When the blending of science fiction and dinosaurs in movies comes to mind, the obvious example would be Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park, but even before Michael Crichton’s book saw the light of day, there was a little gem called Planet of Dinosaurs, an extremely low-budget sci-fi adventure film that dealt with a small group of space travellers fending off a variety of nasty dinosaurs, unfortunately, the film’s director, James K. Shea, had decided that most of the film’s budget would be spent on the special effects and not on the cast or props. Thus, we get some amazing and award-winning stop-motion dinosaurs, but everything else verges between the laughable and the godawful.
There isn’t much of a plot to Shea’s Planet of Dinosaurs as it’s mostly a survival story about a group of stranded people from the spaceship Odyssey and their travails while trying to find shelter on an alien world populated by dinosaurs. The movie opens with the Odyssey’s reactor going critical and Captain Lee Norsythe (Louie Lawless) being forced to crash-land the ship’s escape shuttle on a nearby planet that has an atmosphere and conditions much like that of Earth’s. To assure a somewhat “safer” landing, Norsythe decides on a water landing, which results in the ship quickly sinking beneath the lake’s surface vis-a-vis the original Planet of the Apes. The group does manage to swim safely to shore; unfortunately, communications officer Cindy (Mary Appleseth) quickly realizes that she forgot the radio aboard the ship and when she and crew member Chuck (Chuck Pennington) start to swim out and retrieve the radio, poor Cindy is attacked and eaten by some underwater monster. It’s at this point that the survivors realize that a long wait for a potential rescue is the least of their worries.
Even though most of Planet of Dinosaurs’ budget went towards the special effects, they still couldn’t afford to have wall-to-wall dino-action, so much of the film’s conflict stems from the bickering amongst the survivors. First up is Vice-President of Spaceways Incorporated, Harvey Baylor (Harvey Shain), who fills the role of “Rich Asshole” as he constantly complains about the situation and is quick to place blame on everyone else. What is surprising is that while looking for food, Harvey meets his end rather early on the pointy horn of a Centrosaurus (after he stupidly tried to raid its nest of eggs), and I was sure he was going to be the hero’s main foil for the duration of the film. Instead, he barely made it past the thirty-minute mark.
With Harvey out of the way, it’s ship engineer Jim (James Whitworth) who must now provide the remaining conflict for the duration of the film, and this comes in the form of his constant undermining of Norsythe’s decision to create a defensible settlement until they can be rescued, while Jim, on the other hand, believes that rescue is unlikely and that conquering the planet is their only viable option. At first, it seems that Norsythe will get his way, with him being “In Command” giving him the right to lead: “Nobody does what he thinks is right. You all do what I think is right. I’m in command here,” but when Harvey’s ex-secretary Derna Lee (Derna Wylde) is killed by a large Tyrannosaurus, demolishing his pathetic stockade in the process, he loses much of his support.
Yet, Jim’s argument for taking the fight to the dinosaurs isn’t much better, “Listen, centuries ago on Earth, wolves used to wipe out whole villages, until men went out and hunted them. Wolves learned. We’ve got to go out and teach them.” And he is backed up by crewmate Nyla (Pamela Bottaro) who comments that “Jim’s right; what are we going to do, sit around here like cattle in a pen waiting for that thing to come get us? Millions of years ago on Earth, an ape, an APE, took a club and killed his first predator. Well, we’ve gotta kill that thing, or… or that something inside of us, that dignity that makes us human, fear is going to kill that!” Do these two idiots realize that primitive man was up against such beasts as the sabretooth cat and mastodons which, though tough to kill, are not on par with giant fucking reptiles?
Note: This film’s T-Rex has a battle with the fictional Rhedosaurus from Ray Harryhausen’s classic The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms. Harryhausen himself visited the studio during production and gave his consent for the creature’s cameo appearance.
The two factions began fighting over differing plans on how to best poison the Tyrannosaurus — Norsythe wanting to leave poison bait outside the creature’s cave while Jim wanting to attack it with poison-tipped spears — but when Norsythe’s plan results in the death of another crew member, it’s all “Team Jim” from here on out. The film ends on a lighter note as it jumps years into the future where we find the survivors have set up an agricultural settlement; Chuck’s even got a kid at this point, and the prospect of rescue no longer seems all that important.
- Derna Lee slips while going through a swamp and drops one of their precious laser guns into the water. It’s submerged for about twenty seconds but is still rendered useless. So, basically, these guns could be destroyed by heavy rain.
- Much of the film consists of this ragtag group of people dropping weapons and supplies while looking for shelter; thus, any death among them could be considered Darwinism at work.
- One of the many items dropped along the way is the device that can determine what’s safe to eat, yet somehow the lack of this valuable instrument doesn’t result in anyone dying from food poisoning.
- Harvey Baylor assumes that the large eggs he finds must belong to a giant chicken despite having already seen the giant reptiles that inhabit this planet.
- Norsythe has them construct a stockade that looks as if it could be taken out by a determined toddler let alone a dinosaur.
- After Cindy’s death, which revealed that spaceflight uniforms consist of bikini undergarments, Chuck never again puts on a shirt.
If you are a fan of dinosaur movies then this is a must-see as the stop-motion work by Douglas Beswick is worthy of all the praise it got, which is not something that can be said about the direction. On the other hand, the writing and acting found in Planet of Dinosaurs has much in common with the television series Land of the Lost — which itself aired between 1974-1977 — with the annoying kids from that series being replaced by even more annoying adults. That all said and done, this is still a fun film to watch and one I can easily recommend to fans of the genre.
Planet of Dinosaurs (1977)
Movie Rank - 5/10
If you don’t mind bad acting and love some excellent stop-motion dinosaur action then there is much to enjoy in a viewing of Planet of Dinosaurs, its low production value may keep some fans away but there was enough charm on hand to keep me interested