Home Video Reviews
First up is George Pal's Technicolor hit from 1950 Destination Moon, which is generally considered the first film of the 1950s wave of Science Fiction. Big studios wouldn't touch 'Buck Rogers' film fare but stood up and took notice when this little Eagle-Lion release broke box office records. With an almost documentary attention to technical detail, the film tells the story of a privately funded moon rocket while offering viewers a primer on the basics of space travel: Weightlessness, inertia, orbits. Walter Lantz's Woody Woodpecker serves as sort of a visual aid in one scene. With its intriguing needle-nosed silver rocket poised on a desert launching pad, Destination Moon introduced the world to the notion of space travel as a real possibility.
Some specifics of the Lunar voyage ended up being prophetic. The flight mechanics of Apollo 11 were similar and the landing required a last-second change to find a suitable landing site. The moon is claimed for all mankind in a speech broadcast live, just as happened in 1969.
The source novel for Destination Moon was written by the prolific Robert Heinlein, and his harsh Cold War politics are felt when the rocket's promoters state that America must get to the moon before the Russians, so as to plant atomic missiles there first. Both a failed engine test and a legal objection to the launching are blamed as the work of 'foreign Red saboteurs.'
Non-science fiction audiences have a low tolerance for Destination Moon's focus on science facts over drama, and the film is burdened with weak characters and unfunny comic relief. But it stirred the imaginations of millions, starting a popular groundswell for John F. Kennedy's announcement eight years later, that America would make a moon mission its national crusade.
Destination Moon is a good transfer of a Technicolor print in reasonable condition but frequently beset with fine scratches and an occasional splice. Colors are bright and sharp enough to reveal tiny wires and other special effect shortcuts that were harder to see on old 16mm prints. An engagingly over-hyped trailer stresses the fact that articles in many mainstream magazines are exploring the possibilities of a new frontier in outer space.
1953's Project Moonbase was co-authored by Robert Heinlein and originally produced as a proposed television series to be called Ring Around the Moon. Heinlein and company continue their commitment to credible space science, but, taking a hint from George Pal's experience, add a melodramatic plotline about Communist subversion. The resulting odd mix of scientific authenticity and Cold War paranoia was not widely released and soon became obscure.
1970. The United States Space Force's latest moon mission is infiltrated by a foreign power identified only as "the enemy of freedom." After a struggle with a saboteur, the ship makes an emergency landing just over the horizon on the dark side of the moon. To communicate with home base, the spacemen must climb a lunar mountain to point a radio antenna at the Earth.
The science is exemplary. Spacemen wear skullcap headgear and walk on the walls and ceiling, just as they do in Kubrick's epic. There are only a few awkward props, such as a portable communicator that's just an old telephone receiver with a big antenna attached. On the other hand, Heinlein's dramatics are a joke. Heinlein gives everyone 'funny' names. Leading lady Donna Martell is Colonel Briteis (pronounced 'bright eyes') and an annoying gossip columnist is dubbed Polly Prattles. The foreign agent is on a suicide mission, but volunteers to help the Americans after the forced landing. How is the villain's true identity uncovered? He doesn't know what the Brooklyn Dodgers are.
Actor Hayden Rorke (later of TV's I Dream of Jeannie)'s general is supposed to be a good guy but behaves like a complete creep. He snickers at the notion that publicizing "the science angle" will allow the Space Force to cloak its real mission, the secret deployment of nuclear weapons in orbit. Rorke renames the crashed spaceship "Moon Base One," thereby putting a positive news spin on a mission gone awry. Although sexual equality in the corps is stressed, Rorke and other top brass make sexist remarks to Briteis, who, as a female astronaut, is obliged to wear short-shorts, a tight t-shirt and a push-up bra!
The most outrageous scene is saved for the end, when the President is revealed to be a woman. The film treats that revelation as a joke, but not the situation of having an unmarried man and woman sleeping in close quarters alone on the moon: Briteis and her male astronaut partner are ordered to submit to a marriage ceremony performed by Television!
The B&W Project Moonbase is a good transfer of a print in fine physical shape. Herschel Burke Gilbert's score makes use of a wailing Theremin. An original trailer is included.
In other far sillier 1950s space films astronauts found civilizations on the moon, Mars, Venus and a moon of Jupiter. In each case, aliens were human in form and the Earthmen found plenty of beautiful showgirls to enroll in kissing lessons. Serious space pictures almost disappeared, but Zsa Zsa Gabor became The Queen of Outer Space in CinemaScope and color. One of the last and most juvenile of these low-budget space films was The Phantom Planet.
A 1980 U.S. Air Force space patrol fails to return after colliding with a rogue planetoid called Raeton. A follow-up rocket crashes as well, and its lone survivor Frank Chapman (Dean Fredericks) becomes a castaway. Like Lemuel Gulliver, Frank discovers that Raeton is inhabited by tiny people only six inches tall. Before he knows what's happening, the astronaut shrinks to miniature size as well. The little kingdom welcomes Frank and encourages him to choose a wife, which leads to a jealous rivalry. As in This Island Earth, Raeton is fighting a war with another alien culture called the Solarites. A captive Solarite is played by young actor Richard Kiel ("Jaws" in the Bond film The Spy Who Loved Me). His monster costume is a poor imitation of the Metaluna Mutant, looking more like a dog-faced giant with light bulbs for eyes.
