1965 | Italy
AKA: I Criminali della Galassia
Director: Antonio Margheriti

If you’ve ever encountered someone from my generation grumbling about flying cars and nightclubs on the moon as if they were some kind of denied birthright, it’s films like Wild Wild Planet that are largely to blame. The movie was a staple of Saturday afternoon TV at a time in America when the idea that the space program would someday slow to an underfunded crawl was beyond imagining. Along with similarly groovy sci-fi pictures like The X From Outer Space, it was responsible for inspiring a generation of young children whose visions of adulthood were inseparable from thoughts of martini-fueled day trips to Mars.

Wild Wild Planet was directed by Antonio Margheriti, the prolific Italian director whose chief hallmark seems to have been a more or less dependable baseline mediocrity from film to film. There are some who see Margheriti’s career as being ripe for reappraisal. However, I’m unclear whether that is a reflection more of any particular merits on Margheriti’s part, or simply of the fact that every other deserving Italian genre director of his era has already been lionized and it’s simply his turn. In any case, I don’t mean by this to imply that there haven’t been films by Margheriti that I’ve enjoyed – Wild Wild Planet, for example, being one that I’ve enjoyed very much indeed — or that his career is one free of any laudable accomplishments or notable firsts.

Since Margheriti, like most commercial Italian filmmakers of his time, worked in all of the then-popular genres — and is especially admired by cult film fans for some of his gothic horror films — it might be surprising to learn that one of his career milestones involved helming one of the Italian film industries’ first ventures into space opera, a genre that had theretofore been thought of as being strictly the territory of American cinema. Margheriti had worked his way up through the industry as both a screenwriter and special effects man, and when, in 1960, the opportunity finally came for him to direct, it was on a project titled Space Men, which would later see international release under the more well-known title Assignment Outer Space.

Shot in 20 days for $30,000 U.S., Assignment Outer Space is a somewhat slow-moving and drab affair but was nonetheless successful. It lead to Margheriti being put in charge of the even more slow-moving and drab Battle of the Worlds the following year. The success of these two films led Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer to hire Margheriti, under the yank-friendly pseudonym Anthony Dawson, to direct a package of four low-budget sci-fi films for American television. These films, which ultimately saw theatrical release before being launched into perpetual orbit around the UHF dial, came to be known as the Gamma One Quadrilogy, so named for the orbiting space station whose crew comprises the main characters of each film. Tony Russell played Commander Mike Halstead for the first (Wild, Wild Planet) and second (The War of the Planets) Gamma One film. He was replaced by Giacomo Rossi-Stuart in the role of Gamma One Commander Rod Jackson for the final two installments, Planet on the Prowl and Snow Devils. MGM commissioned a fifth Gamma One film, but that one was directed by Kinji Fukasaku and released in the U.S. as The Green Slime.

MGM knew what they were paying for with Margheriti, and he delivered. Shooting the four films essentially like a TV series — using the same sets, props, and costumes for each — the director proved himself the model of efficiency, completing work on the entire quadrilogy within three months. Scenes for more than one of the films were often shot on the same set on the same day, with different colored clapboards used so that the footage could be sorted out in the editing room. It was probably also helpful that Margheriti had two alternating casts—one for films one and two in the series, and another for three and four – which likely made the piggy-backed shooting schedules easier to negotiate.

Wild Wild Planet is the first film in the Gamma One series and the one in which Margheriti sets out to establish the world in which all of the following movies will take place. It must be said that he does a pretty swell job of this. Being able to spread his resources out over four films allowed him to spend more on production design than he typically would on a single film, and while the various sets, models, and props used might become overly familiar during the course of the entire quadrilogy, they are quite striking. That isn’t to say that any of them are particularly realistic or convincing looking, mind you. Still, the imagination that went into them and the way in which they so succinctly represent the pinnacle of fanciful 1960s pop futurism — fins, Plexiglas bubbles, gleaming primary-colored surfaces and all — can hardly fail to charm.

