MOVIE REVIEW: “Journey to the Far Side of the Sun” (1969)

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I woke up this morning in a vaguely Derek Meddings mood, and wanted to watch something he was involved in. The only thing I had on hand was a copy of “Journey to the Far Side of the Sun”, also known in some markets as “Doppelganger,” so I decided to re-watch that. Of course I’ve seen it a zillion times - this is the kind of B-movie that was late-night gold when I was growing up. Shown infrequently at 3AM on Cable, it’s just a near-perfect example of what’s good and what’s bad about ‘60s SF movies

It’s got a genuinely interesting story, a very solid C-list cast, workman style direction, a surprisingly ethereal soundtrack, and special effects that would still look pretty special all the way in to the 1990s.

PLAY BY PLAY

In the not-too-distant future - probably 15 or 20 years hence, so let’s call it somewhere between 1984 and 1989 - Europe has their own international space agency, called “Eurosec” (European Space Exploration Community), which is headquartered out of Portugal. Herbert Lom and Dr. John Kane (Ian Hendry) are checking some information in a very impressively secure Connery/Bond-looking set. Lom looks at some info, admits he was wrong about the data, apologizes, and leaves.

Back at home, Lom opens up a secret cabinet in his bathroom and pulls out one of his own eyes - it’s fake. Inside it is a camera, which he was using to take photos of the classified info.

Cue opening credits.

After the teaser, we see Dr. Kane and Jason Webb (Patrick Wymark) calling a teleconference with the member nations of Eurosec to announce some new info. There’s also a NASA liaison there played by Ed Bishop, a longtime member of the Gerry and Sylvia Anderson stable. They produced and co-wrote this movie. They reveal that a recent probe has discovered a 10th planet in our solar system, exactly opposite the sun from earth. (Hence the title). They propose launching a manned expedition to this new world before the news gets out.

The Council disagrees vehemently, and NASA refuses to pony up the dough to help pay for it.

Webb cleverly uses their security breach to shift the situation in his favor. They don’t know who the spy is, but they strongly suspect Herbert Lom. They entrap Lom, and then kill him *after* he’s transmitted some of the info pertaining to Planet 10. Now that the unnamed bad guys - assumed to be the Soviets, but is it really? Something later in the film calls that in to question - the US has no choice but to pony up a billion dollars to move the mission ahead. In exchange, NASA requires full information sharing, and they demand an American astronaut be sent along on the EUROSEC mission. Webb agrees.

I can’t tell you how fun it is to see these scenes. The backroom political deals and manipulation like this is far, far more fun than we get to see in most movies of the period where everyone is driven by pure or merely scientific motivations. Seeing how the deal is made fills a void so gaping in SF movies that most people don’t even realize it exists. The boy’s club nature of the scenes between Webb, Bishop, and the nebulous international security guy who’s been just kind of hanging around on the fringes of the story just makes it better. Not only do we have characters who are doing cool stuff here, they *know* it’s cool, and are clearly enjoying themselves. Looking at the eye camera, Ed Bishop says “Does our side have anything like this?” “We do now,” says the spy.

The Americans settle on Colonel John Ross (Roy Thinnes, of “The Invaders“), whom we’re told is NASA’s most experienced Astronaut - 50 days in space, and two missions to Mars. Sigh. Two missions to Mars by the late 1980s….if only. Ross is a handsome, fairly distant man who’s got some baggage. He’s got a failing marriage to an unfaithful wife, played by the always eye-popping Lynn Loring. Here’s a picture of the unhappy couple here http://farm2.static.flickr.com/1395/1054209408_1fe01f2d6b.jpg?v=0 (Curiously, despite how amazing she was, and how much TV work she was getting, I can’t find any glamour shots of her. Oh well.) They’ve been trying to have a kid, it seems, but they’ve been going about it the wrong way: He’s been trying to have a kid with her, and she’s evidently been trying to have a kid with every guy in Lisbon *other* than him. When he questions her about it, she accuses him of sterility and says “The sad fact of the matter is you went up in to space a man, and you came back as something less than a man.“ Also, she’s taking Birth Control pills. He gets mad and slaps her around. Bad Glen!

