Tuesday, September 30, 2014

The Phantom Planet (1961) - MST3K Review

Humans just love hurling themselves into the cosmos, and now that America has  a swell moon base (because it is 1980) humans can journey even further into distant space. But when one of the rockets goes missing, a rescue mission is sent, with Captain Frank Chapman (Dean Fredericks) at the controls. The journey is dangerous, as asteroids hurtle around the ship and end up causing it some serious damage. Chapman loses his copilot and finds that his rocket is out of control and hurtling toward one of the larger chunks of space rock.

But he does not find a space slug on this asteroid; instead the atmosphere causes him to shrink down to a handy pocket size. There he meets the Lilliputian people of the planet Rheton. They are lead by the wise Sesom (Francis X. Bushman). There is the sultry Liara (Coleen Grey), the pretty but mute Zetha (Dolores Faith) and the angry Herron (Anthony Dexter). All Chapman wants to do is return to earth, but that may not be so easy. You see the evil Solarites are waging a war against the people or Rheton. Chapman is caught in the middle, and he may have no hope of ever escaping The Phantom Planet.

Movie Review:
Frank is the first known Poke-naut!
If you are familiar with the rocket movies of the 1950s then you have a pretty good idea of what The Phantom Planet is like. It’s got the square jawed American hero landing on a strange world, the alien babes immediately fall for him, there’s a jealous alien man who tries to thwart him, the leader is a wise old guy and there’s some kind of crazy monster that does some damage before the hero kicks its butt. All the beats are hit so no real surprises from this movie. But it is the little things that make The Phantom Planet a bit of an oddity.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen an astronaut more annoyed to be in outer space than Captain Frank Chapman (even Captain Cameron from Star Trek: Generations seemed more eager to explore the unknown). I’m not sure if it is Fredericks acting or the script or maybe a combination of both, but Chapman just doesn’t see any wonder or awe in space travel. He’s brave, yes, but he’s also kind of a jerk. His first act upon meeting alien life – he attacks it! He is annoyed that the aliens have different rules than the good old U.S. of A! He’s miffed that he isn’t given free reign to wander around the alien world and touch anything he wants. He’s grumpy when two super hot space babes are drooling all over him. And he whines that Rheton isn’t just like Earth. He reminds me of the annoying American tourists who go overseas and complain that the McDonalds doesn’t taste just like the one back home.

For Makonnen it is all about the good and the beautiful. 
What is funny is that his copilot, Ray Makonnen (Richard Weber) actually seems to want to travel in outer space. His little bit of character development shows us that he is looking for “the good and the beautiful” in the universe. If he had survived the first act I’m guessing he wouldn’t have attacked the aliens on sight or been so darn grumpy about first contact with another life form. But too bad for us, Makonnen does deliver his dead-meat speech about wanting to find “the good and the beautiful”. This seals his doom, and while he sacrifices himself to save Frank we sigh and hope he gets sucked into a wormhole and ends up on the planet with the Fire Maidens from Outer Space.

Speaking of maidens, the two ladies of the story do a pretty good job with the roles they are given. Coleen Grey plays the sexy and manipulative Liara very well. Fans of MST3K will recognize her from The Leech Woman. She serves as Franks main source of information about the world of Rheton. She obviously has the hots for him, but mostly because she likes strong men, and Herron just isn’t doing it for her. Not hard to see why since Herron is almost as big a wet blanket as Frank is. Again, I’m not sure if it is the script or the acting, but Dexter doesn’t give the character much life, other than really, really hating Frank.

Liara is the beautiful and Zetha is the good.
The Phantom Planet also gives us the lovely mute Zetha, who spends most of the film pining away for Frank. She can’t talk, but she can sure look crest fallen whenever Liara wanders away with our wooden hero. For some reason, she falls for him the minute she sees him. And for some reason he falls for her (granted Liara is a bit pushy). The writing here is all done for plot convenience, so don’t expect any deep character development in the love story.

