Monday 1 January 2007

Destination Moon (1950)

It's 1950 and Hollywood was about to go nuts with scifi B-movies, which were often as completely stupid and unrealistic as they were fun to watch. However producer George Pal, who would go on to direct The Time Machine and 7 Faces of Dr Lao, wanted something a little more realistic. So he made a science fiction film rather than a scifi movie, and yes there's a serious difference.

He started off on the right foot by basing the script on a novel by legendary sf writer Robert A Heinlein and even to hire him to contribute to the screenplay. Rocketship Galileo is not one of his best but Heinlein's worst roughly equates to the best most other writer's could come up with, even now. Beyond Heinlein, he even hired people with titles like 'Technical Advisor of Astronomical Art'. You won't see things like that on any other fifties movies, that's for sure, and I'm pretty sure that you won't see Woody Woodpecker anywhere else giving us a lesson in ballistics. That cartoon section was done so well that even NASA took it on and updated it so they could educate the public.

The film is in technicolor and starts off with a rocket launch that goes bad, potentially through sabotage rather than bad engineering. The crusaders behind it know what they're doing and so decide to avoid issues with ongoing military funding and hit the private sector. In comes Jim Barnes to take charge and unite key industry leaders into doing their part, which is why we get to see Woody Woodpecker. With the sheer optimism of a lot of early American science fiction, all this works out fine and off they head to the moon.

To be fair the reason that so much of the golden era of science fiction turned out so overly optimistic is far more the fault of the people who failed to put much of it into action than those who came up with the concepts in the first place. There's a lot more obvious Heinlein here too, from the realistic dialogue, both political and technical, to the avoiding of red tape. Barnes realises that their take off is going to get blocked because of public concerns about atomic energy, so he applies the logic that as nobody had ever done it before there can't be a law against it, and so takes off that night just before the court order arrives to prohibit it.

I really appreciated the realism which was more than a little refreshing. The whole sequence of scenes when they first take off was wonderful: the four astronauts being pushed into their bunks by the takeoff, coping with zero gravity when they go into free orbit, awkwardness taking pills or manoeuvering around in magnetic boots, drinking from pouches... all wonderful. Admittedly much of it is explained a little clumsily, through the device of a non-technical last minute replacement crew member, so as to be followable by everyone watching, but that's easily forgiveable. The spacewalk accident doesn't fall far of Flash Gordon territory though, the lunar landscape is a painting (though admittedly a damn fine one) and that extra crew member gets to be rather annoying. He reminded me very much of the idiot crew member in the title segments of Amazon Women on the Moon, though thankfully he doesn't have a pet monkey.

Incidentally there are actors in here, such as John Archer, Warner Anderson, Tom Powers, Dick Wesson and Erin O'Brien-Moore, and they do a perfectly acceptable job. They're just not really that important in the great scheme of things. It's the story that matters and how it was done. The biggest flaw is that the film just isn't long enough to cover everything it wanted to cover, and I'm not complaining about that.

1 comment:

benning said...

Hi, Poe!

I remember this film. Nowadays it feels kind of silly, but it did have a more realistic feel to it than almost all of the SF-B flicks to come.

That extra character is an old device, it seems, in Hollywood. It gets old quickly as the character always seems to be one cookie shy of a bag.