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Journey to the Far Side of the Sun
The English Science-Fiction picture Journey to the Far Side of the Sun had the misfortune to be released when Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey was still fresh in the memory. The recent, sophisticated satire Planet of the Apes had also raised the bar for space movies. With just those two pictures, the Sci-Fi genre had taken giant steps forward.
The elaborate Journey to the Far Side of the Sun takes on some very difficult challenges. It dares to depict a working future society on Earth, with houses, cars and styles of dress, something that the other two films had avoided. But, even with some high-powered special effects in its corner, Journey is still the most dated and conceptually wanting space film of its day, barely bettering the laughable Marooned and the mostly witless Moon Zero Two. Forty years have only made its curious flaws stand out in sharper relief.
Sadly, the most frequent failing of Sci-Fi movies is that they don't pay off on the promise of their concept. Because the genre is about Big Ideas, even modest efforts with something to say are fondly remembered, as with, for example, 4D Man and X (The Man With the X-Ray Eyes. Journey to the Far Side of the Sun takes an okay premise but does next to nothing with it. We see 100 minutes of bad drama and good special effects, and then the script opts for frustration and meaningless mystery. On the plus side are some interesting moods (especially those imposed by Barry Gray's over-emphatic musical choices) and some excellent hardware.
Let me proceed with more non-spoiler discussion. The movie is a Gerry and Sylvia Anderson production, their first live-action theatrical effort. 1 It has unfortunately designed almost identically to one of their marionette shows. People stand and talk a lot. Thunderbirds- like contraptions move them around, as when a jetliner's fuselage detaches to deliver its passengers right to an airport lounge. One teleconference with various talking heads on video monitors looks exactly like a Century 21 TV show setup. The Anderson's script is at least 60% hardware-talk and exposition, some of it handled well, but little of it advancing the story. The characters are never really established; a domestic scene with Roy Thinnes and his wife Sharon (Lynn Ross) introduces a big domestic issue and is then dropped. Roy shares romantic glances with Lisa Hartmann (Loni von Friedl of The Blue Max), but that thread also comes to naught. 2 Director Robert Parrish has made some extraordinarily expressive movies (The Purple Plain, The Wonderful Country) but must have run up against too many uncontrollable elements on this show -- namely, producers that dictate every detail as if all the actors have strings attached to their heads and arms.
The film's 'character' dead ends are matched by a tendency to stop dead in its tracks for frequent hardware scenes -- the bread and butter of the Anderson TV shows. We see a long sequence of the landing of a jet, and then sit back for the thuddingly generic, drama-challenged main rocket launch. The human presence in these sequences is minimal. Derek Meddings' miniature effects are in general excellent, but they're poorly integrated. We stare at the miniatures much longer than we should, long enough to see how artificial they are, and notice things like poor depth of field. When opticals are employed, the grain goes way up. Meddings would later devise wonderful effects for James Bond films, integrating his work into the live-action so well that we have to be told when it appears.
Finally, the designs on view are neither attractive nor convincing. As in their later TV shows like UFO, characters wear 'Fab' fashions and stiff hairstyles. Everybody seems dressed up in unpleasant looking costumes for a TV variety show. At home, the actors are defeated by the Barbie doll house surroundings. Lynn Loring takes a shower without even getting her hair wet.
The lighting overall is garish and high key, subscribing to 'the future will be a shopping mall' ethos of the later (and worse) Logan's Run. Patrick Wymark's office has a ridiculously fake painting representing a view through a picture window. It could look fine if it were just a little bit overexposed.
The Andersons' script wants to be adult and sophisticated but it teems with content similar to their Cold War- inflected TV fare. Eurosec security is breached by a spy (Herbert Lom, in a too-brief role). Bogging down in details, the show begins by spending several minutes watching Lom develop some cleverly obtained spy photos. We wonder if he takes an exposure by tapping his head with his finger! The only hint of a moral dilemma is when astronaut Ross discovers his wife's birth control pills. A hot topic in 1969 ... raised, and then dropped. How people move about -- airplane, parachute, centrifuge -- is more important than what they're doing.
As pointed out by Tim Lucas in Video Watchdog (issue 32, p. 60, I believe), Journey to the Far Side of the Sun seems to be infected with "2001-itis." Several very Kubrickian visuals are on view, starting with a preponderance of giant close-ups of blinking eyes. The idea of space-dreaming while in suspended animation is expressed through a psychedelic light show more or less comparable to 2001's Stargate. A feeble asylum patient sits in a wheelchair in a corridor resembling Dave Bowman's holding cell on the alien planet beyond the Stargate. The old man even reaches out his hand, as if recognizing something we can't see. Unfortunately, these borrowings are all fluff without any deeper meaning.
From this point on, the review is a SPOILER. Consider yourself forewarned.