One of the most frequently seen of Wild Wild Planet‘s design elements is the sprawling model that stands in for Gamma City, the futuristic Earth metropolis that the Gamma One crew calls home. True, the model fails to trick the eye, looking more like a space-age train set or a high school science fair diorama depicting a city of the future than the awe-inspiring super city it’s meant to represent. Nonetheless, Marghereti’s insistent employment of it as a means of orienting us within the story (he seems to cut to a lingering establishing shot of the model between almost every scene) combines with the complimentary, set-bound artificiality of the actors’ environments to successfully envelop us within the film’s quirky enclosed reality, making us more receptive to the various and sundry eccentricities of the story itself. In this way, the feel of the movie is not unlike that of the sci-fi marionette adventures of Gerry and Sylvia Anderson, such as Thunderbirds, which similarly disarm skepticism by drawing their viewer into a meticulously constructed, Santa’s toy shop version of reality.

Wild Wild Planet‘s production values are further burnished by Margheriti’s commissioning of a pair of wonderfully cartoonish, full-scale futuristic cars. These get quite a lot of screen time over the course of the series and are believable enough as long as you’re able to accept that everyone in Gamma City drives one of only two types of car which each only come in one color. Furthermore, and as should be the case with any speculative tale told in the fashion-forward Italy of the mid-’60s, the clothing also gets a fanciful update, realized mainly, in the case of the ladies, by lots of shiny, form-fitting plastic, fetish-worthy boots and insane looking hats and hairstyles. In the end, you can certainly fault Wild Wild Planet‘s production design for being kitsch —it is—but you sure can’t fault it for its uniformity of concept, or for its head-to-heels thoroughness.

The movie begins as a scientific experiment is about to be conducted onboard the Gamma One space station, overseen by one Mr. Nurmi (Massimo Serato), a chemist from the mysterious CBM corporation, which is itself a subsidiary of a larger entity referred to only as “the Corporations.” The frequent, ominous references to the Corporations, which sound like some kind of de facto governing body, lend a dystopian air to the movie, as does a scene in which passers-by are transfixed by multiple TV screens blaring advertising on the streets of Gamma City. Yet no mention of the Corporations occurs in any of the successive Gamma One films. It’s conceivable, I guess, that the events portrayed in Wild Wild Planet could go some way toward undermining the Corporations’ authority. If that’s the case, it might well be that the Gamma City in which those later films are set is one that is less under the crippling thrall of capital, consumerism, and “The Man” in general. We can only hope.

The experiment that Nurmi is conducting involves synthetic organs which were created for use in grafts and transplants. This actually seems like kind of a great idea, but the man in charge at Gamma One, Commander Mike Halstead, is having none of it. Instead, he regards Nurmi’s medical hocus pocus with undisguised hostility. “The commander doesn’t appreciate your bio-medicine!” one of Halstead’s underlings sneers. Halstead himself attests that the whole thing “kind of makes me sick to my stomach.” Perhaps feeling that he hasn’t put a fine enough point on things, he then goes on to accuse Nurmi of “tampering with nature.” To be fair, we soon thereafter hear Nurmi muttering something about “a race of perfect men,” so it might just be that Halstead’s instincts are not all that off the mark.

Mike Halstead is played by Tony Russell, a Wisconsin-born actor whose Italian heritage and resultant fluency in the language gave him an advantage over many of the other American actors trying to make a dime in the Italian film industry at the time. Halstead is typical of the two-fisted movie heroes of his day in that he has no interest in progress whatsoever. On the contrary, his manly might is instead dedicated to keeping the world just as it is because, in the world as it is, Commander Mike Halstead is the shit. If he were to let all of this progress get out of hand, sooner or later someone might look at Commander Mike Halstead and see not someone who is at the apex of his masculine prowess and can command any young beauty he wants, but instead someone who looks a lot like someone else’s dad. Why a Luddite of this type would be put in charge of something as technically complex as an orbiting space station is something of a mystery. However, as the protagonist of a tale of Science Gone Mad, Halstead fits the bill perfectly.

Nurmi further cements his place on Halstead’s bad side by putting the moves on Lt. Connie Gomez (Lisa Gastoni), who, in addition to being Gamma One’s communications officer and resident karate instructor, is also Halstead’s girlfriend. (I want to say “Space Girlfriend”, because Wild Wild Planet is that kind of science fiction movie where it seems like everything should have the word “space” in front of it, as in, “I almost gave myself a space hernia dragging this moldy space futon into my parents’ space basement”.) Luckily for Nurmi, Halstead’s and Connie’s relationship is a bit of a pressure cooker, and the young woman is more than happy to use his attentions as a means of getting back at her beau. Thus she’s able to overlook certain things—like the way Nurmi describes her as a “perfect specimen” while getting a weird, faraway look in his eye, or his being ominously unspecific about the location and nature of the vacation spot he wants to whisk her away to.

