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PROJECT X (1968)

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"We were waiting for you, Hagan. You’re a living, breathing bomb of death - set to go off in fourteen days...."
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Director: William Castle

Starring: Henry Jones, Christopher George, Harold Gould, Phillip Pine, Monte Markham, Lee Delano, Ivan Bonar, Robert Cleaves, Greta Baldwin, Sheila Bartold, Keye Luke

Screenplay: Edmund Morris, based upon two novels by Leslie P. Davies

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Synopsis: The year is 2118. Dr Crowther (Henry Jones) shows the cryogenically preserved body of geneticist and historian, Hagan Arnold (Christopher George), to Colonel Holt (Harold Gould), the Head of Security. Holt demands that Arnold be brought back to life, and when Crowther protests, reminds him of the imperative need to understand the final message transmitted by Arnold before his plane crashed. Crowther argues that even if Arnold could be revived, he would have no memory. Under pressure from Holt, Crowther then concedes that it might be possible to tap into Arnold’s subconscious to obtain the information they need. Holt insists that Crowther and his team of scientists begin work at once, informing them that Arnold’s message indicated that the Western world would be destroyed in fourteen days - four of which have already passed. Holt’s second-in-command, Colonel Cowen (Ivan Bonar), tells Crowther’s team that Arnold was sent into Sino-Asia to investigate a rumour that the Sinoese had found a way of mass producing male babies, and that he apparently discovered something else as well. The team discusses the best ways of getting the information they need. Dr Tony Verity (Lee Delano), a behavioural scientist, tells the others that, once revived, Arnold needs to be kept in one place, yet not put under restraint. He suggests making Arnold believe that he has committed a crime, and must hide out. When Lee Craig (Phillip Pine) objects that crime was eliminated generations earlier, Verity reminds the team that Arnold was an historian specialising in the 1950s and 1960s. A new identity is chosen for Arnold: that of "Alan Fraser", killed during a bank robbery in 1968. Crowther announces that a new matrix, or personality, will be fed into Arnold’s subconscious, giving him just enough information to function. Holt is told that a new environment will need to be built, one that replicates the conditions of 1968. When the site has been prepared, and Arnold given his matrix and dressed appropriately, he is woken from his state of unconsciousness by gunshots and sirens. Lee Craig, posing as a member of "Alan Fraser’s" gang, drags Arnold towards their farmhouse hideout. Arnold is bewildered, but responds instinctively to Craig’s urgency. At the farm, Craig introduces Arnold to "Doc Crowther", the supposed owner of the house, and to Sybil Dennis (Sheila Bartold), another of the team who is posing as Craig’s wife. Although Arnold has no clear memory of any of the people in the house, he tries to conceal it. The men have a drink. Unbeknownst to Arnold, his is drugged. When the sedative takes effect, electrodes are attached to Arnold’s head. In a laboratory adjacent to the farmhouse, Dr George Tarvin (Robert Cleaves) starts his laser hologram equipment, via which images can be sent into the human brain, or images from the brain received and recorded. Crowther and his team hope that by sending Arnold’s subconscious images of what transpired before he left for Sino-Asia, they will be able to stimulate his memory to recall the information that may decide the fate of the Western world.

Comments: The Tingler? Homicidal? The House On Haunted Hill? Maybe Rosemary’s Baby? What film comes to mind when someone mentions William Castle? If there was any justice in the world, it might well be Project X, an unusually serious Castle production that has some grim things to say about the state of American society, both contemporary and future. Although nominally science fiction, those elements are the least successful part of the film. Ultimately, the feeding of information to the brain, and the recording of the images stimulated there, is merely an elaborately disguised flashback device. The real interest in Project X lies in its political content.

In my review of Colossus: The Forbin Project, I commented upon the fact that 1968 had seen the release of a clutch of intelligent science fiction and horror movies that either dealt forthrightly with the conditions of that time, or held out a warning for the future. Project X is yet another of those movies. At first, the film appears to be a fairly savage attack upon the America of 1968, as viewed from an apparently utopian future. In order to become familiar with "one hundred and fifty years ago", Crowther and his team view video footage from 1965 - 1968. We see demonstrations, riots, police beatings. A series of newspaper headlines flash upon the screen: murder, armed robbery, carnage upon the roads. As the scientists look on, appalled, Dr Crowther observes drily that, "You’ve just had a glimpse of what’s known as ‘the good old days’." (Henry Jones’ performance as Crowther is excellent, and his reading of that line alone is worth the price of admission [or rental].) In Hagan Arnold’s artificial environment, nurse Sybil Dennis stumbles across an issue of "Millionaire Magazine", and is frankly disgusted with the content. ("Well, it wasn’t culture, but they do say it was popular," Lee Craig remarks apologetically.)

In contrast, we learn that in the America of 2118, "crime and violence" were eliminated "three generations ago", as were most diseases. This attractive view of the future is swiftly undercut, however, as we learn that these are not the only things that have been "eliminated". Free-standing housing, land ownership, and the natural production of organic foods are amongst the things that have been sacrificed in the name of progress. Much of the population works in huge factories, to which they are "assigned", with the work done in rigid shifts under unceasing supervision. Although it is not stated outright, America’s government has clearly fallen into the hands of a military that considers failure the equivalent of treason. As is the case with the rest of the world, America is dangerously overpopulated, and is locked into its ceaseless battle with "Sino-Asia" as much, one feels, through the need for space as through the conflict of ideologies.

