The first time I’d ever heard of this curious little 1969 flick, “Journey to the Far Side of the Sun” (aka “Doppelgänger” in certain markets) was waaaaay back in my Starlog magazine-saturated youth. I remember seeing pics of the elaborate rocketship models used in the film, and reading that “Space: 1999″‘s Gerry Anderson was the writer and producer. The movie has much in common with Anderson’s 1970 “UFO” TV series (1970-1973), including props and a few actors.
But at the time, I was more familiar with Anderson’s “Space: 1999” and ’Supermarionation’ (i.e. puppet) shows, such as “Fireball XL-5” and “Thunderbirds”. I only watched the occasional random episode of the Supermarionation shows. Anderson’s dead-eyed puppets always freaked me out a bit. “Space: 1999” was more my jam.
“Journey…” is directed by classic director Robert Parrish (“Body and Soul” “All the King’s Men”). The film was written by Anderson, his wife & longtime writing/producing partner Sylvia (later divorced), and Donald James (with an uncredited rewrite by Tony Williamson).
****Story (with SPOILERS!)****
The movie takes place in a near-future where the world’s space efforts are based with EUROSEC (European Space Exploration Council… think ESA on steroids). It opens with a clever espionage sequence as a double-agent scientist, Dr. Hassler (Herbert Lom) is carefully security screened to view top secret information. Hassler jokingly surrenders his pen as a security precaution…only to use an artificial eyeball with a built-in camera to take pics of the top-secret info.
Later, we cut to a bullish, dogmatic, cigar-chomping space commissioner named Jason Webb (arguably named after former NASA administrator James Webb, and played by the late Patrick Wymark) making the announcement from EUROSEC HQ that a recent probe has discovered a ‘twin’ of Earth in the exact opposite orbit side of our own orbit around the sun. Efforts to pimp a NASA liaison (future “UFO” star Ed Bishop) for more money are only partly successful, with a compromise in the form of a veteran American astronaut named Colonel Glenn Ross (former “Invaders” TV series lead Roy Thinnes), who is tapped to lead the expedition.
British astrophysicist John Kane (Ian Hendry, of 1972’s “Tales From The Crypt”) is assigned as copilot/science officer. On paper, the pair would seem to be cliches of the cool Brit and the hotheaded Yank, yet they are given unexpected substance, a credit both to the writing and actors. Webb then pushes the flight up to take place ASAP, safety/preparedness be damned.
Glenn is shown to be in a desperately unhappy marriage with wife Sharon (Lynn Loring), who actively avoids having kids with her abusive husband, who, it turns out, also flirting it up with a EUROSEC colleague named Lisa (Loni von Friedl). Glenn is clearly an antihero; an ill-tempered prick whose only apparent saving grace is his skill at flying, and his sympathy for his rushed-to-readiness copilot Kane. Kane is seen as an ill-prepared optimist, with a genuine curiosity about what awaits him “up there.”
In 40 fairly active minutes or so, the countdown begins for launch. Impressive miniature work by Derek Meddings (Oscar winner for 1978’s “Superman: The Movie”) highlights the launch and space sequences, with some FX work that is on a par with the bigger-budgeted “2001: A Space Odyssey.” The launch alone is jaw-dropping; no CGI animation (decades away), or even hand-rotoscoping; the rocket with a tail of thick flame is all shot in camera, and it is stunning. Easily bests its only real competition of that year (1969’s “Marooned”).
Once the pair of astronauts are away from the chaos, pressure and general melee of Earth life, the tone of the film changes; the two men are forced into a three-week hibernation to reach the new planet. The orange space helmets look like bulkier forerunners of the smaller versions seen a few years later on Anderson’s “Space: 1999.”
We then see a brief, tranquil equivalent of “2001”‘s light-trip sequence, as some lovely psychedelic opticals evoke a serene, cryogenic dream state. Composer Barry Gray (a longtime Anderson collaborator) does some great work here, and his music of the entire space sequence is earworm-worthy.
