Tuesday, December 11, 2007

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Journey to the Far Side of the Sun (1969)

Journey To The Far Side of the Sun (British title: Doppelganger) was a perennial on WABC Channel 7''s 4:30 pm movie in the mid-to-late 1970s, and as such, an early fascination both for me and my sister. To this day, you can ask my sister about that strange science fiction movie from her youth in which a man removes his eyeball in a red-lit darkroom, or pile-drives his wheelchair into a mirror, and get a visceral response out of her.

This film arises from the stable of British producers Gerry and Sylvia Anderson, who from 1968 to 1975 - a period which encompasses this film, the TV series UFO and the first season of Space:1999 - developed their own signature brand of creepy, speculative tech-horror. What does that brand entail, precisely? It's a simple equation, really: high-tech gadgetry galore (created with an eye towards scientific accuracy, and with elaborate, state-of-the-art costumes, props and miniatures...), a focus on the near future "space age" (which apparently was to occur soon after the 1960s...), and then a macabre, deeply disturbing "twist" that exposes the nature of the universe as being something much less than benevolent. Personally, it's one of my favorite types of drama, and Journey to the Far Side of the Sun is a potent mix of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), the James Bond films of the Connery era, and even a little bit of Planet of the Apes (1968). In other words, the film has one foot in the future, one foot in the espionage film craze of the 1960s...and a third foot (!) on the surface of a distant planet where things are off-kilter.

Journey To The Far Side of the Sun dramatizes the story of EuroSec, a European space agency run by the hard-driving Jason Webb (Patrick Wymark), a man who is determined to launch a second Sun Probe to examine a new planet discovered in the solar system, one that we can't observe from Earth because it is constantly on the opposite side of the sun. The first Sun Probe snapped images of the alien world using its "cine camera" and brought back to Earth the "first photographic evidence" of the heretofore undetected planet. This discovery is vetted in a sequence that forecasts today's video-conferencing capability, with Webb making an address and visual presentation to EuroSec members across the globe.

It's here in the story that Gerry and Sylvia Anderson offer one of their trademark themes and motifs, which is one not often featured in science fiction movies, probably because it isn't fun. They present here the notion and plot point that space travel is damn expensive and that it requires a huge amount of funding. This also plays out in Space:1999 episodes such as "Dragon's Domain" and in several UFO episodes, which feature Commander Straker going before the unimpressed faces of bureaucracy to request more funds for SHADO. Again, I see this as a bow to reality and accuracy, and in Journey to the Far Side of the Sun, Webb is able to afford to build the Phoenix - the rocket bound for the alien world - only with the support of NASA;s representative (Ed Bishop!) and the American government. However, there are stipulations. EuroSec will get the money, but an American - Colonel Glenn Ross (Roy Thinnes) - will have to command the mission. Poor Glenn Ross has Earthbound problems to contend with too; he's not able to conceive a child with his go-go booted, sexy wife, and she believes it is due to space radiation. "You went up there a man, but you came back less than a man," she tells him. Nice.

Ross is the "world's most experienced astronaut," and his partner on the six week trip to the new world is the Earth's "leading scientist," John Kane (Ian Hendry). Together, these men train for the mission, and the film follows every detail of the process. From there, we are treated to sweepings shots of rockets on launch pads (courtesy of special effects wizard Derek Medding), pans across vast mission control centers and intense close-ups of space-suited astronauts ready to commence the mission. Through it all, Journey to the Far Side of the Sun offers the aura of can-do, Apollo-Age optimism and futurism. This was a world where man had just landed on the moon and where space travel - despite bureaucratic kerfuffles and expense - was just around the corner...as are shattering discoveries about the nature of the universe itself.

Three weeks into the interplanetary mission (three weeks early...), and following a trippy "sleep" sequence of spinning colors (orange, blue and yellow) and electronic peaks and valleys seemingly inspiring by 2001's Stargate sequence, the film's plot takes a major turn. The astronauts arrive at the alien planet (via the crash of a landing vehicle...) only to discover that they have actually returned to Earth. In a splendid sequence that begins with miniature effects, pyrotechnics and impressive stunt work, the audience is tricked into believing that the astronauts are being captured by monstrous aliens. There's sound, light and strange helmeted figures. But it's just a rescue team from China; the rescuers adorned in state-of-the-art "sea and air" rescue suits.

But something doesn't sit right with Glenn Ross as he convalesces on what he believes to be his planet. For one thing, he has no memory of having turned back to Earth, and the three week flight period seems all wrong. Worse, he feels disoriented. His house's layout is completely reversed, clocks are running backwards, and words read from right to left, not left to right. Cars even appear to be driving on the wrong side of the street. Before long, Ross is aware of a physiological aberration too: medical tests reveal that he and Kane have hearts on the wrong sides of their chests!

What Glen Ross soon proposes to Jason Webb is staggering (and bizarre): "a complete duplication of matter...except that it's in reverse." In other words, the planet on the far side of the sun is Earth's exact reflection, with all the same people, all the same countries, all the same problems. There is a physical connection between the worlds in that "one is the mirror image of the other," but otherwise they are separated by thousands of miles. Now before anyone complains how scientifically inaccurate this concept sounds, I should pause to note that I read an article last May in which scientists posited that somewhere in this vast universe, it is indeed likely that each and every one of us has an identical twin. Weird, huh? Well, that's the idea of Journey to the Far Side of the Sun. Without being overbearing about the idea, the film is creepy because it subtly asks questions regarding this unusual premise. What if there were two of you? Of me? What if everyone here on Earth had an exact duplicate? Would that fact take away from our own sense of identity? From the uniqueness of the individual? Could we claim Earth is the center of the universe (and center of God's universe), if across the solar system was a second Earth, exact in every way save that the polarity of electricity isn't reversed? If you are on a different planet and see your wife, isn't true that you've never actually "met" her? Because this is your wife's reflection, not the being you know (even if you share the same memories). It's mind-boggling if you think about it.

The climax of the film involves Ross's desperate attempt to return to his "Earth" and it ends in ultimate disaster for everyone at EuroSec, paving the way for an epilogue in which an elderly Jason Webb - wheelchair bound and debilitated by heart disease - ponders the very questions I ask above. He spies his reflection, his double in a wall-sized mirror and reaches out for it. It is just out of reach, and he begins racing for it...an attempt to touch the unknown, to understand the self, to bring together two opposites. To say the end of the film is "shattering" is putting it mildly, and a bad pun. Sorry.

Certainly, there will be those among us who gaze at Journey at the Far Side of the Sun and decry the deliberate, methodical pace (a trait it shares in common with Kubrick's Space Odyssey). In our day and age, we've become accustomed to shock cutting, myriad close-ups, and the whiz-bang pace of films like The Matrix or Star Wars. By contrast, this film is perhaps a relic of an earlier, less adrenaline-addicted age. This movie literally wallows in the details and minutiae (but also the beauty...) of space travel. It attempts to methodically and prcisely capture the details of the endeavor, from its accurate depiction of weightlessness to the impact of G-forces on the fragile human body. I'm afraid this is the kind of thing that movies today just don't have the time for. CGI monstrosities and vistas have made us forget about the wonders of our age: rocket launches, weightlessness, the view of Earth from space. Just show me drooling monsters, please...