Francis X. Bushman is probably best known for his role in the silent production of Ben Hur. He certainly has a bit of gravitas and he brings that to role of the wise elder Sessom. He makes the Martian wise man in Santa Claus Conquersthe Martians look like joke. But I do wonder if his performance inspired the similar character in Ed Wood’s Plan 9 From Outer Space. The other big name (although he was unknown at the time he made the film) is Richard Kiel. He’s in a huge goofy costume and he spends most of his screen time trapped in a futuristic jail cell. I kinda feel bad for Kiel, since he is walking around very gingerly. I’m betting he couldn’t see a darn thing in that outfit. Unfortunately his shambling around and careful motions make him far from frightening. The only monster I’ve seen move slower was Tor Johnson in The Beast of YuccaFlats.

Flaming popcorn attacks the extra crispy piece.
The production design is typical of a low budget science fiction film of the era. The rockets are your typical design, lacking the flair of the spaceships seen in The First Spaceship on Venus. I love the asteroids; they look like huge chunks for granola or maybe pieces of Kentucky Fried Chicken hurtling through the void. Most of the alien technology in The Phantom Planet is strange looking crystal control panels and the gravity plates, which were probably just plastic or rubber squares put on the set. The flaming spaceships of the Solarites are kinda funny, since they are literally on fire as they swoop through space. The sound effects for their weapons sounds just like old west six shooters. Some of the most creative special effects are used when Frank shrinks down in size. His giant helmet actually becomes one of the sets, and was probably the most expensive element of the production.

But special effects don’t make a film. The story and some of the scientific concepts are what end up scuttling this one. The plot is very predictable, not a bad thing in itself, but our lead is so unlikable. I just want to slap Frank when he starts whining about how Rheton is not like the USA. Well duh! You’re on another planet! Isn’t that why you wanted to be an astronaut in the first place? With this guy being the focus of the film, it’s hard to get too invested in his fate.

Just to keep things honest, Frank admits that not everything
shrank in proportion. 
But then you get the science. A key plot point of the entire film is that Frank shrinks down in size. This keeps him from escaping Rheton, because even if he does escape, how will anyone find his teeny tiny body floating around. And then if he goes back to earth, he’ll be put in the first sideshow NASA can find. At least that is how Frank imagines it. Later Frank learns that his size is actually due to the atmosphere, so if he breathes his oxygen from his own tanks on his space suit, he’ll grow again. Wait, what? As Crow points out, “So humans are just like big old flesh balloons?” I also love how all the spaceships are able to make hard turns in outer space. It is hilarious looking. Then you have the crazy physics of The Phantom Planet itself as it hurtles around willy-nilly through space. How does it retain an atmosphere, or light or anything really?

In the final analysis, The Phantom Planet isn’t a great movie, but it falls right in the middle of other rocket movies of the era. It certainly could compete with 12 to the Moon or Project: Moonbase, but lacks the interest and dynamics of something like Moon Zero Two or even The First Spaceship on Venus. Still there is more than enough for Mike and bots to work with.

Episode Review:
Somewhere under all that is a very young
Richard Kiel.
One of the favorite genres for fans of Mystery Science Theater 3000 is the rocket ship flicks of the 1950s and 1960s. Especially during the Comedy Central years (and during Joel’s run as host in particular), lots of fun riffing accompanied these films. Most were black and white affairs, filled with American white men delving into space. Even Mystery Science Theater: The Movie featured a variant of this when it tackled This Island Earth. So it comes as a bit of surprise that this is the final rocket movie the series tackled.

In fact it had been a while since the crew had watched a film in this genre, so I think they were ready to go. The riffing comes pretty strong and steady throughout the film, and fits the pacing that was typical during the Sci-fi Channel years.

