Friday, October 18, 2013

Movie Review: King Dinosaur (1955)

It’s Friday! Movie night! I’ve decided to alternate a good movie with a bad movie in terms of reviews, and this one might be familiar to the viewers of a certain television show. You see, my favorite program is Mystery Science Theater 3000, a well-written comedy series dedicated to making humor with terrible movies. A memorable episode in Season 2 was based around this week’s film: Robert L Lippert’s first science fiction disaster, King Dinosaur. Joel and his robot friends had a great deal of difficulty with this one, and it’s easy to see why.

The premise isn’t a terrible one. The concept of traveling space to find alien planets with similar environments and life is a stolid trope in science fiction, and one having dinosaurs in it is just irresistible. Unfortunately, the premise is the only thing that goes right-from the lifeless beginning to the abrupt end; this movie is one of the worst of the genre. As you might have guessed, this was a film made with too much ambition, not enough money, and not enough competence to end in anything decent.

The story begins with stock footage; the U.S. military’s pride in its technology led to the wide dispersal of footage of their accomplishments, so it was easy to make a montage out of their experiments with rocketry, air travel, and other cutting edge technology. Said montage is narrated by the rich and familiar voice of Marvin Miller, who tries to tie together the stock footage into a background. The premise is that a new planet, unimaginatively called Nova, has appeared in the solar system, and that the USA has dispatched four heavily armed and not very dedicated scientists to land.

These four are the only actors in the film, and this is their only starring role for good reason. To be fair, the script is simply horrible. They almost immediately get out of their spacesuits, treat their exploration with all the gravitas and scientific precision of a casual hike, and have very little distinguishing characteristics. The men are stock action heroes of the day-confident, macho, and with a modicum of common sense. The women are the sexist stereotypes of the period as well-shrill, stupid, panicky and utterly useless.  The best way to distinguish them is that there is a brunette couple and a blond couple, but you’ll barely care.  Instead of actual documentation and exploration, they treat it as a casual date in a nature preserve, then act surprised and indignant (and hysterical for the women, of course) when they encounter uncooperative wild animals. Alien planets seem to make better makeout spots than subjects for scientific study.

The “alien fauna” tries to add interest, but the low budget is crippling. A snake and an alligator randomly attack our explorers, but the scenes are rather dull. A stationary mole cricket poorly composited against the background makes an appearance to terrorize one of the women, but is quickly and boringly dispatched by a few shots of her boyfriend’s pistol.  There’s a bit of levity when they encounter a kinkajou they call Joe (amusingly, said critter is never identified by any of the so-called scientists but shows up in the credits as “Joe the Honey bear”) who they promptly shanghai into being their team pet and mascot. This adorable tagalong, nicknamed Joey the Lemur by Joel and his robot friends, will be at their side for the remainder of the film but contribute little.  Wildlife is never studied or analyzed; Joe’s a pet and the rest are nuisances to be dispatched with firearms (quick, name a NASA project that required any sort of weapon!)

The final act of the film sees the brunettes exploring an island and being confronted by “dinosaurs”, including the title character. “It’s an iguana from Pet  World” sneered Tom Servo, echoing the audience as the disappointment. Depressingly, the “dinosaurs” are played by a variety of pet reptiles, including a skink, a tegu, a baby alligator or caiman, and a green iguana as the Tyrannosaurus.  Worse, Gordon and company did not use the endlessly-used lizard fight footage from One Million BC, but shot original material with their own set of pet reptiles. The lizards are starved, grabbed by the tail, prodded with sticks, set on each other, and finally dispatched offscreen.. Oddly enough, a costumed armadillo, ox, and elephant appear later; courtesy of One Million BC, so they did have access to the footage.  The iguana fights and kills another slurpasaur (the popular nickname for these hapless lizards), then threatens the couple. “It resembles a Tyrannosaurus rex. King Dinosaur!” the “Scientist” exposits. “It’s an iguana!” Crow T Robot screamed in frustration.  The “Tyrannosaurus” pushes its snout and claw to get at the pair ineffectually, allowing the woman to take a picture of it. Of course, being the sexist stereotype, she tears up the Polaroid and suffers an emotional breakdown. She shrieks “Who cares what it is, nobody’s gonna believe us anyway!”

The man “bravely” fires a flare to attract the other couple, they reunite as while the “King Dinosaur” is fighting another lizard (thankfully, the other lizards are not identified as Triceratops, Apatosaurus, and so forth, sparing further stupidity), and run off, taking potshots at stock footage from One Million BC along the way. They escape the island, dropping a mysterious package before leaving. This turns out to be an atomic bomb, and the film ends with them setting off the device (cue stock footage mushroom cloud from real atomic bomb testing).

The brunette scientist ends the film with a possibly ironic but never explained line-
“We sure have done it. Brought civilization to Planet Nova. C'mon, let's go home."
Joel ends the commentary with “Yeah, let's go home and raise some three-headed kids”, a much better summation of the stupidity of the film.

Suffice to say, this film is terrible. The effects are painful, both literally and rhetorically. People who thought that the time and money necessary for Willis O’Brien or Ray Harryhausen would be too much should never had tried making dinosaur films. The characters are so flat and bland you could use them for communion wafers. The story is episodic, poorly paced, and dull. Tom Gries, a TV writer, adopted an original Bert I Gordon story treatment, and it seems that the fault can be laid on both. The orchestral score is repetitive, meandering, and grating on the ears.  This film is unknown outside of its appearance on the Minnesotan puppet show, and should only be watched in that context. Movies this awful can only be watched with Joel, Tom Servo, and Crow T. Robot for company. Or, as an alternative, spring it on your friends as a prank, preferably with a lot of drinks on hand.

I must give it a 15/100 on its own, only for the kinkajou, premise, and slurpasaurs, and a 85/100 for the MST3k episode. Please buy the MST version, but stay away from the original unless you plan to do some riffing yourself.