Friday, February 7, 2014

Movie Review: Planet of Dinosaurs

It’s Friday again, and this week I’m going back to bad movies. Yeah, not happy about it, but I went with a movie that’s bad in a very special way. Some movies are bad because they have talent but no character or action, like Lost Continent. Others are too cheap to have anything but an idea sank by trash, like King Dinosaur. Others are simply bad decisions about the direction of the story, like the 1960 Lost World. Some are good movies crippled by terrible executive decisions, like Walking With Dinosaurs. Others have too many characters and not enough time to flesh them out, like Dinosaur.  This week’s movie has all these problems combined, but in its own way has charm and not a little bit of potential.

The movie Star Wars had a huge impact at the end of the 1970s in terms of filmmaking. Unknowns could become superstars, and science fiction and fantasy were given new fresh life.  A lot of people didn’t have the talent to pull it off, and others didn’t have the budget. One team of filmmakers, James K Shea, Jim Auppearle, and Ralph Lucas didn’t have either, but they had a great deal of ambition, and made Planet of Dinosaurs.  It’s a bad movie, to be sure, but to understand why it failed and why it’s compelling is worth an in-depth look.

The story begins in space, but it doesn’t last long. Brief shots establish a large ship, the Odyssey, crusing through space. For unexplained reasons, the Odyssey begins to go haywire and the command crew and VIPs barely escape on their shuttle. A quick series of shots establishes the cast of the film and their roles-the forceful Lee is the captain, and the more uncertain first mate Nyla relies on his confidence. Engineers Jim and Mike explain that ship blew due to a reactor failure, navigator Chuck reports their complete lack of bearings, medical officer Charlotte observes no injuries, and communications officer Cindy is unsure whether a distress signal has reached their base.  Their passengers are the panicky, pushy Vice President of Spaceways Inc Harvey Baylor (apparently, the ship was taking him to a meeting) and his distressed secretary Derna.

They splashdown on a lake and swim to shore before Lee and  Harvey clash-the executive complaining and insisting immediate pickup. Mike snarks in response, “This isn’t Nebraska, you can’t just call someone from here. If you could, the long-distance rates would be unbelievable”.  In their first display of ineptitude, turns out no one in the crew remembered to take the emergency radio. Chuck and Cindy strip and swim out, but a small mosasaur (I think; it’s a very outdated and unconvincing puppet at any rate) devours Cindy and Chuck barely escapes. (to quote Mike Nelson in the memorable Rifftrax of this film "Wonderful. Bikini girl? Dead. Chuck. Alive and shirtless")

Lee orders a march inland, and we have our first long walking scene as they make their way through a swamp onto dry land.  When Derna is traumatized and refuses to cross a stream, Mike tries to encourage her by giving her a laser gun. She drops it almost immediately and they are both chastised by Lee.  After more walking, they stop to rest over Lee’s protests and Harvey’s complaints.  During the night they are awoken by a roar that Mike identifies as a hunting call.

The morning they awake to find footprints, following them to an Apatosaurus browsing.  Lee explains, “Why not? This planet is similar to earth: similar elements bring about similar life forms”.  The xenodinosaurs here are far more impressive and convincing than those in King Dinosaur, but more on them later. They see a large, unidentified carcass as well, and Jim makes his first grim prediction-“Whatever made this print killed that animal, and it's definitely not an amphibian. It can roam anywhere, hunt anywhere.”

Another rest period sees Charlotte running her trirecorder on the local flora, identifying a fibrous food plant and a poisonous shrub.  Another walking sequence brings them to stegosaurs. As Charlotte continues her exploration (the only exploration really done in the story), they are suddenly caught between a Stegosaurus and a Tyrannosaurus (of course). They manage to escape (of course) as the dinosaurs fight (of course) and the Tyrannosaurus eats and kills the Jurassic animal (of course).  Lee decides that a nearby plateau will be safe from the predator, and they begin to climb it. There’s a false scare where Nyla drops her food case and nearly falls off, but it’s a fairly dull meandering sequence reminiscent of Lost Continent’s rock climbing.

We finally get a character conflict when they stop to rest-Harvey demands Derna get him some water, Mike protests, Derna says not to interfere. Again, we see Mike as a sympathetic wisecracker foiling with the comically corrupt and irritating Harvey. Derna tells Mike off, but resigns as Harvey’s employee.    This brief scene cuts to more climbing; this film is very episodic and based on a lot of brief action and character scenes in-between walking montages. We next see Harvey and Nyla climbing onto the plateau’s summit and finding a nest. Harvey sees food and expects that a big, edible chicken is responsible despite Nyla’s logical caution. Sure enough, a Styracosaurus appears and charges the thieves. Nyla, again showing some thought, gets out of the way while Harvey fires his laser wildly at the dinosaur. Harvey ends up chased to the cliff, being impaled by the ceratopsian’s nasal horn, and unceremoniously dropped.  Unlike Cindy, they actually stop to mourn Harvey and build a cairn for him.

Lee declares that they’ve reached their destination, but Jim confronts him, setting up the central conflict in the rest of the film. Jim was to hunt the dinosaurs, confront nature, and colonize the land, while Lee wants to hide up in the plateau away from the threats.  Mike and Charlotte take Lee’s side, and they start building tools and structures in another montage.

