Saturday 20 July 2019

The Moon on screen - an appreciation

This is a slightly different version of an introduction to Duncan Jones' Moon (2009) prepared for Screen 25 on 10 July 2019, and published on the 50th anniversary of the first moon landing.

The unique properties of earth’s only natural satellite the moon (the word is derived from the old English ‘mona’ meaning both ‘month’ and ‘measurement’) have aroused interest ever since it was visible to the naked eye; whether from a technical perspective via the the Babylonian scientists of the 5th century BC, the ancient Greeks or early Chinese astronomers, or a literary one, from the anonymous medieval poem ‘The Man in the Moon’ via the romantic odes by Shelley and even the more prosaic offerings of Philip Larkin and Sylvia Plath.

But tonight the moon on film is our mission, so, for the next few minutes, sit back and get ready for a whistle stop tour of ‘la lune’ in the movies, with a few illustrations along the way. So here goes:

The moon first properly appeared as subject matter in the cinema in 1902, with the French director Georges Méliès' Le Voyage de La Lune aka A Trip to the Moon. Méliès in part based the events in his film on the aspirational 1865 novel by Jules Verne ‘From the Earth to the Moon’ which would have to wait until 1958 to get a more faithful adaptation, directed by Byron Haskin, who three years earlier would make The War of the Worlds, itself based on a novel by HG Wells. Wells wrote another of the literary influences for Méliès’ movie in the shape of the equally prescient ‘First Men in the Moon,’ published in 1901, which informed the lunar sequences of A Trip to the Moon, and introduced the concept of the alien lunar dwellers, the Selenites.

Not to be outdone, in 1908 Spanish filmmaker Segundo de Chomon made an almost identical film to Méliès' cleverly entitled Excursion to the Moon (and if you think copycat films are a new problem for the movies, silent cinema made whole careers of directors stealing each other’s ideas). For the next decade the moon featured in any number of romantic fantasies, often in title only, including When the Man in the Moon Seeks a Wife, A Message from the Moon and The Valley of the Moon. The sadly lost film, 1919’s The First Men in the Moon, was a UK adaptation of the Wells novel which at 50 minutes running time was the first science fiction feature ever made. This still shows you what we’ve been missing.

The presumed lost 1919 UK feature The First Men in the Moon
In 1929 German director Fritz (Metropolis) Lang made the stunning and ambitious Frau in Mond aka Woman on the Moon, incidentally the first film to include a countdown to a rocket launch, now an everyday thing in sci fi and action movies. The 1934 British sci fi film Once in a New Moon was a rather bizarre satirical fantasy involving an entire seaside town being dragged out into space by the force of a 'dead star' passing Earth, only for the townsfolk to enter into conflict with the local aristocracy.

In 1936 the Russian film Cosmic Journey depicted an earth just ten years into the then future. In it, the Soviets fight amongst themselves over their choice of an astronaut to go to the moon, deeming the person picked as being too old. But he gets there anyway. This is one of a handful of films depicting the Russians winning ‘the space race,’ a term which wouldn't officially be coined until 1955, and even then the 'race' was confined to getting a human into orbit rather than on another planet.

The Mexican movie Boom in the Moon, made in 1946, involves a couple of imprisoned thugs who are offered a chance for liberation if they pilot a rocket to the moon, but the mission goes wrong, and the spacecraft, unbeknown to its occupants, crash lands in Mexico rather than on the lunar surface. Seven years later this plot was re-used for the 1953 movie Abbott and Costello Go to Mars, where Bud and Lou stow aboard a rocket destined for Mars which actually crash lands in the middle of Mardi Gras in New Orleans.

The 1950 Irving Pichel directed Destination Moon
The race to get a man into space between the Russians and the Americans kicked off in the middle of the 1950s and it was this decade that saw a period of intense moon-based sci fi filmmaking activity, anticipating the next leg of the battle. Actor turned director Irving Pichel saw the decade in with his 1950 mini epic Destination Moon, which, anticipating what’s to come, tells of American efforts to be the first to get a man on the moon. This one has some amazing miniature effects and was shot in stunning Technicolor. Its technical details were so accurate at the time that authors Arthur C Clarke and Isaac Asimov both gave it the official thumbs up.

But as well as realism, filmmakers also continued to exploit the moon more fantastically. 1952 saw Republic Pictures churning out one of their last serials, a 12 parter called Radar Men from the Moon, which was actually filmed in Los Angeles and pitted regular serial star Commander Cody against Krog the Moon man, who fires an atomic ray from the lunar surface to hit strategic earth targets.

1953's Cat Women of the Moon, a patently ludicrous adventure movie, is best summed up by the imdb synopsis which reads “Astronauts travel to the moon where they discover it is inhabited by attractive young women in black tights.” The UK would respond to this one with the equally dotty Fire Maidens of Outer Space in 1956.

