Friday, June 02, 2017

The Films of 1969: Journey to the Far Side of the Sun

From Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey until George Lucas’s Star Wars (1977) the space film genre -- in film and on television -- evidenced a deep belief in man’s capacity to tame the solar system, and offered a realistic rather than glamorous portrayal of man himself. 

In other words, man’s technology had improved to the point where (near) space could be conquered, but humanity itself remained as venal, as grasping, as competitive, and as conflicted as ever. 

Another film from the same milieu is Journey to the Far Side of the Sun (British title: Doppelganger).  This science fiction film was a perennial on WABC Channel 7’s 4:30 pm movie in the New York market during the mid-to-late 1970's, and as such, represented an early obsession both for me and my older sister.

To this day, you can likely ask my sister about that strange science fiction movie from the 1970's in which a man removes his eyeball in a red-lit darkroom, or another man pile-drives his wheelchair into a mirror, and get a visceral response from her about the imagery.

Beyond those personal memories, Journey to the Far Side of the Sun arises from the impressive stable of British producers Gerry and Sylvia Anderson, and seems a perfect representation of their brand in its glory days.

And what does that brand entail, precisely?

It's a simple three-part formula, really. 

The gadgetry and miniatures.

First, the typical Anderson production boasts high-tech gadgetry galore, created with an eye towards scientific accuracy, and with elaborate, state-of-the-art costumes, sets, props, and miniatures. 

Near future man on the cusp of space exploration.
Secondly, said production showcases a narrative focus on the near future "space age,” when man is not yet so “evolved” that he is unrecognizable as man.  In the Anderson canon, stories often occur just as turn-of-the-century man is taking his first footsteps into the solar system at large.  The advantage of this setting is its appeal to the young.  I’m a perfect example, I suppose.  I was captivated by Journey to the Far Side of the Sun and Space: 1999 at a young age, and believed that such futures were possible -- nay probable -- in my life time.

The Mystery.
And finally, the perfect Anderson production highlights, a macabre, deeply disturbing "twist" that exposes the nature of the universe as something beyond modern man’s capacity to conceive or conquer.  In space, we are confronted with a realm where there are no easy answers, no pat solutions.

For example, in UFO (1970), we learn that aliens are harvesting our organs. In Space: 1999 (1975 – 1977), the moon is blasted out of Earth’s orbit and sent careening into a universe of monsters and mysticism that 20th century man is psychologically and technologically unprepared to encounter.

Personally, the Anderson creative formula represents one of my favorite types of storytelling, and Journey to the Far Side of the Sun is a potent, crisply-edited declaration of all the ingredients I tallied above.   It is a sharp -- and often unsettling -- 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) tossed in for good measure.

The explicit premise of Journey to the Far Side of the Sun is that there exists beyond the sun a “mirror” world.  It is a heretofore-hidden planet and a reverse “copy” of Earth. 

As the movie explains, all the matter here on our Earth has been “duplicated” there on that planet, but in reversed fashion, much like you’d see while gazing into the mirror.  Accordingly, Journey to the Far Side of the Sun supports its theme by featuring a number of compositions involving mirrors or other reflective surface.  I find this visual approach quite intelligent, and the leitmotif of mirrors forecasts a brilliant line of dialogue spoken in Solaris (1972) a few years later: “We don’t need other worlds, we need a mirror.”

In Journey to the Far Side of the Sun, an American astronaut, Glen Ross (Roy Thinnes), and the men and women of a European version of NASA called EUROSEC discover that very mirror, and in the end knowledge of that mirror (and that world) drives at least one man, Jason Webb (Patrick Wymark) insane. 

What remains delightful about this fact is that the movie leaves the exact reasons for Webb’s insanity open to interpretation, as we shall see.

Beyond the creepy idea of a world identical to ours, but in reverse, Journey to The Far Side of the Sun impresses due to a few other key factors. 

First, the film climaxes with an unrelentingly grim final act, and an uncompromising, bleak finale.  You can’t make the claim the movie lacks the courage of its convictions.  There is no ameliorating Hollywood bullshit to make serviceable the possibility of a happy ending (see: Oblivion [2013]) here.

And secondly, the film’s Anderson-esque approach to space travel -- basically that it’s a dangerous and expensive enterprise -- makes the whole film feel incredibly grounded, and therefore incredibly believable.  One of the film’s main protagonists, the aforementioned Webb, is downright Machiavellian in his manner of getting things done.  He’s on the side of the angels, but his methods aren’t exactly…nice.

