Journey to the Far Side Of The Sun review
Gerry Anderson's slightly psychedelic cinema outing is an engaging sci-fi curiosity with a few road-bumps...
The science behind puppet-legend Gerry Anderson’s only foray into made-for-cinema sci-fi doesn’t bear too much scrutiny – the idea that a space-probe could discover a ‘doppelganger’ Earth hiding behind the sun ignores the evident gravitational distortions that would signal its existence to astronomers on our side.
But then, Journey To The Far Side Of The Sun (a.k.a. Doppelganger) is a rather lyrical work that favours the esoteric semantics of 2001 and Solaris over the zest of muscular space-opera, despite retaining many of the trimmings of the latter. Though it doesn’t bear comparison to Kubrick or Tarkovsky, it’s still an interesting journey with many rewards…
Sometime in the near-future, a space program that has been - rather optimistically - appropriated by the European Space Exploration Council (EUROSEC) turns up evidence of the aforementioned ‘Doppelganger’ planet hiding behind the sun. But stingy old NASA – now more of a financier than instigator of space missions – won’t cough up the cash to EUROSEC big cheese Patrick Wymark to explore this great secret.
When twitchy council member Herbert Lom turns out to be a spy with a camera-eye (shot quite brutally by EUROSEC security operative George Sewell in an out-of-context display of violence), all bets are off – the unnamed ‘enemy nation’ know the secret, so it’s Earth 2 or bust for the ‘good guys’.
But NASA want an American on board, and soon Roy Thinnes (The Invaders) is bussed over to spearhead the two-man mission. Famous arch-boozer Ian Hendry (clearly drunk in at least one scene) is the unlikely EUROSEC civilian drafted in to accompany Thinnes, and off they set for a six-week round trip where they’ll sleep all the way there and back, landing on the new planet in week three, if possible.
The landing goes disastrously wrong, and our two injured astronauts find themselves stranded on the new world. Except that it seems to resemble the old world rather too much. They’re on Earth!. When Thinnes notices that the design of his house is ‘flipped’, and that the writing on his passport is in reverse – along with all the other writing around him – he suspects that he may not be back in Kansas after all…
Gerry Anderson writes robust and prosaic dialogue which sits ill-at-ease with the metaphysical ponderings in Journey, but Robert Parrish’s solid direction is a cut-above the schedule-hampered pace of the work done under pressure in Anderson’s contemporary TV series UFO and the later Space:1999.
Thinnes is a striking and sympathetic figure who makes the most of his leading role, contrasting well with the down-at-heel misgivings of the excellent Ian Hendry; the section where Thinnes and Hendry cheat their EUROSEC training masters by hitching a lift in a horse and cart whilst on ‘survival’ practice is a welcome and solitary moment of humour in Journey.
The film is very slow to get off the ground; it’s little wonder that the filmmakers gave in to the temptation to linger on Derek Meddings’ superb model-work, as they did in the launch-sequences in Thunderbirds, but Meddings was also willing to take on tasks that most SFX men avoided like the plague in those days, and for good reason – model shots with trees and roads in full daylight, and so on. Such familiar material is almost impossible to simulate even now, and every jaw-dropping special effects shot in Journey has a corresponding shot with that ‘Hornby’ factor, slowing up the narrative unnecessarily. The very slow pacing of 2001 and the later Solaris is unsuitable here, since the producers neither had Douglas Trumbull’s liberal budget and schedule nor Tarkovsky’s incandescent source material.
The cross-pollination between Journey and UFO will be very evident to fans of the latter; though Ed Bishop surrenders the role of belligerent commander-in-chief to Patrick Wymark, he numbers one among many UFO refugees in Journey, including George Sewell (still a tough guy), Vladek Sheybal (still a shrink), Keith Alexander (still a radio operator - and with the same microphone!) and Norma Ronald (still a secretary).
In addition the spacesuits are those of UFO, and slightly remodelled versions of Straker’s car are in evidence, along with the snazzy ambulances of SHADO. There seems to be some confusion – even with Gerry Anderson himself – as to whether UFO occurred after Journey, and as to whether the film templated the series or vice versa. Barry Gray’s excellent and multi-textured score opens with the four-note refrain of his theme for UFO, but was that a residual appearance or a ‘jotting’ that he developed later for the TV series?
It matters little, since these are curiosities rather than complaints; UFO had sky-high production values and so does Journey, and the most interesting common ground between the two projects remains the bleak ending/s and the slight flirtation with the acid-induced imagery and mind-fucks of 2001. Journey belongs in the collection of any enthusiast of sci-fi films, and if it’s only as a curiosity, it’s none the worse for that. Are we not geeks?
A great disappointment, as there are none beyond the trailer. A commentary from Gerry Anderson would have been very welcome, along with a documentary or out-take footage.
[This UK (Pal) version runs at 98 minutes as opposed to the 104-minute version submitted to the BBFC at the time of the film’s release. Allowing for the 4% loss in video-conversion, and in the absence of details on the matter, one can guess that minor snips for violence/nudity typical of the BBFC at the time have not been restored here.]
Journey To The Far Side Of The Sun is released today.