Friday 28 March 2014

The Planet

Director: Mark Stirton
Writer: Mark Stirton
Producer: Michael Clark
Cast: Mike Mitchell, Patrick Wright, Scott Ironside
Country: UK
Year of release: 2006
Reviewed from: Festival screening (FFF 2007)

The Planet is a massively frustrating movie. On many levels it’s very good. In fact, considering that this was a low-budget British indie by a first time feature-director with a largely neophyte cast, it’s a magnificent achievement. I don’t know how much it cost. The figure of £8,000 was bandied about in publicity but you never know how reliable a figure like that is. The point is that this film looks like it cost a couple of million quid and it clearly cost a tiny fraction of that

Great special effects, terrific production design, effective props and costumes, excellent photography, good acting and direction, an impressive score and an absolutely stunning sound mix. The problem - and you may have already guessed where this is going - lies with the one thing that doesn’t cost a penny. The script was... less than magnificent.

Even having said that, much of the script was great. The characters were clearly identified and all had something to do. This is a movie about ten men all dressed roughly the same in one location and it would be easy for them to be nameless, faceless blanks but these were ten characters - mostly that was done through the dialogue and the way they reacted to things. Throughout the middle act, when the plot was developing, the script told the story well and showed how it affected the characters. If the whole film was like the second act, it would be stunning.

There was one line of dialogue which did get an unintentional big laugh from an otherwise respectful audience: when the captain asked a badly injured young man to go on what is effectively a suicide mission because the doctor has decided that he’ll probably die in two days anyway. Mmm yes - that’s the sort of sensitive commanding officer I’d like in charge of me. That line was out of character and should have been caught, but it’s one bad line in a 75-minute film. Hardly a major problem.

There is however a major (albeit solvable) problem with the first act. And the third act... well, all in good time.

We open with an impressive CGI spaceship sailing through the void. Actually we open with an interminable series of credits, with each actor’s name listed separately on screen, just white on a black background. Yes, the music is good but this goes on forever and has the audience begging for the next name to be the last. Why do indie film-makers do this? Okay, it’s great fun at the cast and crew screening but in commercial terms it’s pointless. We have never, ever heard of any of these people. No-one has, except you and their respective mothers. If you have inveigled a star name into your film, sure, put their credit above the title. Maybe put two or three lead actors above the title, but not the whole damn cast and certainly not one at a time.

Anyway - that spaceship. A digital readout tells us that this freighter is commanded by Captain Morgan and has a crew of 126. Being really pedantic, one character later refers to there having been 126 men on the ship but a captain is not part of the crew so a Captain and a crew of 126 is a ship’s complement of 127 men. And the cargo? One prisoner. (So that’s 128 really.)

Suddenly the large, cumbersome freighter is attacked by a dozen or so small, fast fighter spaceships. This is all done very well. Not Hollywood blockbuster quality effects but certainly Hollywood straight-to-video B-movie special effects. Of course there’s lots of whooshing and whizzing and guns blasting and explosions and while it is, as I mentioned, a seriously impressive bit of sound-mixing, it has the same effect on me that such space battles always have. It makes me long for a film-maker who will realise that the lack of sound in space can work to their advantage. One day I’ll see a film where the sound during the interior shots on the spaceships is deafening, all crashing and exploding and thumping and banging and every time we cut to the exterior the spaceships are zipping around in complete and utter silence. Wouldn’t that just kick arse?

Not in this film though, and I can’t really blame them for following Hollywood cliche but still, it was a chance for them to do something different.

But that’s not the problem.

Before the ship blows up, twelve people make it to individual escape pods or ‘e-pods’ which blast away from the ship. They’re not much more than automatic metal coffins and the poor sods inside are trapped, cramped and have no real idea where they’re going - but that makes sense. I like the e-pods - they’re an excellent idea done very well and make more sense than a nice, roomy escape capsule. I also like the way that we are specifically told, later, that they are designed for ship-to-ship escape but can just about make planetfall in an emergency - because, let’s face it, these guys were bloody lucky that their ship was blown up so close to a planet. That said, it doesn’t look to me like there are 116 unused e-pods still on the freighter and you have to wonder how the prisoner is able to get into an e-pod - but in he gets. (And it has just occurred to me: shouldn’t the Captain have gone down with his ship rather than being the first guy out of there?)

Anyway, the e-pods all land on a barren planet with nothing but sand and sparse vegetation - or at least on a sandy, sparsely vegetated part of the planet which may have icy wastes and lush jungles elsewhere. Nah, it’s a planet in a sci-fi movie - it will be exactly the same all over. We have to accept that all the e-pods come down within a few miles of each other so that the ten survivors are able to meet up, firing flares into the sky to locate each other.

The other two pods contain the prisoner - a bald chap with an odd tattoo above his eyebrow who wanders off into the desert - and one guy who didn’t make it. Something went wrong with his e-pod and he died on re-entry. He was, it turns out, the brother of the youngest member of the group, David (whom everyone calls ‘Kid’).

