The Angry Red Planet (1960)

There’s often a sense in SF films, especially those of the 50’s, that the real subjects of interest are not giant mantises or bug-eyed aliens but women. This is made explicit in director Robert Gordon’s 1955 film It Came From Beneath The Sea (1955) where Faith Domergue’s heroine is represented as ‘a new breed of woman’ who can make her own choices and doesn’t need to be rescued by men.

She doesn’t even need to commit fully to either of her ‘love interests’ – her pipe-smoking scientist mentor or the traditional-minded navy guy who is her ostensible boyfriend. Meanwhile, these two seem to get on almost suspiciously well – the latter saving the former’s life at the end, rather than, as a less progressive film would have had it, the heroine’s. Might a menage à trois be in the offing? The film ends before we can find out.

In comparison the film’s main ostensible subject, a giant octopus trashing San Francisco, is pretty straightforward, yet it’s clear on some level that it and the heroine are aspects of the same phenomenon, and that the octopus enacts the social upheaval implicit in the ‘rise’ of woman, which the male characters appear to be handling with good grace – on the surface.

But the threat to the existing order is the real elephant (giant octopus, massive ant, huge tarantula) in the room and the best way of expressing the horrifying realisation that women might just be people too is to reach toward the monstrous and the alien. The determinedly non-gendered ‘it’ of the title surely protests too much.

The Angry Red Planet is a lot less sophisticated in its sexual politics (or anything else) than ICFBTS, but, in its own way, seems to be dealing with the same uncertainties.

A failed mission to Mars is brought back to earth by ‘remote control’, a process that looks, in its latter stages, suspiciously like blast off in reverse: of the two survivors, one, the captain, is critically ill and the other is a female scientist, Iris – or ‘the girl’, as she is referred to by her rescuers. But it is her memories of the expedition that they must probe in order to determine what went wrong on Mars, and find a cure for the captain.

So there’s a sense in which the alien territory being explored here is both Mars and the Female Mind, or perhaps the male concept of the female mind (Sid Pink and director Ib Melchior wrote the script) – at any rate, it looks pretty weird. On arrival the astronauts are struck by the ‘stillness’ of the Martian landscape, though this isn’t so surprising when you consider how much of it is hand-drawn. Even a sight that terrifies Iris so badly that she blacks out is essentially a cartoon drawing of a face held up to the outside of the rocket-ship window.

The filmmakers’ idea is that these drawings will be brought to life by a process called ‘Cinemagic’, which mainly involves tinting everything red. It doesn’t work, but its failure is, as they say, more interesting than a lot of other people’s successes. TAGP‘s singular blend of the naïve and the stylized leaves us in a place far stranger than Mars could ever be – somewhere between a long-lost children’s TV programme and a Guy Maddin film.

There are monsters that are manufactured rather than merely drawn and they make up in sheer oddness for what they lack in conviction – along with a decidely vaginal carnivorous plant, we get a sea monster with swivelling eyes and a giant creature that is somewhere between mouse, bat, and spider. The ultimate horror is a giant multi-coloured amoeba, whose appearance is given added drama by Iris’ bold assertion that ‘amoeba are almost impossible to kill’. Eventually it engulfs the rocket ship in its soapy, spongy, multi-coloured grasp, trapping it in what resembles a psychedelic carwash.

The captain, Tom O’Bannion (Gerald Mohr) has the louche and somewhat world-weary air of a Las Vegas lounge act on its last legs. Space travel reminds him of a dog he had as a child, he confesses to Iris on the trip out, before making a pass at her. She responds with guarded enthusiasm, even though he looks old enough to be her grandfather and keeps calling her ‘Irish’. At first I thought he was drunk, but it’s in the script: ‘When I call you by name you’ll know it’, he informs her obscurely.

This comes to pass after his life is saved through her intervention. Although they have escaped the giant amoeba its effects linger in the form of O’Bannion’s illness. Iris manages to save the day by realising that his affliction is not a disease but ‘an animal with instincts’ which has ‘a vulnerability we also have – that of making the wrong choice.’ So she uses mild electric shocks to persuade the organism killing the captain to abandon his body. Thus we can be reassured that her mind – previously identified with the bizarre landscape of Mars – is back and functioning efficiently in the service of patriarchy.

On recovering O’Bannion uses her given name, a sign – I suppose, that they are now a couple. I can’t help thinking that she should have remembered the amoeba and its vulnerability to the making of bad choices, but who can fathom the female mind? Not Sid Pink and Ib Melchior anyway.

The scene in which Iris surreptitiously applies perfume on the spaceship while her fellow (male) crew members look on in amusement sums up the awkwardness that surrounds her character (perfectly expressed by Nora Hayden’s awkward performance). The film seems without intending it to express a fundamental uncertainty about women, one that borders on mistrust. This is not necessarily misogynistic; it may just as well express a dawning realisation that women are not so different from men after all.

Is it any more ridiculous to apply perfume on a spaceship than in any other circumstance? Do we see here the faintest glimmer of awareness of the idea that ‘femininity’ is only a social construct, which might not need to be maintained in the future? If so, it is only a glimmer: Iris is allowed to save the captain, but has to pay the price by marrying the old git and being suffocated in (presumed) domestic bliss.

The film ends with a message from Mars warning Earth people never to return there, as they are ‘emotional and spiritual infants’ who will inevitably spoil everything. So that’s why the planet looked so strange to our (or Iris’) eyes – it was an advanced civilization.

Or if we want to go with the theory that the Angry Red Planet is the Female Mind, then we have a suggestion that beneath Iris’ happy compliance is a hard knot of resentment that will not easily be pacified.

(As for another possible interpretation, that Mars here is the Soviet Union and Earth the United States, I’m not even going to go there – I’m not being paid for this).

Any way you slice it the moral seems to be that ‘progress’ was – and probably still is – a long way off. Though no further than Mars.

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