Battle of the Worlds

Battle of the Worlds. Ultra Film 1961.
Battle of the Worlds. Ultra Film 1961.

Before watching the movie:

I found this while looking for b-movies for Movie Monster Month, but it didn’t look like it had a monster focus, so I left it. However, it looks like it makes up for it by having an insanity focus.

With a title that sounds like an H.G. Wells knockoff, this is a story about trying to avoid a planetary collision between Earth and a rogue planet headed right for it. Pretty much a “turn your brain off and have fun” concept. But then on top of that, this movie was filmed in Italian, but they cast Claude Rains in a prominent role, and his performance is in English. It’s probably going to be distracting having only one character not dubbed, and would be even if I hadn’t found out ahead of time.

I’m not certain if I’ve reviewed any foreign movies in the past (aside from the raw material making up What’s Up, Tiger Lilly?, which is a special case), but I can think of a few I’ve wanted to include but decided against for that reason. I guess that barrier is as broken as documentary film is now.

After watching the movie:

Dr. Fred Steele and Eve Barnett’s plans to transfer to a different science base and get married are put on hold when their team is called into action to investigate a rogue planet dubbed “The Outsider” on an alarmingly close approach to Earth. While most agencies calculate that the Outsider will collide with Earth, Professor Benson disagrees. A man who would rather live in a greenhouse calculating equations with chalk on plant pots in his pajamas than explain why he’s always correct to everyone else, Benson’s calculations predict the Outsider will harmlessly pass no closer than 95,000 miles on its way to burn up in the sun. His pronouncement of 95,000 miles is correct, but instead of continuing onward, the planet enters an orbit around Earth. At first Benson declares that the planet is a threat that must be destroyed, since not only is it controlled by a powerful intelligence, the orbit is unstable, but as time goes on he comes to insist that he be given time to study the alien world, its control and defense mechanisms, as it falls toward Earth.

I expected the Professor’s lines to feel more natural than everyone else’s, since he was the only one actually speaking English, but I found his performance to be one of the least accessible. I would suspect it comes from his lines being translated from an Italian script with perhaps even less consideration for making it sound like an English-speaking human than a dub translator trying to match lip motions, as well as Raines having to perform against actors who are speaking a language he at least doesn’t understand well enough to speak. He ends up being just as rote as if he’d memorized the Italian syllables. Also he was likely just showing up for the paycheck.

I see this get called “hard sci-fi”, which, while it doesn’t fit what I would think of as such, I can see the argument. I wouldn’t consider a rogue planet steered by a computer built by alien life to be hard sci-fi, and gravity seems to do whatever the writers want it to do, but within those assumptions, it’s pretty serious about calculations and technology and physics. I wouldn’t imagine the writer plotted out any math about how the Outsider’s actions work, but the science here feels more solid than just “I waved my science wand and the problem went away”.

I’m not sure if Benson is intentionally erratic or he’s just holding the “whatever looks like the right thing to do, I’m against it” ball. He does a complete 180 about what to do with the Outsider, and his motivations seem to change along with it. At one point he talks about how he wants it destroyed not for the preservation of humanity or anything so philanthropic, but for science for some reason. And then he decides that he’d rather let the Earth be destroyed than not understand everything about the Outsider, because a scientist would rather die than not know. He’s definitely a fanatic and probably actually insane, but somewhere between the writing, the translations, and the performance and directing, I was never sure if the story actually sided with him or not until the end arrived and it had to wrap everything in a bow.

The spaceship sequences are probably the point of the movie. By its standards, they’re exciting, but they didn’t make enough logical or visual sense to hold my interest. If campy 60s dogfights between rockets and flying saucers are your cup of tea, enjoy, but I’d rather care about the people involved first. In the Battle of the Worlds, I was never more than a non-partisan.

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