Okay, here’s where the problem starts. That ship was a freighter. We were told that in a caption on screen. So why do all ten of our survivors wear camouflage gear? And why do they all have big fuck-off guns? One of the characters later refers to the group as ‘mercenaries’ but in that case, what the hell were they doing on a freighter? We were told it had a crew of 126. That’s not a crew of a couple of dozen and a hundred or so professional soldiers. You specifically explained to us, in green computer writing that beeped as it appeared, that this was a freighter and these ten men (plus the 117 dead ones) were the freighter crew. Now suddenly they’re military.

Either they had those big guns on board ship - erm, why? - or those guns were stowed in the e-pods, which is an even bigger ‘why?’. Why would you have a damn great gun in a cramped metal box primarily designed for evacuating a person to another spaceship?

And then there’s the tent. Even assuming that these ship-to-ship e-pods contain emergency supplies just in case they need to land on a planet, surely there would be one small bivouac per pod. Instead, we have a large frame tent, big enough to sleep 15-20 men, which the team erect. Hello? Where did this come from? Are we supposed to accept that out of the 128 e-pods they fortunately picked one that had a large tent included? Kid has his own small ridge tent - so why haven’t the others?

We also have to accept that although less than ten per cent of the crew escaped the ship, the team assembled on this planet includes not only the captain but also a doctor, a cook and an engineer. That’s convenient.

Do you see what I’m getting at here? We start with an attack on a freighter (their word) crewed by more than 120 men but when we reach the planet surface we have a planned, prepared and apparently carefully selected military squad. Well, I say planned but we see them huddling together for warmth around a small fire after the sun goes. Shame there was no heating device included with the e-pods (instead of that enormous tent) but then again, it’s a good job they didn’t land on an ice planet, or simply near the pole of this one.

A film should not contradict itself to this extent. Tell us nothing and we’ll make assumptions about what we see, but tell us one thing and then show us something incompatible and we’ll be distracted. Trying to work out why a randomly selected group of freighter crew are suddenly a small military detachment means we’re not paying full attention to what is going on.

There was an easy way round this. Just don’t tell us it’s a freighter! Tell us it’s a military expedition, an army ship with a complement of eleven men (plus one prisoner). That would make sense. You might need to rejig the few brief scenes on the ship itself but that’s no hassle. As it is, you’ve confused your audience from the start and that’s never a good idea.

Once we’ve worked out that it’s best to just ignore everything we were told at the start and simply view this as an eleven-man military expedition which has already lost one of its members, things settle down somewhat. The camp is attacked by an almost invisible humanoid thing and the ‘blaster weapons’ have no effect - though that doesn’t stop everyone pouring whatever it is those things fire into the see-through beastie. One guy finds his gun has jammed or the battery is flat or whatever but fortunately he carries with him, for back-up purposes, an antique revolver. And it turns out that actually shooting the transparent monster with a solid projectile causes it to explode, while the energy bolts (or whatever) from the highly advanced guns can do nothing but piss it off.

This is a really neat idea, but that’s all it remains. An idea. It’s never explained or explored.

The Captain, a muscular mountain of a man who could have a pretty good career in action flicks if he gets the right agent, decides that they should try and contact ‘Captain Behan’ with whom they were intending to rendezvous. But they cannot do this from the planet, they need to get into orbit. The engineer says that if they combine the power units from two e-pods they can probably give one of them enough juice to lift itself on anti-grav doodads high enough to blast above the atmosphere. It can all be done on automatic but it will need a ‘pilot’ to send the signal. The captain valiantly volunteers for this but in a commendably sensible move the engineer points out that putting the heaviest man into the somewhat dodgily repaired e-pod is ridiculous and that it needs to be the lightest member of the team. That’s Kid. I really liked the way that he now points out that his name is David and the Captain starts using it, treating him with dignity and respect. That was good storytelling and good characterisation.

Unfortunately, the Creature from the Id (or whatever it is) attacks again, David/Kid is mortally wounded and we then get the previously mentioned hilarity of “you’re going to die in two days anyway.” Which is a shame.

While all this is going on, along with a subplot about the cook working out what local roots are edible, a team hauling a two-ton e-pod across the dunes and so on, what about that prisoner? Well, he wanders off to an apparently completely random point in another part of the desert, digs away the sand and finds, just below the surface, a rusty sword. Standing this upright, he smacks his hand down on the blade and as the blood trickles down the weapon it is restored to its full ceremonial glory. Quite why he does this is unclear as we never see the sword again.

Clearly something odd is going on and the prisoner knows this planet - and this part of the planet.
But then, out of the blue, one of the squaddies - for so they effectively are - announces that he is actually a traitor and belongs to the same cult as the prisoner (or something) and that he is responsible for guiding them to this planet because it is the portal to another universe. Or something. Oh, and I forgot to mention that the planet does not show up on the charts they have with them, although the other worlds in the star system do. One of the soldiers says at one point, after the beast attacks, “I thought this planet was meant to be uninhabited” which doesn’t square at all with the planet being unknown. But maybe he was just confused, poor dear.

