Skiffy Flix: Assignment Outer Space

There was a period in the mid to late 1990s when I watched a whole bunch of 1950s and ’60s science fiction films, via a video store around the corner from my house then, back in the days when there were video stores. A couple of these films I’d seen growing up, notably Invaders from Mars, at a neighbor’s house at around 6th or 7th grade, and The Time Machine (which oddly was shown in 20-minute segments during lunch breaks at the junior high school I attended in 7th grade — Sequoia Junior High in Reseda CA).

But most of these older films, even relative classics like Invasions of the Body Snatchers, Forbidden Planet, and The War of the Worlds (not to mention Frankenstein and Dracula), I didn’t see until years later, in adulthood, when I sought them out. My attitude about science fiction movies, which I implicitly deride as ‘skiffy flix’, is that they are far inferior to the best of science fiction literature, in virtually every case. The lone exception, unto this day, is Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, though even that requires Arthur C. Clarke’s novel to fully explicate and appreciate, lest its final scenes be dismissed as some sort of ’60s drug trip…which is not at all the intent.

Tonight I watched another of these primitive early ’60s skiffy flix, based on a comment by Gary Westfahl in one of his reviews — the film is Assignment Outer Space, from 1960 — which Gary suggested was a precursor to 2001.

It’s excruciatingly primitive in terms of production values. It betrays a typical misunderstanding of the size and scope of the universe — mentioning initially that a spaceship’s destination is a galaxy, M82 (IIRC), but the subsequent plot concerns a space station within the solar system and trips between Mars, Venus, and Earth. The plot concerns an Earth journalist who is assigned to a ship which, eventually, has to seek out another ship, named Alpha Two, which threatens to wipe out life on Earth. One in a million chance of success. Of course, they succeed. The renegade ship is controlled by an electronic computer, which our journalist hero has to disable; thus the allusion to 2001 (a comment on the IMDB page for this movie, linked above, defends this film’s influence on 2001).

The film does have its moments. There are several interesting, and for its time rather plausible, spaceship designs. (OTOH when they show spouts of flame emitting from the bottom ends of spaceships, why do they always seem to be blowing to the side..??!) The enactment of zero gravity in the one ship is, I daresay, rather better than what Kubrick bothered to do in 2001 — think of the scenes with Bowman and Poole on the pod deck. The film’s version of Mars is grotesque; sharp mountains and boiling lava spouts. Yet there is a decently mature love interest, with a female crewman who is loved by the captain, but who falls in love with the journalist… a situation which plays out in the plot development.

The theme of the renegade electronic computer turns out to be almost incidental — nothing like the mind games with HAL in 2001. All our hero has to do is cut the cables.

What amazes me on watching this film, which I realize had a very low budget, is how far production values advanced in just the next few years in the 1960s. Consider the TV series Lost in Space, 1965, with production values far advanced from this film; consider the early seasons of Star Trek, beginning 1966; and again, consider the pinnacle of SF film to this day, 2001, released in 1968.

Assignment Outer Space

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