Detour: Plan 9 From Outer Space


1953

Director: Ed Wood

Cast: Bela Lugosi, John Breckinridge, Vampira, Tor Johnson

Watch the trailer!

Introduction      Plot Summary     Impressions     Wrap-Up

My Rating:  Class O (1/7, the BEST!).  An insightful, thoughtful look at the dangers posed by advances in weapons science, as well as a creepy atmospheric thriller!  This film is simply amazing, and you have NEVER seen anything like it!

Introduction

Okay, reviewing this film is going to be hard, because it’s virtually unique in the annals of cinema, never mind science fiction cinema.  Basically, imagine what would happen if sinister aliens arrived on Earth with the intention of conquering it; they’ve tried eight times before, and failed each time.  Driven by desperation, they conceive of Plan Nine, a brilliant strategy to animate Earth’s dead and use them as an army to force Earth to its knees!

You may have heard of this film before, by the way, but don’t believe everything you hear…

Plot Summary (contains spoilers)

Short plot summary:  Boy sees flying saucer.  Boy comes home to girl, in their house beside the cemetary.  Cruel aliens raise the dead, who chase girl around while boy is at work.  Boy, girl, the police lieutenant and a member of the military are at boy and girl’s home when they are attacked by a ghoul.  They see a light and realize that it is the grounded flying saucer, and go to confront the aliens.  Boy and company get inside the flying saucer, where the alien reveals all, including that one of his zombies has captured girl!  A fight breaks out, the flying saucer catches on fire, and boy and company leave, rescuing girl as they go!  The flying saucer, still burning, takes off, but it explodes!  The day is saved!

Jump to Impressions

Long plot summary:

You know, I’ve changed my mind.  I’m not going to do the long plot summary.  You won’t know what the heck I’m talking about, but you’ve got the basic idea already: sinister aliens arrive on earth, raise the dead, and plan to force Earthlings to do something they don’t want.  The information you don’t have yet is WHY the aliens want to do this:  as it turns out, they’re trying to prevent the development of a doomsday weapon which will destroy the entire universe.  So the aliens are, in spite of their methods, arguably the good guys.

The second thing I’ll mention is that the film uses a narrator, whom we get to see at the opening and end of the film.  Kudos to Wood for daring to resurrect (pun intended) the hoary device of the Greek Chorus!  Wood cleverly casts this dramatic device in terms we, the modern viewer, will understand, as the viewer feels like a news announcer (and in fact, the actor in the part was a news announcer for a California TV station).

Impressions

The film is action-packed, with plenty of creepy scenes with the ghouls—what we might call zombies—to liven things up.  The ghouls are one of the most successful elements of the film, being played by Bela Lugosi, Vampira, and Tor Johnson (along with Ed Wood’s chiropracter, but he’s not famous so we don’t have to talk about him).  Vampira’s performance, in particular, was creepy and almost extravagant.  Johnson and Lugosi also delivered solid, quietly competent performances.  As the film progresses their silent characterizations become so effective you can predict what they will do next, particularly in the case of Lugosi’s scenes in the cemetary.  In fact, these characterizations were so effective that the scenery, the sets, the performances of the living characters, all seem like so much cheap cardboard.

I probably ought to mention the performances of two actors, Breckinridge and Manlove.  Breckinridge’s performance as the ruler of the aliens is simply unparalleled in the history of cinema.  You might expect the ruler of an alien race to be brutally powerful, sort of the ultimate alpha red-blooded American male.  Breckinridge may have considered that, but instead goes for a much more nuanced performance with an astounding result.  And Manlove, who plays Eros, convincingly gives us an alien commander who wants only what is best for humanity, and indeed his own race as well.  He is by turns sympathetic and understanding, then rages against earthly stupidity.  His peformance is the linch-pin of the essential viewpoint that the aliens intend only good, and it holds the entire film together.

The flying saucer effects are like nothing you have ever seen before; I can’t even begin to effectively categorize them!  I’ve heard a rumor that they were actually made out of pie plates, but you can’t tell that from the film.

Visuals and action aside, the film also contains an extraordinary twist which underlies the film’s philosophical underpinnings.  Although the aliens are presented as evil and conniving—anyone who would raise the dead must be so—we slowly learn that the aliens’ intentions are good.  While the American military, which has defeated the aliens at every turn (or at least defeated Plans One through Eight), claims that they’ve tried to talk to the aliens to no avail, and have been forced to confront them with force, this is patently untrue.  Eros, the alien commander, uses a translation computer which makes it easy for him to communicate with the Earthlings he permits to enter his spaceship.

