Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Destination Moon!

There is no doubt that this is the golden Age of Science Fiction cinema. From the opening of Star Wars to films like I Am Legend sci-fi has enjoyed a three decade renaissance. In many ways the Science Fiction film has replaced the Western as a dominant genre. Certainly the two genres focus on many of the same themes.

1) The Rugged Individualist – Clint Eastwood’s “man with no name” from films like the good, The Bad and The Ugly would fit right in with Vin Diesel’s Riddick of Pitch Black fame. John Wayne and James Kirk are no so distant cousins.

2) High Noon – Ripley’s smack down with the Queen in Aliens could have been taken right from the script of High Noon.

3) New Frontiers – Star Trek is a rough cross between Wagon Train and Bonanza. Colonization of the “Wild West” and the “Final Frontier” evoke the same iconography.

However, Sci-Fi cinema had another (albeit shorter) Golden Age in the 1950s. From 1950 through 1957 Hollywood cranked out a huge number of Sci-Fi movies. Unlike their modern day counterparts, however, the 50’s genre film was more likely to be a political allegory. The Cold War was just heating up in 1950 and films like Invasion Of The Body Snatchers, Invaders From Mars and The Thing From Another World fed into the growing xenophobia and paranoia that was sweeping the country. Over the course of the next few weeks I will be taking a look at what I believe are the ten most influential Science Fiction films of the period. Those films are:

Forbidden Planet - 1956

Day the Earth Stood Still - 1951

Invasion Of The Body Snatchers - 1956

The Thing From Another World - 1951

War Of The Worlds - 1953

When Worlds Collide - 1951

Them! - 1954

The Incredible Shrinking Man - 1957

Rocketship X-M - 1950

Destination Moon – 1950

Let’s start with the first major Science Fiction film…Destination Moon.

In point of fact Rocketship XM beat Destination Moon to the theaters but the latter was in production first. RXM was rushed into production in a deliberate attempt to ride the coat tails of Destination Moon’s pre release publicity campaign.

The film was largely inspired by Chesley Bonestell’s artwork depicting the future of manned space flight which appeared in Collier’s magazine. Featuring sleek single stage rockets with fin tails and imagined extra terrestrial landscapes, Bonestell’s visuals captured the popular imagination. Bonestell actually created the matte paintings used in the film and Sci-Fi legend Robert Heinlein was heavily involved in the story process. All of this fell under the aegis of George Pal who was the George Lucas of his day. Pal would produce such genre classics as When Worlds Collide, and War Of The Worlds.

The plot of the film is very simple. Four American astronauts blast off from the New Mexico desert and fly to the Moon. They land after difficulties that cause more fuel to be used than anticipated. Consequently, the crew must race against time to lighten the ship for a successful return to Moon.

There are no “bad guys” or “monsters” to fight and no romantic sub plots. This film could have been a NASA recruiting tool except for the fact that NASA had not yet come into existence at the time of the film’s release. Pal saturated the film with state of the art science as we understood it at the time to make the film look absolutely authentic to a 1950’s audience. The political overtones were in the promoting of atomic power and the necessity of establishing a foothold in space before the Russians.

Although the details of a trip to the moon turned out to be significantly different from those enacted in Destination Moon, the basic science WAS sound. The film clearly predicted space walks, lunar landing maneuvers, and weightlessness. More importantly the film predicted the impact of man seeing the Earth from space which would become the single most iconic image of the 20th century.

Visually the film is stunning, shot in bright Technicolor with the George Pal gloss evident in every frame. Destination Moon was obviously a labor of love.

If the film disappoints in any area it is in the story itself. There simply is no real conflict in the movie other than man against the unknown. Emergencies are dealt with in a matter of fact manner which is also a foretelling of how NASA astronauts would deal with problems less than a decade later.

Destination Moon won the Academy Award for Visual effects, Lee Zavitz. The film was also nominated for the Academy Award for Best Art Direction.

While Destination Moon is not the perfect popcorn eater it is an essential Science Fiction film and very much worth your time.

That’s 30!

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