Wednesday, November 23, 2011

INVASION OF THE STAR CREATURES (1962)

BLOGGER'S NOTE: I usually don't reprint essays from my film-blog here, but I decided that I would do so with this one, inasmuch as its main topic-- sublimity and humor-- touches on some of the material covered in the CUTEY FUNNY posts.


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“From the sublime to the ridiculous there is but one step”-- Napoleon Bonaparte.


Rarely does one see the opposite assertion: that one can go to the ridiculous to the sublime in one step. This rarity probably relates to the dynamics of producing both effects, at least in fictional narrative. When a creator seeks to invoke the sublime—which in my view is essentially identical with sci-fi’s “sense of wonder”—the creator tries to invoke a sense of majesty or awesomeness to some phenomenon. When the creator fails to do so, the disconnect between intention and execution often has a comical effect. In cinema, many of the most popular “bad films” are those that suffer such a disconnect, as seen in Ed Wood’s PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE and Phil Tucker’s ROBOT MONSTER.


“Bad film” connoisseurs have shown little regard for Bruno VeSota’s 1962 sci-fi comedy, INVASION OF THE STAR CREATURES. In all likelihood this is because INVASION is intended to be ridiculous from the start—literally, since the first credit of the film is the jokey “R.I Diculous Presents.” INVASION follows the tradition of broad comedy a la Abbott and Costello, focusing on frenetic slapstick and simple spoofs of “straight” genres. Such films usually show no insights into what makes the “straight” genre appealing. INVASION is an exception, for it does have such insights. Indeed, the aggressive stupidity of the film, whose humor shouldn’t be overly funny to anyone out of grade school, makes it a little easier to view said insights.

INVASION opens less like a sci-fi parody than a service comedy, focusing on the misadventures of Penn and Philbrick, two dim-witted army privates assigned to duty on a missile base. Penn is nominally the “straight man” of the duo, heaping Abbott-like abuse upon his Costello-like partner, a whining child-man who reads comic books. Specifically, Philbrick reads the space-opera comics of “Space Commander Connors,” who also has his own TV show and marketing campaign. Later, one of the film’s real aliens asks Philbrick what “comic books” are. He replies that “they’re our army tech manuals”—a lame joke that may contain more truth than humor.

In contrast to the service comedies of 1940s Hollywood, everyone in the army is as idiotic as the two protagonists, from a sergeant who converses in Beatnik-speak to a wacky, gun-waving colonel. The colonel whips the plot into motion by choosing Penn and Philbrick to be part of a detachment sent to inspect the site of a recent atom-bomb test. According to the colonel, seven days have gone by, which is adequate time for the “fallout” to disperse, but aerial reconnaissance spotted a strange natural cave opened up by the bomb. Later it’ll be disclosed that the “Star Creatures” of the title are camped out in the cave, and have been there for ten years, but said aliens never comment on having weathered any nuclear explosions. The old force-field trick, perhaps. At any rate the colonel sends the detachment off to investigate the cave for no particular reason.

Following a few more forgettable comic escapades, the detachment arrives at the cave. Most of the soldiers are captured and put into stasis by the Star Creatures, but the aliens allow Penn and Philbrick to remain conscious for interrogation. The aliens take two forms: super-strong mindless plant-creatures called “vege-men” (guys in silly-looking tree-suits) and their mistresses, two stacked space-amazons wearing tight-fitting one-piece swimsuits and high heels. Penn describes the girls as being “seven feet tall,” but this comment may just be a way of masking how short the two heroes really are. Jonathan Haze’s script sneaks a ribald reference into the names of the amazons, who are “Doctor Puna” and “Professor Tanga.” Someone liked the pun so much that those names also appear in the credits, though no other actor in the lead credits has a character-name so referenced.

The space amazons are, in essence, the element of Haze’s script that most pushes the crude humor from the ridiculous to the sublime. Sci-fi cinema of the 1950s sports a fair number of stories about alien worlds ruled by women, as seen in 1954’s CAT WOMEN OF THE MOON and 1958’s QUEEN OF OUTER SPACE. In these films the females possess technology superior to that of Earth, but their feminine emotions make them vulnerable to the charms of hunky Earthmen. INVASION follows this basic pattern, but Tanga and Puna are scientists who are far more intelligent than any Earth-denizen in the story, rather than simply inheriting technology from their culture. Their ability to loom over the short soldiers is of course exploited for sex appeal—lots of shots of Philbrick looking straight up into Puna’s cleavage—but it also allows an interesting reversal, in that Puna and Tanga can and do frequently push or knock the two males about with impunity. To be sure, one line suggests that the males back home may be equally big, since Haze’s script devotes a few sentences to describing their culture as a “three-phase society,” in which men are the warriors, women are “the technicals” (implicitly the rulers?), and vege-men are the slaves. Haze says nothing further about the male natives of the alien world, but curiously takes the trouble to relate the history of how the women took control of the vege-men by killing off their leader (Che Gherkin, perhaps) and confining future vege-men to grow only from their “pastures.” To be sure, this mini-history is used as a cue for a lot of dopey vegetable jokes, as well as one of many witticisms about how much the vegetable slaves are treated like the army’s “yardbirds.” Still, the conquest and neutralization of the vege-men sounds a lot like standard tropes concerning amazon-societies conquering and neutralizing the male sex.