Another brief scene has Lee confronting Nyla on her decision, while she supports both sides of the argument.  Nyla, wandering off alone, is attacked by a giant spider, which Jim spears. “Safe, huh?”.  Mike tries to bond with Derna, who is still emotionally vulnerable.  The next scene has the stockade finished, with Mike throwing a party with home-made liquor made from the edible berries.  Nyla tries to get Jim to join, but he would rather stay serious and disdains Lee’s assurances of safety. “Civilization is like that uniform you're wearing. It's getting dirty and torn, and pretty soon it's going to rot away.”

The next morning has Charlotte try to comfort the very quiet Chuck, who is setting out “mythonium reflectors” to be picked up by remote scanning.  They are attacked by a small Allosaurus, who is chased off by a laser beam in the back by Jim.  “There’s your safety” he growls.  He proposes they finish off the predator with their spears  (this is the last time a laser is used) and this time the party rallies to his side and leaving the protesting Lee.  The hunt shifts gears-the Allosaurus is instead killed by the Tyrannosaurus while the hunters bring down an Ornithomimus. That night, Charlotte pines for home while Nyla tries to defend Lee’s cowardice. However, when Lee and Jim argue again, Nyla this time takes Jim’s side.  Chuck tries to comfort the nostalgic Charlotte, but they are attacked by the Tyrannosaurus. The huge predator easily crushes through the frail stockade and when Derna tries to grab the last laser, both she and the laser are lost to the Tyrannosaurus.

The next morning, Jim finally convinces Lee to seek out the “lair” of the Tyrannosaur, and they find the cave where it lives (Dinosaurs are dragons, right?).  In the meantime, the crew thinks up ways to kill the animal, and Charlotte suggests poison berries. At their return, Jim wants to use the poisons on their arrows and spears to kill it in combat, while Lee wants to poison its food. Nyla plays arbiter-first they’ll try Lee’s plan, then Jim’s. They bring down a Polacanthus and stuff it with the berries, but somehow the Tyrannosaurus sneaks up on them, preferring to eat Mike rather than the poisoned carcass.

The survivors finally listen to the most competent character and go with his plan-build a sharpened pit of poisoned stakes and lure the Tyrannosaurus onto them.   Lee gives one last protest, but Jim’s in full control; “You've got a whole damn world to run in but you're gonna have to run alone. No one's listening to you anymore. You're just another guy around here. That uniform means nothing”.  Lee redeems himself (sort of), however, distracting the approaching Tyrannosaurus with his hand-mirror and leading it to the Rhedosaurus from Beast From 20,000 Fathoms. This cameo is a homage to the original classic (review coming eventually) and Ray Harryhausen himself visited the set and was touched by the tribute. Still, it’s a waste of an appearance; to quote Kevin Murphy in the Rifftrax; “The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms went out like a punk”.

Finally, they put their plan into motion. Yelling into the cave draws the Tyrannosaurus, and it chases them into the trap. Sure it enough, it falls right onto the giant stake and finally dies.  The last scene shows the crew in their new clothes, hut, and child, living tranquilly on the planet.

I think it’s best to get the bad parts out of the way as they are the more glaring qualities of this film.  The actors are out of their depth. Vasquez Rocks wears out its welcome. The soundtrack is minimalistic synthesizer droning that truly grates. The direction is bland if anything notable.  The dinosaurs disappear from the film for very long stretches and appear only very briefly. It’s too violent for a lot of kids, but has no gore or sex.  The characters are barely established, and what character building there is comes too late in the film. Characters deaths really have no purpose in terms of the plot and have little impact. There is no protagonist, nor is there a sense of ensemble-the narrative switches between Nyla and Lee as the main character and more often than not leaves them completely. The characters act completely incompetent throughout the film. Action and character is eschewed in the first half of the movie in favor of long stretches of walking.  The crash and backgrounds of the characters are not explained.

What’s the good news? Well, the actors may not do very well, but they try their hardest. The dinosaurs are excellently animated by Doug Beswick and Jim Aupperle and sculpted by Steven Czerkas. They’re not exactly Jim Dansforth (who stopped by the studio a few times to lend a hand) or Phil Tippet (who was part of the same animation school), but they had a great deal of talent and are responsible for a great deal of excellent 1970s and 80s stop motion. There’s a lot of different dinosaurs, the highlight being the inaccurate but imposing Tyrannosaurus. Any fan of stop-motion or dinosaurs should definitely give this a watch.  There’s no nudity but Cindy strips to her bikini before her unfortunate death, Derna dresses skimpy and Chuck never puts his shirt back on after Cindy’s death.  There is some character development, at least for some of the characters, and the main conflict between Lee and Jim is somewhat compelling. Even the odious Harvey is clearly a comic relief character than a villain. This film was made with a great deal of earnestness, something you don’t see a lot of films today.

I actually plan to write a story based on the film. The premise is fairly strong, and it certainly pulls it off better than other Space Dinosaur films like King Dinosaur. As I said, the effects are impressive, and have been seen in many many other films. A quick look at says the Phantom Empire, an episode of Muppet Babies, Wizards of the Demon Sword, Galaxy of Dinosaurs, Time Tracers, Beach Babes 2, Teenage Cavegirl, and Pterodactyl Woman from Beverly Hills.

I give it 50/100. Yeah, I liked it. It’s worse that I’m giving it credit, but I think it’s definitely worth the look

If you want to watch the movie with some funny commentary, there’s this for free

If you want to own it, I suggest buying both this- for a hilarious commentary and this for an insightful commentary.


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