The Wild, Wild Planet directed by Antonio MargheritiThe Wild, Wild Planet directed by Antonio Margheriti

The Wild, Wild Planet directed by Antonio MargheritiThe mid-1960s was a very interesting time for Italian sci-fi on the big screen. In September ’65, future giallo legend Mario Bava gave the world the artfully done Planet of the Vampires, a film whose set design, it has been suggested, very possibly influenced the look of the movie Alien over a decade later. In December ’65, director Elio Petri delivered the film that is, for this viewer, the best of the Italian sci-fi bunch to this date, The 10th Victim, based on the short story “Seventh Victim” by Robert Sheckley. Starring Marcello Mastroianni and Ursula Andress, the film remains a knockout more than half a century later. Meanwhile, on the other end of the spectrum, director Antonio Margheriti, once again working under his alias of Anthony Dawson, was working on a string of relatively low-budget films that would eventually become known as the Gamma One Quadrilogy. These four films were shot roughly simultaneously and, astoundingly, over a period of just three months!

Originally intended for television, this quartet would eventually be released on the big screen around the world, those films being The Wild, Wild Planet (1966), The War of the Planets (1966), War Between the Planets (1966) and Snow Devils (1967). There seems to exist a great deal of confusion as to the order in which the films were released, and the order in which they were shot, a problem compounded by the fact that each picture has alternate titles and both Italian and U.S. release dates. The IMDb and Wikipedia give conflicting information in this regard; personally, I tend to trust Tim Lucas, of Video Watchdog fame, more than any other source, but really, no one source can be said to be absolutely conclusive. But what everybody does seem to agree on is the fact that The Wild, Wild Planet is the first of the four-part series, at least as far as internal chronology is concerned. Originally released under the Italian title I Criminali della Galassia (Criminals of the Galaxy), the film is fondly remembered today more for its unique set designs and color than for anything else.

As far as the plot of this truly wild, wild film is concerned, it just barely manages to hang together, but I will endeavor to boil it down for you … as far as I can make it out. The picture opens with a sequence that, for all I know, might very well have influenced Stanley Kubrick a few years later, when he shot 2001: A Space Odyssey. We see a ship approaching the enormous orbiting space wheel that is Gamma One, maneuvering ballet-style in its approach while elegant music is heard in the background. Soon after, we meet the UDSCO (United Democracies Space Command) head of the station, Commander Mike Halstead (handsome, granite-jawed, Wisconsin-born actor Tony Russell), who is giving a tour to a visiting scientist, Dr. Nurmi (Massimo Serato, who had played a lawyer in The 10th Victim). Nurmi manages to disgust the commander with his talk of using living, pulsating body parts to create a more perfect human being.

But soon after, Halstead is called down to the Earth’s surface in the face of a worldwide emergency. It seems that thousands of people have been kidnapped mysteriously and have gone missing, the method of their abduction unknown. But a little sleuthing on Halstead’s part reveals the truth: An army of deflatable (!) female robots, in tow with their bald and sunglasses-sporting male companions, have, by some means, been shrinking down their victims to doll size and bringing them to the artificial planetoid known as Delphus, a world owned by “The Corporations,” of which Dr. Nurmi’s CBM company is one. (These ill-intentioned corporations just might also have been an influence on the later Alien movie.) And when Halstead’s own galpal Connie Gomez (the communications officer and martial arts instructor on Gamma One, and played by the luscious Lisa Gastoni) is lured to Delphus by Nurmi, on the pretense of it being a primo vacation spot (!), Halstead has no other choice than to follow, along with a few of his loyal buddies, including another hunky officer named Jake (Franco Nero, who, later that year, would enter the big time by dint of his starring role in the spaghetti Western Django). And once on Delphus, the team discovers the bitter truth: Nurmi is intent on creating a perfect race of humans, using his kidnapped perfect specimens as piecemeal grafts. And, for his latest project, he intends to surgically merge himself with Connie, to make the ultimate human … a most flabbergasting prospect, indeed!

As you might be able to tell, The Wild, Wild Planet really is a suitable title for this way-out conceit. The film boasts a lot of clever ideas that have been brought to the big screen with a minimum of lire expended (no wonder TCM’s Jeff Stafford has called the movie’s set designs “a consistent marvel of imagination over budgeting…”), and if you can overlook the cheapjack nature of the special FX – Earth’s Gamma City, where UDSCO has its base, looks especially fake, but somehow, charmingly, surreally and dreamily so – you just might wind up having a good time here. The effects used to portray spacewalking, the exterior of Gamma One itself, Halstead’s wobbly flying saucer and spacebound rocket ship, and the lasers that Halstead & Co. carry on their hips (these lasers look more like short-range flamethrowers than anything else!) are especially clumsy in execution … certainly of a caliber far lower than the effects being used at the same time in Japanese kaiju eiga films, as created by the master Eiji Tsuburaya.

So yes, the film is better when it doesn’t reach too far. But you know what? Some of the effects to be had here are actually quite fine, especially that Hall of Mirrors sequence on Delphus (a scene straight out of Orson Welles’ The Lady From Shanghai), the destructive climax on Delphus, as oceans of what looks like blood cascade in torrents through Nurmi’s installation (a destructive ending straight out of a Bond film… as done by Ed Wood, perhaps), and especially, those groovy, spaceshiplike ground cars that Halstead zips around in on planet Earth. The film is filled with bits of gross-out grotesquerie (a tray of body parts that Nurmi throws down a garbage chute; robots going up in flames under Halstead’s laser beam; a botched shrinkage job on an Earth general, leaving him a wizened little person, rather than a doll; a room full of aborted, mutantlike failures that Nurmi displays) and throwaway bursts of strangeness (such as a look at the Proteus Theater on Earth, where a standing audience watches dancers flit about dressed as butterflies).

And speaking of Bond films, Nurmi himself, toward the film’s end, comes off very much like a 007 adversary, not only giving our hero a tour of his secret lair, but declaring of his fiendish plot “It might seem the work of a sick mind; nevertheless, I’ve worked in my own way for the good of humanity…” The film’s score by A.F. Lavagnino, its bizarre script by Ivan Reiner, and its direction by Margheriti (who’d previously given the world not only the sci-fi warmups Assignment Outer Space and Battle of the Worlds, in the early ’60s, but also such wonderful horror fare as the Barbara Steele Gothics Castle of Blood and The Long Hair of Death) all result in a film that is moddish, trippy and disorienting in the extreme. Although I would never suggest the use of recreational drugs in this day and age, I will admit that The Wild, Wild Planet is a film that is perhaps best viewed under an altered consciousness. It might be cheaply made but it is assuredly colorful and imaginative, and its heart is surely in the right place…


  • Sandy Ferber

    SANDY FERBER, on our staff since April 2014 (but hanging around here since November 2012), is a resident of Queens, New York and a product of that borough's finest institution of higher learning, Queens College. After a "misspent youth" of steady and incessant doses of Conan the Barbarian, Doc Savage and any and all forms of fantasy and sci-fi literature, Sandy has changed little in the four decades since. His favorite author these days is H. Rider Haggard, with whom he feels a strange kinship -- although Sandy is not English or a manored gentleman of the 19th century -- and his favorite reading matter consists of sci-fi, fantasy and horror... but of the period 1850-1960. Sandy is also a devoted buff of classic Hollywood and foreign films, and has reviewed extensively on the IMDb under the handle "ferbs54." Film Forum in Greenwich Village, indeed, is his second home, and Sandy at this time serves as the assistant vice president of the Louie Dumbrowski Fan Club....