Saturday, 25 January 2014

Conquest of Space: An Early Attempt to Envision the Future Seen in the Present Day

Between 1950 and 1953, American Producer George Pal would oversee the production of three successful science fiction blockbusters: Destination Moon (1950), When Worlds Collide (1951), and The War of the Worlds (1953). These would be followed by another film made in collaboration with director Byron Haskin titled Conquest of Space, a box office catastrophe released in 1955. However, a bomb does not make a terrible movie—Conquest of Space might not be perfect, but it is worth looking for if you are interested in seeing an early attempt at hard science fiction.

Conquest of Space is an attempt to realistically envision the future of space exploration (following the success of Destination Moon, which covered somewhat similar ground). It is the near future (by the standards of 1955, anyway), and a massive wheel-shaped station has been constructed in orbit around the Earth. A team of astronauts stationed aboard have been hard at work putting together a rocket for an unclear purpose. When it is revealed that the spaceship has been constructed for the first mission to Mars, a small group of volunteers is assembled and they set off. However problems arise as the commander begins to let his religious beliefs get the better of him, and he tries to sabotage the mission.

Though they are not always perfect, the visuals are quite impressive for the time period. The models look great and the effects used to simulate weightlessness do a thorough job. There are even shots used to create a sense of disorientation in the viewer which adds a degree of realism to the environment.

The brave crew are launched away from"The Wheel" on their trip to Mars. Note the position of the ladder in the middle. A large portion of the film has that back wall appearing to be the floor.

Really, it's the space scenes that are the highlights of the movie. The acting is alright but the real interesting parts are the scenes where we see men working in space and in a weightless environment and the speculation regarding future technology, some of which still holds up alright today. The spacesuits do look a bit different from what is used today but the design looks really good. They kinda look a bit like some of the original LEGO Space sets.

The science is also pretty good, particularly the fact that the characters are consistently weightless for most of the film, barring the scenes on Mars or "The Wheel". Every scene showing otherwise involves the characters wearing magnetic boots, which is an interesting idea that logically makes sense, even if NASA hasn't fully implemented it aboard the International Space Station.

 In the above picture, you can see astronauts working while standing on a magnetic platform. Compare that to the famous shot of the Stewardess in Velcro shoes seemingly walking up the side of a wall in 2001: A Space Odyssey.

The idea of building a space station in the shape of a wheel to create artificial gravity still makes sense. Admittedly such a machine might appear differently were it to be built today, but it is still a conceivable accomplishment that has been recognized quite often in science fiction since this film, including one of my all-time favorite movies, 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Top: "The Wheel" as seen in Conquest of Space (1955), middle: Space Station V as seen in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), bottom: the titular station of Elysium (2013)

Though the rocket used by the characters is of a conventional design for the time period, the addition of wings and boosters brings up an interesting concept. They explain that the wings are used for entering the atmosphere of Mars, and once landed the central part is shown to rise up and launch as a rocket. In short, the spaceship combines the principles of a rocket and an airplane, using the concept of the former to take off and the latter to land. Though they were somewhat off on its appearance and how it would be used, this movie may have unwittingly predicted the space shuttle.

Above: The spaceship as seen in Conquest of Space, below: the real-life space shuttle.

Of course, it would be dishonest to say that Conquest of Space is not in any way dated. We now know a lot more about Mars than we did in 1955 and there are several mistakes in how the planet is depicted. One might note that the real planet is not as red as in the film, and the atmosphere is much thinner. In actuality, the sub-plot about the crew's search for water would have played out differently. Due to the thin atmosphere and cold temperatures precipitation is more or less impossible on Mars (the short version of some complicated science: cold temperatures mean water freezes solid, water becoming solid means it can't turn into gas and evaporate), so the crew would not have been miraculously saved by snowfall as they are in the film. It is also theorized at this point that there is frozen water on the polar ice caps and possibly beneath the planet's surface, so finding water would not have been as much of a problem. A greater concern today might instead be whether the water is safe to drink. However, it should also be made clear that this information was not available back in 1955.

 Above: One of the astronauts standing over the grave of a fallen partner on the Martian surface as seen in Conquest of Space, below: the actual surface of Mars

From a sociological standpoint, the militaristic structure of the space program may also appear somewhat jarring for a modern viewer. One must understand that this is simply what made the most sense at the time. This was still a period when the military was overseeing rocketry experiments. It is unlikely that the filmmakers would have known of or anticipated the major issue that changed that. Basically, the army and the air force were competing against each other probably wasting a lot of money and resources, and neither wanted to share. The government got fed up with this and instead formed the civilian organization of NASA specifically for the purposes of space exploration.

 Above: the uniforms of the commanding officers aboard "The Wheel", below: Astronaut Karen Nyberg aboard the International Space Station. You may notice a difference between the militaristic uniforms aboard "The Wheel" and the more casual attire aboard the ISS.

The other part about this film that might appear shocking today is the apparent non-existence of female astronauts (especially with the more recent success of Gravity). In addition being made at a time when all astronauts were men largely due to the fact that it was the military overseeing things (though the first female astronaut only happened eight years later, but the first American woman in space did not occur until 1983), this was also at a time when greater gender equality was not widely recognized. As strange as it may sound now it did not make sense at the time for women to be on such a dangerous mission. However, to the film's credit there is some social progress depicted in the future in that the one Japanese member of the crew is treated as an equal to his white comrades.

