Sunday, June 28, 2009

Mission Stardust aka ...4...3...2...1...Morte (Italy, West Germany, Spain, Monaco, 1967)

Mission Stardust is the only film to be based on the long running and voluminous series of German pulp novels featuring the science fiction hero Perry Rhodan. It is universally hated by Perry Rhodan fans for the very good reason that it is quite terrible. That is, if you're definition of "terrible" can be stretched to encompass a film featuring amusingly smarmy, two-fisted astronaut heroes, a truly swankadelic soundtrack, some quite good looking women, pop art set design, and a climactic sequence that finds sexy nurses with machineguns doing battle with robots who shoot lasers out of their eyes. In other words, having never read any of the Perry Rhodan books, and thus being free from having to judge Mission Stardust in terms of its faithfulness to them, I found it to be flirting with perfection.

As a science fiction film, Mission Stardust is neither a thoughtful work of speculation -- which will surprise exactly no one -- or a juvenile space opera, but rather a work of science fiction as channeled through one of those "dad's drawer" men's adventure magazines of the sixties. In fact, it borrows as much or more of its tone from the Eurospy films of its era as it does from contemporary space travel yarns. This makes for an interesting hybrid, though one that the film's stars -- by dint of their previous experience -- are well suited for. Prior to Mission Stardust, Canadian actor Lang Jeffries, who plays our hero Major Perry Rhodan, had compiled quite an impressive resume as a Eurospy leading man, playing a down-market James Bond in such films as The Beckett Affair, Z7 Operation Rembrandt, the "Coplan" film Mexican Slayride, and Our Man in Casablanca. Similarly, Argentina's Luis Davila, who plays Perry's second in command Captain Mike Bull, had, in addition to starring in his share of Spaghetti Westerns, fronted such notable Eurospy titles as Ypotron and Espionage in Tangiers. Together these two make for an especially rakish pair of rocket jockeys -- as if they somehow knew when taking the job that being an astronaut was just as fraught with fisticuffs, rough-and-tumble escapades, and encounters with scantily clad women as a career in international spying. All of which contributes to Mission Stardust having somewhat the feel of a cross between one of the Kommissar X films and Barbarella.

Our adventure starts when Perry, Mike and their crew are dispatched on a secret mission to the Moon to follow up on the discovery there of a previously unknown precious metal. Meanwhile, a criminal mastermind named Mr. Arkin (Pinkus Braun of Secret Agent Super Dragon and The Hunchback of Soho -- oh how I relish listing the credits of these Euro genre movie regulars!) has learned of the mission by way of a spy he has placed among Rhodan's crew, and has begun scheming for a way to get to the Moon in order to grab the metal for himself. However, upon arriving on the Moon, Perry and company get a bit sidetracked from their mission when they discover a disabled spaceship manned by two members of an ancient and highly advanced alien race. These are the haughty but dressed-to-thrill Capt. Thora (Essy Persson -- I, a Woman; The Devil's Girls) and the elder Crest (John Karlsen -- The Amazing Doctor G; Agent 3S3: Massacre in the Sun; Requiem for a Secret Agent; I See Naked ...really? I See Naked?).

Crest -- the comedic possibilities of whose name are simply too obvious to even bother with -- is stricken with an illness that is mysterious to the aliens, but which, upon examination by the Earthlings, is revealed to be Leukemia. The medic on board Perry's ship knows of an Earth doctor practicing in Mombasa who has developed an "anti-Leukemia serum", and so the whole gang sets off for East Africa in Thora's shuttle craft. Along the way, Perry uses the opportunity of the long journey to practice his time-tested seduction skills on the coldly rational Thora, hoping to teach her in the process that the he-man ways she likens to a "gorilla" are in fact those qualities that all women, regardless of their galactic provenance, most deeply desire in a man. She just doesn't know it yet, you see.

Soon after setting down in the Serengeti plain, Thora's ship comes to the notice of a small army unit who is patrolling the area for no known reason. A confrontation follows which sees the Earthmen's puny weapons repeatedly thwarted by the aliens' force fields, super robots, anti-gravity beams and ability to turn astonishingly large expanses of land into enormous fireballs. These particular officers, not being ones to take a good thwarting in stride, then respond by calling in massive reinforcements, which makes things a bit thorny in terms of Perry and Mike's plan of secretly stealing into Mombasa. Eventually they manage to do so, however, bringing us into a middle section which sees Mission Stardust turn into a straightforward guys' guy adventure, with Perry and Mike punching through whichever of Mr. Arkin's minions and the local authorities get in their way. Of course, it's all worth the effort, since at the end of their quest lies reward in the form of... sexy lady doctors! These would be Dr. Sheridan (Ann Smyrner -- Death is Nimble, Death is Quick; House of a Thousand Dolls; The Killer Likes Candy; Das Go-Go Girl vom Blow Up) and Nurse Silva (Lisa Halvorsen -- Man on the Spying Trapeze; Appointment in Beirut; A Quiet Place to Kill), both of whom are assistants to the sought-after Dr. Haggard (Stefano Sibaldi -- uh, not a whole hell of a lot, actually).

