Saturday, March 14, 2009

Old Science Fiction Movies

We watched Journey to the Center of the Earth last weekend, the 1959 one with James Mason and Arlene Dahl. The first time I saw it I was a teenager, and while I knew intellectually that you can't go down inside the earth and find all that stuff, emotionally I bought the whole load.

Watching it again 40 years later, I noticed more weird stuff than just Pat Boone (remember Pat Boone?) in tartan pants. No, I don't know what tartan. I admit that Pat Boone in 1959 was extremely decorative - the uncritical would say that he was a smokin' hottie - but frankly his character comes off kind of stupid. He did look good in full Highland formal dress, with kilt and sporran.

I wondered about the phosphorescent algae that allowed our adventurers to dispense with their wind-up lamps, just about the time the salt in the salt cavern corroded the coils and made them fail. OK, salt does corrode metal; but in caverns under the earth, why is the salt loose, in granules, like table salt? Wouldn't it be a solid mass? And even loose, how did it get into the lamps? Did they roll in it? But mostly, why are there phosphorescent algae? What advantage do the algae get from glowing, if they're in a cave?

Ellery Queen, in The Player on the Other Side, had a character comment that "Y is a crooked letter." (You have to read it to get the context. In fact I strongly recommend the book - it's one of Queen's best.) So I know I shouldn't ask "why" about old science fiction movies, but:

When they run into a field of subterranean mushrooms (OK, that works), 6 feet tall (ah, excuse me?), how lucky are they that, when they chow down on them, they're not poisoned?? None of these people is a mycologist, how do they know it's safe? Also, they chop the mushrooms down with an axe to make a raft, but most of the mushroom stems I've seen can be snapped between two fingers.

Why is there a sea below the earth, with a high ceiling covered with those phosphorescent algae, so they can all see to build a raft and sail on it? Why isn't there just a big dark cavity full of water?

Why are there giant lizards on the shores of the sea beneath the earth? Giant flesh-eating lizards? What do they eat, in between visiting groups of Victorian adventurers? (I say, "visiting groups," because, of course, there was an earlier visit from "Count Saknussen" - they find the count's bones, and his finger bone is pointing to the way out. No, really.) The question of what the lizards eat when they can't get at James Mason or Arlene Dahl never seems to occur to anybody in the film, even though there are no animals of any kind except for the lizards.

The true and regrettable answer to all these nit-picks, of course, is that if they weren't like that, we wouldn't have the story. Blame Jules Verne.

For all that, I enjoyed it thoroughly, and I may not bother to see the new 3D version. It won't have James Mason being the irascible Scottish scientist (a role he does wonderfully), which will outweigh the fact that it also won't have Pat Boone. And I enjoyed the scientific idiocies quite as much as I enjoy Star Wars, even if I do cringe when Luke Skywalker fires the laser cannon on the Millennium Falcon, and they recoil...


  1. I loved that movie, too, as a kid. Maybe it's where I learned the concept of suspending disbelief.

    Of course, in making their escape, our wayfarers are hurled out of an erupting volcano that they somehow survive, with Pat Boone losing his clothes and landing in a tree that had a group of nuns nearby. (They were nuns, weren't they? Haven't seen the movie in a long time).

  2. Yes, I left that out - hurled out of an erupting volcano in an "altar dish" of serpentine (which melted at high temperatures the last time I checked), further cradled on a carefully organized block of stone that somehow didn't melt from the heat of the lava.

    And yes, they were nuns. Italian nuns. He covered himself from them, after falling out of the tree, by picking up a sheep and carrying it across his crotch.

  3. Rolling in my chair...

    Yeah, and Arlene Dahl did a Playboy spread not long after this which revealed the source of her...well, let's just say she had a great agent.

    I loved those "Di-metricons" (which James Mason christens those big monitor lizards which lumber over the sand). They didn't look very threatening--but Jules Verne, it's a little tame to begin with.

    How about The Time Machine (1960), with Rod Taylor as H.G. Wells?

    And Yvette Mimieux as Weena, the delicate scantily clad Eloy scurrying around in fear from the Morlocks.

    Actually, Star Trek had it over all this stuff--they had real plots and real characters, and they held to a high standard week after week, back in the days when the shooting schedule required 8 months of real work and no reruns!

    It turns out that Pat Boone really was the nice guy he portrayed in his films. Not a bad voice either. Lately he's been criticized for being White America's answer to "black" Elvis Presley, but his style was never rock and roll, he was a crooner all the way.