We get the obligatory training montage of Ross and Dr. Kane getting ready for the flight, with Webb inexplicably pushing Kane too hard, and EUROSEC’s pretty head of security clearly growing closer to the American. The payoff here is when Ross teaches Dr. Kane to cheat on wilderness survival tests by hitching rides and going to restaurants and whatnot. There’s no real chemistry between these two, but there is a nice, kind of subtle scene when they’re talking about how lonely space is, and Ross says, “Of course if you don’t have the right person with you down here, there’s just no difference.”

Launch day comes, and we get an orgy of beautiful Derek Meddings miniatures and special effects. Once in space, the astronauts intravenously plug in to Heart/Kidney/Lung machines that will keep them alive, healthy, and unconscious during the 3 week journey to Planet 10. This is a super cool idea!

Now, up to this point the film has been a bit slow, but very engagingly so. There’s real-world concerns, nothing exists in a bubble, cold war tension - always a good way to drive a plot - and wheels within wheels, even if only the big wheel is the one we’re terribly interested in. Up to this point in the movie, whatever they’re selling, I’m totally on board for it, they’ve got me.

Unfortunately, once they hook up to the HKL machines, the forward momentum of the plot is largely lost, and we’re treated to a pretty but amazingly slow psychedelic montage sequence to show the passage of time, with some pretty but sleepy Barry Gray music playing on the soundtrack. Then they wake up and we get a montage of them surveying the new planet from orbit. Then we get a very slow spacewalking sequence where Ross and Kane transfer from their capsule to the lander. All of this takes ten minutes or so, and no matter how quietly charming the first half of the film is, these sequences hit the brakes. As a guy who’s watched this movie more than once at 3am, I can honestly tell you that part of the movie puts me out cold.

The landing on Planet 10 goes badly, and they crash. Kane is thrown clear of the burning, twisted wreck, and injured, but he rushes back to pull Ross out, and cripples himself in the process. A strange noise appears, a light above the alien landscape. A humanoid-yet-alien shape levitates down from the sky and babbles in incomprehensible crazy alien speak. Ross pulls a gun - why does Ross have a gun? - but the laien smacks it out of his hand, KOs him, and carries him up in to the clouds while Kane watches, unable to do anything.

The alien says “Do you speak English? I am Air/Sea rescue out of Ulan Bator, we saw your plane crash. I’m going down again for your friend.” Turns out he’s a human wearing some kind of flame-retardant suit.

At this point, the movie makes a hard left turn, obviously.

Back at EUROSEC, Jason Webb, the pretty security chick, and the nebulous spy dude want to know what happened. The mission left for planet 10 three weeks ago, and it would take at least that long for them to get there. They couldn’t have arrived back on earth in 3 weeks unless they’d turned around en rout. Why would they do such a thing?

Colonel Ross says they didn’t, and Kane is in ICU and not making any sense. Webb orders a complete news blackout, not even reporting the info to the EUROSEC council, and he assures the spy dude that “My counterpart in the Soviet Sciences Academy assures me they’ll keep the crash in Mongolia quiet.” (What? Suddenly the Soviets are friendly? Or was Herbert Lom spying for someone else in the beginning?). They interrogate Ross rather brutally, but he maintains his story. Finally, they let him go home where his bitchy-but-undeniably-hot wife notices odd behavior.

The next morning, he notices he can read stuff in the mirror, but not when looking at it directly. He freaks out, and the wife calls in the goon squad. They take him down and haul him back to the EUROSEC medical center for more tests. They can’t explain it, but he clearly can read in mirrors. Meanwhile the wife abandons Ross, and the pretty security chick kind of hook up - maybe. Dr. Kane dies, his last impression being Webb screaming at him.

Ross tells Webb his theory - that there are two earths, mirror images of each other, with exactly the same history. That these two worlds share some kind of preternatural physical connection, and that at the exact moment he left his earth for Planet 10, an identical-but-reversed Colonel Ross left planet 10 for earth. Webb believes it, and they plan to launch an expedition to recover the part of the mission that’s still in orbit. (Why? Evidently there are no space stations in the late 80s, otherwise it would be easier to get someone else to do it)

Ross lifts off in a lander identical to the one he crashed in, named “Doppleganger,” but when he docks with the orbiter it rejects him, and falls in to the atmosphere. The Doppleganger suffers damage from this, too, and can’t land. It crashes in to EUROSEC, taking out one of their huge interplanetary rockets on the pad, which explodes in a pretty orgy of destruction and ultimately takes out the entire space headquarters.

