The Strange World of Planet X (1958) **
Director: Gilbert Gunn
Runtime: 1h 15m
American sci-fi/horror films from the 1950s did feature mad scientists; the trope simply had too much inertia left from the 30s and 40s to be simply cast aside. Making yet another variant on the Frankenstein tale was always seen as a safe bet for independent film producers. The looming specter of atomic warfare of course, did little to rehabilitate science’s public image. All the same though, science and its practitioners had catapulted America into an age of unprecedented wealth and optimism. Mad scientists ceased to be the villains in every other horror movie, and those that did appear were often sympathetic tragic-heroes instead of outright monsters. More and more often though the scientist was not the villain at all, but occupied an unambiguously heroic role, usually at the head of team of military and civilian aids. Consider the highly influential Them! (1954) which has all military responses to the ants organized by a entomologist! The case was not the same in England, whose excessive expenditures during WWII not only coast the nation her empire, but also had left her desolately poor (by European standards). Indeed, when today’s film was going into production the English were still enduring a ration system not unlike the one most nations had adopted during the war. Many West European nations suffered worse during the war than England, but all (including West Germany, the hardest hit for obvious reasons) recovered much faster. So, we can forgive the English for being displeased with the modern age and wishing to hearken back to an earlier, and to their minds happier, epoch.
This message about the dangers of heedless technological advancement will be obvious from the first frame, as a voice over narrator warns us of the dangers of nuclear energy over images of atomic explosions. This warning is puzzling at first because our mad scientist, Dr. Laird is experimenting not with atomic rays but with powerful electro-magnetic fields. Namely, he thinks that the properties of metals can be noticeably affected when subjected to this field. Indeed, radiation plays no role in the nature of Laird’s work; even the power he uses for the experiment is generated from conventional power sources (most likely coal given the state of English energy circa 1957). Over time it becomes obvious that the scolding narrator from the film’s opening is not referring to man-made radiation but to cosmic rays. As it turns out Laird’s experiments will temporarily rupture the ionosphere, the layer of the atmosphere that protects earth from these rays. It's rather puzzling to scold nuclear physicists for radiation that ripples through outer space, but as will become obvious before long The Strange World of Planet X is not a very well-considered film.
Normally Laird’s project wouldn’t get much in the way of funding, but the army brass, with memories of the battle of Britain still fresh in their minds, figure that the field he's developing could be used to knock enemy aircraft right out of the sky. The project is costing too much though, and in a scene telling of England’s post-war poverty, the military commander in charge of the project, Brigadier Cartwright and his civilian counterpart consider pulling the plug. The fact that Laird has lost yet another computer operator only makes Cartwright more upset about the situation. Cartwright agrees to see the machine in action before he makes any final decision, and to have the pleasure of announcing to Laird and his American assistant Gil Graham that the new computer scientist is a woman. Why this last bit of new surprises anyone is beyond me; computer science was mostly a female-profession during WWII and in the immediate post-war period. By 1957 there were fewer female computer technicians proportionally, but there were still plenty kicking around. It’s far more surprising to me that the new assistant, Michele, is French.
As it turns out the groans of Laird and Gil are not just sexist, they’re completely wrong. Michele fixes the problem with the machine in an afternoon and they can conduct a satisfactory test for Brigadier Cartwright. In fact, the machine works better than anyone expected. The test sample, a piece of alloy metal used in aircraft, is made so brittle that it crumbles in the general’s hands. Not only that, but the control sample that Cartwright was carrying in his pocket is similarly effected. It seems like the electro-magnetic field is more powerful than Laird suspected or is willing to admit. This would explain why the nearby pub complains about their TV going on the fritz whenever Laird is conducting one of his experiments. The latest experiment went quite a bit further, creating atmospheric disturbances and strange storms in the immediate area. At the same time there’s a spike in reports of UFOs in the surrounding area, the tabloid press begins claiming that creatures from Planet X have invaded the British countryside. Oddly enough, the tabloid writers have something approaching the truth of the matter: Laird’s experiments are going to have cosmic ramifications.
Laird refuses to believe that the field is affecting anything beyond the immediate test chamber, and Gil is way too much of a spineless wimp to challenges him on it. When asked by Michele, Gil toes the party line at every chance he gets. Even after Gil figures out why the field is so much more powerful than anticipated Laird has no interest in backing down. The odd part is that Laird’s obsession does come from any sense of patriotic duty; he isn’t fantasizing about winning the next Battle of Britain. No, the man just loves magnetic fields and his only passion in life is to make stronger and stronger variants. Naturally he’s pleased when the government sinks more money into the project after his latest success, he even allows them to install some safety measures to silence all the complaints. Of course, Laird considers them to be superfluous but it’s easier to let the government backers have their own way that to put up any protest. At the same time he modifies the machine so a single person can operate it, just in case the wavering Gil or Michele try to stop the creation of the almighty magnetic field.
