Matthew Kresal blasts off...
The 1950s can be looked back upon as something of a golden age for science fiction films. Both large and low budget films dealt with everything from giant monsters to space exploration, in the latter's case years before it became a fact of life. With that in mind, it is often interesting to go back and look at films from that era to see what they got right as well as what they got wrong. Take Destination Moon for instance, released in the summer of 1950 and the brainchild of producer George Pal. Pal in turn drew on top talent such as the science fiction writer Robert Heinlein and artist Chesley Bonestell to help bring this tale of the first manned mission to the Moon to life nearly two decades before NASA's Apollo missions did so.
Given that fact, it might be surprising the things the film gets right or predicts. From EVAs (extra-vehicular activities or spacewalks) to the landing itself with last minute corrections, the film has some intriguing pre-echoes of what was to come. There's even moments akin to iconic first words and though the film doesn't go quite as far as having the astronauts plant an American flag, they do something not too dissimilar. Destination Moon even depicts zero gravity, a rarity for the time, while also making educated guesses about spacesuits and what foods could be eaten in space. Much like Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, the film presented a (for its time) plausible vision of space exploration in the not too distant future and as a result holds up pretty well in that regard.
Destination Moon proved iconic in other ways as well. Take the large silver nuclear powered rocket at the heart of the film, so iconic that its influence can be felt throughout much of 1950s and 60s science fiction. The film's depiction of the Earth from space and the lunar surface, shown via a limited set and the paintings of Chesley Bonestell, show what was expected in the days before Sputnik let alone Apollo or the Space Shuttle. While not always accurate, the way the Moon is shown here can be felt on films throughout the era, such as 1964's The First Men In The Moon and arguably even Kubrick's 2001. Not to mention the score by Leith Stevens, which would effectively set the standard by which other films in the genre would have to live up to (Stevens would go on to score Pal's When Worlds Collide and the iconic 1953 film of H.G. Wells' The War Of The Worlds). All of which is shown in glorious Technicolor which looks stunning even now, brought together under George Pal's vision with it being directed by Irving Pichel. The result being a film that stands heads and shoulders above much of what was made in the decades to follow.
Yet, like all works of “art”, Destination Moon is very much a product of the time it was created it. The film's special effects, impressive for the time, and which appropriately won the Oscar in 1950, are what have perhaps dated the most, though they have their moments of effectiveness even sixty odd years later. Where the film is most dated is in its dialogue and performances, which can be described as at best functional and laughable at worst. The semi-documentary tone leaves a lot of room for speeches and exposition but for little else, especially characterization, with only Dick Wesson's everyman radio operator Joe Sweeney really having any character. Given this was released in 1950, Cold War fears are present throughout with the insinuation of the Soviets (unnamed throughout the film's opening third) sabotaging projects and trying to hold back the mission. It's also interesting to note that, given that NASA (a government agency) put men on the moon, the film makes quite a big deal in that same screen-time towards the notion that only private industry could pull off a Moon mission because “government doesn't make those kinds of appropriations in peace time,” to paraphrase the General Thayer character.
For all of its faults, Destination Moon remains watchable even after six decades. Its Technicolor look at the then not too distant future makes for intriguing viewing even with inaccuracies that we know today or the at times lackluster writing that's heavy on exposition. For its effects and presentation, its a classic in its own way. Not on the level of say 2001 but it is a film every bit as important to the science fiction film genre as Kubrick's. For that alone, it's well worth a watch.
Matthew Kresal lives in North Alabama where he's a nerd, doesn't
have a southern accent and isn't a Republican. He's a host of both the
Big Finish centric Stories From The Vortex podcast and the 20mb Doctor Who Podcast. You can read more of his writing at his blog and at The Terrible Zodin fanzine, amongst other places.