Over the past few decades, I’ve made it my quest to track down and watch just about everything that I saw when I was young child, out of a mixture of curiosity and nostalgia. Surprisingly, I’ve found that I still really enjoy a good number of those films (e.g. THE MONSTER SQUAD, HARRY AND THE HENDERSONS, PEE-WEE’S BIG ADVENTURE, LITTLE MONSTERS, etc.), but that isn’t always the case.
Which brings me to 1977’s PLANET OF DINOSAURS. Initially, I had caught it on cable TV (on USA Network) and immediately fell in love with it. I was at a very special age, where I devoured any and all knowledge about sharks and dinosaurs: If it had scales or fins, and sent humans fleeing in terror, then it was right up my alley! On top of that, it was a post-STAR WARS world, and the idea of astronauts battling prehistoric monsters immediately won me over.
Decades later, I have finally revisited this cinematic blast from my past. My goal was to see if it still held up on its own merits, but also to see if it rekindled my childlike sense of wonder. Would I still get excited when the stop-motion dinosaurs raged across the screen? Would the film overall be as fun and awesome as I had recalled?
PLANET OF DINOSAURS begins with a small crew of castaways escaping their exploding spaceship, and crash-landing on a nearby Earth-like planet. Unsure if their distress signal was sent out in time, the survivors, led by their resolute Captain, Lee Norsythe (Louie Lawless), struggle for survival on the prehistoric planet. One by one, members of the crew perish at the teeth, claws, and horns of various dinosaurs.
Their numbers continue to dwindle when they cross paths with the film’s main antagonist: The mighty T-Rex! After losing several more of their companions to the hungry Theropod, the final five band together and take the fight to their enemy. If they succeed, they will cement humanity as the dominant species on the planet. If they fail, then their future as dino-poop is a certainty.
PLANET OF DINOSAURS was made during a lull in the dinosaur movie craze, so I suppose the filmmakers tried to jazz it up by capitalizing on the success of FOX’s immensely popular PLANET OF THE APES films. (Hence this film’s title.) The movie’s plot is a sound one: Futuristic astronauts fighting to survive on a prehistoric world full of creatures that have long been extinct back on Earth. Space age technology vs. primeval monsters just sounds like a no-brainer! And yet, the filmmakers somehow screwed it up!
How could a film featuring laser-toting astronauts battling dinosaurs be so freakin’ boring?! Mainly because the human characters that are supposed to drive the story are irredeemably dull! They argue over survival strategies, march through swamps, argue again, see dinosaurs off in the distance, argue some more, climb rocky terrain, see some dinosaurs, wash, rinse, repeat. There’s no attempts at character-building, and you really don’t give a damn about any of the shipwrecked crew at all.
The only character in the film that I actually liked was Jim (played by James Whitmore, a.k.a. Jupiter from THE HILLS HAVE EYES!), the bearded, tough, and gruff member of the group. He’s a no-nonsense guy, that says they should make weapons, and use their smarts to dominate this new world. However, Lee, the high-ranking officer, says that they should lay low, find a safe spot, and wait to be rescued, even though it’s painfully obvious that a distress signal was most likely never sent.
Ultimately, Lee’s defensive strategy proves disastrous, so Jim rallies everyone to take on the film’s big bad Tyrannosaurus Rex. This is when this slow-moving sci-fi tale finally begins to shine a bit. The stop-motion animation that brings the dinosaurs to life is fairly well done, courtesy of unsung effects wizard Doug Beswick. (A man that has worked on numerous genre films that I love, including TICKS, EVIL DEAD II, BEETLEJUICE, ALIENS, THE TERMINATOR, and several others!)
Doug’s effects really raise the bar for this low-budget production, and keeps this movie from becoming a total trainwreck. And thankfully, the producers for the film pumped the bulk of their money into making sure that PLANET OF DINOSAURS actually had plenty of dinosaurs! We get a Tyrannosaurus Rex, a Stegosaurus, a Brontosaurus, a Centrosaurus, Ray Harryhausen’s Rhedosaurus, a small Allosaurus, a Polacanthus, and even a large spider that menaces one of the female space travelers.
So, does PLANET OF DINOSAURS still live up to the lofty expectations of my inner child? Sadly no. After a whopping five attempts at watching the movie, I finally soldiered through it without falling asleep. But once I managed to slog through the first half of this insipid movie, the rest was a cakewalk. Despite its shortcomings, this movie does have its own sort of charm which, coupled with its award-winning effects and catchy synth-soundtrack (composed by Kelly Lammers and John O’Verlin), makes it relatively watchable. While I thoroughly enjoyed PLANET OF DINOSAURS’ moments of dino-mayhem, it sadly wasn’t enough to rescue this former childhood favorite from a rating of: