Thursday, May 5, 2016

Cardboard Science: Do you wanna go to lunch, or do you wanna go to the moon?


Opening the decade with a big nuclear bang, this hyper-conservative Cold War tale of human advancement through atom-based capitalism remains influential—and pretty damned good on its merits, too, despite its frankly laughable assumptions about the way the world works.

Directed by Irving Pichel
Written by Alford Van Ronkel, Robert Heinlein, and James O'Hanlon (based on the novel Rocketship Galileo by Robert Heinlein)
With John Archer (Jim Barnes), Warner Anderson (Dr. Charles Cargraves), Tom Powers (Gen. Thayer), and Dick Wesson (Joe Sweeney)

Spoiler alert: moderate

You know, that Atlas Shrugged trilogy notwithstanding, they just don't tend to make Objectivist cinema, do they?  (Let alone good Objectivist cinema.)  Plainly, this isn't all that surprising: a doctrine based on a lack of empathy is bound to have little place in an art form that was once described by one of its sagest commentators as an empathy-generating machine.  Still, as unwelcome as I suppose my own sympathy must be, I can't help but feel a little bit bad for all the naively idealistic sociopaths in the world, who tragically have no movies to call their own.

But all isn't lost!  Maybe there was always a genuine Randian classic, just dripping with Galty goodness and waiting to be rediscovered—and, no, I don't mean The Fountainhead.  No, I mean the movie about those capitalist rocketeers who built their own spaceship to stymie the Soviets when the American government wouldn't, sneering at all the federal bureaucrats and socialist newspapermen below them as they blasted off in their awesome, awesome atomic rocket right clear into outer space.  In other words, then, I mean Destination Moon.  (Which, oddly enough, predates Atlas Shrugged by seven years, despite the faint yet unmistakable similarities in their plots.)

In any event, since we were talking about top-down hierarchies, it's worth repeating again that, in the 1950s, sci-fi was a genre that found itself driven less by its directors than by its producers—such was the Golden Age of Hollywood, if you want to really get down to it, but this was especially the case when it came to science fiction on the screen.  Such is the story of Destination, and so we must turn to its producer, the legendary Gyorgy Pal Marczincsak—a man known somewhat better by his professional name, George Pal.

Hey, he was famous enough to merit a line in Rocky Horror's "Science Fiction Double Feature"—and if that's not immortality, then I guess I don't know what is.

Pal was born in Hungary, and worked on motion pictures all over Europe, from Budapest to Prague to Paris to Berlin.  In 1933, happily, he managed to evade the Nazis, and eventually landed in the United States.  At first, he focused on animation, innovating with the Puppetoons series and eventually earning himself an honorary Oscar for their creation.  At last, in 1950, he directed his first feature film, The Great Rupert, which is about an animated squirrel who helps poor people.  (No, I'm dead serious.)

But Pal made his first real claim to fame not as a director, but as the producer who wrangled the financing to make the biggest independent film of 1950 (it's almost metafictional when you consider it).  This would be a sci-fi thriller about a prospective moonshot, loosely based on Robert Heinlein's Rocketship Galileo and boasting a screenplay partly authored by the selfsame novelist, who would in the years to come build his own legacy, as literary SF's most influential anarcho-libertarian prophet.  This Heinleinian picture was to be a sober affair, naturally, dedicated above all to scientific accuracy—and not so much to dumbassed fantasy, which (of course) has been the defining mode of almost every other science fiction film ever made before or since.

And thus did Destination Moon become, to the best of my knowledge, the first cinematic treatment of believable astronauts in trouble, thereby giving life to sci-fi's most atypically hard subgenre, one concerned with rigorously exploring all the realistically-deadly problems of travelers in the void.  It's a pretty great subgenre, all things considered; and, if we can say that Destination gave it its first definitive form, then Stanley Kubrick, Alfonso Cuaron, and Duncan Jones each built their masterpieces atop the solid foundation already laid out here, by George Pal.

Now, if you're at all familiar with Destination's reputation today, this is where you'd usually expect the reviewer to say, "Too bad it's so boring."  Well, prepare to have your expectations bucked: I have no idea where it gets that reputation from—and especially not when the last big astronauts-in-trouble picture, The Martian, a movie that everyone clearly loves to pieces, is nevertheless leagues more inhuman (and honestly a touch more dull), on top of being a full fifty minutes longer.  I mean, I like it too, but it's not exactly the ideal combination of elements.

