Destination Moon (1950) ***½
This is another one of those big, important movies that dorks like me are always going on about at the slightest excuse. Destination Moon’s importance stems from its being the first of the vast numbers of science fiction films that were produced during the 1950’s. Those were years of unprecedented visibility for science and technology, and the time was surely ripe for an equally unprecedented spike in the popularity of science fiction, provided the writers and filmmakers could find the right approach to tap into the zeitgeist. At the very turn of the decade, producer George Pal thought he had that part figured out. Right from the beginning, he intended Destination Moon to be something different from the fanciful Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers serials that had mostly defined sci-fi in the 30’s and 40’s, and he succeeded in holding onto that vision throughout the film’s lengthy gestation. In fact, the movie proved to be rather more serious and realistic than the Robert Heinlein novel on which it was based. Heinlein’s astronauts were a slightly daft scientist and three young boys— not really the type of people one would expect to see flying to the moon in the real world. Pal, on the other hand, had his screenwriters (and a veritable army of them— including Heinlein himself— found employment on this project) retain only the basic plot, recasting everything else with an eye toward maximum plausibility.
The first and most important difference between Destination Moon and, say, Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe becomes apparent the moment the credits stop rolling. Whereas earlier movies involving space travel were uniformly set in some distant if ill-defined future, Destination Moon takes place in what was then the present day. It begins with rocket scientist Dr. Charles Cargraves (Warner Anderson) and his boss, General Thayer (Tom Powers, a veteran of the silent era whose career mysteriously came back to life in the mid-1940’s— look for him in The Phantom Speaks and Donovan’s Brain), watching a stock-footage V-2 take to the skies in a shot that any hardcore fan of 50’s sci-fi has probably seen at least a hundred times. The launch doesn’t go very well. Despite Cargraves’s boasting that Thayer’s vision for the future of the military is about to be vindicated, the rocket stays aloft for only a few moments before plunging uncontrollably back to Earth. Both men fear sabotage.
Some two years later, General Thayer pays a visit to an old friend of his, a distinguished industrialist named Jim Barnes (John Archer, from King of the Zombies and She Devil). Apparently Thayer’s rocket program has had its budget slashed by Congress as a result of continuing failures, though Thayer himself seems to believe that it was a shortage of funding that caused those failures in the first place. That’s where Barnes comes in. Thayer considers his pet project to be the of the utmost importance to national security, and he intends to see one of his rockets fly. If the government won’t pony up the cash necessary to make that happen, the general hopes the captains of American industry will display more vision. And speaking of vision, Thayer has enlarged his substantially since we last saw him. No longer content merely to launch a rocket into space, the general now tries to sell his friend on the prospect of actually landing men on the moon!
Now that may sound crazy, but General Thayer is a very shrewd man, and he knows what he’s doing. He has picked a moon landing as his goal precisely because the idea is outrageous. After all, a stunt like that is sure to garner attention the world over; if it works, imagine what a boost it will be to the reputation of any firm associated with it. Not only that, it will finally convince the ass-draggers in Congress that rocketry and space flight are not among the things the United States government can afford to ignore, and the feds will then surely begin pumping money into the research and development departments of those companies that seem likely to be up to the challenge of making space travel a sustainable reality. And when Congress starts writing those checks, who better to make them out to than the companies that put a man on the moon in the first place? The more Thayer elaborates, the better Barnes likes the idea, and the next thing we in the audience know, the two men are making their pitch to the assembled leaders of the American business world, with a little help from a specially commissioned Woody Woodpecker cartoon explaining the logistics of the whole thing. After less than ten minutes of prodding, it’s “All systems go” for the moon mission.
Snags are inevitable in an undertaking this ambitious, however, and the first one wastes little time in appearing. The rocket Dr. Cargraves (naturally Thayer’s first choice as the top scientist on the program) has designed for the trip to the moon is nuclear powered; heat from the reactor turns water from a set of bunkers above it into superheated steam, which is then used to propel the ship. It’s an elegant solution to the vexing problem of propulsion in transatmospheric flight (which was eventually solved in the real world by the brute force approach of building spaceships that were little more than tiny cockpits sitting on top of fuels tank hundreds of feet high), but it is also entirely untried. And wouldn’t you know it, the Atomic Energy Commission denies Cargraves permission to test the engines, citing the potential danger to nearby population centers in the event that something should go wrong. Nevermind that there are no nearby population centers— Barnes, Thayer, and Cargraves will just have to take their rocket to one of the approved nuclear testing sites in the South Pacific.
