Saturday, 27 June 2015

One Small Step For Man...

Prior to the 1950's, science fiction was a genre not widely recognized in film. In fact, it was almost non-existent as far as cinema was concerned. The genre now known as science fiction is usually believed to have originated in 19th century literature. Several authors from that period are credited with presenting early stories that are now considered science fiction. Some stories by Edgar Allen Poe have been cited as early examples of the genre. Mary Shelley's Frankenstein can also be considered an early science fiction story. However, the genre was first popularized by two major authors from the period: Jules Verne and H.G. Wells, though at the time it was known as "scientific romance" instead of science fiction.

Of these two, Wells is noteworthy for pioneering many popular ideas of modern science fiction. While the idea of time travel was nothing new when he was writing, his novel aptly titled The Time Machine was one of, if not the first, to explore this theme with a scientific explanation (a machine that grants access to the fourth dimension). Wells was also working at a time when "invasion literature" proved popular with readers, and presented his own twist on the idea by making the invaders aliens from another planet. The result was The War of the Worlds, a story in which a race of Martians (another classic cliche of later science fiction stories) attempt to conquer the Earth. Over the following two centuries, this one novel would be adapted into four different movies, a video game, a rock opera, and a radio drama; but it also became the key inspiration for a classic sub-genre of science fiction: the alien invasion, an idea which would be explored across millions of films, television shows, video games, and books. 

By the early 20th century, science fiction had made a name for itself in literature, though it was largely confined to pulp magazines. Authors like Robert Heinlein, Ray Bradbury, H.P. Lovecraft, John W. Campbell Jr., and others began publishing their stories in these magazines. On film, however, it was a very different story. One of the earliest science fiction films was Georges Méliès 1902 film A Trip to the Moon, inspired by Wells' story The First Men in the Moon and Verne's From Earth to the Moon. The story was extremely simple: a group of astronomers get together and decide they will get into a giant bullet that they can use to launch themselves to the moon. They land on the moon (crashing into its eye in the process), have a few strange encounters, and then go home. Méliès had little concern for scientific accuracy, and instead the "plot" was more a tool to create then-revolutionary special effects.

A Trip to the Moon, however, remained an exception to the rule. Many of  Méliès' other films were more fantasy than science fiction. During the silent era, outside of a few rare exceptions such as Fritz Lang's Metropolis and Woman in the Moon, there was next to nothing. Science fiction was barely recognized as a genre. James Whale's adaptation of Frankenstein and its sequel Bride of Frankenstein could both be seen as science fiction today, but at the time they were branded as horror. It was not until the early 1950's that any real change began to occur. This started with a man named George Pal, a producer interested in making films about actual science. 1951 saw the release of a blockbuster titled Destination Moon which marked the beginning of science fiction as a film genre. 

There were a few reasons why it was only now that science fiction was starting to become recognized as a genre. Perhaps the most prominent reason was the role of television, then a new invention that was seen as a threat to cinemas. The rationale was simple, creating more films in colour and with high-budget special effects to create a greater spectacle was meant to attract more audiences (similar reasoning was involved for the later cycle of big-budget disaster films in the 1970's and 1980's). Part of it was also that the space program was in its beginning, and there was an interest in the idea of visiting other worlds. Both America and Russia were already beginning experiments in rocketry (the Soviet Union would send Sputnik, the first manmade object into orbit in 1957), which fueled interest in stories of rocket-based exploration. There was also simple Cold War paranoia (which fed into the first major cycle of alien invasion films, beginning with 1951's The Thing From Another World).

Pal was one of the first to believe that a film based around science would be exciting for the American public, and to an extent he was right. Destination Moon not only kickstarted the popularity of science fiction as a film genre (Pal himself would go on to produce three more science fiction films during the decade, and direct an adaptation of H.G. Wells' The Time Machine in 1960), but also sparked a wave of imitators (Rocketship X-M being the most infamous). Unlike many of those imitators, Destination Moon is what would now be considered hard science fiction, which is basically the polar opposite of space opera (something at the time popular through low-budget serials). Hard science fiction involves detailed research and a concerted effort to incorporate actual scientific facts as much as possible. It was the first movie to really make such a concerted effort. 

The plot is quite simple. Much like Verne's From Earth to the Moon before it, the story was an attempt to realistically envision what a moon landing could look like. Like A Trip to the Moon, The "story" serves as little more than an excuse for the spectacle, but there is also another purpose. Instead of simply showing off various special effects, Destination Moon attempts to educate the viewer on how space travel might one day work based on the information that would have been available in 1951. The film is not even subtle about this. The character of Joe Sweeney (Dick Wesson) serves as an obvious audience surrogate, asking questions the viewer might have and mainly providing an in-universe justification for the other characters to explain how everything works.

