Friday, June 24, 2016

Must-Watch Sci Fi Movies: Destination Moon

Directed by: Irving Pichel
Produced by: George Pal
Written by: James O'Hanlon, Robert A. Heinlein, Rip Van Ronkel
Starring: John Archer, Warner Anderson, Tom Powers, Dick Wesson
Original Release: 1950

Rating: 4 out of 5 Stars

Synopsis:  The movie begins as an attempt to launch a satellite into orbit fails, possibly as the result of sabotage by foreign interests wanting to beat the United States into space.  Because of the failure, government funding is withdrawn, but rocket scientist Dr. Charles Cargraves (Warner Anderson) along with his collaborator General Thayer (Tom Powers) approach aircraft builder Jim Barnes (John Archer) about continuing the project with corporate sponsorship and possibly expanding its scope to send men to the Moon.  Barnes is reluctant at first, but Thayer sways him to their cause and then this group manages to convince the leaders of several large U.S. corporations to help fund the project.  A rocket is built, but its fate is in jeopardy by a court order that could cancel the launch because of the threat of potential radiation from the rocket’s atomic engine.   To avoid getting shut down, they decide to launch early with Barnes, Thayer, Cargraves, and radio operator Joe Sweeny (Dick Wesson) as the crew.  The rocket has a successful takeoff, but faces several challenges in its quest to get to the moon and back.

Why It’s a Must-Watch Movie:  Though somewhat dated now, Destination Moon delivered an engaging and scientifically accurate (for its time) film about near-space travel, and it’s still great fun to watch over sixty years after it was originally made.

Produced by George Pal who would become the George Lucas/Steven Spielberg of his day, this movie was his first foray into science fiction and it was very much a landmark for its time.  The genre had mostly been relegated horror films, B-Movies, or Saturday afternoon serials, with few attempts at serious science fiction during the first twenty years or so of talking films.  Movies like Frankenstein, King Kong, and Things to Come all make it to that short list, but the first two are more heavily associated with the horror genre and only the latter entry stands out as true science fiction.  After that film, Destination Moon would be the next major science fiction entry and it was actually a pretty big deal when it came out. 

It was produced on a pretty big budget for its day ($500k!) and George Pal had enough film-savvy to turn it into a crowd-pleaser that made it very much an early precursor to the mega-dollar blockbusters that would become the norm thirty or so years later.  Pal and his writers (which included Robert A. Heinlein whose novel Rocket Ship Galileo the movie was loosely based on) approached the material with a serious intent, planning on producing a film that would accurately portray travel to the moon based on the scientific knowledge of the time.  But they did not turn out a stolid, tedious movie nor an exploitive film full of bug-eyed monsters and helpless heroines fleeing in distress.  Destination Moon follows a rather matter-of-fact presentation of its concept, but it still manages to liven it up with things like a Woody Woodpecker cartoon to explain the science and the Joe Sweeny character added for comic relief (though he avoids turning into a buffoon).  And of course the special effects were first rate for the time and many of them still hold up today in a retro-movie sense (with the possible exception of the spacewalk scenes).

And the science is quite solid, especially for a 1950’s science fiction film.  Rocket scientists would later decide that multi-stage ships would be the better way to go for near space travel, but at that time it was believed that a V-2 style rocket (which the ship in the film closely resembles) would be capable of carrying explorers to our nearest cosmic neighbor.  And while the moonscapes are inaccurate, they’re really not that far off and they look really cool and add a bit of visual flair to the film.  The movie does have a some of the cowboy ethic to it as the maverick space travelers jump on their rocketship and take a daring trip into the frontiers of space, but that’s part of what lends to the broad appeal of the film and it doesn’t detract too much from its more serious tone.

The acting is decent enough for a movie of this genre and this period, with Dick Wesson as Joe Sweeny stealing most of the scenes he is in.  There is a dearth of female characters, though, as space travel is portrayed as man’s work with the women left to worry about their husbands from Earth.  But then that’s not too much different than how the U.S. space program unfolded a decade later, so you can’t fault them too much for that.

And interestingly enough, Destination Moon suggests that private industry would be the one to lead the charge on space travel because of a lack of interest on the part of government.  That’s not how the space program actually got started, but that is where it has ended up today.  In that sense, the time is probably ripe for a retro-remake of this film that could act as a call to action on the part of the corporate world to step up and keep space exploration alive (which we are already seeing on a somewhat limited basis).

While the 1950 Destination Moon may look a bit dated to the jaded modern-day audiences expecting an onslaught of eye-popping CGI effects from their sci fi blockbusters, the more discerning fan will be able to look past that and see this for the classic it is.  The movie treated space travel intelligently and managed to deliver a story that is both engaging and scientifically sound (again, for its day).  It’s great fun to watch, and much easier to sit through than many of the B-Movie cheapies that came out around that time or even the more serious genre efforts like Rocketship X-M, This Island Earth, or Pal’s later Conquest of Space.  And Destination Moon only runs about ninety minutes, so it’s a quick watch and well worth the time.

Buy Destination Moon and Other Science Fiction Movies from that Era on DVD from

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