Producer-writer Fred Gebhart made the previous year's 12 To the Moon, another maladroit picture with a cast of acting pros. Silent star Francis X. Bushman is the leader of Raeton, and genre favorite Coleen Gray is the main love interest. But the soporific script, slow pace and unimaginative special effects make the film difficult to sit through. The various planets and space vehicles look like burning bits of sponge and the shrinking gimmick is silly.
The Phantom Planet is transferred from a very clean print source with only a bit of damage, again around reel changes. The clear image and sound only highlight the production's lack of ambition.
The success of the Soviet satellite Sputnik in 1957 prompted several expensive space films to be produced behind the proverbial Iron Curtain. First Spaceship on Venus is an Americanization of an East German-Polish space adventure from 1960 called Der Schweigende Stern (The Silent Star). In the 95-minute original film a technological artifact from Venus is found in meteor fragments in Siberia. An international Dream Team of scientists and space pilots take off in a gigantic ship called the Cosmokrator to investigate, analyzing the artifact on the way. After some harrowing adventures on the blasted, ruined surface of the dead planet, they determine that the Venusians were planning to attack the Earth but accidentally annihilated themselves with their own weapons. The cities may be lifeless but vast machines still operate underground. The brave cosmonauts are threatened when one of these machines is inadvertently disturbed.
The small distributor Crown International picked up this film and released it in 1962 co-billed with an import from Japan, Daikaiju Baran. Both pictures were heavily altered so as to pass as American productions. The Japanese film became Varan the Unbelievable while the space film got a new life as First Spaceship on Venus. Interestingly, the American editorial team that re-cut the space movie included Hugo Grimaldi and Gordon Zahler, who also worked on The Phantom Planet.
First Spaceship on Venus was dubbed into English and more conventional music tracks were remixed from familiar stock music libraries -- we even hear a few bars from the score for The Creature from the Black Lagoon. The original Agfacolor film was reprinted in Technicolor, resulting in beautiful release prints.
Crown International also did some heavy pruning on the picture -- seventeen minutes' worth. Several long speeches were removed, including a lot of political material. The original East German space explorers conduct an extended debate about the refusal of the United States to participate in the Venus mission. An 'enlightened' American scientist defects (in a Russian MIG jet!) to join the rest of the international cosmonauts.
Grimaldi eliminated this back-story and also a beautiful scene in an Alpine meadow where the top scientists talk before blasting off into the heavens. The American re-cut retains the explorers' discovery of Hiroshima-like shadows of the extinct Venusians burned into the sides of buildings, but omits accompanying observations about barbaric warmongers back on Earth. The political snipping goes a bit too far at the end, when the American version fades abruptly on a crowd greeting the returning voyagers. In the East German original the shot continues to feature dozens of well-wishers joining hands in a gesture of international solidarity. What's so bad about that?
First Spaceship on Venus has remained popular because of its beautiful and imaginative visuals. The giant 3-spired spaceship (renamed the CosmoStrator) is so striking that we don't stop to think of its essential impracticality. Venus is a dark world with crunchy crystallized earth and clouds of colored gas floating under a black sky. Some landscapes look like melted forests and others like Hieronymous Bosch's illustrations of Hell. The astronauts cruise about in little glass-nosed golf carts, driving slowly past colossal ruins of unidentifiable structures. The effects are simple but spectacular, making Venus a weird world indeed.
In the film's action finale a huge lake of black ooze comes to life and pursues a trio of spacemen and their tank-like mini robot Omega up a spiral ramp. They finally use a ray gun against the Venusian blob. The planet's automatic machinery goes haywire, generating negative gravitation and forcibly pushing the CosmoStrator off the planet. A brave pilot tries to rescue a comrade left on the surface, but cannot control his tiny shuttlecraft in minus-ten gravity.
First Spaceship on Venus attracted little attention save for the appearance of European name Yoko Tani as the ship's medic; she had starred with Anthony Quinn in the previous year's The Savage Innocents by Nicholas Ray. The other international crewmembers are all played by Eastern Europeans. African Julius Ongewe is perhaps the first Black astronaut to be depicted in the movies.
Wade Williams' print of First Spaceship on Venus, letterboxed but not enhanced, is in basic good shape with only some scratches and minor damage at reel changes. But transferring a dense Technicolor print to video results in high contrasts and clogged blacks; the diamond-like Venusian soil loses its glitter and Mr. Ongewe's face sometimes appears as a black blot in a bright screen. The original Der Schweigende Stern is available in Region One from First Run Features, and is a recommended purchase even though this four-title set is a bargain on its own.
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by Glenn Erickson