By modern standards, this is hardly perfect. The whole film is basically a roundabout lecture about how space travel could be accomplished, but for the time it was radical. To some extent, some of the era's attitudes toward science fiction still show (particularly the cast of unknown actors in place of stars), but it proved one thing: science can be exciting. In that sense, Destination Moon would go on to help pave the way for other, perhaps more sophisticated and better quality hard science fiction films. Pal himself would attempt a spiritual sequel of sorts with Conquest of Space (which attempted to do something similar only now with a mission to Mars), but it also would lay the groundwork for later efforts at hard science fiction. Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey may have paved the way for the likes of Contact, Europa Report, and Interstellar; but it was Destination Moon that helped set the stage for 2001 to take form.

Destination Moon came out  1951, almost twenty years before the actual first moon landing would happen. As a result, there are some inaccuracies of note, particularly in the type of rocket that is used. The four central characters travel to the moon in a single-stage reusable rocket. While the technical principles behind it still make sense in theory this is far from what was actually used to land on the moon. Unlike a lot of 50's science fiction stories, the rockets that were used for the moon landing were multi-stage (curiously, this is the one detail about travelling to the moon correctly predicted by Rocketship X-M). 

The difference between a single-stage rocket and a multi-stage rocket is simple enough. Single-stage rockets were for a long time the subject purely of early science fiction stories (though more recently there have been attempts to design single-stage rockets). These types of rockets are designed to be able to go up but also to go down safely in one piece, meaning that they can be used again provided the fuel is available. Multi-stage rockets, like the Saturn V used by the Apollo astronauts, are designed in separate pieces with the intent of specific parts being used for different stages of the mission. Usually when a component of the rocket has served its function it is discarded. In addition, it is worth noting that the film depicts a single voyage to the moon, while in reality it took 11 missions before a man could actually be put on the moon.

Module separation on Apollo 6

The way in which the moon itself is depicted is also jarring when seen today. The lunar surface is envisioned as a cracked environment covered in jagged mountains. Once again, this was due to observational limitations of the era, as no pictures had yet been taken of the moon's actual surface. In reality, it is precisely the opposite of what is depicted in the film. There are no jagged mountains, only smooth rolling hills and craters (2001 would still depict the jagged mountains, but otherwise offer something closer to the reality). 

Curiously, though, it did manage to predict on some level what would actually happen. The all-male crew is perhaps the most obvious parallel (even with a greater number of female astronauts, we still have yet to put a woman on the moon today). The number of astronauts involved in the expedition is also close to history. Destination Moon depicts four men performing the first moon landing, while the actual Apollo missions only required crews of three. The film also alludes to the landing sparking massive media attention around the world, also true to reality. Also, upon landing on the moon, two of the men proceed to step outside and speak to the media about what they have done for humanity, not a whole lot different from when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first people to set foot on the moon.

The idea of the moon landing being the product of American corporations coming together instead of a military campaign also proved to be half-right. Early space experiments were conducted by the military, specifically the army and the air force. The trouble was that both sides were wasting time, money, and resources building rockets and competing against each other. Neither side wanted to share and it proved problematic for the government. 

Eventually, it was decided that neither the army nor the air force would be permitted to continue building rockets, and instead a civilian organization was assembled to conduct research into the possibility of space exploration. This decision would result in the beginning of NASA, which still operates today. Destination Moon's ideas of a group of civilians coming together to plan a voyage into space in anticipation of being asked to do so by the government serves as an uncanny foreshadowing of the government-funded civilian organization that would be formed a decade later.

Also true to reality is the reasoning behind the men feeling such an urgent need to conduct this expedition. Throughout the first half-hour of Destination Moon, the characters speak of a military incentive for going to the moon. The opening scene depicts the failed launch of a rocket that according to the characters would have been a triumph of humanity, and there is immediately discussion of sabotage. Later on, General Thayer (Tom Powers) is asked if intelligence has investigated the issue, to which he simply replies with "they know." When the idea of combining American corporations to construct a rocket to the moon is pitched, Thayer's reasoning is simply that if America does not get to the moon, another party will, and should they succeed it would pose a threat to American democracy. 

The script is vague on this issue, refusing to explicitly name this other party, but it is obvious who the characters mean to refer to: The Soviet Union. Much like Destination Moon, the real-life space race became a situation of establishing power. The American and Soviet governments were competing against each other to build rockets and eventually to put someone on the moon. Each party wanted to get to the moon before the other. President John F. Kennedy famous promised to put a man on the moon by the end of the 1960's. 

