Destination Moon and the Path Not Taken

Watching George Pal’s “Destination Moon” again I was struck by two things. How wrong they got it, and what it might have led to in the realm of science-fiction films.
Robert Heinlein certainly had no crystal ball to guide him. The big rocket technology of the day was the WWII-era V-2 Rocket, so Heinlein, Pal, Pichel et al saw their Luna spacecraft as an over-sized atomic-powered V-rocket. How could they know that the craft that would finally land on the moon looked more like a storage locker on spider-legs? They gave it an honorable try. Where I find that the film fails badly is its depiction of the crew. John Archer’s character is a big industrialist whose companies built the ship, so of course he must go. Warner Anderson plays the brilliant scientist who designed the Luna, so of course he must go. Tom Powers is the 50-ish general who advocated for the manned flight to the moon, so he’s in too. Best of all is the comic relief, Dick Wesson, who plays a skeptical technician. He’s not scheduled to go, but when his boss comes down with appendicitis, he’s on board too! It’s almost a version of “Hey Kids, let’s fly to the moon!” No one could foresee that Werner von Braun wouldn’t be riding one of his own rockets, or that aging generals would watch the flights from Florida. The thought that the men who would venture into space would be military men with pilot training never entered into their thoughts. They were as innocent as H.G. Wells placing inventor Cavour and his nosey neighbor in a vessel bound for the moon.
Although it may not sound like I do, as a matter of fact, I like the film. The problem is that I like “The Thing from Another World” more–and so did most moviegoers in 1951. This opinion decided the fate of a genre. Rather than producing science-fiction films heavy on theory and as realistic as its makers could imagine, the powers that be in Hollywood saw that there was more money to be made in fanciful tales of alien invasions with burly stuntmen in rubber suits providing the thrills much more effectively than fears of insufficient fuel to get back to Earth.
The lessons of “Destination Moon” were unfriendly lessons of planning, perseverance and sacrifice. When the fuel issue arises, each of our four proto-astronauts waxes eloquently on why he should be the one to remain behind. The lessons of “The Thing” were lessons of comradeship, professionalism and quick-wittedness. It sure seemed like it would be more fun to be with Kenneth Tobey and his wise-cracking gang than with the dour John Archer and his collaborators. The sad thing is that by concentrating on the popcorn-selling angle, more and bigger monsters, scientists who looked like Faith Domergue and a by-the-numbers “Science-and-the-Military-will-triumph” plotline, they doomed the genre to the “junk-bond” category. It wasn’t until Stanley Kubrick blew everyone’s minds with his Ultimate Trip “2001, a Space Odyssey” than critics began to see some possible value to the genre. Would more films like “Destination Moon,” “The Conquest of Space” and “Riders to the Stars” have made a difference? Probably not. Even Kubrick’s film bore no lasting fruit and for the most part, Science Fiction now equates to “CGI Spectacular.” Perhaps we’re not a very science-minded people. Or maybe as audiences we value professionalism over perseverance.

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