It takes less coaxing than you might expect to get Dr. Haggard aboard Thora's ship. Unfortunately, once he's there, Arkin and his men barge in on the proceedings, making known their plan to hijack the ship for their own moon-robbing purposes. Some last minute twists and revealing of identities follow, leading to the aforementioned confrontation between heat-packing nurses and killer robots. Finally, in a last, desperate attempt, Arkin kidnaps Thora and takes her back to his island lair. This experience manages to bring about the change in Thora that Perry has been trying to affect all along, causing her to forget her vast genetic and cultural superiority and become the tremulous damsel in distress ready to crumble into the sturdy arms of her musky protector. Perry is, of course, pleased by this turn of events, but doesn't seem to grasp the significance of the fact that getting Thora to gaze upon him adoringly required, on her part, the reversal of thousands of years of evolution.

Now, as I said before, I haven't read any of the Perry Rhodan books. But, based on what I've heard about them, it sounds like they at least strive for some level of conceptual complexity beyond what's on evidence in Mission Stardust. Given that, I can see why their fans might resent the film's retooling of the nominal elements of the series in order to fit them within the context of a then commercially viable genre -- complete with car chases, leering horndog heroes, and cackling, world-coveting supervillains with highly combustible island lairs. But, given that I don't have that basis for a grudge, I found Mission Stardust a real hoot. As mentioned before, the score by Anton G. Abril (along with the theme song by Marcello Giombini) is absolutely killer, a mix of manic, wordless vocalizing and twangy guitars that brings to mind happy memories of the work of Piero Umiliani, as well as Ennio Morricone's score to Danger: Diabolik. The art direction by Giorgio Giovannini and the somewhat remedial but utterly charming special effects contribute to the film's overall look having an appealing quality of 1960s comic book futurism. And, most importantly, Primo Zeglio's direction assures that things both move along briskly and never hint at being anything other than completely, joyously dumb. Films like this are born of a delicate balance, after all, and even the slightest attempt at intelligence could ruin them.

So, in conclusion, Mission Stardust exceeded my expectations, while at the same time reminding me that I inhabit a world in which the vast majority of people have tastes far more demanding than my own. Fortunately, none of those people read this blog. You, however, do. (And, no, it's too late to quickly surf over to Facebook. I've already seen you.) And given that, I think that you, too, will likely find more than a little to love in it. Did I mention the nurses vs. robots thing?

10 comments:

prof. grewbeard said...

despite the fact that it's so freakin' earthbound(though it's rationale for being so is pretty darn good)i too found this film to be highly entertaining. Essy Persson is awesome and so are the robots, though obviously not for the same reason. and that soundtrack! and those nurses!...

Michael Barnum said...

I have not seen this film since I was a wee youngin'. I must give it another look, it sounds awesome!

Todd said...

You know, I don't think this movie ever made it onto the local airwaves in Northern California. Otherwise I'm sure I would have seen it on one of those long Saturday afternoons spent parked in front of the TV.

Samuel Wilson said...

Your write-up stirred up dim memories of this movie being broadcast occasionally on WOR in New York during my childhood. I remembered almost nothing about it except that it was a science fiction movie -- and that amazing music. At the time I didn't think it fit the subject matter; now it's the most memorable thing about it. But if I saw the film now I might think differently.

houseinrlyeh said...

As a former Rhodan reader, I posit that Rhodan fans hate the film because it is fun, a quality the novelettes often avoided with stunning elegance.
The early part of Rhodan's written history was still in the spirit of a very conservative part of the 50s, with all the lack of POP!ness that implies.

Todd said...

Well, all I can say is, if they wanted it to remain un-fun, they never should have let the Italians anywhere near it. Thank goodness they did, though!

Prof., Samuel: It's probably way too much for us to hope that a soundtrack album for this movie exists somewhere.

Keith said...

Wanted to see this for years. I bought the soundtrack a long time ago, and it's super groovy.

PERRY RHODAN BRASIL said...

I´m a brasilien fan. There are subtitles of english, about these film? Sends me: rogeraquino@ibest.com.br.

Dan said...

I saw this film at the Grand Lake theater in Oakland, CA in 1970, I think. I was ten years old. All I remember is that it was cheesy, and sexy. Finally found it on Youtube,very amusing. And, enjoyed your description of it.

Todd said...

Ah, the Grand Lake. I know it well. I saw some kiddie matinees there myself when I was a kid, but, unfortunately, not that one. So jealous of you right now!