The sets from Cat Women were reused in another film made the same year; Project Moon Base. Set in the far future of 1970 (although no flares feature) the famous sci fi writer Robert Heinlein was brought on board to script the film, but was unable to save a dreary story of a foreign spy infiltrating a plan to locate a series of bases on the lunar surface.

Some Cat Women of the Moon (1953)
In 1957, one month after the Soviets launched Sputnik 1 (the world’s first artificial satellite) into the skies, the Soviet Union made a documentary Doroga k zvezdam aka Road to the Stars. Incorporating a lot of detailed miniature model work for verisimilitude, it was basically a propaganda piece showing – again - how the Russians were going to be first to get to the moon.

The rather dreary 1958 adaptation of the Jules Verne novel From the Earth to the Moon spearheaded a whole gaggle of moon-based films at the end of the decade. In 1958 Missile to the Moon was released to a space hungry public, with a story featuring escaped convicts, a moon man, a gigantic spider, genetically modified food and 8 international beauty contestant winners. Egypt produced 1959’s Journey to the Moon, with a stowaway activating a rocket ship, accidentally landing on the moon and meeting a moon man and some space ladies. And finally, right at the end of the decade, we have 12 to the Moon, with an international and, surprisingly for the time, inter-racial crew embarking on an expedition to the moon and encountering a faceless alien intelligence who concludes that the human race is too immature and dangerous and must be destroyed.

Meanwhile, back in the real world, things were hotting up: in April 1961 Russian pilot Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space, to which the US responded by launching astronaut Alan Shepard into space just a month after. And in September 1962 President John F Kennedy made his famous speech in which he threw down the gauntlet to the Russians and proclaimed “we choose to go to the moon.” Had the seed of the idea been implanted by the constant stream of movies depicting the race to the lunar surface?

So how did the movie world respond to these momentous events? Why they made Nude on the Moon, of course: co-directed by mistress of sleaze Doris Wishman, this 1961 nudie quickie has a rocket scientist planning a trip to the moon which, as the title suggests, is inhabited by women without clothes.

1962 saw Tom Tryon, who four years earlier played the alien controlled husband in the brilliant low budget movie I Married a Monster from Outer Space, as a NASA scientist who is kidnapped while planning to circuit the moon in the comedy Moon Pilot.

A year later future director of Beatles movies A Hard Days Night and Help!, Richard Lester, made The Mouse in the Moon, a rather unfunny British comedy with an all star cast including Dame Margaret Rutherford, in which the US and Russia enter a space race with the tiny country of Grand Fenwick to get the first person on the moon – spoiler alert, Grand Fenwick gets there first, in the shape of astronaut Bernard Cribbins.

We’re off to Romania for our next moon based film, Steps to the Moon, directed by Ion Popescu-Gopo, although as very few people have seen this story of an accident prone astronaut I have no idea whether he got to the moon or not.

1964’s First Men in the Moon, adapted from HG Wells' novel, was more on point. Featuring stop motion effects by FX genius Ray Harryhausen, this is a spirited affair in which a group of modern astronauts, believing they’re the first people to step foot on the moon, discover a British flag and a document declaring the satellite in the name of Queen Victoria. First Men in the Moon then tells the story of the first Victorian moon project in flashback.

Yoshio Kuroda directed the 1965 animated Japanese fantasy Gulliver's Travels Beyond the Moon, featuring the literary character Lemuel Gulliver who, as the title suggests, pilots a rocket that actually doesn’t touch down on the lunar surface, and 1967’s Those Fantastic Flying Fools, aka Jules Verne's Rocket to Moon, a UK adaptation of Verne’s ‘From the Earth to the Moon’ but way less successful than Méliès' trip 65 years earlier, is another Victorians-go-to-the-moon romp, with diminutive comedian Jimmy Clitheroe as the lucky astronaut.

The same year the first movie to use a threat from the moon came in the form of US flick Mutiny in Outer Space, in which a lunar fungus starts killing off astronauts on their journey back from the moon.

Robert Altman’s 1967 movie Countdown, re-edited by the studio to remove much of the director’s trademark overlapping dialogue, was the rather talky story of a US astronaut desperate to reach the moon in a race against the Soviets. Another spoiler alert – when the Americans get there they discover some dead Russians.

But no coverage of the moon in cinema would be complete without mention of arguably the best science fiction film ever made. 2001 was a US/UK co-production directed by Stanley Kubrick, released in May 1968. With its hyper-real hardware and software (so convincing it would have had those Russian directors weeping into their vodka) and its mix of the technical and the metaphysical, it sounded the death knell for the science fiction film, which wouldn’t recover as a genre until the release of Star Wars nearly ten years later.

2001 (1968)
In the movie the moon was the second of the locations for the imposing monolith, in reality a communication beacon installed by, well we’re never really sure who, to monitor the development of the race and broadcast their progress beyond the stars. And of all the films mentioned tonight 2001 is probably the closest thematically to our main feature, Duncan Jones’ Moon.

