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By the late 1960s producer-director William Castle was still remembered for the flamboyant theatrical gimmicks with which he promoted his films The Tingler and 13 Ghosts. Castle's producing flag moved from Columbia to Universal and finally to Paramount, where he made comedy genre spoofs (The Busy Body) and even a gritty film about a prison revolt (Riot). He finally produced Roman Polanski's 1968 Rosemary's Baby, a genuine horror classic. Castle at first wanted to direct as well, but Paramount production head Robert Evans knew that the Polish wunderkind was the perfect choice to helm the Ira Levin best seller. William Castle instead directed the very odd and unheralded science fiction film Project X, which played briefly as a co-feature with Roger Vadim's Barbarella and then was quietly forgotten.
Science fiction filmmaking took off in 1968 thanks to the big success of Franklin Schaffner's Planet of the Apes and Stanley Kubrick's artistically challenging 2001: A Space Odyssey. Adapted from a novel by Leslie P. Davies, Project X's fairly cerebral central idea is reminiscent of the mind-expanding literary work of author Philip K. Dick. By almost every other measure, however, the finished film falls short of its target. Even George Pal's ambitious but fumbled The Power is a comparative success.
The story must have read well on paper. In 2118, heroic spy Hagen Arnold (Christopher George, of TV's The Rat Patrol), crashes in a plane while returning from a secret mission to a hostile Asian country. He survives but is kept in suspended animation while the government's Doctor Crowther (Henry Jones) and the stern security chief Colonel Holt (Harold Gould) decide how best to make him remember the secret of a feared weapon being developed by the insidious Asian despot Sen Chiu (Keye Luke). When captured, agent Arnold made use of a security safeguard, a drug that erases the memory to prevent the enemy from obtaining secrets by torture or brainwashing. Now his mind is in a blank state -- no memories, no identity. Doctor Crowther and his team plan to use a wild charade to trick Arnold into recalling what he learned about the enemy's weapon.
Hagan Arnold is revived and placed in a fake environment to make him think that he's a bank robber back in the bygone year of 1968. While his mind is active trying to remember more about himself, they hook him up to a machine that projects images of his thoughts. Hopefully, some trace of what he's learned in Asian captivity will lead to the information that can prevent another World War. The elaborate ruse includes a 're-created' 1968 farmhouse and several doctors playing character roles to keep Hagen from straying or figuring out the truth. Into this falsified reality comes Gregory Gallea (Monte Markham), another agent who may have defected to the Asian cause. Gallea's first attempts to kill Hagen fail -- but he's still at large.
Alas, both in script and execution, Project X has little appeal. Cheap in every respect, the show looks like a TV movie with an unusually talky, static script. The component parts of its fantastic concept have seen use in other, better-known science fiction films. The re-programming of human brains with new memories and personalities has become a frequent cinematic activity, as have machines that pull our memories from our brains and display them for all to see. The construction of a fake reality to deceive an important individual was taken to an extreme in Peter Weir's interesting The Truman Show ... and was the functional gimmick in an earlier speculative war movie, 36 Hours. Once the province of moody film noir thrillers, the struggle of an amnesia victim to rebuild his lost identity later formed the emotional core of Paul Verhoeven's RoboCop.
Project X must also have looked good on a production manager's budget breakdown. The "future" of 2118 is represented mostly by featureless rooms, formed by moving the same meaningless architectural modules into different configurations. In one room, the background is occupied by what looks suspiciously like large rolls of carpeting turned on end and given a different texture (see image, left). The mostly flat and overly bright lighting enhances shots with unmotivated splashes of color, as in the TV show Star Trek. Daily Variety noted that "the future is not depicted more vividly than on a Captain Video rerun".
