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Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959)

by on 2011/10/10

“Well, as long as they can think, we’ll have our problems.”

* * *

Some people have talent, and squander it. Others lack talent, but promote themselves well. Ed Wood occupied the latter camp . . . or he simply benefited from a modest definition of “done”. It’s easy to jump on the bandwagon and attack his comparative lack of professionalism but, fortunately for audiences, that status is a quality as endearing as it is entertaining.

In arguably his most notorious feature, Plan 9 from Outer Space, he explores themes similar to those found eight years earlier in The Day the Earth Stood Still. A race of aliens in celestial ships arrive to prevent Earthlings from discovering “solarbonite”. This element has the potential to annihilate anything in the universe our sunlight has come into contact with. To curtail our progress, they use alien technology to reanimate dead humans.

In truth, I find the ideas reasonably interesting, but they’re handled clumsily, and communicated poorly. Without malice, I’d suggest the entire affair plays like the work of an enthusiastic child. The broad strokes seem valid — or at least promising — in theory, but don’t necessarily withstand the execution.

This observation extends to the production side, as well. For example, why not use the same doorway in multiple locations? It sounds like a reasonable measure. Doors are doors, simple and common, and doing so would probably save on the budget. In practice, however, seeing identical archways in vehicles and buildings actually distracts from the proximate action.

Unfortunately for Wood, the production is the visible filter through which his already-muddled exploration of peacekeeping is strained. And that filter is irregular. And it doesn’t fit right. And it got broken being forced into place. And no one’s bothering to maintain it. And . . . well, you get the picture.

The bittersweetness here is, I wanted it all to succeed. Nowadays, moments devoted to character are among the first to be removed. If they get filmed at all, they’re more likely to be reinstated on video than to appear in theatrical cuts. Plan 9 is packed with such character moments. The trouble is, the characters are barely caricatures, and practically every one is written similarly.

It’s not the worst dialogue I’ve heard, but it’s close. Everything is eye-rollingly over-the-top, swinging wildly from hostility to fright, sometimes in a single exchange. The writing and acting are nearly equally misguided, so much so as to cloud the assignment of blame.

I often wondered whether Wood understood the concepts he was writing about, especially scenes of coy pillow talk between a husband and wife. Elsewhere, the actors did too much or, alternately, underplayed. Plus, when the fourth wall is not meant to be broken, looking at the camera is not a good sign.

It may well be inexperience, or the actors’ lack of conviction. It couldn’t have been inspiring to deal with lackluster sets and props. Grave markers sway and bend. Pilots steer a plane with semicircular makeshift boards. UFO exteriors in no way resemble a saucer shape. An ersatz Bela Lugosi cape must be adjusted mid-attack.

Even after production wrapped, the post-work fares no better. Ships teeter by on visible strings. Scenes frequently jump from day to night between cuts. Eyelines don’t match during conversations. Sound audibly clicks in and out on many adjacent shots. And stock footage . . . don’t get me started on the stock footage here.

However, there’s little point in itemizing all the nitpicky errors, or this article would be as long as the script itself. Let’s take them as read and wrap things up.

Plan 9 from Outer Space may be widely considered the worst movie of all time but, to me, it’s positively endearing for all its naive incompetence. It’s too easy a target to critique. Yes, Ed Wood might have intended it to be exciting, scary, or thought-provoking. And it might be backhanded to suggest it’s still entertaining despite being none of the above. But the fact remains: it is entertaining. So enjoy yourself. Start by shutting off your mind.

Your stupid mind.

Stupid, stupid!

* * *

Full movie (public domain) available here:

Not rated

79 minutes

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