Rifftrax: Planet of the Dinosaurs
Rifftrax performs a genuine public service for those stop-motion and/or dinosaur fans who were curious but trepidatious about viewing this uber-lame 1978 sci-fi flick. Originally recorded as a down-loadable podcast that could be synched up with a conventional DVD or VOD presentation of the film, the Rifftrax crew’s alternate soundtrack was released on DVD by Legends Films back in January, and there truly is no other way to enjoy PLANET OF THE DINOSAURS (well, except perhaps for getting stoned and watching the film with a bunch of friends, but this is much cheaper and less hazardous to your health).
PLANET OF THE DINOSAURS tells the “Gilligan’s Island” tale of a crew in outer space whose ship overheats, forcing a crash landing on a planet inhabited (to the character’s surprise if not to ours) by prehistoric beasts that uncannily resemble dinosaurs from Earth. In fact, the resemblance is so uncanny that they even have our fictional dinosaurs: in a nod to stop-motion special effects master Ray Harryhausen, the rhedosaurus from THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS shows up in a cameo, just long enough to get killed by a T-Rex.
With little hope of a rescue ship arriving anytime soon, the characters in PLANET OF THE DINOSAURS embark on a “Swiss Family Robinson” struggle for survival, high-lighted by the notably lackluster dramatic conflict between the ineffectual, wimpy captain (who wants to hide from the dinosaurs) and a beefy, macho crewman, who believes that homo sapiens should be the dominant life form on this planet, regardless of how outmatched they seem to be by the local predators.
Although set in the future, PLANET OF THE DINOSAURS is pure 1970s camp, with hairstyles and jump-suits that evoke unpleasant memories of the horrible disco era. Along with the coifs and costumes, the characters have inherited some startling incompetence problems: they are literally introduced to us as they are crashing their ship, which sets the tone for everything that follows, as their stupidity results in the crew members being picked off one by one. If there is a rock to trip on, it will not go untripped on, and if a laser is dropped, you know someone will run back for it, just in time to become dino chow.
In a special piece of retro-weirdness, the first two victims are women who show too much skin: a radio operator who strips off her clothes to dive into a lake (she is conveniently wearing a swimsuit underneath) and the corporate vice-president’s secretary-girlfriend, whose bare midriff is the only respite during the numerous, lengthy dialogue and walking scenes that separate the few minutes of dinosaur action. Yet strangely, the man who strips off his shirt to dive into the lake with the female radio operator survives to go shirtless throughout the rest of the film and never pays the price for his semi-nudity.
With characters like these, it is no surprise that your only sympathy will be with the dinosaurs – most of whom, sadly, die bloody deaths. In fact, you will end up rooting for rampaging reptiles to eat the human idiots, especially after their first big achievement is ganging up to take out a small, harmless, bird-like dino – after which they whoop it up as if they have just successfully stormed the beaches at Normandy.
Achieved with stop-motion effects in the style of Harryhausen and Willis O’Brien (KING KONG), these dinosaurs may not be the greatest, but they are fun to watch in a nostalgic kind of way. The process shots that combine live-action with special effects are washed out, but the dinosaur models are fairly well designed and detailed. The Tyrannosaurus Rex in particular is a fearsome antagonist, and the effects crew (which includes the familiar names of Doug Beswick and Jim Danforth, among others) pull off some nice shots. My favorite is a clever low-angle of the T-Rex emerging from its lair, with the camera tilting up not quite fast enough to keep the dinosaur fully in frame – nicely simulating the lock of a live-action cameraman trying to follow a fast-moving subject.
In a time before home video had killed off the theatrical market for low-budget movies, filmmakers in the 1970s were still churning out drek that they expected to reach the big screen, at least in a drive in – an assumption that proved false in this case: PLANET OF THE DINOSAURS received no theatrical release, in spite of the fact that it had – well, you know, dinosaurs. This is a testament to how weak the dialogue, direction, and performances are; the film has a vague air of “Let’s make a movie” around it, as if some people had access to enough cash to hire a special effects crew and simply decided to throw together some kind of film to tie the dinosaur scenes together.
Watching every frame of its padded running time in a theatre would have been a true endurance test. Home video, with the fast-forward and chapter-stop buttons, offered some relief – and a chance to get to the only scenes worth seeing. But PLANET OF THE DINOSAURS finally found its place in the world when the Rifftrax crew (former MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000 stars Mike Nelson, Kevin Murphy, and Bill Corbett) recorded their caustic commentary track, which mercilessly mocks the on-screen ineptitude.
In general, I have not been a huge fan of this particular trio’s work; although Nelson, Murphy, and Corbett are always funny, their batting average (during the final years of MST3K on Sci-Fi Channel, in the handful of FILM CREW DVDs, and now on Rifftrax) has been a bit lower than during the heyday of MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER when it was on Comedy Central. Fortunately, something about PLANET OF THE DINOSAURS brings out the best in them, and they deliver consistently high-quality comedy throughout. Best of all, their efforts here seem effortless: they are seldom stretching for a joke; instead, they capitalize upon the plentiful opportunities for derision, turning a nearly unwatchable film into a must-see viewing experience.
The Rifftrax DVD features a rather worn-out print of PLANET OF THE DINOSAURS – which is a virtue in a way, because it preserves the 1970s aura. There are chapter stops, but they are not listed on the menu, which offers only two options: view the film with the riff-track or view it with the original soundtrack (should you want to hear the uninterrupted dialogue for some masochistic reason). There are no bonus features.
Kevin Murphy discusses Rifftrax in general, including PLANET OF THE DINOSAURS, in this interview.
PLANET OF THE DINOSAURS (1978). Directed by James K. Shea. Written by Ralph Lucas from a story by Jim Aupperle. Cast: James Whitworth, Pamela Bottaro, Louie Lawless, Harvey Shain, Charlotte Speer, Chuck Pennington. Derna Wylde, Max Thayer, Mary Appleseth.