- Liner notes by science fiction film historian Tom Weaver
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Warner Anderson, John Archer. One of the earliest sci-fi films about the first moon expedition and the terrors of outer space. This Oscar-winning tale follows the meticulous detail of plotting a moon-bound expedition and was co-written by Robert A. Heinlein. 1950/color/91 min/NR/fullscreen.
When production on Destination Moon began in 1949, everything about the project was state of the art. The great science fiction author Robert Heinlein cowrote the script (based on his novel Rocketship Galileo) and served as technical advisor. The film's astronomical visions were realized by Chesley Bonestell, whose artwork virtually defined the look of space travel at the dawn of the rocket era. Destination Moon is even noted in NASA's official timeline of space-travel history, and almost inevitably won the Academy Award for Best Special Effects. It remains a milestone film, not so much as classic science fiction but--like 2001: A Space Odyssey 18 years later--as an attempt to visualize the reality of space exploration. (To educate the audience on this topic, Woody Woodpecker makes an animated guest appearance, hosting an instructional film on the basics of rocketeering.)
The movie now seems quaintly nostalgic, and its depiction of man's first lunar landing is inaccurate on several details. Taken in context, however, it remains impressively authentic, and conveys the same charm and wonder of the later classic Forbidden Planet. The motivation for the lunar conquest remains military: the country that controls the moon will control the Earth, and cold war paranoia fuels the mission of the rocket ship Luna, which blasts off from the Mojave desert carrying four daring astronauts.
The stalwart crew consists of noted scientists and engineers, but Everyman Joe Sweeney (Dick Wesson) is aboard for broad audience appeal; he's the kind of Bronx-born guy who pronounces "Earth" as "oith" and complains that the moon has "no beer, no babes, no baseball." But when a payload crisis threatens the crew's safe return to Earth, Joe rises to the occasion. It's all a bit goofy now, but Destination Moon is still a wonderful movie, bursting with the awe and enthusiasm that would eventually lead to "one giant leap for mankind." --Jeff Shannon
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The first thing that strikes you is the 1950 fashions, the boxy suits. The film is in color, unusual in 1950. The head of a private aircraft company is persuaded to take on the project of a rocket to the moon. The government is convinced to back the project when it's pointed out that whatever nation controls the moon will render all other nations helpless. This is an overstatement, to put it mildly, but certainly the Apollo program was probably mostly based on that theory. The presentation is made in part with the use of a Woody Woodpecker cartoon to explain the mission and the science.
Somewhat hilarious is the idea that once the rocket is built, the crew is given 72 hours to launch it. And it takes off just in time, before a court order is delivered to shut it down. Because one of the crew members is unavailable, an uneducated mechanic from Brooklyn is recruited for the mission. He provides the comic relief.
Once the mission is in space, what's impressive is the amount of stuff Heinlein got right. The experience of G-forces at lift-off is really well-portrayed, so much so that I wonder how they did it. Weightlessness, check. The crew uses magnetic boots to move around the capsule while in flight, which got me wondering why NASA never used that idea, as far as I know. Apparently they determined that just getting used to weightlessness was the way to go. The touchdown on the moon, using the rocket itself for a vertical descent, of course does not match what actually happened with the use of the Lunar Module, but what is fascinating is how the commander's search for an appropriate landing site with seconds ticking away is so similar to Neil Armstrong's actual experience trying to land the Lunar Module.
The moonscape isn't bad, and the way the astronauts got around in the one sixth gravity is a pretty good approximation of how it looked on the Apollo mission.
The drama at the end revolves around the crew's need to get rid of as much weight as possible to achieve liftoff from the Moon. Then, no denouement upon their return, that's it.
It's worth keeping in mind that many studios rejected this film because the idea of humans going to the moon was just preposterous. So kudos to George Pal, Heinlein, and the others for getting this movie made.
Kubrick's 2001 is deadly slow. Everything takes forever to unfold. Destination Moon moves along a bit faster than that but it is still like a documentary teaching us about space travel with a light wrapping of a story.
I believe this was the first space movie that instituted the dramatic practice of including a low comedian among the crew. Certainly there were a lot of fifties space movies that had a goofy guy on board the space ship for comic relief. In fact however the real astronauts were all dry, humorless characters selected for their lack of any kind of personality.
I seem to remember that I had read the Heinlein stories on which the screen play is built. My memory may have deceived me but I think I remember the trick with the rope pulling the space suit out the door. This sort of plot device probably plays better on the page than it does on the screen. In those days a lot of early science fiction was a kind of science puzzle. Much later most of the Science Fiction by Larry Niven was also of this kind. You as the reader were challenged to figure out the puzzle of the story before it was explained to you in the final paragraph. These stories were kind of like detective who-done-its. But it is notable that Niven - one of the greatest Master of Sci-Fi - has never had much success on the screen. Rather than following detective story models for movie scripts, the big Sci-Fi movies have mimicked Westerns.
Of course, the technologies of both spacecraft and movie production are as dated as all the inevitable tropes and memes from the period, but these do not detract at all from enjoying this cinematic marvel for what it is.
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