After watching countless b-movies, one of the rarest and greatest treats is coming upon something that’s far more complex and interesting than you thought it would be. I’m not a great fan of most of the science-fiction films of the sixties. After the Kennedy assassination, SF films in general feel like they are struggling to find a voice after the “gee-whiz” of the 40’s and cautionary tales of the 50’s. It isn’t until the 70’s that SF films caught on to the style of the New Wave authors and presented a more experimental and cynical view, at least until 1977 and Star Wars would change the landscape again.
I did go into ‘Project X’ knowing that it was a William Castle film, and despite his reputation for using gimmicks to sell his films, the movies themselves often contained subtleties and moments that were overshadowed by Castle’s own bombastic sales pitch. This movie was also Castle’s only foray into full-on science-fiction, which is noteworthy enough in itself.
The year is 2118. Crime has been eliminated and everyone lives in relative comfort. Overpopulation has resulted in everyone being sterilized, except those granted the right to have children. There’s also an ongoing cold war between the West and “Sino-Asia.” Hagen Arnold (Christopher George) is a historian turned American spy who informs the government that, “The West will be destroyed in 14 days.” After retrieving him, they find he has taken an amnesia inducing drug. In order to try and retrieve his memories, scientists attempt to create a false personality and scenario that might bring what he knows to the surface. Hagen was a historian of the 1950’s and 60’s, so they make a false 1968 and new personality for Hagen as bank robber on the run. Things are going smoothly until a technician, seemingly unaware the scenario, wanders into Hagen’s new life.
‘Project X’ is almost a perfect bridge between Atomic Age SF and New Wave SF in films, with its bizarre mix of cold war politics, and a brightly lit utopia that is far more sinister and soulless than it first appears. Science and the military have an uneasy alliance and are forced into performing a lot of questionable acts to stay one step ahead of their cold war enemies. The plot is relatively predicable up until the final act where it gets pretty strange. What’s far more interesting is the slow realization about just awful the world has actually become.
It also makes a lot of experimental choices in presenting its imagery (something Castle is no stranger to, see the LSD trip in ‘The Tingler’ (1959) for an example.), There are psychedelic elements and a lengthy animated flashback sequence, sitting neatly amongst blinking computer banks and improbable shiny future clothing.
‘Project X’ is an unjustly overlooked film in Castle’s body of work. It doesn’t have the charm of a glowing skeleton on a pulley or electrified chairs, but it is an example of an intelligent film that has more going on underneath the surface than you would expect.