Saturday, 2 August 2014

Destination Moon (1950)

Destination Moon is one of the most important science fiction movies ever made. It’s the movie that kicked off the space travel movie craze of the 1950s. Ironically it was beaten to the punch by Lippert’s low-budget Rocketship X-M but that movie would never have been made had it not not been for the publicity surrounding Destination Moon. Destination Moon was also the first movie to deal with space travel in a thoroughly realistic manner. It could almost be said that this is the movie that invented the Space Age.

This George Pal production was based on a novel by the great science fiction writer Robert A. Heinlein and Heinlein co-wrote the screenplay. Other movies have been based on Heinlein’s fiction but Destination Moon remains by far the most overtly Heinleinian of them all. 

There is no US government space program in this movie. A handful of visionary scientists and engineers who have been experimenting with rocketry for some years conceive the project. They had earlier worked on a US Air Force rocket program but when the rocket blew up the US government cut the funding. To General Thayer (Tom Powers), Dr Charles Cargraves (Warner Anderson) and aircraft manufacturer Jim Barnes (John Archer) the cancellation of the government’s rocket program isn’t a disaster, it’s a blessing. It means space research can now be left in the hands of free enterprise which means something might actually get achieved. And Thayer, Cargraves and Barnes don’t just intend to build a rocket - they intend to go to the Moon! In order to attract financing from the private sector they commission a Woody Woodpecker cartoon explaining the basics of rocketry. This cartoon adds a delightfully odd whimsical touch.

This moon mission is a private venture but that doesn’t mean the project is free of bureaucratic interference and politically-inspired attempts at sabotage. Interfering government busybodies intend to ban the mission but our three intrepid space pioneers get wind of this and decide to launch the rocket right away without testing. Heinlein was never shy about expressing his political views and he certainly makes his opinion of hand-wringing Nanny State bureaucrats very clear indeed.

At the last moment the spacecraft’s radio and radar operator has to drop out due to appendicitis so Joe Sweeney (Dick Wesson) is drafted to replace him. Wesson will provide the movie’s comic relief. The movie doesn’t really need the comic relief but luckily Wesson proves to be far less irritating than most of the actors providing comic relief in Hollywood movies of this vintage. 

The biggest surprise of the movie is that the spacecraft does not encounter a meteor storm en route to the Moon. There will be dangers and adventures but this film goes to great lengths to make these dangers plausible. It cannot be blamed for creating the meteor storm cliché but it does create the space-walking astronaut drifting off into space cliché.

Getting to the Moon is one thing. Getting home again is another. And that’s where the astronaut’s problems really begin.

Destination Moon proves that it is possible to make an exciting space adventure movie without abandoning scientific plausibility. There is genuine excitement and tension as the four astronauts, faced with the possibility of being marooned on the Moon forever, battle desperately to find a way to return home.

This movie won the Best Special Effects Oscar and was nominated for best Art Direction. The paintings representing the lunar surface don’t look particularly realistic but they do still look rather impressive. The spacecraft itself has a superb 1950s elegance to its design. 

Destination Moon’s sublime technological optimism and its faith in individualism, self-confidence and courage make a refreshing change from the guilt-ridden miseries of modern popular culture. 

Image Entertainment’s DVD is barebones (apart from a trailer) but it’s a reasonably good transfer. There’s some print damage and a few speckles but overall the image is crisp and the colour (the movie was shot in Technicolor) looks fine.

In its quest for realism Destination Moon did not inspire too many imitators but it did put science fiction on the map as far as movies were concerned, and it’s an entertaining movie. Heinlein’s uncompromising opinions give it a unique flavour. Highly recommended.

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