Above: still from Conquest of Space (1955) Below: Still from Gravity (2013). It is clear that there have been some major changes in space travel since 1955. You may also notice a stronger female presence in the latter.

Conquest of Space is a very enjoyable film. As an early attempt at hard science fiction it makes a reasonable effort for when it was made and provides a compelling story with some good drama. It may not be for everybody and it may not be easy to find, but if you are looking for a straight forward science fiction film with some decent effects that is not too long, it is worth checking out.

Is there such a thing as Truly Good Or Bad Cinema?

In this day and age, it is easy to get swayed by the opinions of the majority, and this applies very easily to cinema. There are many films that are seemingly universally loved by the majority, and others the majority seemingly despises. It is not easy to resist. I would be lying if I said I never occasionally made a crack toward a movie I hadn't seen because the majority say it is terrible, but when you get down to it it is all a matter of opinion.

Sometimes, I agree with the majority on the quality of films. 2001: A Space Odyssey ranks as one of my all-time favorite movies. I also enjoyed Casablanca and while I might not praise Citizen Kane as the greatest masterpiece of all time the way some critics do I can respect it as a well-crafted piece of art. However, there are also times when I find myself disagreeing. Once in a while a movie comes along that I find myself enjoying despite everyone else's opinions to the contrary. I found David Lynch's Dune a slight guilty pleasure and while I can't deny that it has its problems I do really enjoy the stuff that works.

I also found John Carpenter's Escape From L.A. and Ghosts of Mars to be enjoyable films, although I also hold in high regard The Thing. The funny thing (no pun intended) about Carpenter is that much as I love him, the one movie I can truly say I did not like out of his entire filmography, at least out of what I have seen, was Halloween. Nearly everybody else builds it up as one of the creepiest horror films of all time, but I found it to be predictable, not very compelling, and especially confusing when at the climax Michael Myers keeps going after being stabbed twice, shot multiple times, and falling out a second-story window. So to put this in perspective, I am willing to openly admit that I rank Ghosts of Mars, widely considered Carpenter's worst, over the film that most other die-hard fans of Carpenter say is his best (even if I do hold the equally well-recognized The Thing even higher).

More recently I've found myself in this position with some older films, some of which are said to be classics. I seem to be in the minority of people who actually though Steven Soderbergh's Solaris was pretty good. I'm also in the even smaller minority of people who actually thought it was better than the 1972 Andrei Tarkovsky version. I tried watching the 1972 version and barely got over the first hour of a three hour movie (on the second attempt, the first time I only got about 30-40 minutes in and then switched over to the Soderbergh version). For the most part I found its pacing to be tediously slow. The first 30 minutes or so was just people talking about "Solaris" (the alien planet whose enigmatic nature drives the plot). I started watching the movie because I was interested in seeing this story about how people are affected by an alien planet. I wasn't interested in seeing a bunch of bearded men in a room talking about the planet I actually wanted to see it. I kept finding myself wondering whatever happened to "show don't tell". Meanwhile, the Soderbergh version keeps its set-up brief and while its still a fairly slow-paced movie it doesn't take too long to actually get to the plot.

This can be especially problematic when you're in a position like mine since I'm also studying film. So far I can't seem to get through a film course without having to watch a movie by Jean-Luc Goddard. I can't stand the guy's work (and I recently heard apparently neither could fellow art filmmaker Ingmar Bergman, which makes it ironic how often I've heard those two grouped together). I've had to watch three now: to study for an exam I had to watch Breathless (there was an essay question in which I had to compare it to Out of the Past), last semester for a science fiction class I had to watch an extremely baffling movie called Alphaville which seemed to make absolutely no sense (it's supposed to be a dystopian future, but the only effort at making anything seem futuristic is throwing in occasional mentions of "galaxies", while every other piece of technology was exactly the same as in 1960's Paris), and more recently Tout Va Bien which was just confusing and had a bunch of scenes (especially near the end) that just went on for so long I was desperate for it to cut to anything else. I really don't like the guy's work and I was scared out of my wits by the third time I was subjected, but since he's so influential I can't seem to avoid it.

On a similar level I had this sort of problem with Jaques Tati's Playtime. The plot consisted of a bunch of not-very coherent segments that really had nothing to do with each other outside of Mr. Hulot, none of the gags seemed funny, and every scene just kept going on much longer than it needed to, though special mention goes to the nightclub scene near the end.

Now I'm not going to say there's anything wrong with liking these movies. These are purely my opinion, nothing more, and if you're reading this and actually enjoyed one of the movies I say I hated that's fine. That's just it really. There is no such thing in aesthetics as "good' and "bad' art. You can like what you want to like, and hate what you want to hate. I love Kubrick and 2001 is one of my favorite movies, but  there are some who can't stand its structure. I also know there are many people who genuinely think Halloween is a masterpiece of horror, maybe even some who didn't like The Thing (a lot of people hated that movie when it first came out; even more recently the movie guides published by respected critic Leonard Maltin still have hateful comments about it). Just because the majority says a movie is good or bad does not make it so. You must be able to see it for yourself and if you disagree with the majority, there is nothing wrong with that.