Lunar Lunacy – By Philip Smolen

“I’d like to think that the moon is there, even if I’m not looking at it.”
– Albert Einstein

Sci-fi movies have ruined regular life for me. They got into my head at such an early age that now it’s impossible for me to look at any familiar object or event and see it for what it is. I can’t look at an insect without thinking that at any moment that tiny life form will morph into a gigantic mutation and begin tearing my town apart. I can’t hold a simple vacuum cleaner attachment without musing that it’s an all powerful weapon that I can defeat the bad guys with. And I can’t witness an approaching thunderstorm without imagining an end of the world cataclysmic event. It’s the same when I look at the moon.

Philosophers and scientists have grappled with the moon’s mysteries for centuries. Literary giants such as H.G. Wells and Jules Verne have spun amazing tales of what might be found there. Poets have written about the moon and how it is a prime ingredient for romance. Our planet’s greatest minds have pondered and explored our lunar cousin and attempted to peel away its secretive layers and expose the underlying truth. But I never see all of these scientific, metaphysical, and romantic implications. Unfortunately, all I that I ever think about when I look at the moon are all the sci-fi movies I saw as a kid where an intrepid band of explorers go off in a handmade rocket ship and investigate our nearest neighbor in the name of science, only to find terror and mayhem. They then have to beat a hasty retreat, but not before some technical glitch must be overcome.

From George Méliès “A Trip to the Moon” (1902) to “Apollo 18” (2011), our satellite remains a dependable destination for sci-fi adventure. The 1950s defined this type of film. George Pal’s “Destination Moon” (1950) established most of the standard elements. In the film, a group of civilian scientists launch an unstable nuclear rocket (without proper government permission, of course), land on the moon, and explore it in the name of democracy. A lack of fuel seemingly dooms the men to die there, until there is a “eureka” moment and a last ditch effort brings them home safely.

Though it now seems primitive, “Destination Moon” was all the rage back in 1950. It was quite successful, and even a source of controversy, as it and another film (“Rocketship XM”) competed to be released first. Pal sued to stop production on “Rocketship XM”, but failed, and the Lippert movie reached cinema goers earlier. But that didn’t lessen the impact that Pal’s film had on audiences. It’s no surprise then that other cinematic lunar endeavors were filmed and released to space hungry viewers. So, here’s a look at five sci-fi movies that focused on a trip to our nearest heavenly neighbor.

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1. 12 TO THE MOON (Columbia, 1960) – Director: David Bradley

In the near future, a multi-national team of scientists and technicians climb aboard the Lunar Eagle 1 and take off to explore and claim the moon for scientific discovery. Led by American John Anderson (Ken Clark) the team quickly guides their craft to their objective. Once on the moon, the team begins to explore. Two members wander off into a cave and are detained by the moon’s inhabitants. Another is pulled under the lunar dust to his death. The remaining crew returns to their spacecraft when they are contacted by the lunar occupants. They claim the earthlings are a violent and vile species and want nothing to do with them. They then order them to leave. On their way home, the astronauts are amazed to see North America totally frozen over! The moon men have dealt a devastating blow to the Earth. The Lunar Eagle 1 crew finally thinks of a way to melt North America by dropping an atomic bomb in a Mexican volcano! Two crewmen launch a space taxi from the ship and proceed with the mission. They are successful, but at the cost of their own lives. However, the Lunarians contact the Lunar Eagle 1 crew and tell them that this sacrifice has shown them the error of their ways. Earth people will now be welcome on the moon.

“12 to the Moon” has absolutely nothing going for it. Even at only 75 minutes, this cheese fest is extremely tedious. All of the actors, especially Ken Clark, are totally colorless. Screenwriter DeWitt Bodeen tries to add some emotional depth and characterization by having the astronauts deliver stock political tirades, but even this is just silly. What’s worse is that the film is so cheap (reportedly around $150,000), that common everyday household items can be routinely spotted throughout the film. When the crew strap in for takeoff, they lock themselves into regular lawn chairs that you would find in someone’s backyard! And the chairs that the crew uses at their work stations are the cheap plastic kitchen chairs that my aunt used to have in her house! On top of that, the astronauts’ helmets are missing their faceplates. To explain this away, one of the cast members just spouts a few lines about how these helmets come with an invisible faceplate! As a final insult, you never see the inhabitants of the moon. All they do is send hieroglyphic messages to the astronauts and act crabby. If you’re looking for a sure way to overcome insomnia, just pop this bad boy in your DVD player. They don’t make moon movies like this anymore. I’m still counting my blessings.

Quotable Movie Line:
“I’m not only a scientist, but a human being, not an insane murderer.”

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2. BATTLE IN OUTER SPACE (Columbia [Toho], 1960) – Director: Ishiro Honda

In 1965 a strange series of disasters plague the Earth. Space stations explode, railroad bridges magically rise in the air causing train crashes, and water spouts destroy ships in the Panama Canal. A multinational conference of scientists comes to the conclusion that these disasters are the result of aliens from the planet Natal attacking the Earth from their base on our own moon! It up to a group of hero scientists led by Dr. Adachi (Minoru Takada) to blast off in two new rocket ships, land on the moon, and destroy the alien bases. But the Natalians are tricky and have brainwashed one of Dr. Adachi’s crewmembers (Yoshio Tsuchiya) into sabotaging the mission. Can the Earth scientists take a giant leap for all mankind and destroy the evil invaders before the saboteur can take them all out?

