I finally got a chance to see the 1969 film “Dopplegänger” last night (also known as “Journey to the Far Side of the Sun”). Almost forty years later, the special effects hold up very, very well, for the most part. The film concerns the discovery of and attempt to visit an opposite Earth, which is why I tripped over the movie while looking into lagrangian points. The opposite Earth is a “dopplegänger,” a mirror-image world where everything is reversed, located at the Earth/Sun lagrangian point #3.

I had caught the last half of the film when I was still pretty young, maybe thirty years ago. What I remember liking about it was the way the film morphed into a (admittedly thin) mystery story, which made space itself scary (rather than just another alien baddy with a rubber mask), and the fact that it does not have a happy ending. The firey climax ties things off better than any “boy returns from far side of sun and marries backwards-girl” ending could have.

I like unhappy endings. They tend to stick with you so much more. Most recent comments on the film claim the performances are wooden, but for a film of its time (and considering the subject matter), the acting is completely normal. In some of the miniature work, you could tell they were torn between the right speed for moving elements and for less controllable elements, like smoke. The result is that a few shots look like toys, but mostly it’s a beautiful film.

As I’ve said before, sci-fi must address its present, living audience. Science fiction is not prophecy. Yes, lots of your favorite sci-fi writers are credited, by fatuous journalists trying to make a deadline decades later, with “predicting,” or better yet “anticipating,” technologies that — gee whiz! — later came to pass. Who cares? A film like “Dopplegänger” is a meditation on a big “what if,” like Einstein’s Dreams. The technology is incidental to the story. So it doesn’t matter that the film, set far in the future, assumes that Germany is still divided (the German representative to the space agency is reporting from Bonn; dead giveaway) or that people still smoke like chimneys and drink at the office.

What doesn’t age well is the film’s brief incident of domestic violence. Yes, I expect partners will still strike each other in the future, especially when one of them belittles the other for not being man enough to knock her up, only to find she’s on the pill. You may want to knock her block off, but you don’t have to act on it, bub. From a writer’s prespective, however, there’s no sense in dreaming up utopian crap that won’t age well or that your audience is sick of anyway. But the movie falls short in its attitudes toward domestic violence. The wife is built up as a real annoyance, making her “slappable” in 1969’s world. The slap is the definitive end of the confrontation. The astronaut’s girlfriend-to-be, played by the infinitely edible Loni von Friedl, actually justifies the man’s violence against his wife. What is this? An episode of COPS? It’s not as bad as “Man on a Tightrope,” sixteen years earlier, where a similar fishwife reacts to her husband’s eventual violence as if it were a long-awaited aphrodisiac. Anderson spent a lot of time thinking about social trends, getting almost all of them wrong, but on this score he doesn’t seem to have considered what might change. There are now consequences for hitting women, if only because women have more political power than they did forty years ago.

What is welcome, on the other hand, about Anderson’s approach to female characters is that he didn’t cast actresses who conformed to the conventions of beauty at the time. You can see this in Space: 1999 as well. Consider Ian McShane’s victims in “Force of Life.” That would be a welcome departure today. Prime-time TV is nothing but pretty people acting badly, in every sense of the adverb. All the pretty people look alike, which is why it takes me three minutes to figure out if I’m watching “House” or the “Sarah Conner Chronicles.” Loni von Friedl would never be cast as the love interest today: her tits are too small. And that, dear readers (yes, both of you), is stupid, sad, and wrong. Even Anderson struggles to get her green eyes into the frame, when the palette of the time dictated blue, but the point is Anderson stuck with it and she pops on the screen. Yum.

The film also suffers from an apparent last-minute change in script. Editing is a bad stage to start reconsidering your plot. An entire chapter is nearly missing from the story (the espionage which opens the film). This sequence is brought to a swift end, but in a way that contradicts the dialogue in the previous scene. Furthermore, the middle act is devoted to establishing a secondary character, a scientist pressed into service as a second astronaut, only to have his character languish in a tube while the main man goes boom. Uh, OK. What happened next?

Credits, that’s what.

You couldn’t do a film like “Dopplegänger” today without substantially changing it, because the audience’s relationship with technology has changed. Long demonstrations of technology, the equivalent of pages of clumsy exposition in sci-fi novels (or any episode of Babylon V), would bore them. No one is going to get excited over a countdown to blastoff. No one is going to believe that after all these space probes there’s still something that close to planet Earth that we don’t know about it. Finally, the kind of extended thought-experiments that sci-fi writers have been writing since Tsiolkovsky aren’t very interesting anymore. The audience has been bombarded since birth with time travel, time travel paradoxes, multiple timestreams, alternate universes. Even in the late 80’s, we referred to STNG as “that show where they keep driving into time/space distortions, even though they should know better by now.”

Speculative physics can still be provocative, but as a plot device it’s just plain old hat.

Audiences, especially sci-fi audiences, are likely to be more skeptical about space flight, as well. You’re going to travel 4 AU‘s in six weeks? Really? OK, that’s six-hundred billion kilometers, making it a hundred billion kilometers a week, or 16,530 km/sec. Dude, you’re booking it! What’s your mode of propulsion, Mr. Scott? Where’s the fuel going to come from? Speaking of fuel, how is that little Spiral knockoff going to get back into low-dopplegänger orbit? The suspended animation would have to stay, otherwise there’s no way to explain why the astronauts don’t know where they are.

But Dopplegänger, as a planet, presents a story-telling problem. In order to explain why those on the ground have mis-identified their own astronauts, Dopplegänger has to be an Other Earth and the differences have to be subtle enough to keep everyone mystified about it for a while. Simply doing everything backwards, however (writing, shaking with the left hand), is too simple. Also, you don’t need an event where the astronaut tries to rendezvous with his very own Angry Alligator by flying a little plane that, you know, would need a warehouse full of fuel to make it into space. He can die, instead, trying to get home in a full-sized Dopplegänger rocket. Problem solved.

No, there is a mid-20th-century sci-fi movie that’s overdue for a remake, but Dopplegänger ain’t it.

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