by Alexandre Paquin
"Plan 9 From Outer Space" (1958) is auteur Edward D. Wood, Jr.'s magnum opus, a masterpiece of early postmodernism.Real talent and bold originality often go unrecognized. We are reminded of auteurs Alfred Hitchcock, Stanley Kubrick, and Robert Altman's failure to win a competitive Academy Award; it is therefore another entirely predictable injustice that Wood, who wrote, directed, and produced the film, never won an Oscar, never was even nominated for one, and never obtained the recognition he deserves, even though "Plan 9 From Outer Space" is one of the most significant films of its era.
"Auteur Edward D. Wood, Jr.'s 'Plan 9 From Outer Space' Revisited."
At the basis of the story of Plan 9 is a mass-destruction weapon called the Solarmanite, which becomes, through Wood's masterly handling, a Hitchcockian MacGuffin, around which the plot inevitably revolves but which is in itself of little interest. Aliens from an undisclosed planet in the Solar System have come to Earth to prevent the discovery of the bomb, which, if used, would lead to the destruction of the universe. After having failed with eight plans, they now try to implement plan 9, which consists of resurrecting the dead to take over the planet. At the height of their power, the aliens control three such zombies: an old man (Bela Lugosi and his double), his wife (Vampira), and a deceased police inspector (Tor Johnson). Unfortunately, their plan is foiled by airline pilot Jeff Trent (Gregory Walcott), army colonel Tom Edwards (Tom Keene), and police inspector John Harper (Duke Moore). The influence of Wood upon auteur George A. Romero's Night of the Living Dead is obvious, but Wood's body of work is more far-reaching and politically inclined; in retrospect, he is closer to such a master as Kubrick than to Romero.
To quote Bela Lugosi playing the part of an omnipotent -- and inherently malevolent -- deity controlling human destiny (reminiscent of Mephistopheles in Faust) in Wood's largely autobiographical Glen or Glenda? (1953), the director is clearly "pulling the strings" of the film a frame at a time. Although the average cult movie lover would chuckle at the mention of "strings", in this context the word is not an ironic reference to the technological device which is the source of Plan 9's flying saucers' airborne capability -- in fact, if we do see the strings above the saucers in the film, it is as a deliberate reminder of the director's role in the orchestration and execution of the project, a loud and desperate plea for his recognition as a true auteur. The same applies to other special effects and the studio-bound sets, as well as to Lugosi's double after the famous actor's death. The substitution is obvious, as the double is significantly taller than Lugosi, but Wood, in his desire to demonstrate the power of illusion of the auteur over the audience, had the double keep his cape in front of his face for all his scenes. This decision is nothing less than brilliant, because it is effective while being apparent.
There was then the question of what to do with the Lugosi footage, which had been shot before Wood had a particular story in mind. Wood decided to use that footage inventively as well as liberally. Of course, the uneducated masses watching the film have laughed at the Bela Lugosi scenes (and other sequences) used over and over and over again and the unrelated stock footage (of which there is a fair amount) as evidence of the film's miniscule budget and the director's ineptitude. However, the Bela Lugosi shots repeated ad nauseam provide a magnificent cinematic and quasi-necrophiliac leitmotif which, with the poor quality stock footage, is intended as a necessary Brechtian Verfremdungseffekt -- because, in spite of its gripping drama, what is primordial in Plan 9 is Wood's political statement, and the film's various "shortcomings" are necessary to prevent the audience from overlooking it in favour of the action and plot mechanics.
The famous surrealist painter René Magritte reminded us of the difference between a pipe and its visual representation, a subject further studied by postmodernist academic Michel Foucault. Wood insisted on reminding the audience that its conception of flying saucers -- which very few of us can claim to have seen -- is mostly derived from popular imagery; thus is fully explained the importance of the verisimilitude-lacking flying saucers. If Wood's saucers had been credible to any degree (as in, for example, Independence Day), this important question would have been overlooked; however, the film's fame as the "worst movie of all time" has not allowed the importance of the question to come through either. What should have been praised as an important discussion of the semiotics of Ferdinand de Saussure by way of Magritte (and later Foucault) is now unfortunately dismissed as mediocre special effects. Furthermore, the image of artificial-looking flying saucers superimposed on stock footage of Los Angeles, the lack of continuity of night and day scenes, and, mostly, the intentionally hammy acting, are direct allusions to Walter Benjamin's important critical work, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, which discussed the loss of context and, therefore, of relevance, of art in the process of reproduction.
