots of a single character pontificating, with the appropriate reaction shots from other characters completely absent. Verbal responses come from off-screen, and they are clearly the halfhearted, placeholder responses of people waiting for their own close-ups. These scenes help transform the movie from potentially interesting to soporific.
While Dark Sky's attention to the content on this disc is satisfactory, it fails to reproduce the drive-in experience as completely as earlier offerings from rival Elite Entertainment. Elite's series of drive in flicks, released almost five years ago, featured a novelty "Distort-O-Sound" track that replicated the ambient noises and distractions of watching movies at the drive in. Dark Sky presents nothing so fun here, relying instead on a fairly straightforward presentation of the material. In this case, with films at least slightly more capable of standing on their own, Dark Sky is probably correct in avoiding such gimmickry, but on the other hand, if a studio wants to replicate the full drive-in experience, maybe it makes sense to go the full nine yards.
One gripe about the menus on this disc: the chapter selection menus for each title don't work as they should. You can access the chapter menu, and multiple pages each showing three scenes. The problem is trying to select any chapter other than the first one on each page. Attempting to use the DVD remote to navigate normally did not work; it merely took me down to the Main Menu and next page selections at the bottom of the screen. Even a partial chapter menu is better than none, but this one was a bit frustrating to deal with. If you do any of your DVD watching in multiple sessions rather than multi-hour marathons, or if you switch players/locations from time to time, or if you simply fall asleep as many times as I did while trying to get through Creation of the Humanoids, finding your place again becomes cumbersome.
Fans of drive-in fare or B pictures in general will find these two flicks better than expected, and in a relatively spiffy DVD edition.
A final note with regard to War Between the Planets: it seems that the US is not alone in its penchant for actors-turned-politicians. Ombretta Colli, that film's stunning flame-haired heroine, was elected in 1999 as the president of the Italian province of Milano.
Not guilty! Dark Sky Films continues to impress this court with its outstanding treatment of little-known niche films.
We stand adjourned.
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Scales of Justice, Creation Of The Humanoids
Perp Profile, Creation Of The Humanoids
Studio: Dark Sky Films
Distinguishing Marks, Creation Of The Humanoids
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Scales of Justice, War Between The Planets
Perp Profile, War Between The Planets
Studio: Dark Sky Films
Distinguishing Marks, War Between The Planets
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