Riders to the Stars (1954) **½
This mostly forgotten film was just about the last gasp of “hard” science fiction as a distinct subgenre in Hollywood. Alien invasion flicks had achieved something very close to a stranglehold on the genre by 1953, and the great atomic monster boom, which would dominate sci-fi for the rest of the decade, had already begun in ‘54. Furthermore, even after rapacious Martians and radioactive reptiles had faded into the background, their places were taken, not by a revival of the staid Destination Moon school, but by a deluge of whimsical Verne and Wells adaptations in the 60’s, an outbreak of more or less Orwellian dystopias in the 70’s, and the unexpected rebirth of Flash Gordon science-fantasy coupled with a strong retro-50’s space monster strain in the 80’s. As for the 90’s, I’d frankly rather not think too much about the violence Hollywood inflicted against the genre during that decade. This pattern of development is a topic that, to the best of my knowledge at least, hasn’t attracted nearly as much attention as it merits, and I really think that Riders to the Stars has something to tell us about how the whole trend came to pass.
The movie begins with the recovery of an experimental rocket which falls back to Earth in the Southwestern American desert. This rocket had orbited the Earth for far longer than any previous man-made satellite, and the scientists who sent it up hope to learn a thing or two about conditions outside the planet’s atmosphere from studying the fragments of its hull. What they learn is not encouraging. The months of constant bombardment by cosmic rays have rendered the rocket’s steel hull as brittle as 300-year-old glass. That kind of environmental hazard is enough to make one question the real-world practicability of space exploration in the first place! But one of the scientists on the staff of the rocket project has an idea. As Dr. Jane Flynn (Martha Hyer, from Pyro and The House of 1000 Dolls) points out, meteorites drift through space for millions of years before falling to Earth, and yet their molecular structure is in no way compromised by the experience. In their natural state, they must have some insulative outer covering that protects them from cosmic rays, something that we’ve never seen because it is burned away by friction when the meteors enter the atmosphere. Project chief Dr. Donald Stanton (Herbert Marshall, from Gog and The Fly) is inspired by Flynn’s insight, and he hatches a plan to send up a formation of manned rockets on a short-duration flight to capture some meteors in the upper atmosphere, before their protective coating has burned away.
Of course, nothing of the sort has ever been attempted before. No manned space flight has thus far been suggested as anything more than a long-range goal toward which the space program is gradually working. But because no computer powerful enough to pilot a rocket so precisely, and with the flexibility of a human controller, could be lifted into space by the rocket engines now available, the meteor-capturing rockets will have to be manned. Thus begins an exhaustive nationwide search by the security agency for a group of men capable of meeting the challenge. Eventually, the list is narrowed down to twelve candidates, of which Dr. Stanton’s lab means to select four. A security agent named O’Herli (King Donovan, from The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms and Invasion of the Body Snatchers) is dispatched to invite all the candidates to come out to Stanton’s California laboratory complex to take part in a secret experiment. So secret, in fact, that no one has even told O’Herli what it is! The agent must be pretty convincing, though, because all twelve take the bait.
The twelve men ride out to Stanton’s lab, where they are greeted by Stanton and Flynn, and are subjected to an array of sneaky psychological evaluations. In the most notable test, the candidates spend much of their first day on the rocket base locked in a waiting room after Flynn tells them she’ll “be right back.” Those men who get edgy and irritable under this unexplained lockdown are sent back home. Then the remaining men begin the physical leg of their training. No one has yet told them anything about the nature of the project for which they are being considered, but this next round of tests must surely give them some clues. After all, for what possible reason would Stanton and Flynn need to test their stamina in the face of temperatures and G-forces at the outer limit of human endurance if not in preparation for some equally limits-pushing aeronautical feat? Eventually, the twelve have become four, and the longed-for explanations are finally offered. However, one of the finalists angrily backs out now that he knows exactly what he’s being asked to do, leaving the scientists with one fewer man than they had hoped. Dr. Stanton’s own son, Richard (The Underwater City’s William Lundigan)— an accomplished scientist in his own right— is, of the three remaining men, most obviously intended to be the movie’s male lead. Mathematician Dr. Jerome Lockwood (Richard Carlson, from Creature from the Black Lagoon and The Magnetic Monster, who also directed Riders to the Stars) is just as obviously the loose cannon. Though he seems stable enough, his decision to take part in the elder Stanton’s project stems from his girlfriend’s rejection of the marriage proposal he offered her before flying out to California. We therefore might justly expect his emotions to overcome him at a crucial moment, getting him and his teammates into all sorts of trouble later. The third man is the inscrutable Walter J. Gordon (Robert Karnes, of Project Moon Base, who was later edited into the English-language version of Half Human/Jujin Yukiotako). In contrast to his two colleagues, he was not introduced to the audience until after his arrival at the rocket base, and no backstory related to him ever emerges. All we know about Gordon is that he has a tremendous capacity for controlling his own fears and anxieties, and that his unflappable calm is an inspiration to Lockwood and the younger Stanton.