Journey to the Far Side of the Sun remains a dazzling head-trip from an era (and team) that believed space travel was inevitable, but one that proves --- because of the meticulous nature of the production -- both compelling and scarily believable, even in 2014.

 “You wouldn’t want anyone else to get there first, would you?”

Journey To The Far Side of the Sun dramatizes the story of EUROSEC, a European space agency run by the hard-driving Jason Webb (Wymark), a man determined to launch a space mission to examine a new planet discovered in the solar system, one that we can't observe from Earth.

The recently launched 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.

Because a space flight to the new planet will cost a billion dollars, America and NASA are brought in to share the cost of the journey.  An American astronaut and the first man on Mars, Colonel Glen Ross (Thinnes) will command the mission.  At home, however, Ross is facing more earthbound problems. He has not been able to conceive a child with his sexy but harsh wife -- the daughter of an ambitious American politician -- who tells him his sterility is due to his work in space.

“You went up there a man, but you came back less than a man,” she snipes.

Going along with Glen on the mission is John Kane (Ian Hendry), a British astrophysicist who has never been to space before. Together, these men train for the arduous six week mission and the film follows every detail of the process. From there, the audience is treated to sweeping shots of colossal 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.

When Ross and Kane reach the distant planet, their lander crashes on the surface and Kane suffers devastating life-threatening injuries. But Ross awakes to find himself on Earth…or a duplicate of Earth where everything – including the writing -- is reversed. 

After several interrogations by EUROSEC, Ross is able to convince the alternate version of Jason Webb of the truth: he completed his mission successfully, and now he stands on an alien world.  Just as another Ross – originating from this world -- is now talking to a “mirror image” or doppelganger of Webb on Glen’s Earth.

Webb and Ross devise a plan to get him home, but a miscalculation involving the polarity of electricity scuttles the mission, killing Ross and nearly destroying EUROSEC in the process.

Years or perhaps decades later, later a defeated Webb -- an old, very sick man -- gazes in a mirror at a rest home, and reaches out longingly for the mirror image there…

“How much is it going to cost us this time?”

Journey to the Far Side of the Sun is dominated, oddly enough, by discussions of money. Jason Webb is the head of EUROSEC, and a man who finds himself a beggar, asking for money to further man’s scientific frontiers. 

French, German, and American members of EUROSEC are not impressed by his proposal to land men on the distant, newly discovered planet, and tell him so. 

How much is it going to cost us this time?” asks one character. 

A realistic estimate?” queries another. 

“Such a sum is out of the question!” declares a third council member, when talk of a billion dollars is bandied about.

The point here I suppose is, well, when was the last time the Emperor asked Darth Vader how much it would cost to build another Death Star? 

That’s not a dig at Star Wars so much as an acknowledgment that many popular space or science fiction franchises simply ignore matters of money or the economy because their creators assume that such talks are boring, or out of place in science fiction drama.   

I would argue a different tact: discussions of space travel economics tend to make futuristic productions seem more realistic, and that’s an important task when you consider that -- nestled at the far side of the sun -- there exists a mirror planet housing duplicates of every single one of us. 

It helps us to accept the unbelievable, in other words, if we know the rest of the story is, actually, grounded in recognizable reality.

When he must solicit funding from the Americans for his mission, Webb must also compromise and accept an American commanding officer for the task.  He is willing to make this accommodation because he understands the importance of the space flight. Again, what is being showcased quite explicitly in Journey to the Far Side of the Sun is the horse-trading of politics.   It’s not romantic and it isn’t pretty, but again, it’s true to who we are as a species.

Some of Webb’s compromises are much more distasteful, however, and that’s a realistic touch too. 

For instance, Webb knows there is a security leak at EUROSEC and, at least tacitly, allows information about the new planet to be leaked to Europe’s enemies (presumably The Soviet Union or Red China…) so as to get the Americans on his side for the mission.  He has the spy (Herbert Lom) killed, but not before the leak occurs.

Because now he can taunt the Americans with being second-best. “You wouldn’t want anyone else to get there first, would you?”

Mission accomplished.  The only thing that could get us to Mars tomorrow is the knowledge that Putin is trying to get there today.

This idea of space travel as a political and expensive game also plays out in Space: 1999 episodes such as "Dragon's Domain" and in several UFO episodes, wherein Commander Straker (Ed Bishop) must go before the unimpressed faces of bureaucracy to request more funds for SHADO.

Again, I view such discussion of politics and money as a necessary 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 because he knows how to play the political money game better than anyone else does.

In Moon Zero Two, we saw how big money was “civilizing” the moon and squashing personal freedom.  Here we see how money is a necessary evil if space is to be explored.  It’s the other fuel source that powers our rockets, our moon bases, and so on.

Outside this acknowledgment of reality in a genre that is often given to wild flights of fancy, Journey to the Far Side of the Sun is resolutely creepy because it subtly asks vital questions regarding its unusual “doppelganger” premise.

What if there were two versions of you? What if everyone here on Earth had an exact duplicate there, on the other world?

Would the existence of that duplicate take away from our own senses of individuality and identity?  Would society collapse?

Could we still claim that Earth is the center of the universe (and center of God's universe), if just across the solar system existed a second Earth, exact in every way?

The climax of the film involves an elderly Jason Webb -- wheelchair bound and debilitated by heart disease -- pondering, no doubt, the very questions I ask above. He spies his reflection -- his double -- in a wall-sized mirror and reaches out for it.  His “other self” is just out of reach, and he begins racing for attempt to touch the unknown, to understand the self, to bring together two opposites.

So has Jason gone mad because he can’t truly encounter his other self?

Or is he insane because he now possesses knowledge of that other self’s existence, and information that, therefore, he is no longer the singular creation he believed himself to be?

Or finally, is the reflection in the mirror simply a notation, a deadly reminder, that he lost his greatest game?  He never got back to that planet.  He never succeeded. 

When Jason reaches out so desperately, is he trying to strangle the memory of his greatest failure? Or accomplish by touch that which rockets could not: intimate interface with the other world?

I love that Journey to the Far Side of the Sun literally boasts a smashing ending, but also one open to many interpretations.  

The leitmotif of doubling or reflections builds splendidly to this emotional pay-off.  Throughout the film, we see reflections in ponds, and even the imaginary “other” Ross as he delivers his theory of doppelgangers to Jason. 

In the end, Jason is near death, and he must reckon with the knowledge that the universe is far more bizarre than he could have imagined.  His final act is one of exploration failed.  And that’s a mirror image of the Phoenix’s failure. In the end, the mirror is shattered, and contact with the other planet is not made.

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 blockbuster films. By contrast, this film is perhaps a relic of an earlier, less adrenaline-addicted age.

To enhance its sense of reality, Journey to the Far Side of the Sun literally wallows in the details and minutiae (but also the beauty...) of space travel. It attempts to methodically and precisely 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 anymore. CGI monstrosities and vistas have made us forget about the wonders of our own age: rocket launches, weightlessness, or the view of Earth from space.

Even the opening credits of Journey to the Far Side of the Sun seem to boast this love of technology.  We are treated to multitudinous shots of spinning tape reels, the digits on computer punch cards, whirring teletype machines, and other touches that don’t exactly seem “romantic.”  And yet there is a real beauty to them too as they are presented in montage form alongside Barry Gray’s soaring sound-track.  In the early 1970s, Robert Wise adopted a similar approach with the credits of The Andromeda Strain, making them a brand of computerized art-form.  One can sense the same idea at work here: Our technology is our doorway to other worlds, other experiences, and it is, in a way, quite beautiful.

That idea of beauty, of course, is countered, in the film’s finale, when man makes a mistake with his technology, and disaster blossoms.  But still, there are moments in Journey to the Far Side of the Sun that veritably promise a golden age of space travel and space technology. These moments still have the capacity to inspire.

I’ll be writing more about this idea in the weeks ahead, but I’ve always believed it was a bum rap that Anderson programs and films got tagged with the description of “wooden.”  On the contrary, the characters and the presentation of the characters in Journey to the Far Side of the Sun are realistic, and multi-dimensional.  There’s an administrator who is fighting for the side of good, but does bad to get the job done.  There’s an astronaut who gets hosannas from the world, but only raw hatred from his wife at home.  There’s a EUROSEC security chief who is a beautiful female, and yet doesn’t feel the need to be butch or bullying, or even domineering.  Instead, she is gentle and kind.  Every one of these characters shows the inherent contradictions and surprises that humanity is capable of.

There’s a perfect scene here, too, that expresses this notion. 

It occurs right before the Phoenix lifts off.  The scene is set in Mission Control at EUROSEC, and all the sounds of computers and intercoms go silent for a moment, replaced with the solitary pulse of a human heart-beat

This sudden, unexpected, living beat reminds the viewer that we -- the human race -- are at the center of all this technology.  Humanity is what makes space exploration possible.  We may make mistakes, we may miscalculate, but our heart-beat is at the very center of things, making all accomplishments possible. 

In short, this scene is a perfect metaphor for the movie itself.

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