Assignment: Outer Space, the 1960 sci-fi flick from director Antonio Margheriti, is a textbook example of why cheap practical effects are better than bad CGI. I’m no Luddite. CGI will continue to improve and become more affordable right up to the point AI takes over film production and just thinks shit up on the spot. I’m thinking more of the bargain basement CGI of this still-young century versus what Margheriti’s crew was able to accomplish sixty years ago. Both are unconvincing, but cheap model work has a charm that bad CGI does not — almost an innocence. That’s illusory, of course. Cheap effects are all about saving cash, no matter which method is used. Yet, there’s something slimy about bad CGI, as if it’s more an enabler of poor filmmaking rather than a result of tight budgets.
Written by Ennio De Concini and Jack Wallace, Assignment: Outer Space takes place in the distant year of 2116. There, intrepid newspaper reporter Ray Peterson (Rik Van Nutter) has been assigned to do a story on what it is like in deep space, out of the gravity well of our beloved Earth. It’s a tough place to live and work, as Ray’s fellow crewmates remind him constantly. One of the senior officers, Al (modern dance artist Archie Savage), glosses Ray with the derogatory nickname ‘Leech,’ because he has no practical function aboard ship or space station, and is a drain on resources. The commander of the station, George (David Montresor) is even gruffer, his disdain for Ray crossing over into open hostility.
Danger presents itself not long into this 73-minute film, as a spaceship returning from the outer reaches of the solar system has suffered a catastrophic failure that has killed its crew. The ship’s engines are the most powerful built by man, producing extraordinary amounts of heat. On the ship’s current trajectory, it will enter an orbit of Earth with those engines still burning, and the surface of the planet will be cooked, killing all life. That’s a lot of heat. Scientific plausibility aside, we viewers now have some drama.
The remainder of the film is a short tour of the inner solar system, which is mostly unseen in favor of interior shots and spaceship models, until Ray and the intrepid space explorers are able to tackle the danger of the wayward spacecraft.
As a quality film, Assignment: Outer Space doesn’t have much to offer. It requires a massive suspension of disbelief from the audience, almost on par with a stage play. If one goes into this film looking for realism, one will find naught but frustration. However, were a viewer to let themselves be carried away by it all, there is a fun watch to be had. Yes, the effects are bad. Yes, the spacesuits are laughable and the sets limited. The dialogue is inane and the overdubbing tragic. All of these things are something the shitty movie connoisseur does not see as failings, especially if a film has enough pace and story to keep one from reaching for the nearest smart device.
Assignment: Outer Space was distributed theatrically here in the States by American International Pictures, and that print has seen no love since it premiered. The color is washed and the sound is mud. These only add to the film’s credentials, though. Genuine pops and crackles, not the ersatz, digitally-rendered kind, are a true patina no less desirable in a movie than on a piece of antique furniture. Maybe the folks over at Vinegar Syndrome will turn their trustworthy talents towards this degenerating film and offer a gorgeous restoration, but there isn’t any gore or gratuitous nudity in this flick, so I’m not holding my breath.
It’s campy, it’s kitschy, and stays just on the right side of fun. There are no monsters, no aliens, no laser guns…in fact, this is a quite talky space flick. Then there will be a shot of a miniature astronaut falling to the surface of Phobos, or a rocket that could double as a cigarette lighter, and the whole movie clicks into place. Assignment: Outer Space is a humble production that is fine with its place in the pantheon of cinematic space operas. And it’s mercifully short to boot.
More watchable than it should be, Assignment: Outer Space still fails to crack the top half of the Watchability Index, displacing The Legend of Boggy Creek at #237.