When making epic science fiction on a low limit credit card budget, there is one rule you must never overlook - don't write ambitious visual checks your filmmaking skill and/or production values can't cash. Nothing looks worse than a vast in scope bit of speculation cut down by cardboard backdrop realities. Even in a world where simple CGI is at everyone's disposal, how you use it is as important as any other F/X facet. For Scottish maverick Mark Stirton, no idea is too outsized. His grand design epic The Planet begins with a massive battle in space, and ends with a literal war for the soul of all mankind. In between there's some slight suspense, and enough non-erotic male bonding (and braying) to keep action fans satisfied...at least for a little while.
During a mission to transport a terrorist, a group of ragtag mercenaries is attacked by a squadron of enemy ships. They destroy the massive starship, sending several survivors down to the surface of a nearby planet. Once they arrive, the men realize just how dire their situation really is. There is limited water and hardly any food, and without a way of signaling their rescue vessel, they appear stranded forever. As they set up camp and contemplate their plight, their detainee is off in the distance, lost in his post-apocalyptic, end of the world aims. Without warning, the crew is assailed again, this time by an unseen force striving to kill each one of them. Its goal seems surreal - it apparently wants their souls. And even more disconcerting, this may all be part of their prisoner's mankind killing end game.
While you would hardly call it a masterpiece, The Planet is a very interesting film. It borrows liberally from several better offerings - Pitch Black, Aliens, a smattering of Star Wars, even a little Star Trek V: The Final Frontier - but never forgets to forge its own esoteric path. Writer/director Mark Stirton deserves credit for such big picture chutzpah. Without a massive budget to realize his aims, the filmmaker still finds ways to inspire awe, create vision, and keep the audience interested. Not everything here works - there are times when we wish the characters would stop talking and get about the business of kicking unidentified extraterrestrial ass - but for the most part, one would have to consider this space opera a success. Purists will probably hate its reliance on old school war movie machinations, and the ending is a 'get it or groan' kind of spectacle. But in an indie entertainment realm where very little imagination or invention is offered (if it doesn't have angst ridden twenty-year-olds depressed over their dysfunctional families, it's a filmic fluke), The Planet proposes something very different.
The opening clash can be considered the film's weakest material, if only because the home computer graphics fail to live up to our expectations. Someone like George Lucas can piss away billions making intricate bitmap models of illogical locations, but Stirton is clearly working within some Apple IIe confines. The massive ship looks somewhat impressive, as do the attack vessels. But once the lame laser blasts are added in, things start looking a little too Last Starfighter. Better are the sequences when our heroes battle an unseen alien presence. The Scottish location looks decidedly deserted and the ephemeral quality of the effect really draws us in. Certainly, Stirton could have made better use of it early on, but he saves the best material for last. For those not wanting the ending spoiled, let's just say that the real reason for the planet's existence is finally revealed and it's large, it's angry, and it's hard to defeat. There are some red herrings along the way (the criminal being carted by the mercenaries turns out to be a relatively unimportant catalyst), but for the most part, this film delivers a solid story.
Other cinematic elements are equally hit or miss. The cast of friends and first time professionals does a decent job, even if the F-bomb becomes a lazy expletive along the way. Of particular note are Scott Ironside as Vince, Patrick Wright as McNeal, and the beefy Mike Mitchell as 'roid rage Captain Morgan. The script doesn't give them much to do except complain and engage in combat, but these glorified amateurs frequently hit the right notes. As for Stirton's work behind the lens, he truly has some visual acumen. While his images are limited by his ability to monetarily realize his aims, what he accomplishes is quite interesting. There will be those that dismiss The Planet as nothing more than A-level ideas realized in a bumbling B-grade manner, but that would do this movie a disservice. Sometimes you have to accept what the filmmakers can give you and avoid unreasonable comparisons. From that standpoint, this effort is an intriguing attempt. Any measure of accomplishment will have to be from a purely personal position - both for those involved in the product and anyone willing to watch it.
Presented to DVD Talk in the ever popular "For Review Only" screener format, the 16x9 anamorphic image (1.77:1 in aspect ratio) is a decent direct from digital video transfer. There appears to have been some extensive post-production work on the picture, colors adjusted and lighting tweaked to add to the mood and atmosphere of the film. While there are limited defects like flaring, bleeding, and ghosting, this may not be the final product presentation. Therefore, a firm final score will not be offered.
Again, without a real DVD in hand, it is hard to grade the aural aspects of this film. The dialogue appears to be recorded using the camera's internal mic, yet it's usually clear and easily decipherable. The musical scoring is selective and somewhat effect. Again, their will be no rating for the Dolby Digital Stereo as there is no way to tell if this is how The Planet will remain, from a tech spec standpoint.
None are offered, except for a pointless promotional trailer, therefore, none will be graded. Again, this is not a final product DVD.
Low budget does not automatically mean low quality. Some amazing things can be done with individual drive, a smattering of imagination, and a few dozen maxed out credit cards. Mark Stirton can add his name to those outsized thinking individuals who don't let little things like available professional actors, ready access to special effects, and guaranteed distribution get in the way of their vision. While he's mimicking the mainstream with The Planet, he's also in it for his own obvious aspirations. While some may think this otherwise nominal effort deserves a Rent It, a Recommended rating is far more realistic. Some may not appreciate the filmmaking or flimsy CGI, but there is still something substantive about what the movie manages to produce. Clearly, this is one artist who had a relatively full creative 'account' before writing his directorial drafts.