The question of world population underlies much of Project X. It is to investigate the rumour that the Sinoese have succeeded in "breaking the genetic barrier" and producing only male babies that Hagan Arnold is sent on his dangerous mission. Fascinatingly, the reaction of the Western world to this rumour is completely without a moral aspect. No-one is at all disturbed by the fact of the Sinoese discovery, only that the Sinoese have beaten them to the punch: the American scientists, we learn, are on the brink of the same breakthrough. And this is clearly not the only move made towards controlling the population. The most chilling scene in Project X is a casual conversation between Sybil Dennis and Karen Summers, a young woman whom Hagan Arnold encounters briefly after fleeing his artificial environment. Taken into custody, Karen is shown to her quarters by Sybil, who comments admiringly on how pretty she is, then inquires whether she is a "sterrie". The meaning behind this cryptic remark is revealed when Karen responds that, no, when she marries, she will be "permitted" to have two children.

If there is anything worse than this vision of a future of enforced sterilisation, it is the film’s clear inference that it is Karen’s physical attractiveness that qualifies her to reproduce. This is further underscored by her relationship with Hagan Arnold. At the film’s conclusion, Dr Crowther calmly informs Karen that Arnold has been given a whole new "matrix" that includes memories of his wife – that is, her. Since Karen has known Arnold for about an hour, and that with a personality not his own, her delight in Crowther’s announcement can mean only one thing: that Arnold’s own appearance meets all the desired criteria for a breeding partner; his character is irrelevant. The nonchalant way in which Crowther arranges Arnold’s future is typical of the discomforting view of science in the future presented in Project X. By 2118, the rights of the individual have been swept away. By government order, people are cryogenically preserved, or not; have their memories wiped if it is convenient; have new personalities installed as it becomes necessary. (These acts lend an unsettling undercurrent to the "elimination" of violence and crime.).

The film’s view of Crowther and his team is, not surprisingly, rather divided. On one hand, they are presented as the film’s heroes, the voice of reason against the bloody-mindedness of the military. On the other, most of their actions are, ethically, quite horrifying. The relationship of science and the military is clearly an uneasy one, the former deprecating the latter’s actions, but unable to do anything but obey orders; and the latter deeply suspicious of every move of the former (it takes only a single accusation of disloyalty against Crowther for Holt to interpret his supposed "failure" as an act of deliberate sabotage). The script excuses, if not justifies, the scientists by showing them as completely under military command; and in turn, excuses the behaviour of the military with its view of the world situation.

Paradoxically, the interest of Project X lies as much in what its writers were unable to imagine as in what they were. For instance, the crop of male babies produced by the Sinoese may be their answer to overpopulation, but the underlying threat is one of armies of limitless number. Obviously, the thought of women and men side by side in the armed forces was too incredible even for speculative science fiction. Similarly – and rather charmingly – while positing a future of government-controlled reproduction, the screenplay simultaneously suggests that conventional marriage will still be the norm (even if, occasionally, it too is government imposed).

However, the most intriguing piece of lack of imagination (so to speak) is the fact that Project X’s writers were clearly unable to conceive of a time in which there would be no Cold War. Even one hundred and fifty years into the future we have two Superpowers battling for world control. Intriguingly, the Sino-Asians, as the bad guys are now known, are led by the Chinese. When Hagan Arnold is captured, the viewer is treated to a marvellous scene of the confrontation between the American agent and the leader of the enemy, Sen Chui. Admitting that the Sinoese have a new "super weapon", Sen Chui instantly compares it to the atomic bomb, stating bluntly that Sino-Asia will "do as you did, when you harnessed nuclear power." As this scene progresses, it looks as if we are leading up to a kind of James Bond-esque disclosure, where the villain reveals to the hero what his plan for world domination is and how to thwart it. Then, at the last moment, Sen Chui stops and smirks, "What is it you Occidentals say? That we’re ‘inscrutable’? I will remain inscrutable." The weapon developed by the Sino-Asians is truly a frightening one, because it is real, and because in the society presented in this film, it would work. And there is yet another edge to it: it turns one of the Western world’s genuine areas of progress against itself; and it relies upon one of the government’s standard unethical procedures to activate it.

Plenty of food for thought, then, in Project X – enough to override the film’s budgetary limitations and script contrivances. As I mentioned earlier, the actual "science fiction" elements of the story are easily the least credible things about it. The special effects are also fairly rudimentary; in fact, one lengthy flashback/memory is actually a piece of animation prepared by Hanna-Barbera. However, the straightfaced playing of an earnest cast compensates for much of this. In addition to Henry Jones’ show-stealing turn as Crowther (the scene where he gets his revenge upon Holt by reciting in loving detail the particulars of colonel’s seemingly inevitable death is a scream [see "Immortal Dialogue"]), Phillip Pine, Lee Delano and Robert Cleaves give solid, convincing performances. While much of the film’s action takes place in the 1960s "setting" created for the psychological manipulation of Hagan Arnold (a beautifully clever way of overcoming the need for expensive sets), the "futuristic" settings are pure sixties. Then there’s the question of the costume design. Clearly, the fashion styles of the future were the one thing the film-makers had more trouble imagining than a change in the political climate. The military men wear pantsuits rather than uniforms, with "helmets" made of clear plastic, while male civilians seem to favour square smock-tops over stretch pants and vinyl knee-boots. As for the women--- Well, let’s just say that in 2118, skirts will be worn really, really high.