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Destination Moon

Destination Moon(1950)

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Though the title Destination Moon (1950) might lead you to think it's yet another low-budget science fiction effort, the film is actually much more. It's perhaps the first true science fiction film, meaning that it stays as close as possible to actual science. No ray guns or evil empires here; just men, machines and the moon in a tight story about space travel. In fact it may be hard to imagine just what Destination Moon might have seemed like when it was released in 1950. Images of Earth from space are commonplace today but when this film appeared nobody had actually seen such things even in a photograph since the first satellite wouldn't be launched for another seven years. That may be why the film won an Oscar for Best Special Effects and a nomination for Best Art Direction.

Destination Moon starts with a failed rocket test, not an auspicious start if you're planning to ride one to the moon. That doesn't deter a General and his industrialist buddy who, sparked by Cold War fever, decide that the US has to get to the moon first. They're rushing against government interference, trying to raise the necessary funds (using a Woody Woodpecker cartoon!) and struggling with barely functioning technology. On top of that, the technician traveling with them doesn't believe the rocket will really work and would rather be out chasing the babes.

Destination Moon was based on the novel Rocketship Galileo by renowned science fiction author Robert Heinlein, who also gave us such classics as Starship Troopers and Stranger in a Strange Land. The original novel was one of several Heinlein wrote aimed at a teen audience (though like the Harry Potter books they appeal quite easily to adults) so it featured a kindly uncle and three boys who tangle with some recalcitrant Nazis on the moon. Most of that story (except the scientist's name Cargreaves) vanished when producer George Pal (War of the Worlds (1953), The Time Machine, 1960) decided to make the characters older so the film wouldn't seem like kiddie fodder. Pal also wanted the film to be entirely plausible so he had Heinlein adapt his own novel and act as a technical consultant. Some of the film's backers wanted it to be more conventional, to include a love story or to fudge some of the science. Heinlein even claims that at one point the backers had a script written that included dude ranches and singing cowboys on the moon. But fortunately that never happened, something Heinlein attributes to director Irving Pichel's integrity, saying, "he is not a scientist, but he is intelligent and honest."

When it came to the special effects, Heinlein also noted that the best way to film them would be to raise several hundred million dollars, actually build a spaceship and then just "photograph what happens." Obviously that wasn't going to happen with a total budget slightly over $600,000. So, the crew had to do some creative improvisation with the effects because they didn't have the money to do more conventional effects. It also gave them a chance to experiment. Instead of cheesy-looking rear-screen projection, they had noted astronomical artist Chesley Bonestell make large paintings, some even mounted on wheels, for backdrops. The rocket interior was built to rotate so they could simulate weightlessness. The lunar surface was constructed on an elaborate sound stage so that piano wire could be used for the large jumps associated with low gravity. (The same technique would later be used for martial arts films the following decade.) The effects were made more difficult by the use of Technicolor and the intensely hot lights it required. Yet somehow it all worked. The result is a space exploration film that represents the best scientific knowledge of the time (even if the moon's surface turned out to be actually quite different) and remains well worth seeing.

Director: Irving Pichel
Producer: George Pal
Screenwriter: Robert A. Heinlein, James O'Hanlon, Rip Van Ronkel
Cinematographer: Lionel Lindon
Composer: Leith Stevens
Editor: Duke Goldstone
Cast: Tom Powers (General Thayer), John Archer (Jim Barnes), Erin O'Brien-Moore (Emily Cargraves), Warner Anderson (Dr. Charles Cargraves)
C-90m.

By Lang Thompson

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