Friday, 23 August 2013

The Conquest of Space (1955)

The Conquest of Space is one of producer George Pal’s lesser-known movies.  Made for Paramount in 1955 it’s an interesting attempt to do a realistic space travel movie.

Colonel Samuel Merritt (Walter Brooke) has always been obsessed with the idea of space travel. Now his dreams are coming true - a giant space station (known as The Wheel due to its circular shape) designed by him orbits the Earth and a spacecraft, also designed by him, is about to undertake the first manned voyage to the Moon. This voyage is intended to be a test mission, with the ultimate objective being to go to Mars.

Six hand-picked astronauts have been training and preparing for the mission for a year. The spacecraft is designed for a crew of five. Since the Colonel will be leading the mission and since he has made sure of a place in the crew for his son Captain Barney Merritt that means that only three of the six astronauts will be chosen to undertake the momentous journey.

At the last moment the multi-national space agency decides on a dramatic change of plans. The test mission to the Moon is cancelled. The spaceship will be going to Mars instead. The new orders also include a promotion for the mission commander. He is now General Merritt.

After blasting off a surprising discovery is made - the General’s old pal Sergeant Mahoney has stowed away. He has followed the general in every previous posting and he has no intention of not following him to Mars.

The ship will encounter a number of obstacles, most of which (such as meteors) had been anticipated. What no-one had expected was that the commander of the mission would suddenly develop religious scruples about it. This plot twist is more than a little problematical. It comes entirely out of left field and it is difficult to comprehend exactly why General Merritt has suddenly decided that space travel is blasphemy.

The ship reaches Mars but that’s when things start to go wrong. It soon becomes obvious that the whole mission was badly thought out. The astronauts have no idea what they’re supposed to do now that they’re reached the Red Planet.

The other weakness of the mission is that the crew members turn out to be an assortment of misfits who perform badly under pressure and seem to know remarkably little about either space travel or the planet Mars. In fact the mission is the sort of shambles you’d expect from a multi-national agency; it appears to be little more than a massive PR exercise. The only positive thing the astronauts do on Mars is to plant a few flowers, and that’s only because Sergeant Imoto (Benson Fong) decided on his own initiative to bring some along with him. How he expects them to grow in soil that contains no organic matter is never explained.

The major problem with trying to make a science fiction movie about space travel that does not include monsters or aliens or any of the usual features of such films is that you are likely to end up with a movie that resembles a boring documentary. The writers obviously had to come up with some dramas to keep things interesting and they made the decision to have the dramas come from the mounting tensions among the crew. That’s a valid approach but to make it work you really need better actors than this movie boasts. The acting is of fair-to-middling B-movie standard but not of a high enough standard to make us care very much about the fates of the characters, a problem exacerbated by the fact that the script doesn’t make any of them any more than two-dimensional stereotypes.

This movie performed indifferently at the box office. It is likely that the main reason for this is its very slow pacing. We’re forty minutes into the film before the voyage to Mars begins, and that forty minutes feels like a great deal of unnecessary padding.

The title may have had an unfortunate effect on the box office as well, making the movie sound like a documentary.

There’s also some comic relief that really should have ended up on the cutting room floor.

While this movie has more than its fair share of flaws it also has a few major pluses. The biggest of these is the special effects. With George Pal producing you’d expect the movie at least to be visually impressive and it is. The miniatures shots are done well and both the space station and the Mars spacecraft look much more convincing and much more interesting than anything you’ll see in most 1950s sci-fi flicks. The special effects were outstanding by the standards of 1955 and they still hold up surprisingly well.

There are fewer than average glaring scientific blunders as well. The makers of the film remembered that the astronauts would be weightless for most of the voyage. There are a few scenes of weightlessness but keeping that up through the entire movie would have been a chore, but at least explanations are offered for the fact that the crew members aren’t floating about the cabin - they have magnetic shoes, and the space station spins to produce simulated gravity.

Paramount’s DVD release is 16:9 enhanced and looks magnificent. The movie looks like it was made yesterday rather than the best part of six decades ago.

The Conquest of Space doesn’t have much in the way of thrills to recommend it and it takes itself too seriously to appeal to viewers looking for camp appeal. It’s a movie that is possibly worth a rental if you’re very much of a hardcore fan of 1950s science fiction movies.


Randall Landers said...

I recommend it highly because so much of it is based on the Collier's magazine articles of the 1950's. This film was the embodiment/realization of Chester Bonestell's artwork for same as well. Otherwise, it's a pretty lame plot with the sarge blaming the "boy" for the old man's death.

SampleScience said...

I liked it very much because of it's great special effects and philosophical commentary. Even if it's not the most profound commentary I've heard, it's well worth a watch.