It’s at this point that things begin to get truly bizarre. First, and most mundane, a deformed killer begins to stalk and murder women in the forest around Laird’s laboratory. Then an a mysterious stranger, claiming to be a benevolent alien intelligence approaches Gil and Michele and tells them that their experiments with Dr. Laird have unleashed great danger. This “Mr. Smith” as he calls himself, explains that the powerful magnetic field temporarily damaged the earth’s ionosphere and allowed cosmic radiation to rain down on the nearby woods. Anyone exposed to such radiation was driven mad, like our nameless woman killer; and any insects exposed to such radiation have grown to gigantic sizes. General Cartwright is understandably skeptical of this warning, you would be too if a man claiming to be from outer space was warning you about giant mutant bugs. However, give the old man props for having a flexible mind: as soon as the local police bring him evidence that Smith is telling the truth about the giant bugs he springs into action and calls up the nearest army units to have the creatures dealt with.
The giant bugs are pretty good, even if they only turn up for a short time. Director Gilbert Gunn employs the same technique as Bert I Gordon, but without a lot of the ridiculous incompetence that makes Gordon’s films such a peculiar delight. Unfortunately there will be no sequences that even approach the surrealist beauty of The Beginning of the End (1957) running battle between crickets and WWII stock footage. Instead we will be treated to a series of soldiers taking aim at off-screen monsters in-between extreme close-ups of insects. Ultimately the bugs give plenty of visceral grossness, but never seem to pose much of a threat to the characters. The inability to have the soldiers and the bugs in the same shot proves to be a serious flaw for creating tension. A bit of puppet work and clever photography could solve the problem, but I'm guessing this production didn't have the funds for convincing bug puppets. In any event the proper authorities sweep them aside without much trouble, though everyone keep insisting that the infestation could have been much worse if they had gone unnoticed for much longer.
The bugs are dealt with easily enough by a combination of conventional armaments and a few well-placed blasts from Smith’s ray gun (demonstrating his possession of this weapon would have been an easier way to convince the earthlings that he was indeed an alien, but whatever). However, the danger has not yet passed. Laird is still intent on switching on the newer, more powerful version of the magnetic field: This one will be powerful enough to totally destroy the earth’s ionosphere resulting in mass insanity and giant bugs across the world. He’s already sealed himself and the laboratory and killed the mild-mannered bureaucrat sent to warn him about the dangers of his machine. Fortunately Smith has a trump card that he’s been reluctant to use, but is willing to bust out if it means saving the indigenous population of earth.
As I mentioned above Laird is somewhat unique in that he is an old-fashioned mad scientist in an age of technological positivism. What really makes him stand out though is the narrowness of his thinking. Most cinematic mad scientists are unusually brilliant not just in their own disciplines but also in every other area of human knowledge. See Hammer’s Frankenstein series for the ultimate example to this: there Victor Frankenstein even jokes that in addition to his numerous doctorates that he would doubtlessly qualify for a degree in witchcraft, were one available. Laird on the other hand is rather more like the best-educated people (scientific and otherwise) that I have met in real life: Intensely gifted in one narrow area and absolutely clueless everywhere else. See Laird’s pig-headed insistence that the magnetic field has been effectively contained, when it’s increasingly obvious that the very opposite is the case. When Smith criticizes Laird as narrow-minded and unimaginative it’s hard to dispute it.
The other interesting aspect of the film is Smith, the benevolent alien emissary. He’s just about the only alien visitor from this age of sci-fi films that is completely benevolent and whose peaceful intentions are immediately understood by the natives. His obvious precursor, Klantuu from The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), is far more morally ambiguous. Though Klantuu brings a message of peace and brotherly love between earthling and aliens he also carries with him a terrifying weapon in case we don’t agree to clean up our act. The message of the aliens in the earlier film is essentially: Stop making war or we will destroy your planet. In other cases peaceful aliens are used to highlight the bellicose irrationality of the humans that come into contact with them. This is certainly the case with almost every earthling in It Came From Outer Space (1953). In this context Smith’s role of completely benevolent extra-terrestrial guardian angel becomes all the more distinct. If the earthlings refuse to heed his advice there is no twelve-foot tall robot waiting to purge our civilization. Of course, alien visitors with any benevolent feelings to mankind are the exception rather than the rule in this epoch. Generally speaking they’re mostly out to kill us all and drink our blood like the “intellectual carrot” in The Thing (1951).