The Phantom Planet
It’s not that I consider myself unique in this matter. In fact, I find I’m often in good company. However, when it comes to seeming generic contradictions I fail to see how they are mutually exclusive or, moreover, why one would be preferable to another. I’ll save the discussion of low art vs. high art and what boundary, if any, is between them for another time. No, today’s lecture on aesthetics has to do with science fiction or speculative fiction/sci fi/SF depending on how opinionated you are about naming the genre.
Among the more rabid of science fiction fans, the genre is divided into two camps: hard science fiction and soft science fiction. Hard science fiction is distinguished by a stricter adherence to the laws of physics, such that futuristic technologies and alien life-forms have to work/live in an internally consistent manner that obeys the laws of physics as we know it or with very minor deviations. Soft science fiction, on the other hand, is much less strict about obeying the laws of physics, leading to things like nuclear radiation giving people super powers and animals colossal size; it’s more explicitly fantastic, than scientific.
I have nothing against people’s preference for one genre over the other. If you don’t like Star Wars because it has weird magic stuff like the force, I’m not going to hold it against you; we can probably agree about midichlorians whether you’re a fan or not. However, the idea of debating whether hard science fiction or soft science fiction is better amuses and confuses me. I’ve loved science ever since my father first started teaching me about the world works; I developed a huge crush on physics when I read the illustrated Brief History of Time in middle school and high school, though it turned out to be an unrequited love in college. I like intellectual SF that examines the implications of certain physical principles; it helps that they make me feel smart. On the other hand, I also love my rampaging, irradiated insects and frozen zeppelin pilots unthawed in the 25th century. I must admit that I’ve probably seen more soft sci fi B-movies from the 50s and 60s than seen or read works of hard science fiction. Yet, I maintain that both sides of the genre have their merits. The ultimate objective of science fiction is to entertain, as with any other kind of fiction, and both extremes of hard and soft can do that. I’d argue that both can be intellectually stimulating as well, whether they’re speculating about how sapient robots would fit into human society or creating an allegory about the horrors of nuclear war in the guise of a giant creature like Godzilla. I won’t say that you have to love The Phantom Planet just because I do, but I will argue that it doesn’t deserve to be dismissed out of hand because it doesn’t know how to science (yes, I verbed the noun); if anything, failing to grasp how physics works is all part of its charm.
In the far-flung future of 1980, Captain Frank Chapman and Lieutenant Makonnen are searching for a ship that disappeared on a reconnaissance mission for the American Air Force. They go through a cluster of asteroids and the ship’s power is disabled by when it’s hit by floating debris. Chapman and Makonnen try to fix it, but daringly the space walk Chapman’s air hose is severed by a micrometeoroid. Makonnen saves his captain by putting him back in the ship, but Makonnen is killed when a micrometeoroid knocks him out into space and dislodges his air hose as well. The ship gets caught in the gravitational pull of a large asteroid, but it slowly descends instead of crashing, guided by some unknown source. Chapman exits the spaceship and finds tiny people running around on the asteroid; he faints from exhaustion and his helmet opens, causing him to shrink down to the size of the people. The tiny bring him to their home in the caves and Chapman learns that he’s on Rheton, an asteroid where atoms are very dense, which lets the Rhetonites control the force of gravity (somehow). The Rhetonites are somewhat primitive aliens, in that they live in caves and only allow themselves two pieces of advanced technology: a machine that controls gravity and a machine that converts chemicals into food; the phantom planet is barren, so they can’t grow crops. Chapman is forced to become a part of the Rhetonite society because they can’t risk their asteroid being discovered; they even jettison his ship into space so he can’t leave. There’s a huge consolation, however, because the leader Sessom introduces Chapman to his daughter Liara and the cute, mute Zetha with the promises that when he’s integrated into the society he can marry one of them. One of the Rhetonite, Herron, is in love with Liara and challenges Chapman to a duel over Liara. Chapman beats Herron, but spares his life and in return Herron offers to help Chapman escape the asteroid. Things seem to be going well until the Rhetonites are attacked by the Solarites, their mortal enemies. They manage to destroy the entire Solarite armada with a ‘gravity curtain,’ but one of the Solarites that they have imprisoned escapes. Chapman and Herron team up to kill the Solarite and save the Rhetonites. An Air Force ship is out looking for Chapman. Herron plans to pull the ship to the asteroid so they can rescue Chapman. Zetha is now able to speak and gives Chapman a token for her affection. He returns to his suit and once he breathes the air in his oxygen tank, he returns to his normal size; the atmosphere of the asteroid is what causes him to shrink in the first place. Chapman goes with his fellow astronauts back to the moon and notices that he still has the rock Zetha gave him as a keepsake, which proves that he wasn’t merely dreaming after he fainted.
The Phantom Planet works on all levels for me. It has a cheesy opening narration, model space ships, guys in rubber alien suits, spectacular failure of basic physics, a weird alien society, and 60s era space babes in skirts. The science is soft as mush, so to speak, but the movie is campy fun and it’s really hard to judge movies from this period on scientific accuracy because SF was largely regarded as kids’ stuff or dumb entertainment; science fiction, fantasy, and that ilk have gained far more credibility in the past couple decades, especially with the current crossover of ‘nerd culture’ into the mainstream. Nevertheless, half the fun of movies like this is pointing out the numerous failures of physics. For example, the asteroid has atmosphere; atoms are denser, that is their electron clouds are closer to the nucleus, than on earth; the denser atoms in the atmosphere makes it so that you can be only as big as the Rhetonites; meanwhile, breathing Earth oxygen makes you the size of a human, gravity can be controlled because atoms are denser; controlling gravity can be used to create force fields; Solarite ships are constantly on fire in space. I understand how physics failures can be annoying for a reader or viewer of science fiction in the same way poor grammar is annoying; it seems obsessive and pedantic to be bothered by it, but it’s like a glaring blight you can’t overlook. However, when a film breaks the laws of physics at every turn, it’s hilarious and makes the whole thing worth watching; humor is weird that way.
The film does bring up a few interesting ideas, but it doesn’t explore them nearly so well as I would like. The Phantom Planet is about a society that’s purposefully living a semi-Luddite life because they found that people tend to squabble when given an abundance of free time by time-saving technology. I completely disagree because I think free time gives people a chance to relax and enjoy life; too much unstructured free time can lead to aimlessness, but I don’t think it leads to civil unrest. Nevertheless, it would have been interesting to see if this little snub at modern convenience had been further explored. However, there are some hints that the Rhetonites backward ways aren’t entirely ideal. They’re still wholly dependent on the gravity machine for defense, one of the few pieces of advanced technology, which suggests that their ways, while good intentioned, are blind to the obvious need for technology. Furthermore, the scene where Chapman and Herron duel and the crowd calls for Herron’s death when Chapman beats him shows that Rhetonite society is kind of barbaric; whether that barbarism is a result of cultural regression from living in caves and doing without technology is left up to the viewer.
While The Phantom Planet isn’t particularly intellectual soft science fiction, it has a few interesting ideas floating around and a great many laughable ones that make it a fun, campy watch.