Upon awakening from their weeks-long slumber, the two (now bearded) men analyze telemetric readouts of doppelgänger-Earth, and confirm that it’s very close to their own. The two conduct a graceful zero-g ingress into their attached landing craft. Their descent doesn’t go so smoothly, and they crash on the twin Earth under the cover of night.
Kane is badly injured. Their “Phoenix” landing craft is destroyed. Glenn sees the search lights and siren-wail of a search-and-rescue party (wearing flying jetpacks, no less!).
The injured Kane and Glenn are taken to EUROSEC HQ, where Webb and Lisa are both waiting. It appears the pair have landed back on Earth…somehow. The post-flight Glenn is harshly and surreally interrogated by EUROSEC (in a sequence lifted almost directly from Patrick McGoohan’s amazing mindf–k TV series, “The Prisoner”). Even in his disoriented state, Glenn begins to notice things are slightly askew…coat pockets, insignias, etc are all on the wrong sides of garments, previously right-handed people are using their left hands. The exhausted Glenn is told it’s fatigue, and is sent home. His unloving wife Sharon gives him a lift.
The disoriented Glenn is startled to find that Sharon appears to be driving on the wrong side of the road. Once home, he notices that everything in their house is changed. All the labels on items on his bathroom shelf appear to be backwards, and are only readable in the mirror. It seems that Glenn is on Earth, but this Earth is an exacting mirror-image of his own planet. Every atom is the same, but reversed.
A clandestine call from Sharon alerts the authorities, and Glenn is taken away. From there, the disoriented Glenn struggles to prove his sanity and somehow get he and Kane back to their own Earth. After yet another interrogation, even the hard-ass Webb is convinced that Glenn is telling the truth. He is astronaut Glenn Ross, just not the Glenn Ross of mirror-Webb’s doppelgänger-Earth. Poor Kane fares no better; the critically injured astrophysicist dies in a hyperbaric chamber, as a frustrated Webb barks at him for answers. Glenn is now on his own in this world.
Glenn succeeds (with help from Kane’s puzzling autopsy results) in convincing Webb that the two Earths are exact mirror images of each other; atom for atom. Glenn finds solace in the mirror-Lisa, and is introduced to a new version of his landing craft, now renamed “Doppelgänger” (with the lettering reversed, readable to Glenn’s eyes only). Soon, Glenn is back in space (so long doppelgänger-Earth…we barely knew ya), and ready to dock with his mothership, which remained in orbit. Glenn docks, only to discover the electrical polarity with the mothership is reversed, causing a short in communications and flight control. His landing craft is in a free-fall return to doppelgänger-Earth. In a spectacular, though deeply nihilistic resolution, Glenn crashes right into EUROSEC HQ and is killed (not to mention untold hundreds at the base itself). EUROSEC’s launch facilities are reduced to smoking ruins.
The coda sees a much older, dementia-state Webb, telling his tale to a disbelieving nurse. Left unattended for a moment, Webb sees his own reflection in a hallway mirror, frantically races his wheelchair towards it… and fatally crashes in a heap of shattered glass.
The science of the movie is, much like that of “Space: 1999”, pure nonsense. Earth can’t (and doesn’t) ‘share’ an orbit with an unnoticed doppelgänger planet; such a world’s gravitational wobble on our mutual sun would be detectable, not to mention its gravitational effect on the orbits of other planets. On doppelgänger-Earth, eerything is reversed; cars drive on opposite sides of the road, English language lettering is readable only in a mirror, and even internal organs are on opposite sides of the human body, yet English is spoken exactly the same (?). Not to mention the right and left sides of human faces are also the same. And radio signals from either planet would’ve been long detectable to the other, even with the sun in the way.
