The Cardboard Science series intends to be a catalog of the science fiction of the past, today. Science errors will be mocked. 20th century mores will be challenged. Glories will be recorded. Films will be, as usual, reviewed.
A bone-dry parade of fake-ass science with neither interest nor a terrible amount of incident—let alone what the marketing fraudulently claimed—but at least it hates foreigners.
Directed by Herbert L. Strock
Written by Tom Taggart, Ivan Tors, and Richard G. Taylor
With Richard Egan (Dr. David Sheppard), Constance Dowling (Ms. Joanna Merritt), and Hebert Marshall, John Wengraf, Phillip van Zandt, and Valerie Vernon as a largely undifferentiated scientific mass
Spoiler alert: severe
There's a problem with Gog—there are many problems with Gog, actually, but there is one serious problem not inherent to its production, but rather about how it comes to us today, sixty years after its debut. I don't think it invalidates this review (or any possible review), but although Gog was an Eastmancolor pseudo-spectacle, presented in 2D at a 1.85:1 widescreen aspect ratio, and in 3D at a 1.66:1 ratio, it exists for public exhibition now only via a copy (open matte, I presume), made for broadcast television, in Academy ratio—1.37:1.
And thus are we denied the truly exciting composition this framing clearly—clearly—ruins.
Yes, I'm kidding. If there was ever a movie that wouldn't suffer much from being arbitrarily framed, it's almost certainly this one. But form follows function in Gog and in some ways it's a Goddamned formal masterpiece: the story is really boring too.
Gog barely has a story, as such. It is the last iteration of Ivan Tors' Office of Scientific Investigation trilogy, a largely thematic series about science agents who scienced problems until science happened, the end. It was preceded by The Magnetic Monster, which lies to you a bit in its title and is not very good, and Riders to the Stars, which I have not seen and nothing is really compelling me to do so. In Gog, a scientist arrives at a remote, underground research laboratory in the American desert to investigate the mysterious death we just saw in the prologue.
This prologue is actually reasonably good sci-fi thriller filmmaking—not expertly edited, sad and unfortunately needless to say—but it sets up an unseen force that is manipulating the dials and levers and other instrumentalities of science to kill a pair of experimenters. Modern audiences may secretly or not-so-secretly cheer as the humans die, given that their just-completed test involved jamming a monkey full of serum and hoping it didn't perish when they cryonized the poor little guy in a freeze-chamber.
Modern audiences also jam themselves full of modern pharmaceuticals, making them giant hypocrites.
Then Dr. Sheppard, codename: Agent Square, shows up. At this point, things go decisively downhill. Though nominally an SF mystery, Gog is structured instead as a series of super-scientific exhibitions of... stuff. The base is building a space station, so all of this stuff is more-or-less related, but with only this thin line to hold them all together, it's essentially random sequences thrown at the viewer for a good half-hour. And not that we need or even necessarily want deep characterization in any 50s B-movie, but it's shallower here than even the usual: Sheppard is defined exclusively by his adherence to regulation and the panties, worn by Ms. Merritt, that such rigid discipline wettens.
One reckons that the very point of Gog was to speculate upon the wonders that seemed right around the corner in 1954. These were wonders that would put men into space (and women too! because they're lighter and smaller). More importantly, these were wonders that would enable our spacemen and spacewomen to annihilate the Soviet Union from LEO with sunlight and giant mirrors.
Gog's at its most adorable when it's also at its most jingoistic, embracing the Cold War in an improbably enthusiastic way. Other films before and after were interested in America's fears of the atomic age—either in a literal sense, or, as was happily more often the case, in terms of a cool metaphor, usually involving smaller things getting irradiated and growing into giant things. Gog, in sharp contrast, almost welcomes global thermonuclear war, because we can win.
Of course, "Gog at its most adorable" means it's still dreadfully dull, but at least it gives you something to think about other than the titular machine, and its counterpart, Magog, and how lame they are.
"Ms. Merritt, what the hell is a 'robutt'?"
Oh, they put the "cardboard" into Cardboard Science, all right, but I don't refer principally to their physical realization. I refer instead to the inept threat they pose. Gog and Magog are so ill-equipped that a door and slack editing can stymie them for minutes at a time; they are so weak of constitution that a mere flamethrower can
But, naturally, they do eventually run some facsimile of "amok." Gog and Magog are servitors tied through some kind of high-frequency sound connection to NOVAC, the electronic brain of the base. We "learn"—actually, we wait while Sheppard learns and other people avoidably die—that NOVAC has been compromised. We have known for ages that there's something is in the skies, as we've been made aware of this repeatedly via an annoying sound effect. This is the sound of that object's engine noise, amplified by a series of tuning forks which represents some kind of sonic early-warning device that, to the best of my knowledge, never existed in any fashion. But, whatever it is up there, it is controlling NOVAC's circuits and even severing its power supply can't stop it.