Unlike any of those films, however, Destination Moon begins on Earth, and it's on Earth that we meet Dr. Cargraves, a scientist, and his colleague, the retired general Thayer.  Together, they are the two apostles of the Space Age, but unfortunately for them, America's peacetime government is too busy funding college educations and cheap home loans to finance their adventures into orbit.  Thus Thayer—bloodied but unbowed when an experiment goes awry and their funding dries up—seeks out new allies in private industry instead.  And this is where Thayer makes his most important convert: aeronautics magnate Jim Barnes.

In short order, Barnes takes Thayer (and his spacefaring gospel) to his wealthiest friends.  At their meeting, Thayer appeals directly to their most cherished beliefs, direly pronouncing that a certain unnamed enemy is working along similar lines—and, moreover, that a certain economic ideology won't last too much longer, if you-know-who weaponizes the moon first.

(In 1950s cinema, it helps to think of the Soviet Union as broadly analogous to Voldemort.)
The businessmen patriotically (yet self-interestedly!) pitch their money and resources into Cargraves' new super-rocket—and soon his majestic missile, dubbed Luna, has been completed.  But when the government threatens to scuttle their mission over the public's misapprehension of the risks of atomic energy, our top men throw together a new crew overnight—namely, themselves, plus Joe Sweeney, a regionally-accented everyman from the construction team who's been dragooned into their daring lunar mission.  Together, the four take off, moments before those nefarious regulators can place themselves between our heroes and human progress.

The quartet makes it to the moon, but they don't get there without peril—and the greatest peril of all arises when Barnes mishandles the landing procedure, expending too much reaction mass.  He may have kept their ship in one piece, but now they don't have the juice to get home.  And so they need to lighten the load—perhaps up to and including one or more members of this gallant crew.  As you can tell, it's time to make some hard decisions.

Let's dispense with the very obvious: Destination is, by and large, an extremely procedural film, dedicated first to the process of fundraising, then to the process of building the rocket, and finally to the process of flying the damned thing to the moon, and (hopefully) flying it back.  Yet at 93 minutes, it's fair to say it flies by.  The most prospectively boring parts—the fundraising, especially—are dispensed with in the first half hour.  And, startlingly, they aren't boring, after all.

Partly, this is simply because Destination features a relatively sharply-written script (Heinlein's work, punched up by Alford "Rip" Van Ronkel and James O'Hanlon).  Of course (and one presumes quite deliberately), our four heroes are never meant to be anything more than their archetypes.  Indeed, they are quite obviously conceived as stand-ins for their respective social groups—capital in the form of Barnes, science in Cargraves, the military in Thayer, and labor in poor Sweeney.

By the way, you win no points for guessing which character gets to ask all the stupid, exposition-prompting questions.

But this is more than enough, when they get to throw some halfway-decent dialogue at one another; it's honestly questionable whether a penetrating character drama is what you'd really want out of this particular story anyway.  Even more appealingly, however, the actors charged with delivering all that dialogue do it with a huge surfeit of what looks for all the world like honest-to-God enthusiasm.  Thus it feels like their characters align completely with their essentially symbolic roles, and it's never too hard to get swept along in Thayer's jingoistic sermons, Cargraves' stolid science heroism, Barnes' hard-nosed vainglory, and even Sweeney's slathered-on Brooklyn accent and his sarcastic anti-intellectualism.  Credit the screenplay for efficiency, too: the subplot with overzealous regulators might be eye-rolling today (hell, it was surely eye-rolling back then), but it does serve to force our protagonists into an early launch, keeping the characters we already know together throughout the feature, and thereby obviating that inevitably-awkward moment where we otherwise would've had to meet the Luna's "real" crew.  And, naturally, once we get into space, "procedure" takes on a starkly fascinating quality—for that's when the survival thriller, that's burned into the very bones of any good reality-based space movie, makes its presence fully felt.  It's a little awkward in its realization—it was 1950 and there's simply no getting around that.  Yet the heart is always in the right place, however coldly mechanical you might well find it.

