Outer outer space

From Turkish Star Wars to Phantom Planet -- "Starship Vortex" sci-fi flick series dwells in forgotten netherworlds of cosmic fantasy

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Planet weird: eyes, teeth, and robot parts collide in 1967's Mission Stardust

FILM Nothing dates faster than yesterday's futurism. Yet particularly at a moment when half the country seems bent on ordering us back to the past — a past that might variably be identified as the Victorian era, the Inquisition, and the Dark Ages — there is something comforting in revisiting old visions of the future. For the next seven Thursdays the Vortex Room boldly goes a few places you've probably been before, several that earn brownie points for foreknowledge, and others that separate the sci-fi nerd from the sci-fi mega scholar.

The familiar titles are still on the cultish side, like the intentional-camp nirvana created by a double bill of 1980's Flash Gordon and 1968's Barbarella. Likewise on the spoofy side is John Carpenter's 1974 feature debut, Dark Star. Also fairly famous is horror specialist Mario Bava's 1965 Planet of the Vampires, a gorgeous color nightmare.

But the rest of the "Starship Vortex" series dwells in forgotten netherworlds of cosmic fantasy from the advanced minds of Italian and Danish exploitationists, as well as Communist bloc filmmakers with higher budgets and less strictly-commercial aims. The sole all-Yank effort here is also the earliest, 1961's endearing The Phantom Planet, whose brave new universe of 1980 finds an ever-belligerent Ugly American astronaut stranded among Lilliputians (who shrink him down to their size — the nerve!), whose females fight over this rugged lunk. The assertively bad acting, quaint FX, heavy (and heavy-handed) religious-philosophical overtones, dorky monster, and credit for "Electronic Space Equipment by Space Age Rentals" make this a classic of black and white sci-fi silliness.

On the other side of the Iron Curtain, however, people were taking space exploration very seriously — and no wonder, since the films were state funded, and the U.S.S.R.'s space program was one indisputable success in which (for a while) it even outpaced the West. Typically earnest was 1963's Czech Voyage to the End of the Universe. Satellite "town" Ikaria XB-1 and its 40 inhabitants are liberated from Earth orbit and sent to the closest star outside our solar system. There's much attention to interpersonal relationships (as well as scantily clad gymnastics in the exercise lounge — hey, fitness is important), and despite desultory suspense around radiation exposure, our interplanetary future ultimately looks bright.

Interestingly, an assumption shared by nearly all the features here is that any future enemies we faced would be from "out there." The inevitable sprinkling of jerks aside, humanity would have long since been joined in peace and prosperity by a one-government body à la the United Nations. Try floating that concept now.

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