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The first important American science fiction film
on 14 January 2005
"Destination Moon" was the first major science fiction film produced in the United States and is credited with providing the genre with a realism that it had previously lacked. Based on Robert Heinlein's novel "Rocketship Galileo," this 1950 film does a pretty good job of working out the science for a trip for the moon, 19 years before it actually happened. Compare "Destination Moon" to the low budget "Rocketship X-M," which ws rushed into production by Robert L. Lippert to beat George Pal's movie to the theaters by three weeks, and you can see why it is this movie that is the most important American science fiction film before "2001: A Space Odyssey." Granted, with "Destination Moon" the historical impact greatly outweighs the artistic merits of the film, but that is really the only way this film gets a fifth star.
Heinlein's original 1947 novel was about a group of boys who build a rocket and travel to the moon, helped by a mentor who was an engineer (just like the author). Producer Pal optioned the story and insisted on a script that would be as scientifically accurate as possible. Heinlein worked with writers Rip Van Ronkel ("Destination Space," "The Bamboo Saucer") and James O'Hanlon ("The Harvey Girls," "Conquest of Space") and they put together a script that represented up to the moment thinking as to how to get a man on the Moon.
Charles Cargraves (Warner Anderson) is a rocket engineer whose final test launch of an experimental rocket ends with the ship crashing. Convinced his rocket ship was sabotaged, Cargraves seeks private funding for a new rocket that will use a nuclear reactor for propulsion. Investors are shown a cartoon where Woody Woodpecker provides the basics of rocketeering, and it is pointed out that whoever controls the moon will be able to launch missiles against whoever they want. General Thayer (Tom Powers) and Jim Barnes (John Archer) becomes Cargraves' key partners, but as the date for the launch approaches the bureaucratic red tape increases substantially. So the group decides to launch at the next opportunity, which happens to be in 17 hours (fortunately they have this giant computer to help them with their last minute calculations). Along as radio operator is Joe Sweeney (Dick Wesson), who provides a modicum of comic relief as the guy from Brooklyn who does not believe the rocket will ever get off the ground let alone to the moon.
The part of the film where they rocket ship is constructed is interesting enough, and the whole idea of sabotage, red tape, and wives left behind are minor distractions. The main part of "Destination Moon" is the trip to the moon where such things as a space launch, a space walk, and walking on the moon are all presented with an impressive scientific accuracy via some nice old-fashioned wire-work. From the time the space ship takes off the movie becomes rather fascinating, so it is clear the second half is a lot stronger than the first and you just have to make yourself sit through it to get to the good stuff.
The film won the 1951 Oscar for Lee Zavtiz's Special Effects, while the Art Direction-Set Decoration (Color) of Ernst Fegté and George Sawley received a nomination. The panoramic view of the lunar scenery was a massive painting by astronomy artist Chesley Bonestell. Again, this is not an argument that "Destination Moon" is the best science fiction film of the 1950s, an honor that probably goes to "The Day the Earth Stood Still" or "Forbidden Planet" (although it is well known I have a warm spot in my heart for "The Thing From Another World"), but this is a film that is as historically important as Georges Méliès' 1902 "Le Voyage dans la lune," and a lot more accurate from a scientific standpoint. Of course, producer George Pal would go on to make other landmark films in the science fiction genre, including "When Worlds Collide," "The Time Machine," and "War of the Worlds," but it is "Destination Moon" that stands out as the grandfather of American science fiction films.