|Written by Bill Warren|
|Tuesday, 29 February 2000|
Furthermore, DESTINATION MOON, directed by Irving Pichel, was (distantly) based on Rocketship Galileo, a novel by "the Dean of science fiction," Robert A. Heinlein, who also co-wrote the script for the feature, and served as technical advisor. This helps to explain why there are fewer scientific blunders in DESTINATION MOON than in any other science fiction movie of its time.
DESTINATION MOON was tremendously influential, less so on the flood of science fiction movies that followed in the 1950s -- those mostly took THE THING and the reissued KING KONG as their models -- but rather on the public's opinions about space travel. DESTINATION MOON, and the enormous flood of publicity that accompanied its production, changed space travel from "that crazy Buck Rogers stuff" to something that people might really do. And nineteen years after it was released, we did indeed go to the Moon.
DESTINATION MOON has an excellent score by Leith Stevens, and special effects by Lee Zavitz that are still acceptable, even by today's standards. The flaws lie elsewhere; Chesley Bonestell, a great astronomical artist, got the major features of the Moon right, but was flat wrong in depicting the surface as resembling cracked mud. The stars are of uniform brightness, and are all white, and both "Luna," the elegant spaceship that takes our crew to the Moon, and the Earth are backlit. By what? An extra sun we never noticed? Still, this flaw does make for one of the most beautiful shots in any science fiction movie: the Luna poised above the Moon's surface, just before it begins its descent.
The movie received an Oscar nomination for its art direction (by Ernst Fegté), and won one for Zavitz' special effects. It established George Pal as the pre-eminent producer of science fiction movies of his day, and has been cited as NASA as an influence on the space program. Its seriousness and honesty about space travel maintain its status as a landmark in legitimate science fiction.
But regarded just as a movie, DESTINATION MOON is often dry and plodding. Although Heinlein is credited with co-writing the screenplay with Rip Van Ronkel and James O'Hanlon, it's hard to believe that the skilled writer had much hand in the limp dialog and weak characterizations. The three leads, John Archer, Warner Anderson and Tom Powers, are utterly interchangeable, and none of them has an interesting line in the entire movie, even though Archer's character is obviously based on the colorful Howard Hughes. Worse yet, Dick Wesson is the painfully unfunny comic relief, along for "audience identification," and to allow Archer or Anderson to explain each step of the journey to the Moon. Wesson is a Brooklynite who's supposedly a skilled mechanic, but who comes across as a dimwit. His Brooklyn accent consists mostly of the word "woik," as in "The thing won't woik."
The movie is realistic enough to omit absurd menaces like meteor showers, and there's no unexpected danger on the surface of the Moon. There are two big crises, though, and both seem a shade unlikely: Anderson, who designed the ship, is walking on its surface with magnetic shoes when he kneels down far enough that his feet lose contact with the metal, and he begins to drift away into space. You'd expect this blunder from Wesson, or maybe retired general Powers, but not from the guy who built the ship.
The landing is awkward, and they use up so much "reaction mass" -- the ship is atomic powered and, evidently, steam driven -- that they are in danger of being stranded on the Moon unless they rid themselves of excess weight. All very well and good until it comes down to 150 pounds. Surely that's drawing the line too fine.
But it does provide a crisis for the last couple of reels, arguments over who's going to sacrifice himself for the good of the others, and a last-minute solution. Satisfactory for a movie, even if not exactly persuasive.
When we finally did go to the Moon, it wasn't in a handsome silver-needle ship like the Luna, and the spacemen didn't come equipped with brightly-colored spacesuits for easy identification. But DESTINATION MOON got many more things right than it did wrong, and it remained the most realistic story of a Moon voyage until the real thing actually happened.
The image quality of the DVD is fairly good, seemingly derived from several different prints, not all of which are in the best condition. But it's the best treatment this old classic will ever have. DESTINATION MOON isn't the best science fiction movie ever made, but it deserves a place of honor for the courage it took to make it, the diligence required to keep it realistic, and the sincerity with which it was made.