Monday, February 20, 2012

In Defense of Plan 9 From Outer Space

Some Facts:
Working Title: Grave Robbers From Outer Space
Released: July 22, 1959
President of the United States of America in July 1959: Dwight Eisenhower (Ike)
Sputnik Launched Into Low Earth Orbit By the USSR: October 4, 1957
H.G. Well's War of the Worlds published: 1897 (serial format)
Them! released: 1954
Invasion of the Body Snatchers released: 1956
Creature from the Black Lagoon (final "Universal Monster" to hang with the "big boys") released: 1954
This Island Earth released: 1955
Forbidden Planet released: 1956
Starship Troopers published: 1959
Elvis's Army hitch: March 1958 to March 1960
Television: Twilight Zone debuts, Rawhide debuts, I Love Lucy in its penultimate season, Westerns are very popular, more so than science-fiction.

Plan 9 From Outer Space is famous as being one of, if not the worst film ever made.  It must be true because critics hold it up as a benchmark for low-quality film and popular culture proclaims it loudly.  Clearly these people have never seen Jesus Christ Vampire Hunter, or Dinoshark, or Titanic.  Tastes are somewhat relative, but human nature is to follow the herd and obey "authority" figures like Roger Ebert and that guy who has his own blog (commence mind control feed now).  We are a social species and we follow the tastes of our society, and where we don't we usually go against the grain to prove we are not so easily led, which amounts to the same thing.
Is Plan 9 that bad?
Is it deserving of the being called (one of) the worst film(s) of all time?
I say it is not and it is not and, well, modern audiences actually seem to like it.
A quick look at the reviews on Rotten Tomatoes and the Wiki articles will show that it has gained a loyal following in certain segments of society and acceptance in others.  There have been so many films since its release in 1959 that one could hardly hold this little Ed Wood opus responsible for the film making atrocities some have claimed it to have.
So it's not still considered the worst film ever, or even in the top 100 of worst films.
I, however, want to take a different approach here and say that I believe, and hope to prove here, that Plan 9 From Outer Space may be the perfect movie within the confines of its genre.
Plan 9 was shot in 1956, previewed in 1957 and finally released in 1959, written and directed by Edward D. Wood Jr. and starring footage of Bela Lugosi.  Everyone who has seen the film Ed Wood (by Tim Burton) knows what I have just written.  Now, put that into context.

1959 was the last year of the 50's.  The real 50's, not the television 50's.  In 1957 the Soviet Union had launched Sputnik into space and the supreme paranoia and fun of the Space Race began.  In 1945 the United States introduced the world to the power held inside the smallest atom in existence, effectively ending WWII and setting in motion the Cold War.  The Cold War was a great time that happened to also coincide with scientific advancement and social conformity.  Yay bombs!  Wood wrote and filmed his opus in the years following the creation of the Comics Code, prior to and along with Sputnik and the Space Race.

Humans had shown an interest in the earliest science fiction since the likes of H.G. Wells and Jules Verne, and maybe even as far back as Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (which is apropos given where my argument is going) and we all know the historical significance of Orson Welles 1938 adaptation of H.G. Wells's classic 1897 War of the Worlds.  Horror and Science Fiction are siblings, perhaps lovers, I don't want to delve into this metaphor too much.  Any fan of H.P. Lovecraft knows that his Elder Gods are not demonic entities but alien lifeforms, uncaring and unknowable.  After the technological advancements of the Atomic Age began to get moving in full swing, an increased interest in Science Fiction was seen.  On television the popular programs were still Westerns and Police shows (and Western genre films would continue to be popular as B Movies, the stuff of the Double Feature), but the magazines and comics were reflecting the youth taste for horror and science fiction, and boy did they hunger for it.
In 1954 Atomic Horror brought us giant ants in Them! and in 1958 alien goo would devour humans (but not Steve McQueen) in The Blob.  Thanks to Senate hearings the comics companies would self-regulate and create the Comics Code Authority in 1954, toning down the gore and horror, but the kids still loved it.
In 1959 the film whose working title was Grave Robbers From Outer Space was released as Plan 9 From Outer Space.  What was Plan 9?  Long range electrodes shot into the pineal and pituitary glands of the recently dead, creating undead slaves to use against the humans by alien invaders was Plan 9.  Aliens using undead slaves to invade Earth.  A perfect synthesis of the two great genre themes of Science Fiction and Horror!

