Ratings Key

= Excellent. The best the genre has to offer.
1/2 = Very Good. Perhaps not "perfect," but undoubtedly a must-see.
★★★ = Good. Accomplishes what it sets out to do and does it well.
★★1/2 = Fair. Clearly flawed and nothing spectacular, but competently made. OK entertainment.
★★ = Mediocre. Either highly uneven or by-the-numbers and uninspired.
1/2 = Bad. Very little to recommend.
= Very Bad. An absolute chore to sit through.
NO STARS! = Abysmal. Unwatchable dreck that isn't even bad-movie amusing.
SBIG = So Bad It's Good. Technically awful movies with massive entertainment value.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Rocketship X-M (1950)

... aka: Expedition Moon
... aka: None Came Back
... aka: Rocketship Expedition Moon
... aka: Rocketship X-M: Expedition Moon
... aka: Rocket to the Moon

Directed by:
Kurt Neumann

After George Pal's expensive and highly-anticipated DESTINATION MOON (1950) was announced and going through numerous production difficulties, Rocketship X-M was quickly slapped together by Lippert Pictures to capitalize on all the space travel buzz generated by Pal's film. Moon, which boasted a half-a-million dollar budget, actually finished with principal photography by the end of 1949 but wouldn't hit theaters until late June of the following year. On the other hand, Rocketship, was budgeted at just 94 thousand dollars, shot in 19 days starting February 1950 and managed to beat Pal's film to theaters by nearly a full month. As a result, Rocketship not only managed to garner free publicity from from the other film to increase its own box office take, but it also technically became the first film involving space travel theatrically-released after WWII. Not only that, but it also became one of the very first films to comment upon and depict the devastation of atomic / nuclear weapons. They even managed to rub it in Pal and companies faces with the tagline "The screen's FIRST story of a man's conquest of space!" Notice, the "first" in all caps for emphasis. It wasn't the first, it was the FIRST... despite actually being the second.

As the film opens, a press conference is being held at the U.S. Government "Proving Grounds" in White Sands, New Mexico minutes before a rocket's scheduled takeoff. Since our government has already successfully launched robot-controlled missiles into space, they're now planning on launching the first manned spaceship called RXM, or Rocketship Expedition Moon, to the moon. We then meet the five courageous space travelers taking part in the mission. There's Dr. Karl Eckstrom (John Emery), leader of the expedition, designer of the rocket and one of the most brilliant physicists of the day, Dr. Lisa Van Horn (Osa Massen), chemist, Dr. Eckstrom's right hand woman and developer of the rocket fuel they're be using for the journey, air force pilot Colonel Floyd Graham (Lloyd Bridges), astronomer and navigator Harry Chamberlain (Hugh O'Brian) and outgoing engineer Major Will Corrigan (Noah Beery Jr.), who never shuts up about being from Texas. A flight plan is laid out for reporters for the 48-hour, 238 thousand mile journey, but they're instructed to stick within the confines of the official press release when reporting.

The rocket successfully takes off, makes a 360 turn around Earth (to help generate speed, of course!) and then they're off into space. After making it so far, they lose radio contact with the Earth, the engines go out and they're left drifting in between Earth and the moon. As Eckstrom and Lisa attempt to come up with a new fuel formula to get their motor humming again, they find themselves caught in the middle of a meteoroid storm and then have even worse problems when the new attempt at fuel and a change in the engine's position prompt a rapid acceleration that ends up knocking everyone unconscious. After spending several days or perhaps even longer out cold, the five awaken to find themselves far beyond their planned destination and instead closing in on Mars, which causes a last minute change in plans. Why reach for the moon, when you can reach for Mars, right?

After safely landing and spending the night inside their ship due to a rainstorm, the five decide to venture out onto the Red Planet the following day, wearing oxygen masks and documenting the rocky, sandy terrain with cameras. They soon uncover signs that an intelligent and advanced former civilization had once lived on the planet and also signs that said civilization had likely been destroyed during a nuclear war on the planet. Unfortunately for them, not all of that civilization had been wiped out and the film briefly turns into The Hills Have Eyes as a bunch of killer red-eyed cave people come crawling out of the cliffs throwing rocks and axes at them. Now with important insight about the dangers of atomic war, will anyone survive to relay the message back to Earth?

Things occasionally cut away from the space mission to Dr. Paul Fleming (Morris Ankrum) and others on Earth trying to track the rocket's progress, which hurts the momentum at times. A constant issue is also made of the lone female on the trip. Because Lisa is so immersed in her work and doesn't have a husband and kids, Colonel Floyd warns her about "going overboard in the other direction" and spending too much time in her scientific pursuits. When her fuel formula fails and she and Dr. Eckstrom are debating over the correction, she starts getting frustrated and her superior chastises her ("Surely you're not going to let emotion enter into this?") and then points out she was just "momentarily being a woman." Moments like those, plus enough false science to write a lengthy essay on, are just common symptoms of the time this was made. Personally, none of those aspects kept me from enjoying this little adventure tale. It's also a good example of a film knowing its budgetary limits and working well within its means.

The filmmakers made a particularly wise decision changing the course of the rocket from the moon to Mars, which not only helped skirt a potential lawsuit from the makers of that other space travel film but also helped to cut costs when it came to coming up with another's planet's landscape. Instead of designing sets, the Mars scenes were filmed in desolate Death Valley and Red Rock Canyon locations and then tinted "red" (actually more orange on the version I watched), which works amazingly well. The conclusion is also surprisingly downbeat and things didn't pan out exactly how I imaged they would. The film also shows innovation in the music department, with a score from Ferde Grofé that's heavy on Theremin; something that would later catch on big time in the sci-fi genre. Karl Struss did a very fine job shooting it and the effects work from Jack Rabin and Don Stewart is acceptable. Director Neumann, who'd later make The Fly (1958), also gets producer and writer credit, though the screenplay was reportedly partially written by an uncredited Dalton Trumbo, who was blacklisted at the time.

Wade Williams eventually acquired the rights and had brand new rocket effects added to the works to replace some of the old ones (and some poor matte work) for a 1979 reissue. Among those who worked on the new effects were Bob Burns and later Oscar winners Dennis Muren and Robert Skotak. Most versions that have been issued on a home viewing format contain these newer shots. A laserdisc version also includes an exclusive behind-the-scenes documentary about the creation of the new footage which isn't available on any of the later DVD versions. In 1990, Rocketship was the subject of a "Mystery Science Theatre 3000" episode, which likely explains the current 4.9 rating on there.


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