In George Pal’s 1951 classic WHEN WORLDS COLLIDE, scientists discover that a rogue planet is actually hurtling through space, on a collision course with Earth. Faced with imminent destruction, a group of suitable men and women are chosen to take a space voyage to an inhabitable world and start the human race anew. In 1972’s THE DOOMSDAY MACHINE, American agents discover that the Chinese government has built a bomb capable of destroying the entire planet on the eve of the first manned mission to Venus. Without telling them why, three of the seven men in the crew are replaced at the last minute by women, the President and Joint-Chiefs-of-Staff unwilling to take any chances in case the Earth is blown to bits during the two-year expedition. Though the pseudo-science depicted in WHEN WORLDS COLLIDE is ludicrous in hindsight, that film featured stunning visual effects, solid performances, and plenty of full-scale devastation. It was a first-rate, pioneering disaster film. THE DOOMSDAY MACHINE, by contrast, is just a disaster.
THE DOOMSDAY MACHINE is a throwback to space exploration films of decades past, from the excellent (DESTINATION MOON, FROM THE EARTH TO THE MOON) to the average (FIRST SPACESHIP ON VENUS, ROCKETSHIP X-M) to the downright awful (MISSILE TO THE MOON, CAT-WOMEN OF THE MOON). On its face, it’s harmless sci-fi very, very loosely rooted in real science, with a little sexual tension, sexism and Cold War-era paranoia thrown in for good measure. The problem is that nearly every facet of the production is handled so poorly that it never manages to approach the level of fun of even the most inane spaceship adventures to come before it.
When ROCKETSHIP X-M was made in 1950, no one really knew what space travel would be like. Sputnik was not yet a twinkle in some Soviet engineer’s eye, and Americans seemed about as far from putting a man on the moon as we were from having desktop personal computers that could communicate with every other computer in the world. Further, filmmakers had only the musings of novelists and the effects work of FLASH GORDON serials upon which to base their visions of voyages to the stars. In 1972, however, the space race was in full swing. Neil Armstrong was three years removed from his famous “giant step”, rockets were going up from the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. on almost a daily basis, and Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY had set a standard for realism in cinematic space travel that blew anything on the topic committed to film to that point away. So why do the astronauts of THE DOOMSDAY MACHINE’s “1975” wear ill-fitting motorcycle helmets painted silver and sit in reclining easy chairs as they traverse the cosmos? Why do the futuristic sets have all of the technical sophistication of a bank of dryers at a coin laundromat? If the intention of directors Harry Hope and Lee Sholem was to recreate the feel of the naïve galactic sagas of the pre-space age, they did a great job. But if their goal was to make an exciting and believable film about space travel for 70s audiences… well, there’s a reason why you’ve probably never heard of this film before.
The technical ineptitude of the production doesn’t end with the wardrobe and set design. At least four times during our heroes’ journey, their ship radically alters its form without explanation, changing from a standard (if anachronistic) rocket to a bulky, square cluster of junk to a revolving, wheel-like satellite and finally to a different but equally unrealistic missile configuration. At the risk of giving away a plot point, the Earth does meet its Maker, represented by stock footage of floods from some other film (inexplicably visible through the ship’s scanners), shots of a plastic globe with flashing red lights inside, and a momentary burst of actual flame that looks for all the world like someone shot an extreme close-up of a lighter being ignited. In one tedious spacewalk scene, the wires holding Bobby Van (NAVY VS. THE NIGHT MONSTERS) are as plain as the smug grin on his face. Of course, in a film where secret agents can sneak into a top secret Communist weapons facility by throwing a cat over a wall to distract the guard dog, one can’t expect a great deal of attention to detail.
The biggest plus in the film is the cast – not because they’re good, but because there are a few familiar faces to watch for amongst all of the monotony. In addition to Van, prolific TV actress Ruta Lee appears as one of the lucky breeders… er, uh, women, and veteran character actor Henry Wilcoxon lends a bit of class to the proceedings as the expedition’s senior scientist. Mark Bailey, the crew’s obligatory crackpot, would go on to appear in Dee Snider’s STRANGELAND twenty-five years later. Bailey certainly overdoes it as the self-serving, sex-crazed Mason, but at least his seedy banter with astronaut-turned-vixen Ann Grant gives the film a much-needed dose of exploitation. Of all the notable players, however, the most recognizable are relegated to bit parts. MASH’s Mike Farrell shows up briefly as a reporter, while manning the radio at Mission Control is none other than syndicated disc jockey and voice of Shaggy on SCOOBY DOO, Casey Kasem!
Of course, even this LOVE BOAT-worthy assemblage is not enough to liven up what is ultimately a painfully slow-paced and illogical film. Even if one can get past a half dozen tired “women don’t belong on a spaceship” speeches, the obligatory tension between American and Russian crewmembers, Van’s annoying hipster dialogue (In one scene, he actually refers to the Chinese as “chopstick jockeys”!), an hilarious decompression scene, and a climactic sequence so arduous and ludicrous that it defies description, one still has to wrestle with the most important question of all – why would the Chinese government want to blow up the very planet on which they reside in the first place? I’m a flag-waving, red state democracy lover all the way, but even I don’t believe the Communists are that nuts. Little action plus no sense usually equals a bad movie, and this film is no exception.
THE DOOMSDAY MACHINE is part of Shout! Factory’s upcoming ELVIRA’S MOVIE MACABRE series, hitting stores in September as both a single disc and in a two-pack with the Dean Stockwell vehicle, WEREWOLF OF WASHINGTON. Like the other titles in the line, you can view the movie with or without the comedy stylings of Cassandra Peterson’s Goth Valley Girl hostess. In this case, I recommend the original MOVIE MACABRE episode version. When Peterson tosses out some cliched jokes about Asian tourists with cameras and the Earth being put together again one hour after being blown up by a Chinese bomb, she’s reminiscent of the annoying girl at the frat party that guys hit on anyway because she’s got big boobs and has had a few too many daiquiris. But her self-deprecating humor and incredible body (Has there ever been a better pair of legs on television? Mary Hart who?) do grow on you after watching a few episodes of the program, and she provides some welcome breaks in the tedium of a genuinely dull film. Without her, you’ll be hard pressed to stay awake through the final reel.
THE DOOMSDAY MACHINE was a rare foray into science fiction for the MOVIE MACABRE program, and it’s not hard to see why the producers stuck primarily to horror after seeing the film. It’s boring, anachronistic and laughable, and it doesn’t even offer enough Grade Z thrills to satisfy most bad movie buffs. Honestly, I would recommend it only to Elvira completists. Everyone else would be better off picking up one of the other MOVIE MACABRE titles for their daily dose of movie cheese and vampy cheesecake. This one should be loaded on the next unmanned spaceflight and launched right into the sun.