No sooner has Connie accepted Nurmi’s creepy offer than Halstead receives a call summoning him back to Gamma City. One of his superior officers has mysteriously disappeared, and his help is needed in the investigation. Upon arriving, he learns that his superior’s was part of a wave of disappearances, one that has, in recent weeks, seen dozens of citizens a day vanish without a trace. No one has a clue what may be causing this, but we, the viewers, are soon privileged with a glimpse. Not that we are given a particularly clear glimpse, mind you, but we at least learn that the process involves a number of identical, bald men in matching black plastic raincoats and shades, who each work in partnership with one of an assortment of affectless women who look like Italian models in a Paco Rabanne show. These pairs enter their victims’ homes, seemingly without effort, and wordlessly confront them, after which something unseen happens behind the cover of the bald man’s coat that results in the victim no longer being where he or she was standing. It’s all quite vague but, for what it doesn’t show, effectively unsettling.

Because Halstead hates Nurmi, he is certain that he is responsible, despite there at first being no evidence to support the assumption. He seems to be acting on the belief that, if he hates Nurmi hard enough, his suspicions will come true. Of course, he ends up being right. In the interim, though, his harassment of the chemist ends up getting him in trouble with his superiors, and he is confined to his quarters. Fortunately, one of Halstead’s young Lieutenants, known only as “Jake,” is eager to help him bust out. And, yes, that is an impossibly young and clean-cut-looking Franco Nero playing Jake, just scant months before, in a decidedly more scruffy incarnation, he would break out big with his starring role in Django.

A break in the case occurs when one of the pairs of mysterious assailants is interrupted in the course of one of their crimes, leaving their victim alive but somehow shrunken to half his size. A dragnet is put out for the two, and soon a staggeringly primitive-looking model car chase transpires that results in them being killed in a crash. A case is found in their car that contains what at first appears to be a collection of dolls, but on closer inspection are revealed to be breathing, miniaturized people. Furthermore, examination of the male half of the duo reveals that he has two extra arms grafted onto him. Amid this rapidly escalating freak show, the investigation proceeds apace. It’s soon discovered that the disappearances have coincided with an increased influx of both freight shipments and female visitors from Delphus, the planetoid that houses the CBM research facility overseen by Nurmi.

Meanwhile, we find that Delphus was also the mysterious vacation spot that Nurmi was tempting Connie with and that, in reality, it’s not all that festive of a locale. In fact, it takes Connie little time to realize that all is not right, trapped as she is in an underground bunker whose shower head only spouts hot and cold running blood, and witnessing crates full of four-armed, bald clones being packed up for shipment to Earth. Worst of all, she finally learns what Nurmi has planned for her. Despite his admiration for her form, those designs are not of the standard Snidely Whiplash variety. Instead, he intends for the two of them to undergo a surgical procedure in which they will be physically combined into one person. If we were given a glimpse into Nurmi’s file cabinet, I can guarantee you that there would be a folder marked “human centipede” in there.

Meanwhile, Halstead’s pursuit of Nurmi takes increasingly amusing turns, the best of which involves a chase through a future theater where the featured future performance is people doing rudimentary ballet in insect costumes. The audience just stands around watching them because, in the future, theaters don’t have chairs. Finally Halstead, Jake, and a few other Gamma crew members take off for Delphus, where they are, of course, promptly captured and held captive by Nurmi and members of his genetically engineered master race. But have no fear, Commander Mike Halstead, two-fisted man of action, has a plan:

“When I give the word, start swingin’ at these creeps!”

