Rocketship X-M (1950) **
While itís true that Destination Moon kicked off the burst of sci-fi moviemaking activity that was among the most distinctive pop-cultural features of the 1950ís, that movie wasnít quite the first one out of the gate. Mind you, it was the first one put into production, but you take certain risks when you make as big a deal of a movie in the works as Eagle-Lion did with Destination Moonó namely, that some rinky-dink independent is going to throw together a low-budget knockoff of your big, prestigious film, and get it out into the theaters while your project is still in post-production. Roger Corman is probably the most famous practitioner of this particular ploy, but he by no means invented it. Some five years before Corman had produced so much as a demo reel, Robert Lippert, the eponymous head of Lippert Distribution, stole Destination Moonís thunder by bringing Rocketship X-M to the screen almost before Eagle-Lion even knew what hit them. And if you believe the rumors, Lippert would have stolen more than just his competitorís thunder; according to the gossip-mongers, the only reason the rocketship of this movieís title fails to reach the moon as planned is because Eagle-Lionís lawyers wrote producer/director/screenwriter Kurt Neumann some pissed-off letters.
Say what you want about Rocketship X-M (and believe me, I will later on), but it at least gets off the ground a hell of a lot faster than its model. At a press conference, Dr. Carl Eckstrom (John Emery, from Kronos and The Mad Magician), head scientist on the Rocketship Expedition: Moon project, briefs ďrepresentatives from all the newspapers and wire services in the countryĒ (you know, I could have sworn there were a lot more media outlets in 1950 than that) on the general design and mission of his teamís new spacecraft. The Rocketship X-M is a two-stage vehicle, designed to reach the moon with the aid of the slingshot effect of the Earthís gravity; the rationale behind the trip is that the first nation to establish a military base on the moon will be in an unassailable position to dictate terms for world peace. The ship will carry a crew of five: Dr. Eckstrom himself, chemist Lisa Van Horn (Cry of the Werewolfís Osa Massen), astronomer Harry Chamberlain (Hugh OíBrian, of Cruise into Terror and The Son of Ali Baba), pilot Colonel Floyd Graham (Lloyd Bridges, from The Force of Evil and Around the World Under the Sea), and engineer Major William Corrigan (Noah Beery Jr., of Walking Tall and The Cat Creeps). Eckstromís partner, Dr. Ralph Fleming (the ubiquitous Morris Ankrum, who showed up later in Earth vs. the Flying Saucers and The Giant Claw), will remain on Earth to head up mission control. Assuming nothing goes wrong with the rocket itself, the X-M will lift off in just a few hours.
Nothing goes wrong, at least for a while, and the X-M does indeed take to the skies as scheduled. The first stage of the flight will be to assume a stable orbit high above the Earthís surface, and begin making revolutions to build up speed. This takes long enough that we start to get a handle on who is who aboard the ship. Eckstrom turns out to be a generic scientist of the sort that would come to be so familiar in sci-fi films over the next decade. Corrigan is unnecessarily vocal about having come from Texas, and thus identifies himself as the comic relief. Chamberlain scarcely has any personality at all. And as for Graham and Van Horn... *sigh* Van Horn isnít The Chick, but is instead that other inescapable cliched female character type, the Frosty All-Business Type who affects that persona expressly in order to avoid becoming The Chick. Graham, for his part, is this stock characterís equally inescapable counterpart, the Manly Man who is determined to turn the Frosty All-Business Type into The Chick, whether she likes it or not. And yeah, these two are going to end up romantically entangled before itís all over.
There are three dangers that confront our intrepid astronauts once they leave the comparative safety of Earthís orbit. First, the engines stop working just when the X-M reaches the point in the journey at which the gravitational pull from the Earth and its satellite are in perfect balance. With no motive power of its own, and no help forthcoming from either of the two worldsí gravity wells, that means the X-M could conceivably be stuck drifting in space forever. The first attempt to repair the engines accomplishes nothing (perhaps if the crew had done some actual work when they went down to the engine room, the results would have been more satisfactory...), and the ship is still dead in space when the second peril looms up in the form of the obligatory meteor shower; miraculously, none of the hurtling asteroids (which look suspiciously like popcorn to me) strikes the ship, and the astronauts are able to resume their repair efforts in peace. The third dangerous situation arises when Graham and Corrigan finally get the thrusters up and running again. Eckstromís revised calculations for the fuel mixture turn out to be a bit overwrought, and the X-M lurches out of control when Graham throws the accelerator switch. The sheer g-forces knock the whole crew unconscious, and though Graham passes out while still holding the lever (thereby turning the engines off again as his body sinks to the deck), the ship is now off course and traveling at speeds far in excess of anything that was intended for the mission, and there isnít a single person aboard who is in a position to do anything about it.
The moon, naturally, is nowhere to be seen when Eckstrom and his crew regain consciousness. Instead, the astronauts of Rocketship X-M find themselves in the neighborhood of Mars, the only other planet in the solar system remotely capable of supporting Earth life, even for a short time. Now you might think this an awfully improbable coincidence, but listen closely to Eckstrom when he realizes where the ship is, and you will see that itís something more. If Eckstrom is to be believed, it is no accident that the X-M has found its way to Marsó itís an incident of direct divine intervention! And it turns out that God has very good reason for bringing the astronauts to Mars, for the red planet has an urgent lesson to teach the people of Earth. Mars was once home to an advanced civilization, as attested by the high-tech ruins Eckstrom and his people find scattered all over the place when they leave the ship to explore, but if the burn marks all over everything and the readings on Van Hornís Geiger counter are any indication, that civilization destroyed itself in a nuclear holocaust many years ago. And unfortunately for the X-M crew, at least some of the Martians survived their apocalypse, devolving into a race of brutal, blind cave people. Brutal, blind cave people who, I might add, currently have the rocketshipís landing site surrounded...
I canít tell you how much I wanted to like Rocketship X-M once I figured out where it was going. Whereas Destination Moonís creators were content merely to tell the story of a pioneering manned flight into space, Karl Neumann was more ambitious, including contact with aliens, an antimilitarist message, and even the hand of God in the script for this movie. Not only that, Rocketship X-M features an ending so completely out of character for a 50ís sci-fi movie that I almost didnít believe what I was seeing. But unfortunately, virtually everything good that happens in Rocketship X-M happens in the last fifteen or twenty minutes; despite the apparent promise of a fast pace made by the opening scene, the first hour of the movie is almost unendurably boring. In fact, I think itís that unfulfilled curtain-raising promise that accounts for most of my displeasure with Rocketship X-M. Everything moves slowly in Destination Moon, so by the time I figured out that things were already going as fast as they ever would, I was fully acclimated to the leisurely pace, and it never became a problem. But Rocketship X-M has the spaceship streaking into orbit before the end of the second reel, only to stop the action dead in its tracks until the eventual landing on Mars. When Harry Chamberlain mused, after the crippled X-Mís narrow escape from the meteor shower, that at least death by asteroid impact would have been quick, I couldnít help agreeing with him. Matters are made still worse by the unnecessary and indeed insulting love-story subplotó if I were Lisa Van Horn, stuck aboard a tiny spaceship with a couple of boors like Floyd Graham and Bill Corrigan, Iíd play the Ice Queen too! All in all, I suppose itís an okay way to start a decade, but Destination Moon is still a much better one.