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Sunday, March 24, 2013

Destination Moon (1950)

Directed by Irving Pichel
Written by Rip Van Ronkel, Robert A. Heinlein and James O'Hanlon (based on a novel by Heinlein)

John Archer:  Jim Barnes
Warner Anderson:  Dr. Charles Cargraves
Tom Powers:  General Thayer
Dick Wesson:  Joe Sweeney

I've always had a real soft spot for science fiction movies that actually have a significant amount of science in them. They're a rare breed on the ground--most of the time you get a film with FTL travel or laser swords (or both), humanoid robots or seeing that the lunar wildlife includes a Big Damn Spider For No Reason. It could be that audiences don't respond to flat-out correct science in their movies, or not know enough to care whether or not Tony Stark should be shredded meat inside his suit after a few punches from an opponent that can juggle cement mixers. Well, this movie was pretty much made for me. It's about engineering challenges, research, development, montages of Science Things, and the wonder and beauty of the interplanetary void as well as the human desire to explore and know. The space suits in 2001:  A Space Odyssey, made almost twenty years after this film, are brightly colored in a directorial hat-tip to the pressure suits in this movie; the exploration suits in the next decade's Alien are pale blue, faded red and washed-out yellow because Ridley Scott's aesthetic didn't allow for bright, new-looking fabrics but he still wanted to salute this film. It's a milestone in the development of cinematic science fiction and the type of stories that could be told.

Unfortunately, it's also got the first Brooklyn Guy in SF in it as well, and rather than mimicking the serious tone, reality-based script or sense of wonder, the filmmakers who followed in this film's footprints tended to throw in a blue-collar guy with a mile-thick Noo Yawk accent so the smarter characters would have someone to throw exposition at (and to deliver their film's federally mandated supply of Odious Comic Relief).

The film starts with a disastrous test flight of some stock footage (er, sorry, a test rocket flight), in which the projectile's exhaust trail goes from "straight as an arrow" to "Go home rocket, you're drunk" in seconds before the product of several years' work from dozens of scientists pancakes on the desert floor and blows itself to shrapnel, marking the attempt as a complete disaster and also scaring the bejesus out of some perfectly innocent Gila monsters. The retired General Thayer and Dr. Charles Cargraves can't imagine that their design or execution was wrong, so sabotage is the only reason they can accept for the failure of the machine. Time skips ahead and Thayer makes a lunch date with Jim Barnes, an airline owner possibly meant to suggest Howard Hughes. Thayer makes one hell of a sales pitch to Barnes--go from being a man who designs jet liners to the man makes it possible to reach the Moon. Thayer convinces Barnes that the technology exists--or can be developed with the current levels of all-American knowhow--to build a craft that could survive the stresses of launch, reach the lunar surface, land, let the crew members out to do science for a while, and then return to the Earth. And so the first act of the film begins, with Barnes, Thayer, Cargraves and Woody Woodpecker (yes, really) making their case to a room full of industrial magnates that a moon rocket is possible as well as vitally necessary for America (because, don't you know, that if capitalists don't take control of the highest ground imaginable someone with a hammer-and-sickle emblem on his space suit will). Also, let me note that 12 years after this movie came out, Telstar I was launched as a joint operation between AT&T and NASA, and it worked perfectly. GO SCIENCE! GO ACCURATE MOVIE PREDICTIONS!

The men oversee the construction of Luna, a totally boss looking fifteen-story-tall silver dart of a rocket ship, using the best available engineers and savants to construct and install everything the four-person crew will need to launch, steer and land the ship. Joe Sweeney, the aforementioned Brooklyn Guy, is the person actually installing the ship's radar, radio, and control switches; he tells Brown, his supervisor and part of the moon crew, that he doesn't believe the ship is going anywhere while he's tightening screws and installing viewscreens. And he might be right, although more for political reasons than engineering flaws. Even in 1950 you couldn't build a rocket ship in the middle of the Arizona desert without someone noticing and complaining to their Congressman, and politicians--with some insinuations that they're being bribed by Nefarious Forces to do so--have forbidden Cargraves' enterprise to test their rocket. Cargraves decides, in the way that Heinlein protagonists tend to, that this is just a bunch of bullshit and the Man is keeping him down for no reason. He also notes the exact wording of the communique from Washington. He might not be able to test his rocket, but the orders don't say anything about not launching his ship. Which has to be done in 17 hours from the time he gets the telegram, or never (the film is vague about exactly why there's good and bad time frames for a moon launch, so let me get all Doctor Science on you for a moment. The orbits of the Earth and Moon are egg-shaped ellipses, not perfect circles, and therefore there are times in their mutual orbits when they're approaching each other from a shorter distance and times when they're moving away from each other. If a rocket can only carry so much fuel for itself and food and water for its crew, you need to be damned sure you're launching at the right time in order to have the greatest chance at success). Complicating matters even further--Brown has an appendicitis attack and is in no condition to go anywhere but an emergency room for the next several days. Barnes and Thayer gang up on Sweeney and say either he goes to the moon with them or they've all wasted their time and effort for the last several months for nothing. Sweeney, not believing the rocket will take off at all, agrees to go with them to run all the various communications systems on the ship. If he'd been around to watch the previous test flight smack into the desert floor he might have a slightly different opinion, but he buckles like a belt and the launch goes off without a hitch, even as an emergency court injunction is sent to the gantry to try and stop the rocket flight. Well, the "my face is being pushed down by heavy gravity" shots make the whole cast look like Deep One hybrids for a moment, but that was going to happen with or without a court order.

