Friday, April 19, 2013

Cult Movie Review: Destination Moon (1950)

Destination Moon (1950) is a space-age adventure film from another age, and as such, a kind of unique film.  The sixty-three year old sci-fi movie involves the (fictional) first rocket launch to the moon, and the brave astronauts who undertake that dangerous journey. 

Destination Moon’s special effects and settings still look remarkably impressive today, even if some dramatic scenes fall flat.  Indeed, the film’s biggest drawback involves the cookie-cutter main characters.  There’s a scientist, an industrialist, a military general, and a comic-relief “goombah”…and only one of them appears to be under fifty-years old.

Still, even this decided lack of “real” or dynamic human characters doesn’t undercut Destination Moon’s stirring and tense finale, which sees the astronauts desperate to lighten their rocket’s load in order to achieve escape velocity from the Moon, and return home safely.  This climax generates the intense human interest that much of the film otherwise lacks.

In terms of today’s science fiction cinema, two scenes in Destination Moon seem to have inspired at least a few notable “blockbuster” moments.  One involves Woody Woodpecker (!), and an audience-friendly, animated “educational film” of rocket launches, and the other involves a dangerous Extra-Vehicular Maneuver on a rocket’s metal hull during space flight.

Although Destination Moon’s characters never seem particularly human or real (and there is nary a woman or person of color in sight…), this George Pal production nonetheless continues to impress on the basis of the aforementioned scenes, and the occasional spikes of style it deploys to make the tale both more dramatic and suspenseful.

After a recent government-sponsored rocket launch fails under extremely suspicious circumstances, private industrialist Jim Barnes (John Archer) is convinced by General Thayer (Tom Powers) and scientist Cargraves (Warner Anderson) to spearhead a moon launch.  He organizes a cadre of private industrialists for that purpose, and builds a rocket called Luna.

Rather than wait for government approval of the ship’s atomic engine, however, the men quickly find a replacement radio operator, Joe Sweeney (Dick Wesson), and launch Luna early.

En route to the moon, a problem with the radar antenna necessitates a hazardous spacewalk. 

Following a safe set-down on the lunar surface, the crew learns that it expended too much fuel during the landing.  If the men ever hope to see terra firma again, they must shed over one thousand pounds of equipment…and possibly personnel.

 Time is not always kind to movies, especially science fiction movies.  More than anything else, films are a product of their historical context, and so it is always tempting to gaze at an old film and note how very, very wrong it gets the facts, those “what if” prophecies about the shape-of-things no-longer-to-come.

By today’s standards Destination Moon (1951) appears a bit antiquated in this very fashion.  Produced by the legendary George Pal and directed by Irving Pichel, this movie imagines the first moon landing, circa 1950, and frankly, it gets much right in terms of the science involved in a rocket launch and the nature of the moon.  The film should be roundly commended for such a close attention to detail. 

The depiction of the moon’s surface, for one thing, is not far off. 

For another, the film attempts to accurately depict zero-gravity, and the lighter gravity on the lunar surface, and again, by-and-large succeeds on such fronts. The down-side is that the screenplay’s dialogue laboriously introduces and explains such concepts, and audiences today don’t need the lecture.  This would not have been true, however, in 1950.

Accordingly, Destination Moon is a film that -- unlike its contemporary Rocketship XM (1950) -- isn’t really about space adventuring at all, but rather the nuts and bolts mechanics underpinning space travel. 

Whether or not this quality makes the film less interesting or more interesting is a matter for individual taste.  That fact established, the characters headlining Destination Moon don’t seem to have been selected for their potential “interest” as human beings, but rather for their (necessary) roles in making the fictional space journey possible.

And unfortunately, for all the details Destination Moon gets right in terms of science, it gets a lot wrong in terms of the eventual politics of American space travel.

In particular, the film boasts an obsessive -- almost rabid -- dislike of the U.S. government, and imagines that the wealthy, independent scions of American private industry will band together to conquer the moon…all for the common good of the nation. 

In fact, Barns -- the enthusiastic industrialist spearheading this mission to the Moon -- launches his rocket early so as to avoid the U.S. government’s excessive “red tape,” as well as the government’s concerns over the use of an untested atomic engine near a populated area. 

Of course, this is a strange viewpoint about the situation.  The same industrialist’s last rocket exploded on take-off, scattering debris in its wake.  Isn’t it the government’s job to ensure the safety of the citizenry?  Why, I wonder, is it so unacceptable that the government would demand safety, especially for an atomic rocket launch in the American heartland?  If there are Russian saboteurs around, as the film hints, wouldn't it be wise to take precautions?

So Destination Moon suspiciously views the U.S. government as an insidious impediment, and nothing else, and that viewpoint is short-sighted.

And in the final analysis, we all now know that this viewpoint does not reflect reality.  It was NASA -- the government -- which spearheaded man’s first landing on the moon in 1969, not private industry. This inconvenient fact of history makes the film’s dialogue about the virtues of private enterprise seem almost like Bernays-style propaganda in retrospect.   

For instance, the script, by Robert Heinlein, James O’Hanlon and Rip Von Ronkel, boasts of big business --‘that’s where the talent and energy is!’ even though we all now know -- or should remember -- that many of our society’s impressive technological strides of the last century, whether it be the moon landing or the development of the Internet, were sponsored by dedicated individuals working in government. 