Of all of Toho’s space operas, “Battle in Outer Space” is my absolute favorite. I was fortunate to see it as a first run feature when I was a small boy. It had everything a young sci-fi loving youth could want: brave astronauts, evil aliens, flying saucers, and continuous battles, both on earth and the moon. I remember being so thrilled by the film that I wanted to stay and see it again, but my mother was having none of that. There’s only a brief hint of romance in the film, and the only subplot is the brainwashing of the Earthmen by the aliens. But the movie does have an overabundance of Eji Tsuburaya’s amazing colorful effects. The special effects titan pulls out all the stops in order to make “Battle in Outer Space” a phantasmagorical cinematic experience. There’s great model work, tons of animated ray gun blasts, and eerily beautiful matte paintings. While not an adult sci-fi film experience, “Battle in Outer Space” certainly provides the kid in me all the silly high-voltage space adventure that I could ever want. After more than 50 years, it’s lost none of its charms.

Quotable Movie Line:
“You want to get me, eh? Well come on! Cowards! All of you! Eventually you’ll be our slaves. Your whole world will become a colonial satellite for our glorious planet Natal!”

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3. FIRST MEN IN THE MOON (Columbia, 1964) – Director: Nathan Juran

NASA’s first manned mission to the moon is a great success. While exploring the lunar surface, astronauts make an extraordinary discovery. They find a document claiming the moon for Queen Victoria in the year 1899! Examination of the document leads NASA scientists to Dymchurch, England and an old man named Arnold Bedford (Edward Judd). Confronted with photographic evidence of the document, Bedford admits to being on the moon in 1899. Back then, Bedford had rented a small cottage in Dymchurch and met his neighbor, a scientist named Cavor (Lionel Jeffries). Cavor has invented a substance (called “Cavorite,” naturally) that cancels the effects of gravity. Bedford is astounded by a demonstration of Cavorite and agrees to join Cavor’s expedition to the moon. At launch time, Bedford is forced to drag his fiancée Kate (Martha Hyer) along for the trip. All goes well and the trio makes a successful lunar landing. Complications arise when the moon’s inhabitants (an insect race called Selenites) refuse to let the Earthmen return home. Unless Cavor, Bedford, and Kate can figure a way out, they’ll be forced to remain with the insects forever.

This is a charming Ray Harryhausen movie, based on the famous novel by H.G. Wells. Though the film is slow and stodgy for the first 45 minutes, its second half thrills more than make up for this. Kudos have to go to British screenwriter Nigel Kneale who cleverly sets the movie in the present, only to have Bedford then tell his story in flashback. This ingeniously allows the viewer to accept the preposterous idea of a Victorian trip to the moon. As always with Ray Harryhausen, his effects are breathtaking. Chief among these are the titanic “moon calf” that chases Bedford and Cavor, the huge, colorful liquid-filled mechanism that generates the Selenites’ oxygen, and some lovely detailed miniatures that are skillfully matted into the film. Throughout the movie there are many spectacular scenes of the actors walking among the gigantic lunar scenery. Another of the film’s virtues is the performance of British great Lionel Jeffries as Cavor. He’s intelligent, lively, and endearing. The same can’t be said for Edward Judd who plays Bedford as somewhat of a bully. And Martha Hyer is totally wasted. She has very little to do and Harryhausen has said that her character was added at the request of the studio after the screenplay was completed. But these are small complaints. “First Men in the Moon” remains a great tribute to the consummate skills of Ray Harryhausen. And it remains a totally enjoyable sci-fi lunar adventure.

Quotable Movie Line:
“Poor Cavor, he did have such a terrible cold.”

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4. COUNTDOWN (Warner Brothers, 1968) – Director: Robert Altman

As NASA prepares to start the Apollo program, the Russian space agency announces that their latest mission will send three Cosmonauts circling around the moon. Not wanting to lose to the Soviets, NASA decides to launch Project Pilgrim, a desperate one man mission to the moon. The selected astronaut will go to the moon in a revamped Gemini capsule, spend a year there in a previously launched shelter, and then return with the first Apollo moon landing team. NASA initially selects “Chiz” (Robert Duvall), but Washington objects to his military background, so Chiz’s best friend Lee Stegler (James Caan) is selected instead. Chiz is outraged and at first seems determined to see Lee fail. Lee is also getting grief from his wife Mickey (Joanna Moore) who doesn’t believe the mission is safe enough. But Stegler presses on. Surprise is lost, however, when the news media leaks a story about the secret project and the Russians hurriedly launch a three man team to beat the Americans. NASA wants to scrap Pilgrim, but Lee insists on moving forward and is sent to the moon. But though the entire NASA team shows outward confidence in Lee, they all have tremendous fears that the mission will end in failure.