From here it's even more of a four-man show than it already was, as the four astronauts spend two days in zero-gravity flight to the Moon and the movie shows us some rather neat camera tricks to show the astronauts walking on walls with the aid of magnetic overshoes. An equipment test shows a failure in a radar antenna (it turns out that Sweeney greased the antenna and the grease froze in the vacuum of space); Sweeney, Barnes and Cargraves all make an unscheduled trip outside the rocket to fix the problem (wearing the brightly colored pressure suits that made quite an impression on a young Ridley Scott and Stanley Kubrick). Cargraves kneels down to take a closer look at how the ship's exhaust ports held up to the launch stress and his magnetic shoes lose contact with the hull; only some extremely quick thinking and the use of an oxygen tank as a makeshift EVA rocket get him back rather than condemning him to the loneliest death any human could have had to endure. And this is the pattern for every conflict in the movie--whether it's a lack of funding, a court injunction or the lunar-expedition equivalent of a man overboard, quick thinking and decisive action save the day every time. It's the most obvious Heinlein touch to the script, but it's tremendously entertaining to watch the three squares and Sweeney figure things out in time to save their collective bacon.

Which is what they wind up having to do, over and over in the third act, because Barnes fails to stick the landing when they reach the lunar surface (honestly, nobody could expect him to do better--it's not like you can practice a live lunar landing, so his first try is the first time he or anyone else in history has tried to do this). He winds up burning up far, far too much of the reaction mass to launch from the Moon at the scheduled return time and after doing a little bit of science on the Moon's surface (and taking a picture of Sweeney holding the Earth in his hand--a piece of comic relief I legitimately enjoyed) the crew finds out they've got to figure out a way to lighten the ship by three and a half tons in under two days or they can't get back to Earth. After throwing out every nonessential item (including the mattresses for the acceleration couches, Sweeney's harmonica and even the four men's pocket change) they're still 110 pounds too heavy to leave the Moon. Either they've got to come up with something incredibly brilliant on a vicious time frame (remember that digression about the lunar and Earth orbits and how there's a definite good time and bad time to be leaving for the planet's surface) or one of the four crew members is going to have to stay behind and watch the others go safely back home...

This movie is completely serious, and completely sincere. I love it utterly without irony, even with the rather bland protagonists and Joe Sweeney's constant references to Brooklyn, his dating life, and baseball. One thing the movie has going for it is the design--Chesley Bonestell's matte paintings of the lunar surface don't match anything that further scientific investigation told us about the actual conditions on the Moon, but they look amazing--a cracked, desolate wasteland of gray desert stretching in every direcation to a pitch-black horizon. Luna itself is almost a silent character in the film, packed inside with dials, switches and screens and looking as high-tech as was possible for 1950 and standing proud in the desert or on the lunar surface. And it's just a pleasure to see a movie where being smart and flexible is the only way to survive. I'm a little burnt out on films where the Chosen One is innately capable of doing super stuff, using the Force, manipulating the Matrix or casting a spell in order to fix problems and go on to the third act, where he (and it's always a he) will be victorious. The four members of the Luna crew chose themselves for the job, and they have to use their own abilities to survive all the near-suicidal dangers of the voyage. Even Sweeney shows that he's got some True Grit when he volunteers to fix the radar antenna, and then later in the film when it looks like someone has to stay on the Moon for the other three to go back home. I interpret it thusly:  in the wake of the Allied victory over the Axis, Americans were patting themselves on the back about their engineering skills and their technical know-how. This film is one example a triumphant fiction of showing just what is possible when Americans put their mind to accomplishing a task, and doing what was impossible up until that point. And the film itself promises more wonders to come--the end title credit states "THIS IS THE END OF THE BEGINNING". I like to imagine Stanley Kubrick and Ridley Scott sitting coincidentally next to each other in a movie theater in 1950, seeing that title card, and looking to the other with a big stupid grin on their faces, each one thinking Oh, they ain't seen nothing yet.


  1. Yup, Destination Moon impressed the hell out of me too. It was weird watching a science fiction movie that screamed 50s but that was completely devoid of hokum, camp, or googletybunk. Totally refreshing.

  2. My first comment! Thanks, Eric. I really miss the "all right, loosen your tie and grab that slide rule so we can figure out how not to die" tone from this movie. I can even overlook the first appearance of the Brooklyn guy for that, because even Sweeney is all business when the mission starts to fall apart.