In fact, I'll go further. I believe that Journey to the Far Side of the Sun attempted, along with 2001: A Space Odyssey to craft a new cinematic lexicon, to depict - literally - the poetry of the space age; a future where machines were not only functional...but actually beautiful....masterpieces of the human imagination and spirit. The opening of Robert Wise's The Andromeda Strain (1971) accomplished the same thing a few years later, but there is a gorgeous montage at the opening of this film, an Information Age credits sequence which plays high-tech gadgetry and electronics to Barry Gray's lush, orchestral store. In swooning close-up we get a collage of spinning tape wheels, beeping indicator lights, rolling print-outs and computer punch-out cards. Outdated? Perhaps, but strangely lyrical, and this sequence reveals the pre-Microsoft mainstream meme on computers: that they are our creations and that they will make human life easier. Or as Jason Webb states late in the film: "never distrust a computer." Obviously, he's never seen the blue screen of death, which may be even more frightening than confronting one's doppelganger in the mirror.

Another beautiful image in the film: as the Phoenix arrives at the duplicate Earth, there's a gorgeous shot of the space capsule cruising from the darkness of interplanetary space into the golden illumination of sunlight in planetary orbit. It's convincing in a way that we are not accustomed to today, in the era of CGI. There's a sense of real bodies and machines in motion; not merely digital cartoons "animated" on the screen. There's an artistry here that is different from computer programming.

Journey to the Far Side of the Sun proved a dry run of sorts for UFO, which re-used props, vehicles and costumes from the film, and another reason to love it (if you are so inclined) is the manner in which ithe production fetishizes both space program and secret agent gadgetry. The film opens with a spy getting into the EuroSec vault. His glass eyeball is actually a miniature camera (!), and in a great, amusing sequence, we see the agent remove his eye, develop the photographs, and display them on a wall. In glorious, obsessive detail, the audience is treated to several views of the machine doing its work until we are left to conclude that the implausible has been made absolutely plausible. That's a trademark of the Andersons too, I would say.

Directed by Robert Parrish from a screenplay by the Andersons and Donald James, and lensed with an eye towards detail by John Read, Journey to the Far Side of the Sun is surely a tech's wet dream. We see that Webb wears a watch that monitors his heart and triggers an alarm if he has a cardiac irregularity. Dick Cheney could probably use one of those. Later, the film gives us great shots of rockets on launch pads, capsules in space, and most impressively of all, a botched docking maneuver that is absolutely convincing down to the most minute detail. Not fast-paced, mind you, just very...right. This is part and parcel of the Anderson mystique and magic, if you ask me (and present in spades in UFO and Space:1999). Though some viewers are easily (and understandably) bored with the focus on technology and what it does, this obsession with the details brings a reality and versimilitude to the world absent from a lot of televised and filmed sci-fi.

Believability; optimism, tech-poetry, and a shattering discovery about the universe: these are the hallmarks of Journey to the Far Side of the Sun, and one of the reasons I have admired the film since I was a youth. You may insert your own "wooden" joke here about the performances, since critics find it irresistible, apparently, to comment on the Andersons' history with puppets and supermarionation. Yet in my eyes, the performances here (as on Space:1999) are perfect. These are scientists and astronauts and engineers doing a job, facing crises with poise and skill and intelligence. Must they also showcase emotional histrionics and soap opera antics? Another part of the Anderson mystique - and the part most often criticized by critics, I should add - is this depiction of man as a balanced, intelligent and curious creature facing the mysteries of outer space with all his intellectual gifts intact and at the forefront. In its very British way, Journey to the Far Side of the Sun is both scary and subtle; both intelligent and poetic. It isn't a perfect film, and it isn't a classic, but it is a very good science fiction phantasm, and one with distinctive, unforgettable images and a great twist.


  1. Thanks for sitting down and doing all this writing. I saw the move once in the 1970s, but still recall some bits of it. I loved the attention to detail, but the bleak, dreadful, cold view of sci fi adventure led me to feel bleak, dreadful, etc. I thought your comments were insightful, and maybe I'll watch the thing again.

  2. I loved the miniature work in this, I did a job recently for a Breakfast Cereal commercial that required a rocket on a gantry and I watched this through to get some inspiration. I love the fact that I mentioned here on one of my Blog's that Gerry Anderson shows always had cool buildings that lowered into the ground ! A very cool post about this film, cheers !