“Countdown” was made a few years before Robert Altman became one of Hollywood’s movers and shakers. Altman seems strangely uninvolved with the film, so I’ve always wondered if Warner Brothers (or perhaps producer William Conrad) tampered with his vision because it plays like one of those TV movies of the week. There’s very little suspense and excitement. The film gets bogged down with James Caan’s relationship with Duvall and Moore. Caan doesn’t even take off on his mission until the movie is almost an hour old. What’s worse is that only the film’s final 10 minutes take place on the moon. While Caan and Duvall demonstrate great cinematic presence and turn in good performances, this doesn’t help alleviate the film’s leaden pace. Although “Countdown” is a valiant attempt to treat the subject of an actual proposed moon landing project with measured realism, the film could really use an injection of apprehension and tension to keep the viewer involved. As it stands, “Countdown” could easily be renamed “As the Astronaut Turns.” It’s an interesting artifact from a great film maker before he found his true directorial sea legs.

Quotable Movie Line:
“Will you listen to me for a minute? Now I’m a doctor, Ross, and you’re asking me to help feed this boy into a sausage machine and tell him it doesn’t hurt. I can’t do that.”

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5. MOON (Sony Classics, 2009) – Director: Duncan Jones

Lunar worker Sam Bell (Sam Rockwell) is getting excited. He’s nearly completed his three-year stint as the only human worker at the Sarang moon base. His job is to supervise huge automated harvesters that collect helium from the lunar soil. This helium is then sent back to Earth where it is used for fusion energy. Sam’s only companion is GERTY (voiced by Kevin Spacey), an intelligent robot. But a few weeks before he’s ready to go home, Sam starts having hallucinations. While collecting the helium, he sees another figure on his rover which distracts him. The rover then crashes into the harvester, disabling it. Sam awakens in the infirmary and can’t remember anything. Becoming suspicious of GERTY, Sam manages to trek back to the crippled rover. When he opens the hatch, he’s shocked to find another Sam who is hurt. Bringing him back to the base, Sam is convinced that the injured Sam is a clone, while the injured Sam believes that his doppelganger is the clone. GERTY then informs the duo that a rescue team from Earth is on its way to the Moon to repair the harvester and rover. With that knowledge, the two Sams decide to work together and get to the bottom of the clone mystery.

“Moon” is a distinctive outer space sci-fi film. It takes some familiar themes; the working class astronaut (“Alien”, 1979), the obsession over lost loved ones (“Solaris”, 1972), and the sinister all powerful robot (“2001: A Space Odyssey”, 1968) and spins them in a new direction. Director Duncan Jones does a wonderful job letting the mystery of the two Sams slowly unfurl while still keeping the audience interested. While all of the effects in “Moon” are first class, they are kept in the background and used as visual support for the human drama that develops. Sam Rockwell is magnificent as the two Sams. His performance gives subtle character shadings to each that allow the audience to slowly distinguish the two clones from each other. Kevin Spacey is also quite good as the voice of GERTY. You’re never quite sure until the end, whose side GERTY is on. With its lack of cheap gimmicks, “Moon” is the anti Hollywood sci-fi movie. It’s a thoughtful, evocative film that, like the best cinema, conveys specific emotions to its audience. And it’s one heck of a moon movie.

Quotable Movie Line:
“You look like a radioactive tampon, like a banana with a yeast infection.”

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These are just a few moon-themed movies (see below for a more complete list). While there are a lot of the wild and wacky “lost civilization” lunar movies like “Cat Women of the Moon” (1953), there are also some serious documentaries that look at NASA’s actual moon landings such as “For All Mankind”, (1990). But as long as people look up in the night sky and see that glorious satellite perched so perfectly, they’ll be inspired to continue making celluloid tales about it.

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Additional Lunar Lunacy Movies

1. Cat Women of the Moon (1953)
2. The Dark Side of the Moon (1989)
3. The Dark Side of the Moon (French mockumentary, 2002)
4. Destination Moon (1950)
5. For All Mankind (1990)
6. From the Earth to the Moon (1958)
7. In the Shadow of the Moon (2007)
8. Missile to the Moon (1958)
9. Mission Stardust (1968)
10. Moon 44 (1990)
11. Moon Zero Two (1969)
12. Moontrap (1989)
13. Mouse on the Moon (1963)
14. Mutiny in Outer Space (1965)
15. Project Moonbase (1953)
16. The Shape of Things to Come (1979)
17. Those Fantastic Flying Fools (1967)
18. A Trip to the Moon (1902)
19. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
20. Way Way Out (1966)
21. Woman in the Moon (1929)

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Selected References

Galbraith, Stuart IV. Japanese Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror Films. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland and Company, Inc. 1994.

Harryhausen, Ray and Dalton, Tony. An Animated Life. New York, New York: Billboard Books, 2004. Accessed August 28, 2011.

Senn, Bryan and Johnson, John. Fantastic Cinema Subject Guide. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland and Company, Inc. 1992.

Warren, Bill. Keep Watching the Skies! American Science Fiction Movies of the Fifties(The 21st Century Edition). Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland and Company, Inc. 2010.