Venus is an intriguing planet because its nature guarantees it will never be anything but an unknown quantity. We’ve tried to land on it, but it’s too windy and the probes that have managed to land were melted in very short order by the extreme heat, but not before they sent back a few pictures.
In 1965, however, no one yet knew about any of this. We hadn’t even made it to the moon yet. So a fleet of spaceships blasting off for the planet Venus, where they presume to be able to land and have a looksee, weren’t entirely out of reach. Voyage To the Prehistoric Planet goes there. Oh boy. And it was decades before the iconic self-help book and cultural phenomenon, Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus.
The movie opens in the year 2020 (snicker) with three ships heading for Venus. It’s a very important mission, this, because the Earthlings are hoping they can colonize Venus the way they’ve colonized the moon, and as far as they’re concerned, Venus is just like Earth, only not Earth.
One of the ships, the Capella, gets taken out by a meteor so that leaves the remaining two ships, the Vega and the Sirius, the latter of which is piloted by a robot named John (John Bix), by the way, because an epic sci-fi film must have a multi-talented robot. It’s pretty much a requirement. Among other capabilities, John can play elevator music on command.
Dr. Marsha Evans (Faith Domergue), the pilot of the Vega, will orbit the planet while the crews of the Sirius and Vega explore with John in tow. Meanwhile, Mission Control at Earth’s Lunar 7 base will keep in contact, with Professor Hartman (Basil Rathbone) overseeing the proceedings.
On the surface, the guys tool around in their rover, get rained on, get attacked from behind by mysterious unseen monsters with tentacles, get attacked from the front by guys in Godzilla suits who fall over rather convincingly when shot, and hear mysterious singing, which makes them think there’s a beautiful woman somewhere. They look all over for her, but never see her. Meanwhile, there’s a big tall jungle and a sea to explore, the latter of which is full of remarkably Earth-like fish.
Did I mention the rover is amphibious? It is. Kind of. We find this out accidentally. I don’t think the astronauts even know, but when their craft goes glug glug no one bats an eye. They have to pull it back to shore, but it’s completely fine.
Speaking of things going glug glug, the expedition is not without hazards. Two of the crew members are left incapacitated because their suits get punctured and it falls to John to nurse them back to health. Weirdly enough, none of the treatments involve suit repair, but why quibble? All it takes is a bit of pill-popping and John pouring some water into the guys’ helmets and things are just dandy. The two casualties are suddenly strong enough to go out and meet their crewmates, after which they pile into the rover and chug away. John, unfortunately, is not with them, as he’s fallen into a pool of lava.
Meanwhile, back on Vega and Lunar 7, everyone’s on pins and needles. Dr. Marsha, who’s been lying on her bunk reading a book while she waits, gets nervous when she falls out of contact with the explorers, and she radioes the Lunar base to ask permission to land on Venus. What will Professor Hartman say? Who knows.
It’s the usual thing to give a movie, even a bad one, a fighting chance, but I have to say it: Prehistoric Planet is an intergalactic turkey. The dialogue is clunky. The color and picture quality are terrible. The ADR and overall sound quality are pretty lousy, and the dialogue seldom syncs properly with the characters’ mouth movements. It’s like a Kung Fu movie only way less fun. To be clear, I’ve never seen a Kung Fu movie all the way through, but they have to be more fun than Voyage.
Plus the movie is confusing and boring. What I’ve got here may look like a plot summary, but pretty much nothing happens for the entire run time. Except for a few oversized reptiles, the characters might as well have been vacationing in the Catskills.
To be fair, though, Voyage To the Prehistoric Planet is what Safiya Nygaard would call a Frankenmovie. The United States and the Soviet Union, deep into the second full decade of the Cold War, felt the need to pirate each other’s sci-fi films and repackage them for their respective audiences. I don’t know why they would do this. Sci-fi geekery knows no bounds, I guess.
In the case of Prehistoric Planet, which was originally titled Planeta Bur, producer Roger Corman changed the names of the Russian actors so they would look American and added scenes with Basil Rathbone and Faith Domergue, who get top billing even though they have the least amount of screen time. I wonder if he filmed some of the filler bits badly on purpose so the whipstitching would seem less obvious: In one scene, Professor Hartman’s head appears to be sprouting from the unnaturally large cranium of Lunar 7’s radio operator. It looks terrible. It also reminds me of a Shel Silverstein poem.
It’s not clear if Corman’s odd bit of cultural exchange was ever shown to an audience. No one talked about it. No one reviewed it. Industry papers mentioned the title and Basil Rathbone, but there aren’t any photos or plot summaries. There isn’t even a theatrical release poster. Legend has it the movie went straight to TV, but there’s not much record of that, either. Like, none. It just…exists.
Voyage To the Prehistoric Planet is a curiosity and a relic, not only for its haphazard cobbled-togetherness, but for the naïvete of both the Russians and Americans, none of whom had any idea what we would find on the moon or Venus. Or, for that matter, what 2020 would be like. What fun there is lies in the movie’s innocence.
We’re back on Earth tomorrow, and this time we’re touring Europe. Thanks for reading, and I hope to see you then…
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Cinema, State Socialism and Society in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, 1917-1989. Edited by John Haynes and Sanja Bahun. London: Taylor & Francis, 2014.