What follows is a spectacular and spectacularly (albeit appropriately) weird finale. Preparations are made for Nurmi and Connie’s surgical attachment as if it was some kind of hallowed ceremonial rite, to take place in a large open area in front of the madman’s assembled creations and before a gigantic lake of blood. Massimo Serato gets to go into full, scenery-inhaling mad doctor mode as he gives Halstead a tour of his chamber of horrors. Special attention is paid to the room in which Nurmi keeps the agonized results of his less successful experiments, and then we see him sniff dismissively as a pallet load of severed limbs is tossed into a waiting incinerator. It’s as if Wild Wild Planet, while fixing our eyes upon the gleaming promise of the next century, is intent on rubbing our noses in the worst horrors of the last.

Finally, Nurmi stops to gloat over the massive computer that’s the nerve center of his entire operation, declaring it “the most complex and perfect machine ever constructed.” Uh, yeah, we’ve heard that boast before, and it usually doesn’t bode too well for the person doing the boasting, especially in a “science gone mad” tale with a hero, a hero like Commander Mike Halstead, who personally wants to punch science in the face.

While the later Gamma One entries, which deal with such standard interplanetary threats as alien invaders and runaway planetoids, fall more within the realm of traditional 1960s space opera, Wild Wild Planet remains distinctive, not just within the series but also perhaps within 1960s science fiction cinema as a whole. That distinctiveness is in part due to the eccentric mixing of genres that Margheriti accomplishes within the film. Keep in mind that, despite all of the planet-hopping hardware on display, the crew of the Gama One spends most of the film in an Earthbound, urban setting, pursuing what at first appears to be a fairly straightforward mystery. This lends the film something of the feel of a criminal procedural or detective thriller (in fact, the original Italian title of the movie is I Criminali della Galassia, or “Criminals of the Galaxy”), while some of the moddish stylistic touches that Margheriti employs further introduce elements of the then-pervasive Eurospy genre. The director is also not shy about incorporating horrific elements and even presages Kubrick’s The Shining with a sequence depicting Delphus’ underground corridors awash with rivers of blood.

Further setting Wild Wild Planet apart are those elements of its plot which seem to be there solely for the purpose of being weird. And by this, I refer to, among other things, the whole Phantasm-prefiguring business of abducted people being turned miniature, and Nurmi’s bizarre plan for Connie, which seems to hint at an almost J.G. Ballardian notion of human perversion evolving in step with technological innovation.

On top of those specific plot points, though, and perhaps most importantly, there’s the strange, dreamlike tone of the film overall. Before re-watching it recently, I thought that this perception on my part was the result of a hazy childhood recall, but it turns out that I remembered Wild Wild Planet a lot more clearly than I thought. Many of the characters in the film, and not just the clones and fembots, seem to be sleepwalking and are very slow to assemble the meaning of events taking place around them. This is perhaps because those events are simply too strange and unreal to fit into their perception of their world. Margheriti, however, makes sure that we, the audience, are privy to all of those otherworldly happenings and intuit the oblique threats that they imply, in effect making us mute witnesses who can only watch helplessly as the people on the screen repeatedly fail to acknowledge them. In effect, this is about as deft a recreation of a subjective nightmare state as I can imagine.

The most literal representation of this occurs in a scene where we watch a security official who is himself watching simultaneous feeds from several cameras at various points around Gamma City. On each screen, amidst the crowd of pedestrians, we see one of the identical black-cloaked clones, each one accompanied by one of Nurmi’s female foot soldiers and no doubt on his way to commit further atrocities. At this point in the story, though, this officer would not know to look out for such figures, so the strange sight of identical men showing up in four different parts of the city at the same time completely and inexplicably escapes his notice. Later, composites of the suspects in the disappearances are made, which Margheriti accomplishes by having the actual actors playing the suspects staring out fixedly from underneath a frosted glass dome while the other actors look at them from the other side. The effect is indescribably weird looking and made all the more so by the failure of the players involved to register it as being anything out of the ordinary.

So what I’m backing myself into admitting is that, with Wild Wild Planet, Antonio Margheriti actually proves himself capable of being a pretty interesting director in addition to the competent one that we already knew he was. He not only transports his viewer but envelopes them in an immersive vision that’s borne of a compellingly eccentric sensibility. He also has to be credited for creating that rarest of rarities: a piece of pulp entertainment that delivers exactly what its title advertises. In the end, you may not want to go where Margheriti is taking you, but you have to acknowledge that the ride is wild indeed.

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