Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Gigantes Planetarios (Mexico, 1965)

It didn’t occur to me until after I’d started watching it that Gigantes Planetarios was a somewhat poignant viewing choice in light of my country’s recently drawing the curtain on its participation in the space age. It takes itself a bit more seriously than your average Mexican sci-fi film, and, as such, serves as a reminder that, at its time of production, the project of exploring space generated genuine excitement across the globe. Just as homegrown spy films enabled the not-so-super powers to represent themselves as important players on the world stage, films like Gigantes Planetarios -- with their focus on the well publicized particulars of manned space travel -- to some extent, served as a means for countries without their own space programs to present the space race as a global endeavor, one in which they were equal participants.

Mind you, being a bit more serious than your average Mexican sci-fi film still leaves a lot of room for Gigantes Planetarios to be goofy as hell. After all, while the “sexy ladies from outer space” genre has proven to be startlingly universal, it is Mexico that is its undisputed king. Not only did the country’s film industry basically define the concept with 1960s La Nave de los Monstruos, but they then went on to improve upon it with the addition of masked wrestlers in films like Blue Demon contra las Invasoras and Santo contra la Invasion de los Marcianos. So basically what I’m saying is that, by refraining from showing us Martian beauties in chorus girl outfits doing the Watusi as Santo stands by, Gigantes Planetarios has established itself as nearly Kubrikian in comparison to its peers. (The same can’t be said, however, for its hastily made sequel, El Planeta de las Mujeres Invasoras, aka Planet of the Female Invaders. D'oh!)

The film starts with a rash of flying saucer sightings and related mayhem, culminating in the murder of Professor Walter (Mario Orea), an Earth scientist who's developing a fleet of rockets capable of reaching the planet from which the UFOs emanate. Before dying, Walter informs the young scientist Daniel Wolf (Guillermo Murray) that he had previously been in contact with the aliens -- who live on a world called the Planet of Eternal Night in the “Romania” galaxy -- but that, ever since the takeover of the planet by a dictator known as The Great Protector (Jose Galvez), that contact had been cut off.

As the aliens are human in appearance, and appear to be depending upon human agents to accomplish their various acts of sabotage, Wolf decides to start exhibiting signs of a “dissolute life” in the hope of drawing one of the alien agents to him. It turns out that all this entails is him going to a not at all sleazy seeming nightclub with his dishy and devoted secretary Silvia (Adriana Roel) and dropping some casual references to his gambling debts. Before the night is through, he is approached by the beautiful alien spy Mara (the wonderfully named Jaqueline Fellay), who, in turn, introduces him to another spy, played by the wrestler Nathanael “Frankenstein” Leon (who, thanks to his appearance in countless lucha films, was, for me, the lone familiar face in this film.)

After rejecting Leon’s offer of a million bucks to betray his planet, Wolf scuffles with the brawny spy, who ends up being killed in the fight. However, this is not before he reveals to Wolf that the aliens’ human emissaries are all being controlled remotely by a device located on The Planet of Eternal Night. As a full scale invasion seems imminent, Wolf decides that he must travel to the planet in Martin’s prototype rocket to destroy the control device, and begins assembling a crew for the task.

Sadly, the crew that Wolf assembles does not end up being the one he gets. Not only does Silvia saunter her way onto the ship at the last moment (launch site security being particularly lax, it appears), but he also finds, post takeoff, that he has a pair of stowaways on board in the form of doltish prizefighter Marcos Godoy (Rogelio Guerra) and his manager Taquito (Jose Angel Espinoza, aka “Ferrusquilla”). It seems that these two, in an attempt to escape a mob angry over Marcos’ most recent thrown fight, stole the spacesuits of the actual crew members and took their place, not knowing that actual interstellar travel was in store for them.

And with the appearance of Godoy and Taquito, two obvious comic relief characters, my heart sank considerably. Because, up to that point, the tone of Gigantes Planetarios had been wonderfully solemn --which of course made it all the more easy to savor all that was silly and cartoonish within it. Now it seemed we were going to have this pair bumbling their way through the remainder of the movie, Franco and Ciccio style, taking the air out of any situation that had the potential, by way of its unwarranted portentousness, to be genuinely fun. Thus I was happily surprised to see that Godoy, once in the thick of things, takes it as an opportunity to redeem himself and takes heroic action to save the day. This still leaves Taquito to complain about the lack of tacos on the planet, but at least he’s mostly kept to the background.

The set representing the interior of Wolf and company’s spaceship looks more like the inside of a city bus, which renders all the more amusing the film’s dutiful attempts to illustrate the various peeves and perils of space travel -- G force, lack of gravity, the treacherous spacewalks, the concentrated food -- commonly seen in more science-y takes on the subject. Once touched down on the alien planet, however, we’re back in space opera territory, and the alien civilization itself is revealed to be one of those many with a fondness for Roman columns, togas and clunky helmets. Wolf, for his part, in turn reveals himself to be a movie scientist in the grand, two-fisted tradition of the best 50s sci-fi, as precise in the measuring out of knuckle sandwiches as he is in the labeling of isotopes.

One of the things that really struck me about Gigantes Planetarios -- aside from the fact that it’s an Alfredo B. Crevenna film in which I recognize almost none of the players -- is how self contained it is. Unlike a lot of Mexican science fiction films of its time, which depended largely upon stock footage and bits pilfered from other movies for their special effects, all of Planetarios’ effects appear to be unique to it. These, it has to be said, are crude, but to the film’s credit, they are only so by contrast with their ambition. Crevenna shows us the launch of the rocket from Professor Walter’s laboratory, its traverse across the vast expanses of space, and its crash landing on the surface of the Planet of Eternal Night, all of which are realized about as convincingly as in one of the Flash Gordon serials from the 30’s -- which by the standards of Mexican cinema of the time, is actually not too shabby. Another sign of attention to craft is Antonio Gomez Muriel’s modernist sounding original score to the film, which builds atonal elements on top of a base of dissonant chords chopped out on an electric guitar.

All of the above goes to show that, despite its plentiful evidence of budgetary shortfall, Gigantes Planetarios was a film with which a not inconsiderable amount of care was taken. This, the po-faced tone of its opening act, and the fact that even its worthless comic relief characters end up manning up to the cause, all indicate to me a level of seriousness commensurate with the real world endeavor of space exploration. Of course, if that real world endeavor had turned up a race of sexy space ladies in mini togas, as opposed to all those moon rocks and space dust, we might still be seeing funding for the space program today.


dfordoom said...

Sounds wonderful!

Todd said...

Yeah, it pretty much is.

Michael Barnum said...

Despite my love of Mexican B cinema, I don't think I was even aware of this film! Thanks for rectifying this, Todd!

Todd said...

This one does seem to be one of the lesser known ones, though Im not sure why. Seems more people are familiar with its sequel. Of course, that one stars Lorena Velazquez, Elizabeth Campbell and Maura Monti as sexy space ladies, so duh.

Andrew Nette said...

Just wanted to drop over and say I love your work. Your site is on my blog roll [www.pulpcurry.com.au] and I follow you via RSS feed.

Todd said...

Thank you! And thanks for steering me to your very fine blog.