The “Star Creatures” originally came to Earth as scouts for possible invasion. As noted earlier they’ve been stuck down in this cave for ten years, stranded by damage their spaceship sustained on landing and unable to communicate with the home planet. That damage has just been repaired, however, and the amazons are making ready to blast off, taking Penn, Philbrick, and the rest of their detachment along as specimens into “the black voids of space.”

For some reason everything the space-babes say starts to sound dirty after a while. Maybe it’s those names…

The big girls have a chink in their armor, though: ten years is a long time without a man. Tanga doesn’t seem particularly charmed by their captives, and has issues with the male sex generally: “Stupid arrogant braggarts, all of them, with their illusions of superiority!” Her subordinate Puna, however, seems receptive to Philbrick’s attentions, and Tanga tells her that the Earth-man has merely stimulated her “maternal instincts.” This effectively turns the sci-fi trope of the “invading virile Earthman” on its head; in INVASION it’s the men who must “stoop to conquer,” seducing the superior females with their childlike weakness.

True, Penn does try one show of force: ambushing Puna to take her gun. She puts his lights out with a handy judo-toss, so Philbrick must fast-talk the amazon into receiving a cultural education on the human custom of kissing. In a schtick probably swiped from some Three Stooges short, the human-alien kiss creates electric-spark sounds and both of them are semi-paralyzed with ecstacy. Penn manages to drag Philbrick away from his conquest and the two escape.

Back at the army base, the two doofuses fail to convince their chicken colonel of the impending danger—that is, until Philbrick reveals that he is a member of “Space Commander Connors’ Secret Squadron.” The colonel is a member too—“Space pals forever!”—and so he and his two new buddies lead another (very small) detachment against the alien cave. This ersatz “cavalry” promptly gets detained by a group of roaming Native Americans who happen to be in the neighborhood. Philbrick explains their mission, only to once again invoke the name of Commander Connors, whereon the Indians’ leader reveals that he too is a member of the squadron. In fact, he has a superior rank to both Philbrick and the colonel. “Outranked by a savage,” grouses the colonel. The cavalry and the Indians both get drunk on firewater, leaving Penn and Philbrick once more alone to plumb the perilous papier-mache cavern.

By the only kind of luck such heroes ever have—the dumb kind—the soldiers not only sneak into the cave without being torn apart by vege-men, they manage to launch the amazons’ spaceship without anyone aboard, where it will be lost in space. Soon Puna and Tanga learn they’ve been marooned on Earth, and conclude that when they don’t return to their homeworld the invasion will be called off. Tanga doesn’t take it well, beating up both men and threatening to shoot them. Puna draws her own weapon and forces Tanga to surrender. She suggests that they throw themselves upon the Earthmen’s mercy. Penn gives Tanga the requisite electric lip-job and the two men propose marriage. “It sounds like slavery,” says the bemused Tanga. “That’s exactly what it is,” responds cagey Penn. INVASION then concludes with the two soldiers getting medals for their heroism. They go to their car, where their amazon wives-- now clad in Earth-garments-- are seated atop the rumble seat like two tremendous trophies. Off the two dopes drive with their prizes, and so ends the INVASION.

When I first viewed this film as a kid, I thought most of its humor was pretty lame, especially the parts where grown men were playing some sort of Buck Rogers-Captain Video space-opera games. I still think the humor itself is lame, but it’s interesting that writer Haze and director VeSota end up depicting all the patriarchal societies seen in the film as no better than a “secret squadron” based on a television show. For male juveniles of that time period, such merchandise-related “societies” functioned as “boys’ clubs” in which males could fantasize about performing the deeds of men. Such deeds included conquering alien princesses as a substitute for fraternizing with real girls. The two dunces do indeed conquer a pair of space-babes, but the way they do so undercuts the heroic element of such fantasies. Given that INVASION doesn’t work that well as a comedy, it’s surprising that it has such a comparatively high level of mythicity, mostly within the sociological and cosmological functions.















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