That doesn’t diminish those accomplishments one iota.  Why can’t we love government and private enterprise, and see that both sectors perform a necessary function in a civil, functioning, technological society?

Also rather unbelievable is the film’s idea that a rocket bound for the moon would not require dedicated, trained crew, and that an industrialist could lead the mission personally…with no prior space training. 

The point I should carefully make here is that it doesn’t matter that the subject matter of the film -- a private enterprise journey to the moon -- was proven wrong by history.  Things like that happen all the time in science fiction cinema.  It’s that the film, in describing the moon venture is so wantonly dismissive and negative about the role of government in such efforts.  An agenda is clearly at work here, and one that didn’t stand its first encounter with reality.

Setting aside the aggressively, viscerally pro-private industry agenda of Destination Moon it should be noted that two scenes in the film point the way to future blockbusters of the genre.

In one early scene, for instance, the industrialist shows a cartoon of the proposed mission, starring Woody Woodpecker.  Woody adds humor to the informative cartoon about rocketry, and makes the lecture go down easy.  And if you’ve ever seen Jurassic Park (1993), you’ll recognize that the animated Mr. DNA performs precisely the same function in John Hammond’s video about the genetic engineering of dinosaurs.  There are many decades separating these two films (over four, to be precise) and yet in both circumstances humor and animation are used as “the medicine” to make the science not just comprehensible, but tolerable.

Secondly, a scene set in space here involves three astronauts needing to repair a radar device on the exterior of their rocket.  Destination Moon depicts the three astronauts in space suits, leaving their spacecraft wearing magnetic boots.  By our reckoning as third-person observers, they stand upside down on the rocket hull. After adopting this perspective in order to reveal the hazards of such a spacewalk, the film flips to a more conventional “right-side up” perspective. 

This is precisely the visual set-up for a similar extra-vehicular scene in Star Trek: First Contact (1996).  In that scene, three astronauts -- Picard, Worf and Hawk -- must prevent a Borg modification of the Enterprise’s deflector dish.  The scene begins with disorientation, with the Starfleet officers “upside down” by the audience’s perspective, and then rights that perspective quickly, so we are not hopelessly dizzy/sick/nauseated.  The staging is so similar in First Contact that the scene must be homage or tribute to Destination Moon.

In terms of the film’s other visuals, Destination Moon boasts moments of extreme tension and suspense.  On launch, for instance, the film utilizes a series of progressive jump cuts -- growing ever closer – of a countdown clock.  This technique augments audience involvement, and not one expensive optical effect is required.  

A countdown also informs the film’s exciting finale.  The crew has scant minutes to shed first 1000 lbs., and then 110 lbs., if it hopes to achieve escape velocity.  What follows is a mad dash to toss out the air lock everything thing not bolted down, from seat mattresses to radios, to space suits.  Once more anxiety and uncertainty is amped up to a considerable level, especially as the crew begins to reckon with the possibility of leaving one of their own behind.

Destination Moon arrives at its arousing conclusion with the inspiring on-screen words “The End of the Beginning,” and that’s also a good way to parse the film’s place in film history.  It’s important that Destination Moon was made at all, and that it takes such care to paint a mostly-accurate vision of a trip to the moon.  If the Pal film had only tread less aggressively into philosophizing about the role of private enterprise in an eventual moon landing, its reputation for “accuracy” might be even stronger, to this very day. 


  1. How did you see the film? I love this movie but the readily available DVD by Image Entertainment is a terrible print. The colors are very bright but the details are very soft.

    I'd love to see a better print to really appreciate this film's depiction of man's first trip to the moon.

    1. I rented it via Netflix. The colors looked very vibrant, and the sharpness was pretty good, at least on my goliath television. :)


  2. The idea that private industry would lead the way in space exploration was an incorrect prophesy for sure, but not unreasonable given the era. The old adage, "What's good for General Motors is good for America," was spoken with no irony in those days. Also, I don't think most people in 1950 realized how much the Cold War would be a factor in the space race. Once the Soviets launched Sputnik, it clearly became political. Fast forward to today and I think the idea has new relevance. Congress clearly has little interest in funding anything, let alone space exploration, and new technology makes private space flight even more probable. If corporations can figure out a way to make a buck off it (tourist cruises, mining the moon, etc.), you can bet the private sector will pursue it vigorously. Besides, they're the only ones with money to do it now.

    1. Hi Neal!

      I agree with your historical perspective.

      My complaint is really with the film's vicious, unthinking hostility towards government and its capacity to "rally" to do something big.

      Destination Moon -- made not long after World War II -- doesn't seem to remember that collectively we can do great things when the need arises.

      I don't mind the inaccurate prophecy so much as the anger/venom directed at government. It's just so brazenly short-sighted. You know, how dare government regulators gin up worry about the radioactive safety of my private rocket-ship!! It's all nearly...Ayn Randian.

      I also agree with your assessment of today's situation. Congress can't do anything, even simple things, and so Destination Moon could become a self-fulfilling prophecy (if not about the moon, then regarding space travel).

      I find it very depressing, I confess.


  3. Anonymous6:15 PM

    Let's not forget the beautiful soundtrack contribution by Leith Stevens.


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