Sunday, 25 October 2009

Project Moon Base (1953)

Project Moon Base is a 1953 space exploration film that bears the indelible stamp of its creator, science fiction writer Robert A. Heinlein. And I don’t mean that in a good way!

It does make some attempt to avoid the outrageous scientific blunders that characterise most sci-fi movies of its era, and that’s certainly a plus. Unfortunately it also incorporates Heinlein’s attitudes towards women, attitudes that can mot charitably be described as bizarre.

It’s set in what was then the fairly near future, in the late 1960s. The US has established an orbiting space station as a first step towards establishing a permanent base on the Moon, which is apparently a vital defence requirement. But the Enemies of Freedom are determined to destroy the station as part of their nefarious plans for world domination. Even by 1950s standards the anti-communist paranoia has a rather hysterical tone. The enemy has come up with an incredibly cunning plan - they have recruited exact doubles of hundreds of leading Free World scientists, astronauts and technicians. When a Dr Wernher is selected for the first mission to orbit the Moon, he is kidnapped and his place is taken by an enemy agent who is such a perfect double that no-one could possibly tell them apart.

The pilot chosen for the mission is Colonel Briteis, the woman who had made the first ever spaceflight several years earlier. Her co-pilot and second-in-command is Major Bill Moore, and he’s annoyed at being passed over for the command job, his annoyance being exacerbated by the fact that he and Colonel Briteis had been a bit of a romantic item at one time.

Despite a fairly low budget the effects don’t look too bad. The lunar surface looks ore realistic than in most films of this period, and spaceship models are cute in a sleek and streamlined 1950s way and the space station looks rather cool. A very nice touch is that since the station is in zero gravity the crew can choose to walk on either the floor or the ceilings, or even on the walls (although walking on the wall is prohibited in the corridors). So an important briefing takes place with two people seated at a desk anchored to the floor, and two others seated on chairs anchored on the opposite wall! This effect is rendered extremely well.

The plot starts off making a certain amount of sense, if you allow for the extreme paranoia and the basic unlikeliness of even the most diabolically clever enemy being able to find exact doubles for hundreds of peoples. As the movie progresses it gets slightly more unlikely, and towards the end becomes totally crazed as regards the romantic sub-plot. It was apparently originally intended as TV series, which may explain some of the creakiness of the plot.

The acting is as good as anyone could reasonably expect given the script and the often jaw-droppingly weird dialogue.

What really makes this one stand out, even among 1950s American sci-fi movies which are notorious for their sexism, is Heinlein’s understanding of the human female. Or more precisely his spectacular lack of understanding coupled with some extremely creepy ideas about relations between the sexes. On the surface it’s almost a proto-feminist film - the President of the United States is a woman, the commander of the lunar mission is a woman. But as was usual in Heinlein’s books, the women characters bear not the slightest resemblance to any woman who has ever actually lived, and are essentially sexual wish-fulfillment fantasies on the part of the author.

The most extraordinary example of this attitude towards women has to be the scene where the General in charge of the space program (who is creepily known as Pappy) tells Colonel Briteis that if she disobeys another order he’ll put her over his knee and give her a spanking. This was apparently Heinlein’s idea of the appropriate way for a superior officer to address a colonel in the US Air Force. I have an awful sinking feeling that it may well have been his idea of the appropriate way to address women in general.

After that, the ending in which Colonel Briteis willingly and enthusiastically accepts the natural superiority of men will come as no surprise. She’s already apologised for “going all female on him.”

And then there are the uniforms! Very brief shorts, combined with odd pixie hats.

So what you have is a movie that starts off looking like it might actually turn out to be a halfway realistic anticipation of future space exploration that ends up being something that can only be appreciated as a spectacular example of 1950s high camp. But it’s a movie you have to see, because you are most certainly not going to believe it until you’ve actually seen it for yourself.

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