Quite what the cult’s intentions are regarding this new universe malarkey isn’t clear, but we can see that letting them get away with whatever they plan to do would be a bad thing. What I don’t understand, however, is why we needed the prisoner in the story at all, if one of the squad was arranging everything for his own nefarious ends. Ooh, and I also forgot the money: a big bag of cash which the Captain accepted for transporting this prisoner (and which he decided to bring down to the planet with him). And it’s only at this point that any of the others question what is so special about the prisoner.

Dude, you had one prisoner being transported on a giant spaceship with a crew of 126 - did you not wonder at the time why he was deserving of such special treatment? Mind you, the audience is still wondering, because although we now know he belongs to some weird cult, we don’t know where he was being taken from and to or why, and certainly not why he couldn’t be put on a smaller ship (or at least, the ship could have carried some other cargo while it was making the trip).

And the bag of money? They put it in the e-pod with David. Hang on a mo, I thought you were trying to keep the weight down?

With the e-pod launched, the three surviving squaddies trek off across the planet until they find a large, amorphous blob, which they blast with their energy weapons. Then one of the fighter ships from the start of the film turns up, piloted by a bald guy with a tattoo on his eyebrow. I thought this was the prisoner (so where did he get the ship?) but other people at the same screening thought it was another member of the cult, come to get the prisoner (so why does he approach the squaddies instead?).

Wait, wait, wait! Suddenly a giant, transparent creature makes its presence felt and attacks the squaddies who blast back with all their firepower. This is a brilliantly produced and directed sequence. The special effects are simply amazing, the camerawork and editing and sound is far in advance of anything you would expect to see in an indie B-movie. But nothing is explained so we have no idea what the hell is going on.

What was that blob? What is this giant monster? What are the smaller monsters? Where did the fighter-ship come from?

What the hell is going on?

And then the planet blows up.

That’s it. The world blows up; final shot of David in his metal coffin floating in space; roll credits. What the bloody hell...?

The beginning of the film, the first act, all the stuff with the spaceship battle (which, truth be told, goes on for too long, although it’s still preferable to the interminable opening credits because at least it has things blowing up) - that could be fixed. It can be fixed in the short term by audiences astute enough to ignore it and create their own simpler, more coherent and credible back-story for these men, and it could be fixed in the long term, if someone wanted to, by slightly re-editing that whole opening sequence and substituting different captions.

But the third act, the climax of the movie - that’s beyond help, I fear. There’s no resolution. It’s one of the most unsatisfying endings to a movie like this that I have ever seen. Yes it’s all terribly exciting and - I will reiterate - very well made, but we have no possible way to know what is going on. We don’t even know whether the planet blowing up is a good or a bad thing.

What was with the magic sword? What was the amorphous blob? Why did the traitor bring them all there? Who is Captain Behan? What (and I forgot to mention this, sorry) was the giant, buried, humanoid statue all about? We are told nothing. Nothing. It’s just staggering in the way that so much time, effort, dedication and undoubted talent has been wasted on this bizarre script that starts in confusion, settles down into a pretty good SF-military action movie and then descends into chaotic and unexplained cataclysm.

I so, so wanted to like this movie. It so deserves your attention. It’s a magnificent technical and artistic achievement. And it makes not a lick of sense. We can only assume that the film-makers think it does and that there are some clues as to what is going on - but if so, they are extremely well hidden and nobody at the festival where I caught The Planet spotted any of them.

Some people, dissatisfied with this movie but unwilling to spend 3,000 words analysing its strengths and weaknesses, will tell you that the acting is wooden. It’s not, it’s very good. Mike Mitchell as Captain Morgan is excellent. He was 49 when this was shot in 2004 and is built like the proverbial brick shithouse. A former Mr Universe (or WWF Mr Universe - I don’t know if there’s a difference) he carries the biggest handheld gun since Predator and brilliantly captures the mixture of toughness and sensitivity required of a man commanding an isolated group of frightened but well-trained soldiers. Also in the able, professional cast, mostly making their feature debut, are comedian/presenter Patrick Wright and this film’s producer/art director, Michael Grant Clark.

Stirton Productions, the Scottish indie company behind The Planet, is run by Mark Stirton, holding down at least four jobs on this film as director, writer, cinematographer and editor. (The other credited crew are co-producer/modelmaker Kerwin Robertson and composer Nicky Fraser, a popular Aberdeen DJ). All credit to Stirton for making this film (which can be purchased in both PAL and NTSC form direct from his website). It really is hugely impressive in every respect - apart from the story. Oh, it just makes you want to bang your head against a wall. Stirton is following The Planet with One Day Removals, a black comedy about two men and a van which is a feature-length remake of one of his shorts. It will star two actors from The Planet, Patrick Wright and Scott Ironside. It should be good - but please, please make sure the script is ready before you shoot it.

MJS rating: B

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