Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Planet of Dinosaurs

Planet of Dinosaurs was a 1977 film featuring a sci-fi space crew crashing on a planet full of hungry dinosaurs.  The main problem with Planet of Dinosaurs is that the human cast is nowhere near as compelling as the titular dinosaurs.  Even the old school stop motion dinos feel more “real” than the human cast.  After learning more about the film this appears to be the result of the budget.  It was made with a very small budget and director James Shea decided to use most of the money on the special effects leaving little pay for the actors.  The actress Derna Wylde (who also played a character named Derna) reported never even being paid for the film.  The acting is extremely lackluster to say the least.  The film seems to juggle too much of its cast and doesn’t really know who to focus on most of the time.  The character Jim is probably the most important character and he doesn’t stand out very much during the first half of the film.  In fact, the characters that I thought would end up both being the main couple ended up being T-Rex chow by the end.  This is a strength in that not all the character deaths in the film are completely obvious but it also made the film often seem unfocused as it tries to rotate the cast around.

First things first.  Let’s talk about the real stars of the show, the dinos.  The primary antagonist of the film is an impressively animated and deadly Tyrannosaurus Rex.  My favorite part with the T-Rex has it pull a spear someone lobbed into it out with its tiny dino hands.  But the Tyrannosaurus isn’t all the dinosaur goodness.  There is a Brontosaurus, a Stegosaurus, a Allosaurus, plus some others I can’t identify.  Most amazingly, there is a special cameo of the Rhedosaurus from, stop motion master. Ray Harryhausen’s Beast from 20,000 Fathoms.  Glad to see the Rhedosaurus was still getting work!  Harryhausen himself visited the set and said he was impressed with the quality of the effects. 

Most look pretty great but I do have one complaint.   The Stegosaurus was given a pathetically short tail rendering it a harmless joke in the scene where it goes up against the big T.  There was no way that stubby tail could reach its foe.  I think the thing knew it was screwed because it doesn’t even try to point its tail towards the T-Rex and protect its vital organs so the Tyrannosaurus bites directly into its head killing it.  I felt more sympathy for that poor stubby tailed Stegosaurus than any of the human cast.

The film begins with a spacecraft from Earth crash lands into a body of water on an inhabitable planet and is forced to swim to shore with a few meager supplies.  The ship sinks leaving them stranded on a strange world.  The survivors soon realize that the planet is extremely similar to Earth in terms of elements, leading it to have similar life.  Life was evolving just as it had on Earth but this planet is much younger leading it to still be in the age of the dinosaurs.  Sure, this is completely improbable and defies everything we know about natural selection but I really don’t care.  I can’t really blame a film called Planet of Dinosaurs for having dinosaurs.

The film has two main conflicts.  There is the obvious man vs dinosaur theme but then there is the subplot involving the inexperienced Captain Lee and his style of leadership in contrast to his more experienced subordinate Jim.  Lee thinks that it is best to reach high ground and build a blockade to keep out dinosaurs and to act risk aversive.  Jim decides that this uncivilized world will kill them unless they stand their ground and fight back against their nemesis the T-Rex.  My main problem with this plotline is simply that the characterizations of the characters seem inconsistent early in the film.  While Lee and Jim disagree often and argue throughout the movie in most of the early encounters Lee is the harsh, unforgiving, no-nonsense kind of guy while Jim is actually a lot softer and more forgiving of the crew.  When the film suddenly starts treating Jim like the local badass all that stuff before it is just kind of brushed under the rug.  All of a sudden, we are supposed to think that Lee is soft and weak even though up until this point in the film he has acted like a chronically angry guy who wants to strangle his crew.

Another problem with the film is it starts out with a strong sense of comic relief in the first half which is absent later.  I thought the Max Thayer’s character Mike was the best acted and helped lift the mood of the production considerably early on with his jokes but gradually the script stopped providing him material and he loses his sunny disposition and becomes as boring and woodenly acted as everyone else.  On the bright side, one comic relief character is killed off in the most spectacular scene in the movie.   The character Harvey. being both annoying and too stupid to live, inevitably meets his demise.  The moron tries to steal some large eggs laying on the ground thinking they would make a delicious meal and that they must belong to a large bird.  He then calls for the parent saying “Here Chicky!”  When a Centrosaurus (like a Triceratops but with only one horn) approaches he is shocked.  I guess the guy didn’t know dinosaurs laid eggs.  Instead of putting back the eggs and slowly walking away he grabs the laser gun from a crewmember and shoots it.  This just pisses off the previously unhostile Centrosaurus and it chases Harvey to the edge of a cliff where it impales Harvey on its horn before dropping him to his death.  This is probably my favorite scene in the film.  It has some cool animation and it is also very satisfying seeing Harvey finally get his well-deserved Darwin award.

While I probably made the first half of the first half of the film sound superior that isn’t necessarily the case because of the scene stealing Tyrannosaurus.  Even as the actors get more tense and less interesting the dinosaurs start to get their day in the sun.  If you are the type of person who watches Godzilla movies just for the monster scenes and could care less for the human yapping then this won’t bother you.  If you are like most moviegoers who care more about the totality of the production you will be put off by the poor acting and weak script.  With a larger budget so that more money could be spent on actors and a more polished script the film could have been a bona fide classic.    

Final Verdict: Check out the dinosaur scenes on Youtube.  If you are curious, and they pique your interest watch the rest.  If not then don’t bother.

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