Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

Destination Moon


We recently watched the godawful Project Moon Base, and I was reminded that I hadn’t seen this one, Robert A Heinlein’s good movie, in many years. As I said in the PMB review, I recalled that DM was an honest attempt to show a trip to the moon in as scientifically accurate a manner as possible … but that it was pretty boring. I’ll amend that now. Much of it is pretty boring, for today’s audiences, but not for yesterday’s. I can hardly fault it except for a few story elements endemic to the time it was made. In fact, it’s probably not possible to enjoy this movie without making major allowances for the time it was made, but if you do that, it’s damn good. And I’m used to doing that. Take a movie like The Birth of a Nation. It can’t be called timeless, it has dated badly—and in fact is profoundly offensive to modern sensibilities—but if you are able to put yourself in the mindset of 1915, to recall the sort of primitive two-reel movie dramas that preceded it, one can still be awed by it. That’s the case with Destination Moon.
The movie one can’t help comparing it to is 2001: A Space Odyssey, and you may be surprised to hear that, in my opinion, and remembering to view it in its cultural context, it compares very well. Naturally, it would be stupid to compare the two movies technologically. Both were state of the art, but that state was pretty primitive in 1950. One of the reasons Kubrick made his movie at all was that SFX had evolved to the point that it was then possible, for the first time, to make a movie that actually looked as if it had been shot in space. But remember, in 1950 nobody knew what outer space looked like. All they could give were their best guesses. So the moon looks a lot more jagged than it is. There is also one recurring image that, in retrospect, you would think someone would have realized was impossible. Much was made, in the SF of the ‘40s and ‘50s, of the limitless starry background that would be visible even when the sun was out, and that the stars would not twinkle. That last part is true, but the fact is, the human iris squeezes tight in direct sunlight, and you are able to see stars only when it is very dark. And, in fact, the worst defect of this movie, from a tech standpoint, is the stars. What they used was a large number of car headlights in the far parts of the sound stage … and it looks it. Very lame. I can’t help thinking there might have been a better solution, but I’m probably wrong. Film technology still required buckets of light when shooting in Technicolor, and that probably limited their choices.

There were wrong guesses: Many films of the time, including this one, showed “blast-off” as a time of incredible agony. Turns out it isn’t nearly that bad.

There are some elements that seem naïve now: launching a rocket from the Earth’s surface with an actual nuclear reactor capable of producing that much thrust is strictly a non-starter, no matter how many miles you clear out around the launch site. But it could work, technically. In fact, near as I can tell, all the physics and rocketry here is correct and/or plausible, including something that you never see, not even in Apollo 13 or 2001: a rocket seeming to hang stationary in space against the starry background. Offhand, I can’t recall that that was ever shown again.

The chief difference between the two films is that in 2001, Kubrick didn’t think it necessary to explain much, except about the alien artifact. All the other tech stuff was simply shown, and it was up to you to figure out what you were seeing. There are no discussions of weightlessness, no explanation of why the Jupiter ship wasn’t blasting all the time, like in Star Wars, and in the most stunning sequence of all (at that time) no explanation was given as to how Dave could jog around the circular crew quarters. You had to figure out for yourself that he was in a spinning disk. Heinlein, on the other hand, spends a good 50% of screen time explaining things. Of course, he had no alternative, since very few people understood even the basics of space travel. Remember, even the idea of a man-made satellite was totally foreign to the audience he knew would see this film. He tries to make it as painless as possible, as he did in his books, but it really, really, really slows down the action.

However, I recall that when it first came out, many people thought 2001 was slow and boring. Kubrick went so far as to trim something like 20 minutes of scenes aboard the Jupiter ship (footage I’d love to see today!). Today you couldn’t get away with Kubrick’s leisurely pace, extended takes of things simply because they were so foreign, like the trip to the moon … and in the case of the waltzing spaceships, so incredibly, impossibly beautiful.

The worst way to get technical information into a story is to have two people who already know all this stuff explain it to each other. Stupid! There isn’t a lot of that here. Heinlein uses two devices, and both of them clunk badly today, but I concede one of them was necessary. The first is a Woody Woodpecker cartoon explaining rocket travel and weightlessness. Hard to believe the powerful industrialists who watch it would actually laugh, but maybe so. And believe it or not, NASA actually used the cartoon in some of its PR materials later. (And remember, there was no NASA in 1950. Heinlein made the not-unreasonable assumption that government wouldn’t be interested in space travel. It would have to be private industry that got us out there. He was forgetting two things. 1) Private industry was unlikely to invest big bucks unless they knew there was something worth getting out there, and we didn’t know that until we were actually out there. And 2) Only government would be likely to sink millions into such a profitless boondoggle.)

The second explanatory device is by far the worst element of this movie. It is a dunderhead named Sweeney (from Brooklyn, natch, where else did you get dunderheads in 1950?) (he pronounces “Earth” as “Oyt”), who I wanted to strangle from the first time he opened his mouth. He is intended as comic relief as well as a stupid ear the smart guys can explain things to, and I really don’t think he was needed in either role. At the end of the film they are desperately trying to lighten the ship so they’ll have enough reaction mass to make it home. They are told they have to jettison another 110 pounds. Oh, man, I was aching for a scene where the other three are pondering. “110 pounds. 110 pounds. Where are we going to find another 110 pounds?” Then they look at each other with wild surmise, and slowly turn to look at Sweeney. Naturally, we didn’t get that scene. Instead, we got the three eggheads arguing about which of them would heroically go out the airlock (reminding me of that Monty Python lifeboat scene where they’re arguing about who will offer himself to be eaten; “Eat me, I’ve got a gamey leg, anyway.” “Ugh! Eat you with a gamey leg?”) while Sweeney steals a march on them by just going outside in their last remaining spacesuit. You’ll be reminded of any number of WWII pictures where “Brooklyn,” the platoon fuckup, turns out to have the right stuff.

So. 2001 still holds up well, 40 year later, Destination Moon, 60 years later, is interesting purely for historical reasons. I wonder what 2001 will look like in another 20 years?