Directed by: Herbert L. Strock
Written by: Tom Taggart and Richard G. Taylor, from a story idea by Ivan Tors
Cast: Richard Egan, Constance Dowling, Herbert Marshall, John Wengraf
The science might be a bit dated, the Cold War paranoia a bit thick and the sexist behavior wince-inducing at times, but 1954's Gog is still quite entertaining.
A combination of an Agatha Christie novel and a Disney's "World of Tomorrow" documentary, the film delivers a taunt mystery and some suspenseful moments, while giving modern audiences a glimpse of the future our parents and grandparents envisioned for us.
Gog opens during a suspended animation experiment that results in the death of the lead scientist and his assistant. Both become trapped within the chamber when the door mechanism and control panels activate and trap them inside to freeze solid. Sure, you suspect the two could be revived, but the scientist falls out of view and you hear his body shatter upon hitting the floor. As his assistant suffers the same fate, they learn the hard way to be lying down during suspended animation.
Suspecting a saboteur in their midst, team leader Dr. Van Ness (Marshall) calls in Dr. David Sheppard (Egan) from the Office of Scientific Investigation. Sheppard flies out to the installation, buried under a desert in New Mexico, then meets up with undercover OSI agent Joanna Merritt (Dowling), who works as Van Ness's assistant. If you didn't guess that Sheppard and Merritt have a thing for each other, then you blinked when she first walks onscreen.
It's fortunate the villain isn't quite so obvious. Van Ness confides to Sheppard that several radio transmitters have been discovered at several locations in the base, raising concerns about a missile attack by a "hostile foreign power" ('50s code for Russia). As Sheppard tours the building, he meets other members of the team and begins to realize why the installation is being targeted. The scientists hope to launch a functional space station into orbit within a few years, equipped with a solar mirror to convert sunlight into energy. Of course, it could also send destructive beams back to Earth, incinerating buildings and boiling oceans and lakes dry. That's the reason "we" ('50s code for the US of A) have to launch first, so we can keep that pesky hostile foreign power from getting there first and attacking us from space. After all, we'd never do anything like that, right?
Upon visiting another lab, Sheppard witnesses an experiment to determine the effects of low gravity on humans. Though the installation is Earthbound, reversed magnetic polarity repels the metal studded garments worn by the test subjects, simulating a low-gravity environment. Be warned, this scene is where the '50s attitude toward women is on full display. It's pretty bad, but just grit your teeth and fast forward if you must, as that aspect of the film calms down quite a bit after this.
Next is a tour of the room that houses NOVAC (Nuclear Operative Variable Automatic Computer), which controls most of the equipment in the facility, as well as the robots Gog and Magog. Dr. Zeitman (Wengraf), who runs NOVAC, is quite vocal expressing his belief that robots, not humans, should be sent into space, setting him up as the prime suspect.
But Sheppard finds himself running out of time. Motion sensors detect a plane flying overhead, yet the radar system can't find a trace of it. The murder rate within the installation is skyrocketing and fears of a nuclear attack are diminished when Magog is found trying to remove the safety rods from the base's nuclear reactor. And no, I don't consider that a spoiler, because anytime one sees a robot in a '50s science fiction film, one has to expect a rampage.
The plot might be rather simplistic, but the film comes off as more sophisticated than you'd expect. The script never strays into the world of fantasy, remaining grounded in the science (and scientific speculation) of the time. NOVAC is only able to follow programs delivered on ticker tape, aliens aren't trying to stop our exploration of space and no one becomes invisible. While this limits the explanations for the murders, it forces the screenwriters to develop a believable resolution for the mystery, rather than relying on pure luck or a deus ex machina to defeat the saboteur.
Sure, a few minor plot holes exists, but I'll leave them for you to find. The writers delivered a pretty tight, well-thought-out mystery. And they were smart enough to use biblical references to drive home the Cold War propaganda. Both Gog and Magog are mentioned in the Bible, with the most relevant reference coming from the Book of Revelation, as representations of the nations that rally behind the Devil for the final assault on Christ and His followers. I'm not sure how many viewers were aware of that reference, but it's pretty clever. And it's hard to forget how these fears were amplified three years later with the launch of Sputnik, making the film rather prophetic.
Gog is the final film in Ivan Tors' "Office of Scientific Investigation" trilogy, released after The Magnetic Monster and Riders to the Stars. Like Gog, the earlier films deal more with science fact, rather than branching into the fantastic (the Magnetic Monster is an artificial radioactive isotope that absorbs energy). The films also share a common director, as Strock's IMDb page and other sources list him as the uncredited director of the previous films. It seems likely, as Gog moves at a brisk pace, even during scenes that could drag the film's momentum to a halt. For example, Sheppard's tour of the various labs could have become more like a dull science film that put students to sleep in high school. Yet Strock and the screenwriters keep all the characters active and engaged, discussing each experiment rather than having the head scientist tell everyone about what's happening.
My only real complaint about the direction is Strock edited too much stock footage of fighter jets into the climax. The scenes are important, but he could have trimmed a bit out and kept the focus on the rampaging robots (again, not really a spoiler!), which is what we all want to watch. Also, a few objects-racing-at-the-camera shots are rather annoying (the film was shot in 3D but, coming in at the end of the fad, it was released to most theaters in a 2D format) but easily overlooked.
The acting is better than your average B film from the '50s, but I can't really say much else. It's hard to fault the cast, however, as the script doesn't give them much to build upon, other than the basic stereotypes of the genre (and the era). But then, the characters are secondary to the story, and the actors do the best with what they're given.
Tors went on to create such classic television shows as Sea Hunt, Flipper and Daktari, and his company filmed the underwater sequences in the James Bond feature Thunderball. Though director Strock's screen credits include I Was a Teenage Frankenstein and How to Make a Monster, he also had a long career directing television shows.
Presented as part of the MGM Limited Edition Collection, the DVD does justice to the film's color and widescreen format. Since the film wasn't remastered, just transferred from the best available source, someone in the MGM vault found a near perfect copy of Gog. The colors look good, the picture is sharp and the audio is pretty clear. Of course, as a Made on Demand disc, the DVD contains no extras and might not play on DVD recorders or PC drives (it worked fine on my Mac), but the picture quality almost makes up for the lack of special features.
Though dated, Gog is a pretty effective thriller. Of course, you have to ignore the outdated science, the Cold War message and the rampant sexist attitudes. But if you're a fan of '50s sci-fi films, this might be one you'll want to add to your DVD collection.