Italian space opera Battle of the Worlds arrives on Blu-ray for the first time
Italian science fiction, specifically Italian science fiction of the 1960s, holds a curious, often overlooked place in the genre. For English speakers, language — or more often, poorly dubbed dialogue — has been a barrier to truly appreciating the contributions of Italian filmmakers to the genre. Though that’s one possible obstacle or bar for English speakers, budget or lack thereof, and a propensity for throwing wildly incongruous elements into the mix also play a part in the general devaluation of Italian science fiction as unworthy of serious or even unserious critical examination. For the adventurous, intriguing, or slightly disinterested, however, Italian science fiction has more than its fair share of fascinatingly worthwhile, if often flawed, contributions to a genre typically dominated by English-language entries.
A generic War of the Worlds’ knockoff hampered by budget and screenwriting limitations, Battle of the Worlds (l Pianeta degli uomini spenti [Planet of the Lifeless Men]) doesn’t qualify as an overall must-see or even a second-tier effort, but it does have more than a few charms or pleasures on its side, beginning with applause-worthy commitment by a late-career Claude Rains (Casablanca, The Wolfman, The Invisible Man) as a best-in-class, ultra-cantankerous scientist, Professor Benson, who repeatedly claims he’s on the side of right, if not might, and through the course of Battle of the Worlds’ running time, does, in fact, come correct, much to the displeasure and/or chagrin of the other scientists around him and the so-called “Big Wigs” who constantly try to rein him in.
It’s the greenhouse-dwelling Benson who first figures out that the “Outsider,” a foreign body of some uncertain magnitude, has arrived in our solar system with ill intent. While the other scientists, including young Dr. Fred Steele (Umberto Orsini) and his sometime girlfriend, Eve Barnett (Maya Brent), also arrive at the same conclusion about the veracity of the Outsider’s presence and general course heading, it’s Benson who, in true prophetic mode, sees danger in the arrival. Where Benson expects a possible extinction-level-event, everyone else sees a near-miss and a minor inconvenience to Earth’s higher life forms.
Benson, though, isn’t quite right, though he’s also quick to surmise that the extra-solar planet headed for Earth isn’t just an errant, if not consciously directed, body, but one guided and directed by an intelligent species. The direct references to When Worlds Collide, Battle of the Worlds’ predecessor by a decade, give way to both War of the Worlds and more closely in time, Ray Harryhausen’s Earth vs. the Flying Saucers, up to and including the shape and movement of the aliens’ spaceships. Novelty finally arrives, however, in the final moments when Benson, separated for the first time from his island retreat, dons a futuristic spacesuit and ventures to the unnamed planet and, more importantly, its interior.
While what Benson and a cast of mostly Italian actors essaying badly underdeveloped roles find won’t be spoiled here, it’s almost enough to salvage an otherwise stagnant, talk-heavy science fiction entry filled with half a dozen good ideas mixed with rushed, sometimes shoddy execution. A romance between Fred and Eva introduced in the first moments goes mostly nowhere, though there’s a potentially fascinating element in Eva’s decision to choose her platonic relationship with Benson (being close to greatness and all) over the dull, unpromising one with Fred.
Battle of the Worlds also introduces a third side to the initial Fred-Eva relationship, an older woman, Mrs. Collins (Carol Danell), hilariously introduced in a black robe early on and referenced as a “black widow” who ends up perpetually on coffee duty, a role that emphasizes the causal sexism and misogyny typical of the era and Italian genre films. Outside of Benson and the “heroic” commander, Bob Cole (Bill Carter), of various space missions, the male characters don’t fare much better, used primarily to advance a sketchy, underdeveloped story before being asked to react onscreen to a barrage of visual effects that toggle between the barely passable for the era to the exact opposite.
Directed with competent anonymity by genre veteran Antonio Margheriti (Seven Deaths in the Cat’s Eyes, Duck, You Sucker!, War Between the Planets), Battle of the Worlds remains at best curio or artifact of a specific time and place in Italian science fiction. For Margheriti’s part, he would go onto to direct one of the indisputable highlights of Italian science fiction, The Wild Wild Planet (I criminali della galassia), just five years later.
Battle of the Worlds has been released in a sparklingly new Blu-ray via the Film Detective from a 4K scan of an original 35mm archival print. It’s never looked better and likely never will better. The Blu-ray also features full-length commentary by film historian Justin Humphrey and an illuminating essay by Margheriti expert Don Stradley, the author of Margheriti’s World.