Monday 22 January 2007

Riders to the Stars (1954) Richard Carlson

There are a bunch of scientific advisors credited just after the cast, including a Space-Medicine Research expert and a location for acceleration research on human centrifuges. Could this really be a serious science fiction movie, while accompanied by such a sappy theme song sung by Kitty White, which for some bizarre reason redirects in Wikipedia to Helly Kitty dolls. Well, the introduction is a little generic and the editing sucks but it still has promise. The script is by Curt Siodmak who wrote dumb scifi as well as decent science fiction, though some of the actors don't seem to understand the lines they're being given to speak. The initial acting suggests that the presence of James Best in the cast may actually improve it.

Anyway the story starts out like House on Haunted Hill. A Man in Black or some such invites a dozen men to report to particular address in California but can't tell them why. They arrive on a bus together but aren't allowed to divulge their specialties. Most ominously they are asked to sign waivers because they're going to be subjected to tests, but again with no explanation. What it boils down to is that four of them are needed to fly a rocket up into space and capture a meteor in flight, so that the scientists can analyse its outer coating before it gets boiled away by entry into the atmosphere. James Best gets kicked off the project in no time, but a few others get picked and trained for the mission, including William Lundigan, Robert Karnes and the director of the film, Richard Carlson.

The whole point for all of this is based on a horrendous lack of understanding of materials science, but the tests and training exercises look admirably realistic and there's a lot of fascinating stock footage of early space experimentation. What else was refreshing here was the fact that of only two women in the film, a beautiful model and a space medicine nerd, the model is a superficial nothing and the nerd is an intelligent and sensitive soul. You don't see that too often nowadays, but I'm surprised to see it at all from 1954 and Martha Hyer ought to be proud of her early strike for geek feminism. To my mind that makes up for the often terrible editing, bad transition to stock footage and Hyer's highly overdone lipstick. However it certainly doesn't make up for the awful special effects though once the rockets head up into space: we see three really bad model rockets trying to catch really bad model meteors. The tiny ground control crew doesn't help.

All in all, allowing for the time, this one really isn't that bad. Metallurgically, romantically and from the standpoint of effects it sucks, but from the standpoint of space exploration from a 1954 perspective it's surprisingly solid.

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