And now we must pause for the introduction of the unnecessary but inevitable romantic subplot. Richard Stanton and Jane Flynn develop the hots for each other almost immediately upon meeting. Indeed, Flynn is, in her way, just as essential to Richard’s final commitment to his father’s project as Lockwood’s faithless girlfriend back home is to his. It is Flynn’s longing to be up in one of those cockpits herself (female astronauts were still seen as something for the far-flung future in 1954) that gives Richard the courage to face the utterly unprecedented dangers looming up before him. And not incidentally, having a woman on the ground to worry about Richard will give screenwriter Curt Siodmak an easy way to heighten the emotional tension when the inevitable life-threatening mishaps begin.
None of those mishaps occurs until the Three Rocketeers have a swarm of meteors in their sights. The plan is to maneuver their rockets into a position just behind the space rocks and scoop them up in a special compartment in the ships’ nosecones. Surprisingly, it is Gordon who makes the fatal first miscalculation, attempting to capture a meteor far too large to fit inside his scoop. The resulting collision smashes his rocket to bits, and in what must have seemed an awfully harrowing moment in 1954, his vacuum-desiccated corpse sails right past the window of Richard’s rocket. That’s when all hell breaks loose. Lockwood has a not-altogether-credible freak-out in the cockpit, and finds himself having flashbacks to his Eighth Air Force days. (Flashbacks to ‘Nam wouldn’t be invented for another 20 years...) Richard, for his part, goes chasing after a meteor that is too far away and falling too fast for him to catch while still leaving enough fuel for his retro-rockets to effect a safe return to the ground. It’s just a good thing for Flynn and the elder Dr. Stanton that the 50’s were (at least in the movies) the golden age of manly men who could overcome any odds through sheer guts and determination; otherwise, this project would surely end in unmitigated disaster.
Apart from its generally unappreciated historical significance, Riders to the Stars is a mostly unremarkable movie. Siodmak’s screenplay, Carlson’s direction, and the performances of the movie’s stars could all best be described as workmanlike. Everybody involved is good enough to get the job done, but only one feature of the film really sticks in the mind when it is examined in isolation from the history of its genre— the stock footage. Given that this is a comparatively low-budget sci-fi flick from the 1950’s, it is only to be expected that Riders to the Stars would contain lots and lots of stock footage (much of which had already been used in Destination Moon). But in marked contrast to the standard procedure in these cases, this movie’s special effects department made a concerted— and mostly successful— effort to integrate their work with the stock footage surrounding it. When we see our heroes’ rockets flying through space, chasing after the meteors, the models used for these shots are dead ringers for the stock-footage V-2s we’ve been seeing on the assembly lines and launch pads throughout the film. The filmmakers may not have been precisely bursting with creative talent, but at least they were careful!
So what lessons can Riders to the Stars teach us about the virtual extinction of hard sci-fi as a cinematic genre? Well, before I get to that, I suppose I ought to clarify my definitions. By “hard sci-fi,” I mean science fiction that is so firmly grounded in present scientific knowledge and present technological trends that it will allow no intrusion of such fanciful elements as alien invaders, atomic monsters, or quasi-magical technologies like Wellsian time machines or invisibility serums. The early 1950’s were a promising era for this sort of thing, what with the simultaneous advents of reliable jet engines, nuclear power, rocketry, computers, the synthetic chemical industry, unprecedented advances in medical science, and with the most exciting advance of all— manned space travel— seemingly just around the corner. And indeed, Hollywood in the first half of that decade probably produced as many such movies as would be made over the whole of the next 45 years.
But in an age of such rapid technological progress, this species of sci-fi has its own built-in limiting factor. To wit: even just ten years later, Riders to the Stars wasn’t science fiction any more. By the mid-60’s, human beings had already stepped outside the Earth’s life-giving atmosphere, and the space program’s most dramatic achievement, the landing of men on the moon, was only a few years away. Why make movies like Riders to the Stars when your audience can see the very same thing on the evening news? The allure of hard sci-fi lies in its examination of things that aren’t quite possible— yet. But with the realm of possibility expanding as rapidly as it has during the last 60 years, the only way to be sure of staying ahead of the curve is to extrapolate ever farther into the future until you reach that territory of the imagination where hard sci-fi starts to blur into its more avowedly fantastic cousins. The subgenre has been able to survive in print, I think, because of the vibrancy of theoretical physics, which, by concerning itself with what should be possible, mathematically speaking, offers science fiction authors an opportunity to write about the possibilities of the very distant future with some degree of scientific rigor. This hasn’t worked for the movies, though, for the simple reason that the more exotic and creatively interesting implications of general relativity and quantum mechanics— to say nothing of string theory— are too abstruse for stories predicated upon them to appeal to the kind of broad audience base that a modern movie needs in order to make back the money that was spent on it. Even the cheapest professionally produced film costs a fortune in comparison to the average novel, and the economics of the situation are such that no studio will underwrite a movie that they think only ten or twenty thousand hardcore sci-fi junkies will want to see. And the speed with which movies like Riders to the Stars were eclipsed by the likes of Earth vs. the Flying Saucers and Them! shows conclusively that this was true even in the 1950’s. Frankly, I’d say this strain of films was lucky to survive as long as it did.