12 to the Moon (1960) -*
It’s funny. When I think of sci-fi movies from the first four fifths of the 1960’s, I almost have to remind myself that some of them were of Hollywood origin. Not that there was any shortage of American sci-fi movies being made in those days, but they’re never the ones that spring immediately to mind when I think about the 60’s incarnation of the genre. To me, 60’s sci-fi prior to Planet of the Apes and 2001: A Space Odyssey means Japanese sci-fi first, Italian second, and Soviet third— and if you want a reason why, it’s because all too often, our science fiction movies from that era turned out like 12 to the Moon. Not content with being every bit as shitty as Project Moon Base despite having been made for an actual studio, on a budget with considerably greater buying power, 12 to the Moon also features literally three times the irritating personal drama of Rocketship X-M, all the creative barrel-scraping of Space Probe Taurus, and more sheer tedium than Killers from Space and Phantom from Space put together.
Two Americans, a Brit, a German, a Japanese, a Frenchman, a Russian, a Turk, an Israeli, a Nigerian, a Swede, and a Brazilian walk into a bar… No, wait. That isn’t right at all. I mean, the catalogue of nationalities is right, but they’re not walking into a bar. They’re going to the moon instead. Specifically, as we learn from a worldwide telecast by the Secretary General of the International Space Order (Francis X. Bushman, with whom the credits seem to expect us to be very impressed for some reason), their mission is to claim the moon as international territory for the use of all mankind, preempting all the turf disputes that would surely arise if astronauts from the various terrestrial states were to arrive severally instead. It’s a charming notion to see put forward in a movie made just one year, if that, before John F. Kennedy openly turned a manned mission to the lunar surface into a matter of national prestige. Anyway, although there’s no real reason to care about the names, origins, or specialties of most of these people, the crew of Lunar Eagle 1 consists of:
I sure hope you like meteors, because writer DeWitt Bodeen fucking loves them. The whole trip out, it’s meteor this, meteoric dust that, meteor cluster the other, and the only thing stopping it from being exactly the same shit that we’ve seen in every rocketship flick since Destination Moon is the battery of “penetration rockets” enabling the Loo-Nar Eagle 1 crew to try blowing up the space debris occasionally instead of just scrambling to get out of the way. Nevertheless, it won’t take long before you’re actively looking forward to another meteor incident, because that’s the only thing that can stop the astronauts from grating on each other’s egos and your nerves by personifying the most crudely jingoistic national stereotypes that Bodeen could think of. Seriously, gather up all the chips from all these shoulders, and you’d be well placed to go into business as a competitor to Frito-Lay.
Finally, Loo-Nar Eagle 1 reaches its destination, and things get really silly. Even here, the constant meteor bombardment doesn’t let up, which suggests to me that the crew’s portable forcefield gizmo has the unfortunate design flaw of attracting the very projectiles that it’s supposed to deflect. Still, the astronauts do manage to get some exploring done, the first fruits of which are a big, shiny rock that gets everybody unaccountably excited. Then Anderson dispatches Hamid and Bomark into a cave to test for oxygen by means of this hilarious little contraption with a rubber diaphragm that expands and contracts in the presence of an Earth-like atmosphere. Incredibly, the moon turns out to have just such an atmosphere down below the surface, and even more incredibly, Bomark and Hamid immediately pry off their helmets and run off to become the first humans ever to fuck on the moon! And no, I don’t recall seeing anything go on between the two doctors thus far that I would recognize as a sign of a relationship beyond the professional— so either I’m more oblivious to that sort of thing than even I realize, or this development has come completely out of nowhere. There’s no question, though, about the out-of-nowhere-ness of the moon’s intelligent inhabitants, who first show their hand by freezing the atmosphere in the cave just outside Hamid and Bomark’s trysting spot, sealing the Earthlings within. That proves terribly inconvenient a moment later, when Dr. Orloff stupidly sticks his hands into a stream of unknown fluid pouring out of a fissure in a rock-face back upstairs, and gives himself a nice set of chemical burns. Wishing you hadn’t sent both of your physicians off on that little scavenger hunt now, aren’t you, Captain? Then William Rochester gets his stiff upper lip caught in a quicksand pit while looking for the missing docs, and that’s then end of him. All told, this moon-launch business is not shaping up to be a very successful undertaking.
The remaining nine crewmen return to Loo-Nar Eagle 1, where they are astonished to discover that they can no longer contact Earth, and even more astonished to discover that somebody on the moon is contacting them. Said contact takes the form of a scrolling marquee of characters appearing spontaneously on the screen of one of the ship’s instruments, and although the fools responsible for this movie would have us believe that those characters are Chinese ideograms intelligible to Hideko Murata, they don’t look a fucking thing like any East Asian script I’ve ever seen. A little bit like Cretan Linear A, maybe, but last I heard, that still hasn’t been deciphered, and there’s no reason I can see why a Japanese would be naturally able to read a long-extinct language of the ancient Mediterranean. In any case, the Moonies take about the same line as the Martians in The Angry Red Planet: get the hell off of our world, you interloping assholes. They also inform Anderson and his crew that they’re holding on to Hamid and Bomark so as to study this thing called “love” (which they, like every other alien species in a stinky old sci-fi movie, have never heard of), and that the results of this study will determine whether or not they declare war on the Earth and exterminate humanity with their atmosphere-freezer. Oh— and they want the two cats from the Loo-Nar Eagle experimental menagerie. Mars may need women, but apparently the moon needs kitties. It’s on the ride home that things get seriously hairy, though. I think we can conclude that the Moonies are not impressed with the way their captives’ relationship is progressing, because just as Loo-Nar Eagle 1 gets close enough to Earth for its sensors to resolve any detail, Dr. Markonen observes that the atmosphere over North America is starting to freeze.
It’s been a while since I spent so much of a movie’s running time wishing helplessly for any goddamned thing at all to happen, or since I was so profoundly disappointed when it finally did. It would have taken something really impressive to make up for all the endless arguing over which of the eleven nations represented among the astronauts produces men with the biggest penises, and what we get when the rocket sets down at last can’t even impress with its unimpressiveness. If there was no way we were getting Chellsey Bonestell-inspired matte paintings and Eiji Tsubaraya-grade miniatures— and make no mistake, there wasn’t— then I at least wanted a moon as gloriously lame as a “Lost in Space” set and a Paul Blaisdell-style moon man or two. But no. The moon here is merely tacky and the aliens never appear onscreen. That’s the thing that pisses me off most about 12 to the Moon, really, that it takes the “high road” and tries to keep the aliens mysterious, despite having blown any chance of being taken seriously the moment Francis X. Bushman stood up like an elderly if slightly more refined Criswell to commit the opening-scene exposition dump. As “The Outer Limits” producer Joseph Stefano well understood, a man in a rubber suit is the one thing that never, ever fails to impart some meager modicum of entertainment value to even the most inexcusably sad-assed sci-fi flick, and 12 to the Moon would have greatly benefited from one. Don’t try to tell me that there was no money in the budget for such a thing either; AIP routinely trotted out inventively misconceived monster suits for movies costing little more than a third of the $150,000 that Columbia reportedly spent on this picture. With that wall of ice keeping us from ever seeing the moon city and the filmmakers’ misguided coyness denying us a look at its inhabitants, 12 to the Moon has nothing with which to distract the audience from all the many ways in which it is lazy, boring, and bad.