The choice of name for the alien commander is significant.  Eros, the Greek god of love (son of Venus, husband of Psyche), was chosen because the aliens’ task is founded on love (and also self-preservation, possibly).  Eros explains to the Earthlings (the ex-marine pilot, the police lieutenant and the military man) that Earth scientists have developed increasingly destructive weapons, ending with the atom bomb.  Now scientists, he explains, are seeking to harness the power of sunlight, but once they do so, and develop the inevitable weapons technology to explode sunlight, the entire universe will be at risk.  If the weapon is ever used, for any reason, it will set off a chain reaction, and all light in the universe will be destroyed, which in turn will destroy everything everywhere that light falls…and naturally, the “stupid, stupid” Earthlings don’t understand, and react violently.  Their actions may well doom the entire universe…

The central dichotomy of the film, then, seems to fall back on the age-old question of ends versus means.  The aliens have only good intentions; with their technology they can easily explain their position.  Eros even explains that the aliens have the power to DESTROY the Earth, and that they have chosen less intrusive, less violent methods to make their argument (in a key scene, Eros explains to the alien ruler that an army of the dead, marching on the capitals of the Earth, will surely convince the Earthlings to back down).  So why does the American military reject the explanation these kindly aliens MUST have given them?  It can only be in a brutal quest for the ultimate weapon, and the ex-marine even goes so far as to suggest that they have a right to develop the super-weapon.  That brings us sharply to the key moral issue:  were the aliens right to use force?  Were they right to resurrect the dead as ghouls and send them to attack?

These are important questions which each individual must answer for him or herself, but I’ll tell you this:  the aliens would have been fully justified under most moral theories in destroying the earth outright.  They had the ability to do so, and as a matter of self-defense (or necessity, if you want to consider a more wide-ranging legal defense), perhaps an obligation to their own species and the countless others which must, perforce, be at risk from the reckless pursuit of a super-weapon.

The super-weapon has certain parallels in American military history, as a minority of scientists involved in, or aware of, the Manhattan project were afraid that the first atom bomb might set off a chain reaction which could destroy the planet.  Fortunately, that turned out not to be.  And yet…the film was shot at the time of an escalating Cold War, which had already seen the first successful testing of the hydrogen bomb by the United States.  The terrifying vision of nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union informs the film.

It is no wonder that Wood secretly hoped that an angel of love would come from the heavens and save us from ourselves.

Wrap-up

Technically every word I’ve written is true, as I never actually said this was a good film.  I used words like extraordinary, and in point of fact this film was named the worst film of all time, and Wood the worst director in the history of cinema.  And in that sense, it is truly extraordinary…

It is a bad film, with a bad script, bad sets, bad acting, bad special effects, bad editing…Lugosi died before the film was finished, so they used Wood’s chiropracter (allegedly a foot taller than Lugosi) to finish the movie.  Wood made extensive use of stock footage to finish the film; his budget seems not to have allowed for more.  The narrator device, which I despised almost instantly due to its hystrionic tone, was almost necessary to hold the film together (thank you, Mark, for that insight).

The effete alien Ruler, and the somewhat wispy, petulant Eros do not play well against the virile, masculine all-American ex-marine who is trying to rescue his wife and defend the American way against what amounts to alien graverobbers.  If Wood truly intended to develop a theme, he proabably could have done so more effectively had he not played against the “normal” expectations of his audience: square-jawed American hero versus manipulative petulant alien who resorts to subversive, evil methods to achieve his ends…

This is purely speculative on my part, but Wood, who was a cross-dresser (though not, apparently, homosexual), may have had sufficient issues with the traditional views of masculinity that he completely missed this element of the film.  It’s rather like the person bullied in high school by the quarterback…the victim may view athletes very differently from most of us, assuming you’re going to judge people by their classification instead of as individuals (which, of course, is something we all do from time to time…).

The film’s central moral theme—which I actually think was supposed to be there, and supposed to provoke thought—is thorougly and completely obscured by the laughably incompetent execution of the idea.

If you don’t have to pay for it, and are in the mood for a laugh with some friends, this movie is worth watching.  You can make a drinking game of it, if you like, and drink every time Lugosi footage repeats, or a cardboard tombstone shakes as an actor passes it, or you see the wires holding up the flying saucers…

Still, a part of me wonders:  what would happen if this film were remade with serious money and talent behind it?  Would it at least be thought-provoking and more straight-forwardly fun?  I’d almost like to find out…

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One Response to “Detour: Plan 9 From Outer Space”

  1. Mark of the Wretched Excess Crew here. I can’t let this one go by without comment. I agree with Our Host here in almost every regard, except for his final recommendation. I find this film stupendously entertaining in its ineptitude. I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve seen it, but that number is definitely in the double digits. It is THE classic of bad cinema, the Citizen Kane of the Grade-Z Schlock-Fest. I love it more than I can say, and I would recommend that anyone who’s ever enjoyed laughing their way through a bad movie (be it on Mystery Science Theater or not) seek it out poste-haste.

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