That was Plan 9 From Outer Space!
Is the film deserving of criticism?  Of course it is; what film isn't?
The acting is par, not bad, not good, just okay.  The sets were cheap, but then so were Shakespeare's.  The plot makes sense.  An advanced alien race finds mankind to be a threat to the universe at large (much like in The Day the Earth Stood Still [1951]) and as they cannot control humans ("Their souls are too strongly controlled") they use the recently dead as a (small) force to further their agenda.  There is a message in the film that is allegorical to atomic destruction and is, ultimately, not anti-war, but anti-destruction.  Yes, the aliens do seem a bit hypocritical at the end (and a bit loony) but that's how Ed wrote it.  At least it has less plot holes and better dialog than any of the Star Wars prequels.  1959 was the same year that Rod Serling's 
Twilight Zone premiered, and while not every episode is a gem, that show's success demonstrated the public's enjoyment of a morality tale disguised as Horror or Sci-Fi.
We who enjoy the twinned genres of Horror and Sci-Fi know how they play well in the right hands.  The Creature From the Black Lagoon broke conventions for its time talking about evolution and such (see article here) and This Island Earth had a signature monster in the Metaluna Mutant (pronounced Mute-Ant, interestingly enough).  Plan 9 offered us a similar mix of Monster and Alien mayhem.
Plan 9 Checklist:
Flying Saucers
Bela Lugosi Body Double
Square-jawed All-American Hero
How is this NOT an example of the greatest the Science Fiction/Horror genre has to offer?
Consider this:
The movies that are cult favorites were once first run films and the point of any film is to earn money.  Today we have Asylum Films and the SyFy channel to provide what the drive-in once did: cheap entertainment.  Films like Megashark vs Giant Octopus are simply fun.  Not truly mindless entertainment, they trade on the sort of comic book logic that gets the viewer to the action and if not predictable, they are at least comforting in their plotting.  These films earn money; they don't win Oscars.  Oscars are overrated anyway.
Now consider that Plan 9 was meant to make money.  It was a man's artistic vision, sure, but it was also not supposed to be charity.  This isn't the Diary of Anne Frank, here, it's a story about aliens that make undead slaves.  That's good genre stuff.
Most importantly, the thing I want to express is that this film combines horror and science fiction into a single film.  Aliens create undead (I refuse to pander to all you zombie people out there...although...undead slaves...okay, Space Zombies!).
It really is a good film for its genre.
Okay, it's not all good:
There are flubs, boom shadows, science abuse, yes all of that, and some poor dialog, but in its way, the dialog is fun.  Criswell's opening remarks, "Greetings, my friend.  We are all interested in the future, for that is where you and I are going to spend the rest of our lives.  And remember my friend, future events such as these will affect you in the future." are a particularly fine example of such dialog.  My favorite bits of dialog are delivered by Eros, the commander of the expedition to Earth.
"Stronger.  You see?  Your stupid minds!  Stupid!  Stupid!"
But it is lines like that above that really sell the film for me.  Just because you are part of an advanced alien race does not mean everything you say is going to be smart.  Look at humans...
Rise!  Rise, my undead slaves!

I admit that much of this started because of the Fome Guild Mages.

See, I recently purchased a board game (which is something I haven't done in quite a while) called Conquest of Planet Earth.  It is made by Flying Frog and is a game of 50's sci-fi stylings where you play an alien race attempting to conquer Earth.  One of the races, the above mentioned Fome Guild Mages are aliens that use space-necromancy to raise undead armies.  Which pretty much describes Plan 9, doesn't it?  And that is what got me thinking about all this.  So I maintain that Plan 9 is a great example of the Horror/Sci-Fi film in concept, if not in execution, and that we should cut it a break on execution because it is just too cool.
I also freely admit that I am some sort of freak who should probably not be allowed in polite society.  Which is why I work in IT.


  1. I feel like a science fiction retard at the moment. While being a huge fan of Mass Effect, I didn't even make the acquaintance of plan 9 and the husks. The Reapers, the Mass Effect series' eldritch abominations, impale humans on spikes. This first kills them, and then replaces some parts of the body with "tech" through transmutation, basically creating zombies. The zombies, called husks, are then released on the populace to create more husks. This is the process that Reapers use to wipe out one, or many, organic species every 50,000 or so years.

    I think, as you said, Plan 9 was good in concept, like much science fiction, but short on execution, which is not the fault of Ed Wood. We in the science fiction know, understnad the complexities of rendering the genre, and the difficulties that come from attempting to realize future technologies that don't exist, and greatly surpass the technology you are using to render it.

    I would say I would like to see Plan 9 remade, I really wouldn't, because I know it would get fucked up, just like The Day the Earth Stood Still. Good piece, however.

    1. I am in a similar situation regarding a remake, I can tell you.
      The problems of Sci-Fi being dated and outdated are too common within the genre. Not only do we have the ever-present conceptualization problems, we have the cost of props and the special effects. If we go too far one way we have a special FX extravaganza with no plot and the other way ends up full of plot but without any gilding for the wilting Aesop-lily.