Monday, January 25, 2010


It was not until the 1950s that science fiction emerged as a prolific film genre. There had been sporadic excursions into the unknown throughout the preceding decades (prominently among them Fritz Lang's Metropolis [1925] and William Cameron Menzie's Things to Come [1936], as well as the Flash Gordon [1936-40] and Buck Rogers [1939] serials), but it was only sixty years ago that production of these features went into overdrive, alchemically blending new, often ominous, technology with the purest pulp fantasy to produce cinematic gold. The romance of machines quickly dominated the motion picture industry, just as rock and roll would soon rule radio, and our collective unconscious would never be quite the same again.

Even at their most cynical, these fantasias reflected the fears and fascinations of their times. There was a subgenre for nearly every theme imaginable, from nuclear paranoia to time twisters, alien invasion to space opera. Like its cousins, this last category combined reds-under-the-beds hysteria with an explicit sense of wonder. As the super powers began reaching for the inner solar system, thematic concerns of totalitarianism and impending disaster would persist until the end of the Cold War, while their mutant offspring, the Special Effects Extravaganza, has outlasted both space and arms races to become the cultural norm.

Although Kurt Neumann's exploitation quickie, Rocketship X-M (1950), beat producer George Pal's same-year Destination Moon to the screen by four months, it is Pal's film which is generally considered to have inaugurated the Hollywood Space Race. Directly inspired by Robert A. Heinlein's fondly-remembered juvenile novel, Rocket Ship Galileo (1947)--in which three enterprising teens and a Manhattan Project physicist refit a mail rocket and journey to the moon, where they foil, of all things, a Nazi plot--Destination Moon eliminates the fascist foofaraw to become a hard-science, no-frills affair, which is both the picture's strength and its weakness. Accordingly, it stands out from the more fanciful films that monopolized the field of interstellar travel; Heinlein himself mercifully vetoed "a version of the script which included dude ranches, cowboys, guitars, and hillbilly songs on the Moon, plus a trio of female hepsters singing into a mike."

Airplane manufacturer Jim Barnes (John Archer) and Army General Thayer (Tom Powers) convince a skeptical group of investors to defy the peacetime inaction of the (obviously Communist-infiltrated) U.S. government and fund scientist Charles Cargraves' (Warner Anderson) lunar rocket. "Why go?" one of the moneybags asks Barnes. "We'll know when we get there," he replies matter-of-factly. "We'll tell you when we get back."

To drive their message home, Barnes screens for the men, and audiences everywhere, an amusing Woody Woodpecker short which demonstrates the feasibility, as well as the necessity, of an American moon shot. General Thayer seals the deal with a Red Scare scenario in which a foreign power reaches the moon first and controls Earth with missiles. Silence. Lionel Lindon's camera pans across a sea of identically somber faces. The businessmen cough up the capital.

Of course, there is the inevitable federal intervention, as the space pioneers are forbidden to test their atomic engine in the Mojave Desert. Meanwhile, the Fourth Estate manufactures public protest. "Somebody's out to get us," Barnes declares. (Nameless saboteurs have already exploded an experimental rocket in the film's opening.) The industrialist decides to launch almost immediately; when Cargraves points out that no flight crew has been trained, Barnes counters that the take-off is fully automatic. The intrepid trio add insufferable comic relief Joe Sweeney (Dick Wesson) to their team when his fellow technician falls ill, and depart just before dawn and the arrival of a court injunction.

Numerous factors must be contended with: g-forces, the influence of which causes the astronauts to pull the sort of distorted faces (actually masks) most often seen on hammy guitarists; ghastly noises as their direct flight ship, Luna, breaks the sound barrier; spacesickness; and Sweeney's heinous harmonica interludes. When it is discovered that the radar antenna is frozen solid--Luna cannot land without it--Cargraves, Barnes, and Sweeney embark upon the cinema's first spacewalk, and a magnificent accomplishment it is. Dangerous, too: the scientist drifts off the rocket and has to be rescued by Barnes, who ingeniously operates an oxygen tank to reach him.

Like Apollo 11 in real life, Luna nearly runs out of fuel before it sets down on the moon. Barnes and Cargraves descend to the desolate brown-and-grey landscape while Leith Stevens' music swells, and Cargraves solemnly claims our nearest neighbor: "By the grace of God, in the name of the United States of America, I take possession of this planet on behalf of, and for the benefit of, all mankind." (Neil Armstrong would strike a not terribly dissimilar note nineteen years later.) The astronauts take photographs and perform a mineralogical survey, but their work, regrettably, is all for naught, as Barnes has wasted reaction mass on their touchdown, so the men have to strip the ship to its bare essentials before they can return home. For a while it looks as if one of them (Sweeney volunteers) will have to remain behind, but Barnes eventually figures out a way for all of them to depart, minus their radios, harmonica, and carnival balloon spacesuits. (These colorful outfits were presumably found by explorers from the Red Planet and recycled for Lesley Selander's Flight to Mars [1951]). As Luna hurtles through space, Earth looms onscreen. "This Is The End," the credits inform us, "Of The Beginning."

It was, indeed, especially for Pal, who would carve quite a name for himself in fantastic cinema. His efforts would improve throughout the decade; the sometimes mundane realism of this film was jettisoned in favor of more imaginative releases such as his following feature, When Worlds Collide (1951). However, Destination Moon remains a groundbreaking work; the straightforward script--Heinlein himself was a co-writer with Alford "Rip" Van Ronkel and James O'Hanlon--together with the superb astronomical art of Chesley Bonestell, Ernst Fegte's marvelous sets, Lee Zavitz's deservedly Oscar-winning special effects, and the technical advice of rocket man Hermann Oberth, all combined to take viewers on a surprisingly prescient voyage, and the significance of that expedition endures more than half a century later, despite former character actor Irving Pichel's sometimes workmanlike direction. (He also provides uncredited narration for the Walter Lantz cartoon.)

The moon adventures that immediately followed offered outrageous alternatives to Pal's and Heinlein's clear, courageous vision, and it would only be with Robert Altman's Countdown (1968) that the subject of a lunar landing would again be realistically rendered. In retrospect, the actual U.S. touchdown, although obviously a splendid achievement, was itself curiously anti-climactic. "Science fiction got there first," J.G. Ballard melancholically observed in 1993, "just as it has anticipated so much of our lives, effectively taking all the fun and surprise out of existence." The genre, it appears, has done much of our living for us, while the Inner Space advocated by the British New Wavers of the Sixties remains largely uncharted.

Image's 2000 "5oth Anniversary Edition" DVD is part of the Wade Williams Collection and sports attractive Technicolor (the spacesuits are especially vibrant), as well as an acceptable amount of grain and scratches; reel changes, however, are particularly rough. In worse shape is the film's re-release trailer, which ridiculously raves about "the black, airless void of terror-stricken space." The ninety-one minute fullscreen transfer offers fifteen chapter stops, as well as dust jacket liner notes which are supposedly continued inside the snapper case; my copy of the insert sheet, alas, does not contain them.