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Monday, September 28, 2015

Movie Monthly - Daleks – Invasion Earth: 2150 A.D.

And so we come to the end of another Movie Monthly, this month a bit more sparse and transitional than I might’ve hoped it’d be.  Next month things will ideally run a bit more smoothly but at the very least I can say I achieved my central goal of this month by getting to today’s film.  At the start of September in Time and Space I said the reason I chose time travel for this month was to celebrate the return of Doctor Who to television, today I celebrate Doctor Who’s rich film history with Daleks – Invasion Earth: 2150 A.D., a film so nice they named it thrice.  Also yes, you read that sentence correctly; this is a Doctor Who feature length film, one of two produced by a major American studio in the mid ‘60s.  How?  Why?  Is it any good? Let’s dive in. 

In the mid-60s the core concepts that would one day form the blockbuster were just beginning to emerge.  Mainly this was through the development of fantasy adventure films, movies that took the various loose genre trappings of a previously “junky” genre and applied them to large scale stunts with a more fanciful approach to the plot points.  A good indicator of what I mean is 1964’s Goldfinger, the film that would define a whole era of James Bond movies going forward shedding the moderately realistic tone of the previous two installments for a more madcap world birthed from crazy gadgets and ludicrous plans and villains.  This was the same kind of thinking that blended into sci-fi at the time with relative hits like Fantastic Voyage and the original Star Trek show. 
While a new concept for the growingly widespread audience this blend had actually already been simmering in the subgenre of family films for nearly a decade mainly thanks to the cinematic guardian of family viewing experiences: Disney.  Though many of Disney’s live action offerings are oddly forgotten today films like 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea and Swiss Family Robinson went a long way at establishing this formula while films like Bedknobs and Broomsticks carried it through into the ‘70s. 
In the midst of all this upheaval and development Hammer films, ubiquitous for their horror offerings, decided to start producing fantasy adventure films of their own.  They were surprisingly solid hits, which prompted New York producers Max Rosenberg and Milton Subotsky to try and counter this success; this is where Doctor Who comes in.  At the time all this was going on in the mid ‘60s Doctor Who was making its first major splash with British audiences mainly through the curious phenomena known as Dalek-mania.  The Daleks really were perfect menaces to garner widespread of popularity at the time, an alien menace that looked completely inhuman and embodied basically the same philosophy as the Nazis.  They’re absolutely perfect boogey men and were integral to Doctor Who finding a lasting audience.  Rosenberg and Subtosky were aware of this success so they decided to hitch their wagon to the same pony and convinced the BBC to let them make a movie out of the introductory Daleks serial Doctor Who and the Daleks.

The Doctor Who and the Daleks movie is…harmless.  It’s a fun and surreal experience for hardcore Whovians but taken on its own merits as a movie it leaves a lot to be desired.  It’s painfully obvious that it’s ultimately a TV script that was awkwardly converted into a film, especially given how much isn’t explained.  If you don’t already know what the Daleks’ mentality is this movie really isn’t interested in explaining it to you.  The far more interesting aspect of the film comes from their rendition of the Doctor played by Peter Cushing. 
I’ve already talked about Cushing’s portrayal of the character in my Doctor’s ranking list but the nuts and bolts of his character are not at all what you’d expect.  Rather than have the Doctor as a sort of immortal alien with a stolen time machine, Peter Cushing is playing a human inventor named Dr. Who.  The only other character from the show the films really keep around is the Doctor’s granddaughter Susan, here reimagined from a young woman into a freakily intelligent small child, like a female Dexter.  Despite the seriously out there change up of identities I actually find the pair really endearing, especially in the second film. 
Cushing’s Dr. Who is a unique blend of compelling that actually falls surprisingly in tune with both what the show was at the time and what it would eventually become.  The closest point of comparison you might find is actually Matt Smith’s Doctor only with an unintentional edge to the character.  He’s written as a lovable grandfatherly character with infinitely more affection and optimism for other people than William Hartnell’s portrayal of the Doctor at the time.  The key wrinkle to his character is that his “absent minded professor” routine tends to result in horrible consequences like when he exposes his entire family to deadly radiation by mistake.  

The film was a major success so Rosenberg and Subotsky set about making a prequel out of the second Dalek story arc The Dalek Invasion of Earth, which became today’s focus Daleks – Invasion Earth: 2150 A.D.  Invasion Earth is easily the better of the two films mainly owing to how much more centered the focus is and the streamlined storytelling and pacing.  Doctor Who and the Daleks was much more in line with the Disney fantasy adventure films I’d already mentioned, emphasizing a kind of family mentality as they stumble through a bizarre alien world with a good helping of James Bond clichés for good measure.  Invasion Earth has much more in common with Planet of the Apes, which would come out two years later, as it drops what are essentially contemporary characters into a dark and dystopian future. 
Additionally it’s the film that gives Peter Cushing’s Doctor Who a greater sense of importance to the plot and a legitimate sense of agency.  He’s still left playing second fiddle to the Daleks, it is their name above the title, but he’s more prone to action and planning this time around which is an enjoyable change of pace.  What really sells Invasion Earth for me though is the cinematography, which is shockingly excellent.  Where the first film was decidedly flat and static in its filming style this one is well paced and engaging with lots of action and curiously evocative shots of this creepy dystopia. 
There’s a great mid-film sequence where the human resistance launches an attack on one of the Dalek spaceships and some parts of it play like a modern movie, including some great, unbroken tracking shots.  A big part of this seems to be that the crew actually didn’t have a lot of time or money to shoot with.  That same fact also helps a lot of the stunt scenes look more impressive, mainly because the actors were usually in real danger as live explosives were cheaper than fakes and the film couldn’t afford stunt doubles.  

Obviously you have to come into Invasion Earth with a grain of salt.  It’s a ‘60s soft sci-fi adventure flick that’s trying to blend “family adventure” with “dystopian nightmare future” so there’s obviously a lot of tonal whiplash to be found.  A big part of this is the sound track, which seems to have been transposed in from a whole other movie. 
It’s all hot jazz and jokey horn stabs that seem like they’d be more at home on the Adam West Batman show instead of punctuating the secret bunkers of the human resistance or the slave mines of the Daleks.  What’s more the comedy scenes honestly come off incredibly dark given what we know of this world and its mechanics, climaxing with a really off-putting scene of slapstick comedy that revolves around the mechanical movements of human servants of the Daleks’ who’ve had their personalities expunged to serve as unthinking automatons. 
Still, even with the tone deaf soundtrack and awkwardly dark comedy I actually really recommend Daleks – Invasion Earth: 2150 A.D., horrendous title and all.  It’s a relic from another time but a fascinating one all the same, a thoroughly in-between type flick where you can see the influence of James Bond and Disney colliding with the growing popularity of speculative futurism that would culminate in the Charlton Heston dystopia trilogy.  It’s by no means a great movie but now having seen all 3 of the Doctor Who films it’s easily the most rewarding of the bunch and most enjoyable to re-visit.  Pick it up today. 

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