The real savings come in the film's pitiful "re-creation" of the world of 1968, which is limited to a typical studio ranch complete with generic dirt roads and an isolated farmhouse. In other words, the Future is made of colored cardboard while the Fake Present takes place on a movie lot without even a minimum of construction or set dressing. The only evidence that the researchers are pretending to be bank robbers from 1968 comes when the lady scientist expresses her amazement at the fact that she must cook a wholly unfamiliar breakfast of toast, bacon and eggs.
The film's notorious sequences arrive when Dr. Crowther plugs Hagen Arnold into the brain-scanning machine. The semi-abstract color images it projects onto a view-screen play out complete with cuts, as in a movie. What we see coming out of agent Arnold's head is nothing less than a cartoon, produced by the familiar animation studio Hanna-Barbera. The house of Huckleberry Hound produced at least ten minutes of brain-scan visuals for Project X. Every time the doctors plug Arnold in, the story of his adventure in the unnamed Asian dictatorship picks up again, right where it left off. The animation makes use of silhouetted, solarized live-action to represent human figures, but just as often resorts to character animation barely more realistic than, say, TV's Johnny Quest. To add complexity, the animation is layered under screens of abstract shapes that look vaguely like sticky chewing gum, or the insides of blood vessels, etc., as seen in Fantastic Voyage of a couple of years before.
Agent Hagen's capture, escape and flight to freedom are all told through this animation process, which essentially stops the movie dead in its tracks. Audiences that now applaud entire movies being little more than animated cartoons (albeit with more sophisticated Computer Generated Imagery) had no patience with Project X. The "psychedelic" memory visions inspired only laughter and patron walkouts.
The script's relatively sophisticated ideas are not well used. The theme of a futuristic Yellow Peril poisoning the West with a deadly virus places Project X in the company of discredited, seldom-revived examples of 'escapist racism'. In Battle Beneath the Earth, demonic Red Chinese dig tunnels under America, to blow up our cities. The expensive spy drama The Chairman (The Most Dangerous Man in The World) dispatches agent Gregory Peck to meet with Chairman Mao -- without telling him that he has an explosive planted in his head meant to assassinate the 'evil' Mao. At its conclusion Project X breaks the rules of its own concept. Tortured by an extended memory session ordered by Colonel Holt, the anguished Hagan Arnold projects an image of his screaming head into an adjoining room, along with a mini-windstorm. The brain, we are told, is a mysterious organ.
Although Christopher George is more than adequate as the confused hero, the perfunctory script ensures that no actor comes off very well. The performances are pitched to a basic understanding of the material, and even when a character is written with a hint of depth, William Castle's flat direction allows little of interest to show through. Leading lady Greta Baldwin plays a colorless female cipher with a pretty face and not much to do but be available to the hero. Future TV star Monte Markham makes almost no impression as the mystery agent. Keye Luke bears the thankless task of portraying the Asian menace Sen Chiu. The only actor to emerge with a full skin is the irrepressible Henry Jones. Even when underplaying, Jones suggests several layers of thought in his words. We wonder if the actor's sly smiles are there to acknowledge the silliness of a movie that he is almost singlehandedly keeping afloat.
When describing some technical pseudo-science of the memory extracting process, the doctors in Project X actually refer to "a matrix". If remembered at all, William Castle's film is noted as being a precursor to movies like The Matrix and Johnny Mnemonic, mainly by younger fans who don't realize that sci-fi authors had plumbed the mysteries of mental realms and virtual worlds even before the master Philip K. Dick started dealing with memory-switching and alternate realities. Of course, a growing slice of humanity is already living virtual adventures through Internet gaming, and enjoying a virtual social life through Facebook, so it's no exaggeration to say that the world is definitely becoming a big Project X. Perhaps we will someday live out our lives in our sleep or be content to be reduced to brains in a bottle, tapped into a Wi-Fi connection.
Olive Films' Blu-ray (also available as a DVD) of Project X is a beautiful, flawless HD encoding of this... unusual science fiction thriller, with bright color and a sharp image that allows one to examine its... interesting special effects at full resolution.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Project X Blu-ray rates:
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