In the 1960s, pretty much nobody could touch Gerry Anderson. He had pioneered the Supermarionation format of television programmes in the UK with action/sci-fi series like Supercar, Stingray, Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons and his most famous output, Thunderbirds. These shows used marionette puppets as the characters, which is a bit silly, but also utilized some fantastic model work for special effects.
So, in 1969, riding high on all of these TV series’ success, ITC president Lew Grade (always credited as Lord Grade, cuz he was a Lord) agreed to finance a live-action feature film that Gerry and his wife Sylvia Anderson would co-produce and write. The result was Journey to the Far Side of the Sun (a/k/a Doppelgänger), a movie that’s basically a Supermarionation movie without puppet people.
This is certainly one of the strangest and most 1960s-ish movies I’ve ever seen. But this makes perfect sense; Anderson’s programmes before and after were always desperately of their time despite being set in the future or elsewhere. But what sets this movie apart immediately isn’t that everybody wears turtlenecks and super-mod sunglasses, but that it looks exactly like a Supermarionation program, right down to color scheme and type of scenery and vehicle choices. It’s like they shrunk down humans and put them in one of those shows.
Though directed by American for-hire director Robert Parrish (whose only film I’ve heard of besides this one is Casino Royale in 1967), it has the trappings of Gerry Anderson all over it.
The plot is super-duper convoluted, and I think a lot of it comes from Gerry and Sylvia writing episodic television for so long. It feels like it goes in cycles.
Anyway, the plot. The European Space Exploration Council (EUROSEC) has sent up a probe to orbit the Sun called, are you ready, Project Sun Probe. The probe locates an object, a planet, orbiting the sun in a pattern such that we have never seen it before. A new planet! Unfortunately, EUROSEC scientist Dr. Kurt Hassler (Herbert Lom) is selling information to the Eastern Block and now the Soviets now about it. (Lom is an actor people recognize, but he gets killed pretty much immediately.) EUROSEC’s director Jason Webb (Patrick Wymark) wants to hurry and get the West to the planet first, so he makes a deal with NASA to send up one British astrophysicist named Dr. Kane (Ian Hendry), the man in charge of the Sun Probe project, and seasoned U.S. astronaut Colonel Glen Ross (Roy Thinnes, famous for being the lead in the sci-fi TV series The Invaders).
After an expedited training process for Kane, the crew are ready to go. The mission is only supposed to take six weeks, beginning to end. That makes me laugh a lot.
After being in suspended animation for two weeks, Kane and Ross awaken and see the new planet, which looks eerily familiar. They can’t quite get the readings they need so they decide to land on it. Their lander crashes on the rocky terrain and Kane is badly injured. They’re soon discovered by someone… it’s a Mongolian rescue worker. How are they back on Earth already? It’s only been three weeks? With Kane in the infirmary, Ross is questioned about why he abandoned the mission, which he maintains he didn’t and that something weird is going on. He’s also having trouble seeing things properly. Everything looks backward. When Kane dies, an autopsy reveals that all of his internal organs are on the opposite side of his body, mirrored. Ross then realizes that maybe it’s not he who’s seeing things backwards. Maybe the other planet is an exact mirror of Earth and the mirror-world’s Colonel Ross is on regular-world’s Earth right now. But why? Well, the movie never really answers that, but Ross does make a new rocket, dubbed Doppelgänger, to try to go back.
Before I get too much further, I do want to say that I really enjoyed this movie, though it really doesn’t feel like a regular movie. Things happen in a strange pacing order and then are wrapped up quickly. The whole beginning of the movie is about Dr. Kane and the clandestine nature of Webb’s deal-making to try to get the manned mission off the ground. He sends the EUROSEC security chief to kill Dr. Hassler, which he does, and it seems like nobody ever finds out that Hassler’s killed or who did it. It’s very strange. Ian Hendry was the big British star in the movie and he is set up to be the main character for most of the beginning and then he dies with like 40 minutes left. So much time is spent getting the mission up and running, but getting to the far side of the Sun isn’t what the movie’s actually about; it’s about Ross discovering the new planet is a mirror world. It really feels like the Andersons had scripts for a new TV show and they just condensed them into a feature. None of it’s bad, particularly, it just doesn’t feel like a cohesive plot line.
What I love about the movie is the design elements and the amazing special effects work. Derek Meddings had worked with Gerry Anderson as the model maker and special effects guy on the TV shows for a number of years, and he was promoted to Special Effects Director from Stingray forward. For Journey to the Far Side of the Sun, he was similarly the Special Effects director, and there’s a lot of them. Every wide shot of a base, every shot of the rocket or other flying implement, the planet, space itself, and even some of the backgrounds in the movie were all Meddings’ models. While they certainly look a lot like Thunderbirds (meaning toys), I think they’re gorgeous and I’d watch more movies like that any time.
Meddings went on to do special effects for bigger movies including all four of the James Bond films in the ’70s that starred Roger Moore, the final of those, Moonraker, was nominated for Best Special Effects at the Oscars.
There are also some interesting character beats amid the strange plot. Col. Ross is set up to be a career astronaut whose work means he’s in space for several months out of the year. He has a wife (Lynn Loring) who has a bit of resentment to her husband and it’s implied that all his time in space has made him impotent and he hasn’t been able to give her the children she wants. That’s pretty heavy stuff for 1969 sci-fi fantasy. There’s also an attraction between Kane and Lise Hartman, a EUROSEC official portrayed by Austrian actress Loni von Friedl, and though this romance isn’t realized in the final film, it’s interesting to see her then be somewhat tender toward Ross following Kane’s death. All of this was in an effort to separate Anderson’s image from that of a maker of children’s entertainment.
Journey to the Far Side of the Sun is a perfect example of late-’60s British popcorn fare overseen by one of the best showmen and interesting sci-fi writers of the day. If you can overlook the lopsided screenplay, you end up with a pretty gorgeous and weird mixture of grown-up ideas and kids show visuals. And, hey, if you’re a classic Doctor Who fan, you can catch Nicholas Courtney, who played the Brigadier, in a small role, and perennial villain Philip Madoc in a slightly larger one.
I’d recommend this movie, for mirror purposes.