Ten years later on, Webb is an old man in a retirement home, babbling about counter-earths. He tries to kill himself by rolling his wheelchair in to a mirror.

THE END.

OBSERVATIONS

Ok, I’m not gonna’ lie: there’s a lot of low cards in this hand. The second half of the movie doesn’t really work, the big twist is demonstrably silly, and it’s edited oddly as well. For instance, they make a big deal telling Mrs. Ross she can’t abandon her husband - “We know all about your personal life, it’s our job to know.” - but then she’s abruptly gone with no explanation only a scene later. The pretty security chick comes to talk to Glenn Ross, and they appear to be working their way up to making out, but then the scene abruptly ends. Later, at the botched final launch, the security chick comes in and Webb tells her “Couldn’t stay away, huh?” as though there was a big subplot about her misgivings about the mission that got cut out. In fact, I think this movie was probably shot a good bit longer than its 90-minute run time, but when they realized the second half wasn’t working they probably chopped it down to the bare minimum. I can’t prove this, but it would explain the rather scattershot feel of the last act.

There’s a lot of bad science in here. Primarily there’s the idea that there could be a planet of equal size on the exact opposite side of the sun from us. While it’s true we’d never see such a counter-earth, LaGrange conclusively proved that such a thing couldn’t exist. Why? Well, there’s stable points in the orbit of any object around a larger object, five of them - L1, L2, L3, L4, and L5 to be exact. A counter-earth would fill the L3 point, but if the object in any one of these points is more than say 2% of the mass of the object orbiting the primary - that is to say if the counter-earth were the same size as earth, and it’d have to be - then gravitational feedback would destabilize the orbits of both planets, and they’d either fall closer to or further from the sun.

Secondly, the movie assumes that all planets are in a straight line out from the sun, because while *We* can’t see what’s behind the sun from us, a person on Mars *could* because Mars is usually ahead of or behind us in it’s orbit ‘round the sun. So if we’ve sent multiple manned missions to mars, they more than likely would have noticed the presence of a counter-earth.

Thirdly, for both planets to be identical-yet-reversed, it means the history of BOTH planets must be exactly precisely identical, right? So the Planet 10 Colonel Ross *also* went to Mars twice at the same time as Earths’ Own Ross, right? Why didn’t he meet himself? Because he went to HIS Mars, the one on his side of the sun. (Call it “Planet 11”). Logically, for this hokey system to work, every planet in the system has to have it’s exact duplicate.

Stupidity aside, this is a fun movie. It looks great, the cast is good, the music is nice, the effects are suitably cool, and it’s hard not to like all the nuts-and-bolts approach to space flight, the training, the scenes of them putting the rocket together, the frankly intoxicatingly romantic prospect of a manned European space agency doing cool stuff in space. This film must be a saliva-tingling guilty pleasure of the ESA http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ESA There’s a lot to like here, including acres of gorgeous Derek Meddings miniatures, even if the story does feel like a pumped up, particularly illiterate twilight zone episode.

The super-mod futuristic cars mostly turned up in “UFO” the next year, along with Ed Bishop. Some of the music in that show actually sounds like a jazzed-up version of the theme from this film.

This was the Anderson’s first attempt at a live-action story, and it functions as kind of a ‘proof of concept’ that they could do it. They had a fair budget, and despite the unquestionable sillyness of the finished product, it just looks cool. A triumph of style over substance. One could almost squint and pretend this movie, Space 1999 and UFO all took place in the same fictional Universe. They don’t of course, but who cares if we pretend about bad movies?

Also, there’s lots of cool “World’s Fair” vision of the future stuff. The security measures in the beginning, the teleconference, the heart monitor watches, the HKL life support for long-term missions, the Lifting Body design of the lander - all this stuff was beyond cutting edge at the time, all of which looks more than a bit dated now, but that’s part of it’s charm. (Though the NASA transport just flat out makes no sense) It’s always fun to get a look at a version of the 1980s that didn’t happen, and I really really really wish Europe *did* have their own manned space agency. It might goad us to do stuff.

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