The shoving the bar event will never make
the Olympics.
The one thing that always pops into my head when I think of the riffing to The Phantom Planet is how fixated the guys get on the copilot Makonnen and his monologue on “the good and the beautiful”. The minute he stops and delivers his famous dead meat speech, the boys chuckle and then they start dropping references to it throughout the film. During the scene where the rocket is in peril and the two men prepare to space walk, Tom asks, “Permission to speak in flowery prose again sir?” When Frank starts to grumble about how screwed they are, Mike replies, “That was a bad and unbeautiful thing to say, sir!” And when we see Makkonnen flailing around as he hurtles off into the void after saving Frank, Crow declares him a Spazz-tronaut.

Mike and the bots have some fun with the asteroids and The Phantom Planet itself. They can’t decide what kind of food they look like, but they come up with all kinds of suggestions. Tom declares them “Honey bunches of DEATH!” and Mike thinks that “Those nooks and crannies really hold the butter.” Then when the doglike Solarites attack, Crow feels that “if the planet didn’t look like a chicken McNugget then the dogs wouldn’t attack.”

"I think he's running a little rich there."
Speaking of the Solarites, Mike and the bots have a ton of fun with the silly costumes and flaming spaceships for these creatures. As the Solarites swoop in to attack, Mike says in his dog voice “We just need a place to scoot!” Crow thinks “They are throwing flaming milk bones.” A close up of the Solarite piloting his ships as the flames lick up into the cockpit window causes Tom to say, “My check engine light is on. I wonder why?”

During the big finale, as Frank is growing back to normal size, he has a montage of the previous 80 minutes flash back into his brain. Including the scene that happened right before the montage started. Crow gets very irate and yells, “You can’t flash back to something we saw ten seconds ago!” Sad to say, I’ve used that line when watching many movies since then. Note to directors – please heed Crow’s advice. He knows what he’s talking about.

Mike doesn't seem concerned about the
good or the beautiful at this point.
Host segments start off with Mike, Crow and Tom attempting an Andy Roony-off, while Gypsy acts as a judge. It gets very, very silly. Meanwhile, Pearl receives her “Rule the World Starter Kit”. But some assembly is required. Unfortunately a key (and highly radioactive piece) is delivered to the Satellite of Love instead. The boys hesitate on returning it, so Pearl sends them The Phantom Planet as punishment. At the first break Tom is contemplating “the good and the beautiful”, and Mike helps him out with some suggestions. At the next break, Pearl is having a real problem putting together her doomsday device, when suddenly she experiences some paranormal activity in the castle. Inspired by the Theremin soundtrack, and the control panels used by the aliens of Rheton, Tom and Crow attempt to play Twinkle Twinkle Little Star using water glass rims. Mike stops by and shows them up by playing a classical piece! He’s a master. When the movie ends Crow is dressed as a Solarite but stills feels empty inside. Pearl can’t get her doomsday device to work, but she can still work old-fashioned evil, like dumping hot oil on the villagers surrounding the castle.

Our hero, about to complain again.
This is one of those episodes that just hits all the right notes for some viewers. I know several people who love the rocket films and the riffing and for them, this is a great final hurrah for those movies. Ask them you you’ll probably get four or five stars. But for me, I find the whole thing fun, but lacking that extra something to really make it one of my favorites. “The good and the beautiful” jokes are fun, and the Solarite riffing is hilarious. But the rest just seems kinda standard stuff. I’ll recommend The Phantom Planet to fans of the genre, but for everyone else, this is a solid episode, but season nine had a few that were much funnier (especially the next two episodes: Pumaman and Werewolf).

So I end up give this three good and beautiful mute aliens out of five.

This episode is available on the Mystery Science Theater 3000 Collection: Volume 8.


  1. I actually enjoy this flick for all its silliness -- including how the protagonist is an ass. Do the atoms themselves shrink, do you think? I haven't seen the MST3K version, but, even straight up, this is fun.

    1. Yeah the science in this movie was really wonky. There was a discussion on MST3K fan site a few years ago trying to figure out which movie had the worst science. This one was in the top five. I wanna say "The Amazing Colossal" man won because of the "single celled heart" concept.

      This movie gives the boys a ton to work with, which is why I kinda wish the riff was a bit better. But as a unrifled viewing this one is a hoot.