Plan 9 From Outer Space is filled to the brim with considerations that would preoccupy postmodernist scholars a few years after it was released. Its prescient look at how perspective influences discourse is vital, even though some unknowing people who would do better to stop pretending to be film critics have claimed that the dialogue was unintentionally hilarious; in fact, the screenplay hits home like a ton of bricks. There is, for example, this famous -- and very postmodern -- line: "Modern women. They've been like that all down through the ages". Even though it may not appear as such, the question of gender is essential in Plan 9. The film's hero, Jeff Trent, is noted for wrongly describing the flying saucer he had seen as shaped as a "huge cigar"; in Wood's grand vision, the terms are a Freudian denunciation of manhood's obsession with phallic worship, which prevents a close look at the truth, even when obviously displayed. Wood, a frequent transvestite quite fond of angora sweaters, was only too glad to take on the societal conventions of gender. Consider, for instance, the constant inequality between genders for both aliens (noticed in the comment that "in my land, women are for advancing the race, not for fighting man's battle") and humans. Jeff Trent's wife clings to her husband for safety and comfort, and ends up having to be rescued from both Bela Lugosi (and his posthumous double) and Tor Johnson; in this part, Mona McKinnon exudes an erotic vulnerability reminiscent of Fay Wray in several films, including The Most Dangerous Game and King Kong. On the other hand, Trent's ebullient temperament, coupled with his desire to demonstrate his masculinity, leads him to punch an alien in a situation where diplomacy would have been more useful. Plan 9's gendered message is as powerful as it is undeniable.
The importance of perspective in the story is notable through the frequent up there-out there-in there dialogue, which is intended, as with the line "Visits? That would indicate visitors" to introduce the concept of "otherness" and the resulting incomprehension, which could have tragic consequences for our planet. As this concept is not unique to our era, Wood cleverly makes use of an introduction and conclusion by Criswell the psychic, who demonstrates a remarkably down-to-earth approach to the question of the future, the term being unconventionally deprived of its usually boundless optimism: "We are all interested in the future, for that is where you and I are going to spend the rest of our lives". This characteristically postmodern desire to refuse to glorify the future, or the present, is maintained throughout the film. Even more clever is Criswell's switch to the past tense mere seconds later, as this illustrates the timelessness of the tale; while its elements obviously belong to the future, the basic story could be set in any society in any era; it is a forceful reference to Joseph Campbell's The Hero With a Thousand Faces, which studied patterns in mythology, and which is now famous as having influenced George Lucas's Star Wars.
Of more importance is Plan 9's political message. When inspector Harper speaks that "One thing's sure. Inspector Clay's dead. Murdered. And somebody's responsible", he is referring not to Clay's assassin, the one who directly wielded the weapon against him, but to the sociopolitical context which led to his death. It is of no importance to find out the name of the German soldier who killed a specific private in the American army in the Second World War, because we know that in the kill-or-be-killed context of any armed conflict, the responsibility for the death of a soldier is related to the origin of the war. Blaming Hitler provides no suitable answer to the question either, as it does not explain the support he received from the German people. Explaining the conflict through the Treaty of Versailles or the writings of Nietzsche does not account for how these came to be. Ultimately, it is human nature, because of its lust for power, honour, and revenge, which is to blame, for the origins of the Second World War as well as for Clay's death. Wood's film is an intelligent response to mankind's failure to identify its own nature as at the centre of the problem, and has echoes of earlier philosophers. Consider, for instance, the following passage from Thomas Hobbes' Leviathan:
"(I)n the first place, I put for a generall inclination of all mankind, a perpetuall and restlesse desire of Power after power, that ceaseth onely in Death. And the cause of this, is not always that a man hopes for a more intensive delight, than he has already attained to; or that he cannot be content with a moderate power: but because he cannot assure the power and means to live well, which he hath present, without the acquisition of more."
The Solarmanite, of which the aliens somehow know, is a means to obtain more power, and this is proved when Jeff Trent, after having been explained the dangers associated with the weapon, naively demands: "So what if we do develop this Solarmanite bomb? We'd be even a stronger nation than now." The parallel with the Cold War, which prompted the development of more devastating weapons to protect one's nation, is striking, and Wood's inherent determinism is manifesting itself in the conclusion. With the destruction of the alien spaceship, the inhabitants of Earth may have been temporarily victorious, but the atmosphere of ineluctable defeat lingers in the air; Plan 9's conclusion is as pessimistic and powerful as, but without the dark cynicism of, auteur Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove: or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, released five years later. The overall impression in both films is one of inevitable and overpowering doom. No system of government, not even a Hobbesian central authority, can, according to Wood, save mankind from a destiny marked by violence, and to make this statement painfully clear, the director attacks the romantic notion of nationalism, which can be traced back to the nineteenth century, and which had transformed, for example, the military blunder at Balaclava into a gallant feat of arms immortalized by Tennyson. Following Clausewitz's practical (instead of romantic) definition of war as "a mere continuation of policy by other means" (which the director reluctantly acknowledges), Wood establishes the futility of victory by armed conflict in the manner of A Farewell To Arms and All Quiet On The Western Front, and the danger of ideology -- including anarchy, which would predictably result in a Hobbesian state of nature. The film's ambience is appropriately bleak, and the cryptic final scream of the female alien before the explosion of her saucer satisfyingly reminds one of Kurtz's dying words "The horror! The horror!" in Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness.Wood's Cold War parable is unacceptably but not unexpectedly dismissed as an amateurish production with cheesy special effects and wooden acting, a reaction which the director demonstrates as having predicted through Criswell's now ironic line "and now some of us laugh at outer space". Its message could have been perceived better in the context of the Cuban missile crisis or the Johnson-Goldwater presidential campaign of 1964, but the film's subtext is timeless. It is only recently that critics have begun reassessing this film, which is a testament to Wood's directorial know-how. And this reassessment has been long overdue.
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originally posted: 05/11/02 19:06:25