Rocketship X-M was the movie that started the cycle of US space exploration movies of the 1950s. The movie that was supposed to launch this cycle was George Pal’s Destination Moon but Lippert Pictures rushed Rocketship X-M into production and got into movie theatres first.
The first spaceflight to the moon goes horribly wrong and the five hapless astronauts end up on Mars instead (an easy mistake to make). There they discovered the ruins of civilisation devastated by nuclear war, with the survivors having reverted to a stone age culture. They return to Earth determined to warn humanity of the perils of the arms race and the Cold War. But will they have sufficient fuel to make it home?
Rocketship X-M was co-scripted by the blacklisted Dalton Trumbo and it has a strong political message, although unfortunately it’s delivered in the very heavy-handed way that was so typical of Hollywood. The film’s tone is pessimistic almost to the point of despair and is probably the bleakest of all 50s American science fiction movies. The movie does have its virtues. The acting is competent, and there’s at least an attempt at human drama.
Visually, despite its fairly low budget, it’s quite impressive. The use of sepia tinting for the Martian scenes works extremely well. Tinting was a technique common in the days of silent cinema that is rarely scene in movies of such a late vintage, and it’s a technique that is surprisingly effective. The spaceship itself is extraordinarily phallic but the model shots are reasonably well done. The movie manages not to look cheap.
Rocketship X-M has most of the cliches of Eisenhower era sci-fi, but it did them first so they weren’t really cliches yet. Of course in a 1950s science fiction movie you expect bad science and you certainly get it in this one. The science is very bad, but it’s all done with a straight face. There’s not a trace of camp in this flick. Writer-director Kurt Neumann was trying to make this a fairly serious statement on the future of humanity, and it’s closer in spirit to The Day the Earth Stood Still than to most of the space operas that followed. And like The Day the Earth Stood Still it suffers somewhat from taking itself too seriously and from being embarrassingly unsubtle.
You also expect outrageous sexism, and you get that too. Needless to say the scientist in charge of the project has a beautiful female assistant, and needless to say she becomes less of a scientist and more of a “real” woman, and she discovers the importance of love. There was something about sci-fi that really brought out the sexism in 50s writers. There’s some cringe-inducing dialogue, also standard for movies of this type.
What makes this movie memorable in spite of its flaws is its staggering degree of pessimism, its complete lack of gee-whizz enthusiasm. Pessimism and optimism do tend to co-exist rather uneasily in American science fiction films of the 50s and it’s interesting to see that mixture present right at the start of the decade. Overall it’s short and punchy and well-paced and it’s a gripping enough story. Worth a look.