Wednesday, February 10, 2016


On a space station called the Wheel (because that's what it looks like), General Merritt (Walter Brooke) is the head of a group of men who are building—and will later ride on—a spaceship to the moon. They've been up there away from Earth and family for a year and some of them are getting antsy, especially the general's son Barney (Eric Fleming) who goes over his dad's head to get a transfer off the Wheel. But after the team gets orders to head to Mars instead, in order to find new resources for an Earth that is running out of steam, Barney changes his mind and stays on. The gruff Irish Mahoney is too old to get a slot on the ship, but he stows away. The others are a working-class lug from Brooklyn, a Japanese botanist, and a Slavic scientist. They get to Mars successfully, but suddenly the general gets an attack of religious fundamentalism, questions the appropriateness of the entire enterprise, and they wind up crash-landed and at odds with each other.

This may not have quite been an "A" movie but in looks it's certainly heads and shoulders above the average sci-fi film of the era; it avoids coming off like a kiddie matinee flick and tries to tackle adult ideas. Unfortunately, it fumbles the biggest idea: is off-Earth exploration incompatible with being a Christian? The philosophical quandary comes up with no warning halfway through the movie and is dispensed with fairly quickly—it feels like during filming, the director, Byron Haskin, decided he needed one more point of conflict (aside from the generation gap, family, and ageism) and threw in the religious angle, then almost as quickly decided to abandon it. Actually, it's not fully abandoned: in a strange scene near the end, when the astronauts desperately need water, it snows—on Christmas morning. I wonder if Stanley Kubrick saw this, as a handful of images—the movement of vehicles in space, a body floating toward the sun—seem to have influenced the look of 2001. The acting is about par for the course; Brooke, Fleming and Benson Fong as the botanist are fine, but the guy from Brooklyn (Phil Foster) really grates on the nerves. William Hopper plays a scientist on the Wheel, and we see Rosemary Clooney do a song-and-dance number which the astronauts watch on a big TV screen. Produced by George Pal (WAR OF THE WORLDS, THE TIME MACHINE). Worth seeing for its sets and effects, though you will have to put up with some weak dialogue. [Paramount Vault on YouTube]

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