Though America ultimately won, the Soviet Union proved to be a formidable opponent. While they failed to land an astronaut on the moon, they did beat America in several other aspects of space exploration. Sputnik was the first man-made object to enter orbit. Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first person to enter Earth's orbit in 1961 and return safely (America launched its first astronaut, John Glenn, a year later). In 1963, cosmonaut Valentina Tereskhova would become the first woman in space (America's first female astronaut would not be launched until the 1980's). In many ways the Soviet Union was one step ahead of them, and at a time when communist paranoia was seen as a valid concern there was a pressing need by the American government to gain some sort of advantage; hence travelling to the moon.

Destination Moon was released before Sputnik, but the Cold War was also reaching its height. It would only be a few years later that Senator Joseph McCarthy would begin his infamous series of "Communist Witch-Trials" that would hit a lot of the American population hard. At the time, nuclear Armageddon seemed inevitable for most people. It was actually believed to be only a matter of time before either the United States or Russia launched their missiles and provoked a massive war against one another. Naturally, any advantage either side could acquire in this conflict was seen as valuable, and that included the possibility of using outer space.

Finally of note is the presence of two serious disasters that fall upon the cast of Destination Moon. There are two dangerous situations both of which come close to ending in tragedy. The first occurs on the way to the moon, when astronaut Jim Barnes (John Archer) falls off the side of the ship while examining its engines. He gets set adrift and the other men have to improvise a solution to save him. The second disaster occurs after the men have had some time to explore the lunar surface. This time, a serious fuel miscalculation forces the crew to think outside the box in order to lose weight until they realize that they might have to leave someone behind. Fortunately in both cases, the tragedy is averted, but they do serve to emphasize that the danger is real.

These two specific situations might not have happened on the Apollo missions, but they do foreshadow the various disasters that would be faced by the real astronauts. Apollo 1 did not even make it off the ground; several technical flaws resulted in the deaths of the three-man crew when a fire broke out in the cabin and they were unable to get out. More famously, the Apollo 13 mission had to be re-routed back to Earth after an oxygen tank exploded. Much like the two crises faced in Destination Moon, this was an unexpected problem that required fast improvisation and out-of-the-box thinking using only whatever was on board the spaceship to get everyone back safely.

When seen today, Destination Moon is a flawed experience, even when compared to Pal's later science fiction work such as When Worlds Collide and Conquest of Space (both of which put more focus on developing the story while simultaneously trying to incorporate realistic science), but it historical significance cannot be denied. It was because of Destination Moon that other, perhaps better-made science fiction films like 2001: A Space Odyssey, Contact, and Interstellar were able to be made. Destination Moon not only predicted the beginnings of early space exploration but also set the scene for the modern science fiction film. Had it not been for the efforts of George Pal modern science fiction might not have existed.

This post was written for the Classic Movie History Project Blogathon hosted by Fritzi Kramer at Movies Silently, Ruth of Silver Screenings, and Aurora of Once Upon a Screen.


  1. I've not heard of this film before, but it's going right to the top of my Must See List. I think it would be fascinating to compare this film to the actual moon landing. Thanks for the introduction. :)

    1. Well, Destination Moon is one that is more worth watching for its historical significance than anything to do with its subject matter. As I noted, the story is basically just an excuse to offer a roundabout lecture on how space travel works. It is, however, an important one to see if you are interested in studying science fiction as a film genre.

  2. Excellent review placing Destination Moon in its historical context. You do a great job of explaining why Science Fiction took off the way it did in the Fifties, but it does a disservice to say that it was virtually unknown before then. Metropolis and Frau im Mond are pretty big examples, but there was plenty. Things to Come (1936), The Invisible Man (1932), Non-Stop New York (1937), The Transatlantic Tunnel (1935), Ghost Patrol (1936, a Sci-Fi Western), The Phantom Empire (1935, a batshit crazy Sci-Fi Western serial), Max Fleischer's Superman cartoon (1941-42), The Mechanical Man (1921), The Invisible Ray (1920, 1936), 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1916), The Mysterious Island (1929), Aelita (1924), The Man Who Changed His Mind (1936), Island of Lost Souls (1932), Undersea Kingdom (1936), Flash Gordon (1936) and Buck Rogers (1939) just to name a small handful. The big problem for Sci-Fi in the Fifties was actually shedding the whole Flash Gordon/Buck Rogers reputation of just being pulpy serials incapable of serious subject matter. But Sci-Fi of the war and inter-war years is a fascinating (and gorgeously Art Deco) subject in its own right.

    1. It did exist. I won't deny that. It's just been my understanding that most of the examples you gave would have been the exceptions rather than the rule. In addition, a lot of those are only retroactively considered science fiction. It also wasn't usually a subject for mainstream productions but more, as you noted, b-movies and cheap serials.

  3. Thank you for the history lesson. I've not seen Destination Moon, but now I certainly want to. Great article.

    1. Well, it's certainly one that I'd recommend to any science fiction fan, if primarily for its historical significance.