Thursday, August 25, 2016

Project X: A Bit of Mission: Impossible, a Pinch of Forbidden Planet, and a Dash of Jonny Quest

Chris George as Hagan Arnold.
One of William Castle's final films as a director, the seldom-shown Project X is a science fiction film brimming with innovative ideas--perhaps too many.

Set in 2118, it has a team of scientists trying to retrieve a forgotten secret from deep inside the mind of government agent Hagan Arnold (Christopher George). As a safety precaution prior to taking on an important mission, Arnold was injected with a drug that would erase his memory if tortured by the enemy (extreme pain activates it). The problem is that, shortly before he lost his memory, Arnold reported that Sino-Asia had developed a weapon that would destroy "the West" in fourteen days. But only Arnold knows what the weapon is and it's locked away in the bowels of his brain!

Greta Baldwin in the "kinery"--where
they turn milk into pills.
To stimulate him into remembering, the scientists provide Hagan with a "matrix"--a false identity complete with memories. They place him in an "anxious environment" by making him a bank robber in the 1960s hiding out with his cronies at an isolated house in the country. Every night, they affix electrodes to his brain and "watch" his subconscious memories, trying to gain information. Meanwhile, there's a mysterious man (Monte Markham) in the woods who's spying on Hagan and a pretty blonde at the nearby "kinery" that quickly befriends the amnesiac spy.

I originally saw Project X on network TV in the early 1970s. My memories of it turned out to be a little false as well. I recalled solely the portion of the plot in which the scientists create the fictional world for Hagan--a trick employed effectively in multiple episodes of TV's Mission: Impossible as well as the excellent James Garner outing 36 Hours (1964). But, as it progresses, Project X takes several unusual turns, even unleashing a sort of id monster reminiscent of Forbidden Project near the climax. Best of all, the "secret weapon"--when revealed--turns to be a diabolically ingenious one.

A Hanna-Barbera scene.
Unfortunately, a protracted running time, a low budget, and an overabundance of bright ideas keep Project X from standing alongside superior late 1960s sci fi efforts like The Power and The Forbin Project. Certainly, director William Castle deserves kudos for taking an out-of-the-box approach to keeping the production costs reasonable. He employed animation studio Hanna-Barbera to design some of the sequences visualizing Hagan's memories. Thus, in lieu of using miniature models to represent an underwater prison, we get an animated sequence. Sometimes, this works amazingly well and other times...well...it looks like a scene out of Jonny Quest (which it was in one sequence).

Henry Jones admires a brain.
The screenplay was adapted from two novels by Leslie P. Davies: The Artificial Man (1965) and Psychogeist (1966). Another Davies novel, The Alien (1968), served as the basis for the 1972 thriller The Groundstar Conspiracy, which also features a central character with amnesia.

I haven't read Davies' books, but hope his plots are tighter than Project X. Honestly, I can't imagine that any security team would be as inept as the one that guards Hagan. First, they don't re-route the telephone, thereby allowing a potential enemy agent to call Hagan--twice. Then, they let Hagan wander off from the house on his own and interact with a contemporary woman (which should have destroyed the illusion of the 1960s). These are mistakes that the IMF would never make!

Still, despite its flaws, Project X remains a sporadically interesting sci fi feature. And, as mentioned earlier, the enemy's plan to destroy Western Civilization is a decidedly clever one.

4 comments:

  1. An interesting premise with the false memories and real memories being deleted if a person falls into enemy hands. I wonder what this movie might look like today if someone were to do a remake?

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    1. I think that, with the right budget and a streamlined plot, it could find an audience along the same lines as EDGE OF TOMORROW.

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  2. William Castle had good films and some really cheesy ones too, he never did find his stride. This one sounds like it is worth a gander even with its overabundance of ideas. However, I may check out The Power first. I was wondering why that title sounded familiar and then I remembered...I just sold a set of lobby cards from the movie a few days ago!

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  3. It's an interesting plot Rick, and your review makes it seem worth watching. For a while I thought the Manchurian Candidate mix was also going to be thrown in. Anyway, thanks for covering a relatively unknown film.

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