But wait, let's go back to that first act—when the movie is actively surprising when it manages to be fun.  For a film as abjectly worshipful of wealth and class division as Destination rather unambiguously is, it must have been an accidental bit of subversion when Pal, that old animation aficionado, has Barnes and Thayer present their case for the feasibility of an atomic rocket to Barnes' capitalist friends in the form of nothing less than a Woody Woodpecker cartoon.

This is intended purely for the audience, of course—it dutifully describes what a "rocket" is, along with the basic Newtonian mechanics upon which its function is based—and, honestly, it's a pretty funny little short in and of itself.  But the funniest part of it is the sheer absurdity of watching these masters of the universe guffawing at Woody, and learning science in the process.  (Of course, the premise depends upon an idea that could only seem anything less than completely idiotic in the immediate post-war years.  Destination's most far-out speculation simply must be its assertion that a group of greedy capitalists might actually find themselves convinced to freely surrender their wealth for the greater good—and in pursuit of a goal that, for all the self-interest ultimately involved, exists well beyond a six-month time horizon.)

It's by far the least plausible part of this movie about an atomic rocket.

Nonetheless, as for its hard-SF bona fides, Destination's a strong contender for the single most rigorous SF picture of its decade.  Plainly, there are caveats: there are legitimate objections to an atomic rocket; there's some unfortunate simplifications of what will happen to the Luna if they can't lighten their load; and the screenwriters, when they trot out the crew's magnetic boots, are apparently laboring under the delusion that titanium is a strongly magnetic metal.  But just about everything else is strikingly credible: take, for instance, the mid-film action sequence.  It's a spacewalk gone awry, all the more thrilling for its understatement, with an astronaut inches away from his safety line and completely unable to reach it, because in space he's got nothing to push against to get him there.

Meanwhile, we get an early attempt at microgravity on film, and while the seams are not even close to invisible, you appreciate the hell out of the effort; and when we do arrive upon the moon, any satisfaction we find there is in the accomplishment itself, rather than conquering evil Selenites.  In the end, we do get a healthy dose of melodrama, but it's melodrama grounded in science, as the astronauts argue over who must stay behind to save the others—for, when every unnecessary bit of weight has been tossed overboard, there is still a difference of 110 pounds that divides our heroes between the prospect of life and mathematically certain death.

Bound together by Irving Pichel's handsome direction and some Oscar-winning special effects—the film's a nice piece of mid-budget Technicolor spectacle, all told—and you have yourself a minor triumph, all the more special because of what it doesn't do.  It's surely one of Hollywood's dryest adventures in outer space, but in Destination Moon's well-mounted execution, that very dryness winds up being, after a fashion, its greatest strength.

Score:  7/10

That which is indistinguishable from magic:
  • Destination Moon's issues are hiccups in its speculation: magnetic boots which serve primarily as a sop to 1950-vintage special effects and Pal's budget; uranium deposits on the moon; very mild inaccuracies in its matte paintings; in other words, extremely minor problems.
  • ...But I will focus briefly on the Luna, evidently a nuclear thermal rocket.  In Destination's abiding deference to free enterprise, the idea that this machine might pose a legitimate environmental threat is scoffed at.  Leaving aside any other objection (and, if anything, I'm biased toward atomic rockets), I still happen to believe that regulatory oversight of privately-owned uranium stockpiles isn't exactly a bad thing.  (Admittedly, I'm a commie, but I actually think that most folks would agree on this point.)
The morality of the past, in the future!:
  • Capitalism will save us!
  • Landing on the moon means anything, to anybody, anywhere.
  • Objectivists, whom I am convinced shall enjoy the bulk of the film, will unfortunately find some philosophical problems in the climactic scene, wherein each man places the others' survival ahead of his own, as if they'd all become a bunch of dyed-in-the-wool Stalinists.  I guess back in the 1950s, even rich people were expected to adhere a basically moral code of behavior.  Of course, this would help explain the era's 90% top marginal tax rates, not to mention its generally reasonable limits on CEO pay.
  • Oh, they may not be 100% accurate, but they are beautiful matte paintings nevertheless, from the mind and hand of astronomical artist Chesley Bonestell—who, of course, had as much direct knowledge of conditions on the lunar surface as anyone else did at the time.  Within the limits of its technique, Destination Moon manages to evoke a legitimate sense of awe without ever getting silly.  And that's not just no mean feat for a 50s sci-fi film, it's darned near unique.

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