Angry white satellite
While in the year 2000 the studios have Mars fever, in 1950 they were hot to land a movie rocket on the moon. Even those days had dueling projects – Rocketship X-M beat Destination Moon into theaters by mere weeks.
Under-appropriated by the US government, who can’t see the need for rocket development during peacetime, engineers and industrialists team for a commercial venture to the moon, led by square-guy hero John Archer. Sure, the astronauts here wear candy-colored suits and their rocket is shiny silver, but they got more ideas right in this picture than they got wrong, thanks to the intelligent script by science fiction author Robert Heinlein.
The film was prophetic in many ways – space walks, broadcasting from the lunar surface, and even an Apollo 13-like crisis were parts of the scenario. Even the political and economic predictions hold up. While it’s true that the first moon voyage was not a privately funded affair, it was indeed sped along by threats of a communist presence in space. Some bits were more influential than prophetic. This is the film that popularized the countdown, which became a huge part of rocket culture in the public consciousness.
The film was even more influential on other space movies. Through the sixties, every movie space flight needed a Texan or a guy from Brooklyn in the crew, and you could trust every one of them to get space-sick.
The strongest virtue of Destination Moon is the serious, detail oriented nature of the project. It bravely resisted the temptation of past and future movie voyages to let their crews meet up with monsters or chorus girls on the lunar surface. The film is brought to life by primitive but effective trick photography, from animation to Chesley Bonestell’s matte paintings – all in saturated Technicolor, smeared a bit but vivid on this DVD. Bonestell later copped to the fact that his lunar landscapes are all wrong, but I’d say he’s being too hard on himself. The Apollo landings took place in nice, safe, flat areas of the moon, while the film presents a near crash landing in rough terrain. Some areas of the moon may look a great deal like his paintings.
The film is a product of the American post-war can-do spirit, which saw millions of servicemen itching to explore something bigger than the mundane lives they returned to after years of accomplishment. WW2 veterans had to wait until technology could catch up with their ambitions, when they were too old to go to the moon. Heinlein’s struggle to get the pic made mirrored the onscreen struggle. He arrived in Hollywood without any experience in movies, just a burning need to make a serious movie about a trip to the moon. His inexperience met with indifference at every studio. Eventually he had to go to Britain’s Eagle Lion Studios, where George Pal became interested in producing the film. Pal, famous for his series of animated Puppetoon shorts, was eager to get into feature productions, preferably features that would make use of his special effects background. Pal went on to produce a string of sci-fi classics, including War of the Worlds and The Time Machine. Sadly, Heinlein failed to realize many of his filmmaking ambitions and went back to writing novels, at which he was very successful.