Barnes has but one thing to say to this irksome bit of interference from Uncle Sam: “Fuck that shit!” (Well, okay, so he doesn’t really say that, exactly, but that’s what he would have said if this movie hadn’t come out in 1950.) The rocket was completed a while ago, and so technically, it’s ready to go to the moon. And since, technically, the AEC only forbade the testing of the ship’s propulsion system, the would-be astronauts wouldn’t technically be going against orders by skipping the test and just fucking launching the ship. So that’s just what Barnes now proposes to do. Granted, that means pushing the schedule for the mission rather farther forward than Barnes and company would ideally have liked— the launch window is such that the rocket takes off in seventeen hours, or it doesn’t go anywhere for another month— but if the engine works, now really is just as good a time as any.
Again there’s a problem. Brown (Ted Warde), the man who was slated to accompany Barnes, Cargraves, and Thayer on the flight to operate the ship’s electronics, has been having recurring belly-aches since we first laid eyes on him, and moments after Barnes reaches his fateful decision to launch the rocket, the radar and communications man is hospitalized for appendicitis. The only other person who has any real idea how most of the ship’s gear works is Joe Sweeney (Dick Wesson), the technician who built it all. The remaining three astronauts talk him into joining them, an endeavor in which they are aided by the fact that Sweeney doesn’t really believe the rocket will fly— he figures he’s got nothing to lose by climbing aboard a spaceship that isn’t going anywhere. This plot wrinkle is designed to do two things. First, we can tell from the fact that Sweeney has exactly the same accent as Bugs Bunny that he is to be Destination Moon’s unnecessary and contemptible comic relief character. Secondly, by putting a non-scientist on the ship, the script provides an excuse for Barnes and Cargraves to explain all the unfamiliar scientific principles that will underlie so many of the upcoming plot developments. This second function was probably of real importance in 1950, when even the most basic scientific knowledge about outer space was as conjectural and esoteric as high-energy physics is today. There was no reason to assume an audience of those days to have any grasp at all of the practicalities of zero-G or the behavior of matter in a vacuum. In any case, Sweeney gets more than he bargained for come 4:00 the next morning, when the rocket blasts off successfully, just in time to render moot a court injunction against the launch which the municipal lawyers from the nearest town try to serve Barnes.
After 50 years, the perils that befall the astronauts on their trip to the moon may seem numbingly predictable, but it is important to keep in mind that this is where all those cliches originated. First, the crew is forced to leave the safety of the ship in order to repair a malfunctioning radar rig. Then, during the spacewalk, Dr. Cargraves loses his hold on the tether securing him to the hull, and is nearly lost to the interplanetary void. Finally, Barnes screws up the landing, and must expend far more fuel than was initially calculated in order to regain control of the ship. That mistake comes back to haunt the intrepid explorers after a short, carefree interval of basking in the wonder of their success. Mission control’s computers determine that Barnes and his crew will have to lighten the ship by some 7000 pounds if they’re going to break free of the moon’s gravity and get home. But the final kick in the ass doesn’t come until a few hours later, after the astronauts have stripped their vessel of every ounce of non-essential weight: the rocket is still 110 pounds too heavy...
Despite the impression you might have received from reading my review of Riders to the Stars, I generally do not appreciate this sort of movie. I usually find hard science fiction pretty damn boring, and I must admit to being completely flabbergasted by how much I enjoyed Destination Moon. All I can think of by way of explanation is that the movie’s adventure-story elements are so pronounced and so skillfully handled, and that the lengthy passages of scientific exposition (usually the point in films such as this at which I begin gazing impatiently at the nearest timepiece) are incorporated into the storyline in a way that actually makes good narrative sense. I also have to give Destination Moon credit for dealing with its subject matter from perspectives that almost never enter into most science fiction. Think about it— when was the last time you saw a sci-fi movie that actually addressed the issue of how exactly the amazing feats of technological wizardry it presented were being paid for? I doubt if it even occurred to the creators of The Killer Shrews to ask where Dr. Craigis was getting his research grants, for example. Finally, Destination Moon gets major bonus points for touching off the great sci-fi explosion of the 1950’s. Imagine, if you will, a world without The Day the Earth Stood Still, War of the Worlds, and Forbidden Planet— or worse yet, a world without The Brain from Planet Arous, Robot Monster, and The Giant Claw!!!! Yeah. I’d rather not imagine that either. Let us be grateful, then, for Destination Moon, even if it is a bit more on the button-down side than we might usually go for.