The script is an ambitious idea that ultimately falls flat. Nothing is really learned or gained in the amazing revelation that such a discovery would yield; an all-new Earth. Is everything on this world one-to-one with our own? What are the differences? Is their history the same as well? Perhaps some dead loved ones live on as mirror-counterparts? A very curious notion is raised, but we get none of the answers. All we see is nihilism and failure. Nihilism in sci-fi was really big in the pre-Star Wars era of the late 1960s and early ‘70s (“Soylent Green” “Planet of the Apes”).
“Journey…” sees an ill-tempered astronaut with a hard-ass boss, locked in a loveless marriage. He soon cash-lands on a doppelgänger-Earth. His nice-guy partner is killed. Then, after seemingly endless interrogations and distrust, the astronaut finally goes back up into space…only to crash, burn and die. Oh, and the sole survivor of the piece? The hard-ass boss…who commits accidental suicide years later, during a bout of old age-induced dementia.
Granted, not every sci-fi movie has to blow sunshine up one’s posterior, but this is seriously heavy stuff. The movie is salvaged largely by FX spectacle, a relatively brief running time (101 minutes), and an intriguing central idea that is explored all-too fleetingly.
Some strong performances, even if Wymark’s Webb is a bit over-the-top (sadly, Wymark died of a heart attack shortly after production). Roy Thinnes brings a lot of the persecuted everyman-quality he showed in “The Invaders” to the role of Glenn Ross, though his physical abuse of his admittedly cruel wife makes him less-than-likable (for clarity; it’s NEVER cool to hit one’s spouse… period). The most likable character in the movie is John Kane (Ian Hedry), but he’s killed a bit past the halfway mark. At least the late character actor Ian Hedry guarantees his Kane makes an impression.
The female characters are basically good and bad images (mirror images) of the same person. Lori and Sharon remind me of Clarisse and Linda (both played by Julie Christie) in Francois Truffaut’s original film adaptation of Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451” (1966). The two women (of both films) are essentially ciphers, existing only to cheer the protagonist on, or dismiss him like so much crap down a drain. Granted, this film came out at a time when well written roles for women in sci-fi were virtually nonexistent (pre-ALIEN, pre-Jamie Sommers, pre-Buffy Summers), so it’s less a problem with the film, and more of the era. Interesting footnote: last-minute replacement Lynn Loring (Sharon) was, at the time, the real-life wife of lead actor Thinnes.
One more issue for me is lack of diversity in the casting. We see background characters of different ethnicities (including an Asian search and rescue team), but all of the main characters are very white. Granted, this was 50 years ago, but there were other films at the time which featured important, non-white characters (“Night of the Living Dead” had a black lead actor, and even “Planet of the Apes” had a single black astronaut). This was partly amended in Anderson’s later series “Space: 1999,” which at least attempted diverse casting with a few interesting non-white, non-Anglo supporting characters (the characters of Kano, Sandra and Ben).
The other stars.
The greatest performers of the film are the visual effects of Derek Meddings and his crew; from the spectacularly detailed rocket miniatures, beautifully photographed spaceflight sequences and grandiose explosions of the finale. Considering their 1969 vintage, much of the FX work is still stunning.
Yes, there are some shots that betray their miniature nature, but considering the heavy workload of shots in the film (not to mention the relatively modest budget), “Journey…” can take the Pepsi challenge with some the best miniature FX work of the time, and even some CGI work of today.
The production design of the film depicts a groovy, quasi-Austin Powers retro-future, with EUROSEC HQ based (and shot on location) in sunny Portugal, with most interiors shot in UK studios. The overall zeitgeist of the movie is of a more expansive (and expensive) version of “UFO” and “Space: 1999,” with a touch of James Bond thrown in. It could easily be set in the same universe as Anderson’s other two live-action space series.
Summing it up.
At 50 years old, “Journey to the Far Side of the Sun/Doppelgänger” still offers much entertainment with its terrific miniature work and intriguing (if scientifically preposterous) central idea. Strong characters and performances punctuate a deeply flawed screenplay. Much like Anderson’s later live-action space shows, “UFO” and “Space: 1999,” “Journey…” is a great-looking movie that is just shy of being a true science fiction classic.