That's right: Gog is the first cyberthriller—a seminal moment to be sure. It is, if I am not mistaken, the very first film about computer hacking ever made. It really made the mold, and arguably no good true hacking movie has ever been made since. To reiterate a point I made when we discussed WarGames, that film and its wacky AI wind up included solely because even a despised microgenre needs some kind of banner to wave for itself.
A bit of WarGames' fancy would have elevated Gog, however. The first time I watched it, knowing only that it was about a computer and its dangerous [sic] robots, I expected a classic AI-gone-mad scenario. The beautiful but dreadfully inaccurate poster, after all, promises a "frankenstein made of steel!" If you expect such a thing, what Gog delivers is worse than nothing. This second watch wasn't much more fruitful than the first, but I did come to hate it less. Just not a lot less.
Shock! then, as the culprit is revealed—a high-altitude fiberglass rocket jet, presumably commie in origin, though its provenance is left unsaid. Behold! the awkward cross-cutting in the climax between the fight with Gog and stock footage courtesy the USAF as actual metal objects perform actual tasks. Gasp! as some halfway decent editing intrudes into the film while Sheppard and Gog's battle is depicted as a montage of quick-cut, point-of-view shots and reverse-shots. Puzzle! as you try to figure out how an advanced aircraft flying at 80-100,000 feet is shot down by inadequate F-86 Sabres or P-80 Shooting Stars, the exact make and model depending upon which piece of stock footage we're looking at. Wonder! why you wasted 80 or so minutes of your life—or, in my case, 160.
I could have watched most of Lawrence of Arabia, but I didn't.
In some ways, Gog is the quintessence of 50s SF: sexist, xenophobic, militaristic, conformist, pompous, and deeply in love with outlandishly stupid science and the shiny future it seemingly promised. Unfortunately, in boiling 50s SF down to those base elements, it dispenses with all the fun, humor, and humanity that brings so many of its kindred alive—and keeps them living still.
That which is indistinguishible from magic:
- Steel, of which Gog and Magog are explicitly constructed, melts at around 2500 degrees Fahrenheit. I'm just saying... just saying I don't think that wussy flamethrower would've done the job, is what I'm just saying.
- Dr. Sheppard and his new buddy Dr. Pervert are too committed to leering at a female astronaut while she's training to care that the scientific demonstration they're watching also involves the direct manipulation of gravity. These guys must have wet dreams in the middle of the Goddamned day—and in a zero-G environment with a lot of delicate electronics, that's just dangerous.
- The anti-radiation gear of 1954 apparently resembles a cheap raincoat, and instead of taking it off in an airlock, guys that work with radioactive material just wander around the whole facility. It's doubly funny that while a man who's at least pretending to have proofed himself against cancer searches for a radioactive assassination pellet, Dr. Sheppard and the rest of the cast stand five feet behind him in their lousy jumpsuits with grave but not too-worried expressions on their faces, waiting.
- In a related vein, one of the last lines of the film is "It isn't serious, just a little too much radiation."
- Ms. Merritt walks around dangerous labs in open-toed shoes.
- Why did Gog stop when the plane was destroyed? Did the commie in the plane give NOVAC an instruction, in which case Gog should have continued attacking—which, you know, might have made for a passable climax—or was he controlling the robutt with a little joystick the entire time? Wouldn't that be dumb?
- Diagnosis: hysteria. Prescription: take one SLAP!—and call me whenever you want, baby.
- Ms. Merrit, referring to the equalizing properties of zero-G: "In space, there's no such thing as a weaker sex." Dr. Sheppard: "That's why I like it here!"
- All the cool parts about destroying our national enemies from space.
- You'll learn to love your speedsuit, Dean!
- Less wundaful than it is actively depressing, a scientist's prediction that it would only ever be robots in outer space was proven wrong shortly after Gog's release, but he's gotten the last laugh.
- The single most legitimately amusing thing in Gog—very nearly the only legitimately amusing thing in Gog—is a bit of deliberate anticlimax. The scientist that most resembles Dr. Strangelove, in charge of NOVAC and the robots, has an argument with Dr. Sheppard regarding those all-important regulations. As Sheppard leaves, he grabs Gog's control device and activates the deadly machine... in order to close the door Sheppard left open. In the future, Man will be Lazy.