Dark Planet

Director: Albert Magnoli             
Michael York, Paul Mercurio, Harley Jane Kozak

Here is another science fiction movie on the lines of Lifeform - that is, a movie that comes close to being a good movie, but overall doesn't quite make it. Dark Planet also shares some of the same specific problems of that other movie, such as cheap sets and unanswered questions, though also, like that other movie, it has some unique problems. If these movies were people, Lifeform would be a person who starts telling you a story, stumbling a little occasionally along the way, that becomes more and more intriguing as it progresses - then just before telling you the end, gives you a mocking smirk while popping his middle finger, and walking away. Dark Planet would be a person who stumbles a lot more during his storytelling, sometimes going completely off track, but is trying hard, and does at least manage by the end to tell enough so that there is something of a story in all of his words.

In the year 2638, the world is pretty screwed up. Six world wars have now occurred, 1/3 of the population is dead, and one billion people are dying every year. And yet the fighting goes on - the two sides that are fighting in "The Cleansing War" are the Alphas (genetically altered humans) and a rebel group consisting of "normal" humans and mutants. Both sides come to a realization that the earth is dying, and that they must work together to find a solution.

There is one possibility of a new home - years earlier, Captain Hawk (Mercurio) was traveling in and out of a wormhole in space, and the limited data he managed to bring back suggested that at the other end there was a planet that might sustain human life. Since he is the only person who has come back alive from the wormhole, both sides agree that he'll be released from prison (it's never explained why he's in prison) and be the navigator for the joint mission. Captain Winter (York) and some of his men represent the Alphas, and Colonel Brendan (Kozak) and some of her men represent the rebels, and both groups fly off in their spaceship, obviously a little uneasy. Of course, nobody is telling everyone everything they know, or plan to do. And nobody is prepared for some totally unexpected things that come up.

"Prejudices die hard in war or peace," someone comments during the movie, and as I said, the two sides are distrustful of each other. However, when they actually meet, we do not see them screaming insults or obscenities at each other or getting into fist fights at the cafeteria. (There isn't a cafeteria, anyway.) They are distrustful, but they are soldiers - professionals. Sure, they dislike the other group they are working with, but they have a job to do, and try to act in a professional way. And they actually talk with each other, not just within their own groups, but with people in the other groups.

This movie actually has character development. Hawk over the movie slowly gets to know the Alpha telepath, and she gets to know him more. (This relationship isn't fully developed, though.) Brendan has a long and bitter monologue later in the movie where she explains where she came from, and why she volunteered for the mission that's sounds very plausible. And later in the movie, when a character's shuttle craft explodes while saving the occupants of the main ship, Brendan says out loud that she wishes she had gotten to know the unlucky person. I wouldn't say that every character is as well developed as Brendan, Hawk, and the telepath, but there is an emphasis here on making more realistic characters who commit realistic actions. The movie isn't even afraid to be a little sad when exploring the rougher parts of the characters' lives. As a result of all this character development, I actually found myself caring more about what happened to these people during their mission.

Michael York has aged quite a bit since I've last seen him; here he has a striking resemblance to Al Bundy from Married...With Children. He actually does a good job playing a commanding figure. Although it's obvious from the start that his character isn't the nicest guy around, his actions and attitude towards them don't come from any personal vendetta or sadism, but because simply that's because how he's been trained to act during a mission. Kozak does well with a character that's is forced through different situations and emotions during the mission. She is a lot more interesting than Mercurio, whose character is mostly there for the action sequences. He actually does well in a couple of sequences where he has to show emotion silently, though viewers better watch out when he talks. It's okay when he just has to utter one or two lines at a time, but his acting during his longer speeches caused me to cringe. Near the end of the movie, he has a lengthy monologue that, though not bad in its writing, sounds extremely silly coming from his lips. It's a monologue that requires emotion and conviction, and Kozak simply can't do it.

Kozak is also humiliated during those action sequences, but it's not his fault here. These sequences generally require special effects and props, and (how to put this kindly...oh, what the hell) most of the special effects and props in this movie are some of the worst I've ever seen. The opening dogfight scenes has spaceships so badly superimposed on the screen, they look like colored black and white overheads your teacher showed you in grade school. Hawk's space suit has a goldfish bowl like helmet, like you used to see in sci-fi movies from the 1950s. Earlier in the movie, he's first seen in a jail cell with a mattress that looks like it was stolen from a homeless guy living behind the studio. (It also looks like this room was recycled to become a room of torture later in the movie.)

When people are stunned with special stun guns, the effect is rendered by shining a spotlight on the actors, and the actors freezing in their tracks. The other weaponry people take aboard the ship are clearly 20th century pistols and shotguns, so instead of having any cool fights with exotic weaponry, we just get generic shoot-outs in the darkened corridors. Speaking of dark, the movie should have been called Dark Spaceship, because the cheap, cramped sets are so dimly lit that it's frequently hard to tell what's going on. The characters try to help us sometimes, looking at their (offscreen) monitors and telling us what dangers lie ahead. That's because the movie is usually too cheap to actually show us the danger - and if it does, it's only for a few brief seconds. That's probably because we get to see stuff like mines drifting in space that suddenly have epileptic fits, shuddering a little as they drift.

I'm not sure which is worse - showing this badly made stuff, or just telling us about it. Thinking about it, I would have preferred the explanation to the narrative. There are some really confusing sections in this movie. Since the sets are so cramped and dark, the camera frequently focuses on the actors' faces, sometimes making it hard to see what they are doing. For the life of me, I can't figure out how two of the characters escaped a section of a ship that was depressurizing, with the action happening so fast and at tilted angles. On the other hand, the climactic battle is in slow motion, and I still couldn't figure out how characters got to be where they were, or what they were exactly doing. There was also the incident with another ship - apparently filled with space pirates - that came out of the blue, with the pirates' actions making no sense.

Without a doubt, this movie is filled with flaws. However, it also has its moments along the way, not just with the acting and the characters. The method of torture used in the interrogation scene was certainly original, and directed effectively. I also enjoyed the clever escape sequence, plus a few other little original moments. And the direction also always gives us the feeling that something's not quite right, something is hidden, and things may not end happily. So there's also no doubt that there is some good and interesting stuff here. There's not enough to give this movie a recommendation, however. It goes over the deciding line by not only being too cheap and shoddy for its own good, but with too many unanswered questions. As well, it's a bit too slow for its own good. It's only fair that I should note that I don't really regret watching this movie, and I think some people may find it interesting to watch (as an example of an interesting failure) on a lazy day, as long as they realize that it never quite works up to being good overall.

UPDATE: Bill Vallely sent me this information:

"I noticed your review of Dark Planet.  I was one of the original writers of the movie (who's name was removed for reasons never explained to me).  You're quite correct that the movie didn't have an ending.  It was removed because, well, it ended the movie.

"In our version, when the warring factions made it to the Dark Planet, they were on the verge of killing each other.  However, at a critical moment, they were doused with light -- the sun had gone nova, and the warring factions realized that they were all that existed of mankind.  Reluctantly, they realized that they had to put aside their differences and work together if mankind (which now consisted of the ship's occupants) was to survive.

"The producers of the film worried that this ending would make a sequel impossible.  We pointed out that a sequel could take place on -- the Dark Planet. 

"We lost, they won, film stunk."

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See also: Lifeform, Retroactive, The Shape Of Things To Come