The one Big Idea at the end of Glenn Ross's Journey to the Far Side of the Sun is that the new planet turns out to be an exact duplicate of the earth, complete with duplicate people doing the exact same duplicate things as us. Without going into detail, upon arrival Glenn Ross is arrested for aborting the mission, a logical thing to do considering that his spaceship has 'returned' after only three weeks of a six-week round trip. While the 'other' Eurosec considers Ross crazy or a saboteur, Ross only slowly realizes that everything on Earth is now in reverse, with writing printed backwards, etc.. Nobody notices that 'their' astronaut is 'flopped' left to right, until someone thinks to X-ray his body and sees that his organs are reversed. 3
As soon as the reverse planet is revealed, the audience jumps way ahead of the story. Astronauts are trained to be cool evaluators in the most confusing situations, but Ross is slow to even notice his reversed environment. Why doesn't he show the doubting Webb that his clothing, his body scars, his tooth fillings, are all reversed? Ross's employers (including an underused Vladek Sheybal) watch him read reversed writing in a mirror, and still aren't convinced. Going back to his orbiting space vehicle is a good idea, but why does he have to re-dock with it? just showing Eurosec a TV image of its reversed insignia should do the trick. And why take risks with the "polarity of electricity" issue -- couldn't the circuits on the docking couplings be tested first? All this is pre-ordained so that the story can end as a mystery, with a colossal Anderson explosion, or ten. The English title for the movie is Doppelgänger, a name that gives away the story's only surprise.
Journey to the Far Side of the Sun introduces an intriguing idea, and shows little imagination with it. Even 1950s Superman comics developed interesting alternate worlds, with reversed worlds, Bizarro world, whatever. The Andersons' mirror planet means nothing at all. It leads to no insights about the universe, or human nature. Nobody speculates what having a double might mean. Nigel Kneale, in his Quatermass and the Pit pays off an odd premise (an alien ship found buried under London) with an escalating series of revelations, each more mind-altering than the last. Kneale even added a beautiful inter-species twist to the 1964 film of H.G. Wells' First Men in the Moon, while updating it as well. Journey is an excuse to show cool rocket toys, and after a while that's just not enough. 4
Universal's DVD of Journey to the Far Side of the Sun replaces an early flat release with a stunningly good-looking enhanced transfer that shows the film in the best possible light. The wide screen shape focuses compositions, while the better resolution reveals the added grain and flat colors of several optical shots.
No extras are included, which is a shame; we'd love to hear more production details. Much of the information about longer versions, etc., from above may be affected by faulty memory. For instance, I don't know if the script was originally written to mimic aspects of 2001, or if those qualities (including the style of the main title) were hastily put together after Kubrick's film was released. Either way, it doesn't say much for the production's originality. Or are we willing to believe the similarities are coincidental? 5
Every show is someone's favorite, so let me end by confessing that I saw Journey first on a 12" TV in B&W, and thought it was incredibly good; in 1971 I was 19 years old and ANY film with a space rocket got a free pass, more or less. Only at a 16mm screening a few years later did I realize that my judgment had been impaired by severe Sci-Fi geekdom. That's my defense, and I'm sticking to it.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Journey to the Far Side of the Sun rates:
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: June 27, 2008
1. When my producer interviewed Sylvia Anderson for a series of Thunderbirds featurettes, she was asked about Journey. She was not happy about the subject, saying only that her longer version had not been accepted.
2. As a later flashback contains peeks at footage missing from the husband-wife spat, we wonder what else might have been cut.
3. Which begs the question -- would Ross's brain 'flop' his vision to compensate? In psychological tests, a man was forced to view reality through lenses that turned his vision upside-down. After a number of hours, his brain re-righted reality for him, flipping what he saw. When they took the special glasses off, he went through another day of disorientation before his vision corrected itself.
4. I'm told that a The Twilight Zone episode had the exact same concept of an Astronaut who flies to a mirror planet on the opposite side of the sun. As I've never seen it, this is Gary Teetzel's full description: "The episode is called "The Parallel" and was written by Rod Serling for the show's fourth season, the one with hour-long episodes. Steve Forrest stars as Major Robert Gaines. During a flight, his space capsule disappears off radar screens. Gaines wakes up in a hospital and learns his capsule was recovered, undamaged, close to his launch site. After he is released, Gaines starts to notice subtle differences: his house suddenly has a picket fence; everyone calls him Colonel rather than Major; no one has ever heard of President Kennedy; etc. He becomes convinced he's on a parallel world. Most people don't believe his fantastic story, but then scientists notice his capsule is NOT the one they sent up; there are noticeable differences. Gaines starts toward the capsule -- and suddenly finds himself in orbit, about to splash down. No one believes his story -- but then comes a report that an unidentified spacecraft appeared on radar for 90 seconds, accompanied by a radio transmission from a Colonel Gaines."
5. Viewers insist that in the 1970s or 1980s, a TV broadcast of Journey to the Far Side of the Sun went haywire when (according to the story) somebody assumed that the reversed writing was a technical fault and electronically flopped the image ... making nonsense of the second half of the story!
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