However, we’re not done with the 60s yet. Not to miss out on the lunar action, Britain’s Hammer Films, who had won the Queen’s Award for Industry the year before and were riding high, made the pop art nightmare space western Moon Zero Two in 1969, for a budget that would just about cover a week’s catering on 2001, and featuring an odd cast including Bernard Bresslaw and Warren Mitchell aka Alf Garnett. Released to cinemas just three months after the moon landing in July 1969, Moon Zero Two’s story had a space salvage expert involved with a group of criminals intent on hijacking a small asteroid.

But its dayglo sets and ‘with it’ costumes failed to dazzle audiences, and Moon Zero Two tanked at the box office. The cinema going public had now experienced the thrill of man’s first steps on the lunar surface, and from the comfort of their own home to boot. Their interest in seeing representations of the moon waned considerably, and filmmakers responded accordingly.

Poster for Hammer's Moon Zero Two (1969)
The moon may have gone missing from cinema screens in the aftermath of the events of July 1969, but it was left to TV to pick up the slack with series like UFO, Moonbase 3, Space 1999 and the bizarre faux documentary Alternative 3, which were all lunar themed and broadcast in the 1970s. This trend continued in the 1980s with shows like 1985’s Space, a 780 minute adaptation of the James A Michener doorstop novel, which recounted the space race of the 1950s and 60s with more than a tinge of nostalgia, something achieved two years earlier on the big screen with Phillip Kaufman’s The Right Stuff.

But despite the space fantasy of Star Wars, the aspirational sci fi movies of the 1950s and 1960s would never return. Moon based films occasionally surfaced over the next couple of decades: the 1987 spoof Amazon Women of the Moon, for example (although the moon link is very tenuous); the 1988 Phillipine film Fly Me to the Moon (which no-one seems to have has seen); 1989’s Moontrap, where a robotic alien organism discovered on the moon is brought back to earth, developing itself into a killing machine by cannibalising mechanical parts; the UK TV movie Murder by Moonlight starring Brigitte Nielsen, where a murder occurs on a lunar outpost shared by US and Soviet communities; The Dark Side of the Moon, a 1990 movie about a crew stranded on the dark side of the moon, rescued by a passing NASA space shuttle that may be possessed by the devil; and 1997’s Moonbase, in which a gang of criminals break out of a lunar penal colony and access some nuclear warheads.

Moving into the 21st century, moon based movies continued to be thin on the ground. 2008’s animated Fly Me to the Moon sees three young houseflies stowing away on the Apollo 11 mission. But it was 2009 that saw a return to proper, serious sci fi with a lunar theme. As well as 2001, which I referenced earlier, Duncan Jones' Moon also nods to 1972’s Silent Running and 1974’s Dark Star (not the first time I’ve mentioned that film at Screen 25) as well as 1981’s Outland. These influences were readily acknowledged by director Duncan Jones when the film was first released.

Jones also acknowledged that space had brought him to the public’s attention in the same way as it did for his dad, David Bowie, back in 1969, via the single ‘Space Oddity.’

I won’t say too much about the film in case people haven’t seen it, but what I would ask is that you consider how creative Jones and his team must have been on an estimated budget of $5million in creating the look of the film and its environments. At the time of release, Jones mentioned that the themes of isolation and separation in the film were partly inspired by his long distance relationship with his partner (they were often on different continents). 

Moving into the second decade of the 21st century the moon still sporadically inspires. 2011 saw three such films: Michael Bay’s third ‘Transformers’ movie, the subtle and elegiac Transformers: Dark of the Moon, takes the interminable battle between the Autobots and the Decepticons to the lunar surface, where the US and the Russians are in a race to locate and claim a spacecraft found on the moon; Apollo 18 was a 'found footage' movie which saw a team of astronauts travelling to the moon to discover the reasons why the last Apollo mission, number 18, was abandoned; and Attack of the Moon Zombies was a low budget black and white spoof of 1950s sci fi movies.

In 2012, the frankly bizarre Finland, Germany and Australia funded co-production of Iron Sky hooved into view, which saw a Nazi space project decamp to the moon at the end of World War II to evade destruction, only to be discovered 70 years later by a US astronaut team who prompt the lunar Nazis to consider world domination again. Despite its rather tasteless setup, it was successful enough to spawn a sequel, Iron Sky: the Coming Race which came out this year. 2014’s sci fi spoof Slave Girls on the Moon was set in the year 8888 on a moon prison, and 2017’s Moon Rock City, which combined rock’n' roll with a story about the discovery of the destruction of mankind’s first colony on the moon, was a film whose main boast was that it was shot entirely on synthetic sets in Michagan.

It is perhaps fitting that the most recent moon based movie is one of the classiest: First Man, Damien Chazelle's 2018 biopic of Neil Armstrong, the first person to set foot on the moon, is a return to the classic astronaut as flawed hero approach taken by The Right Stuff in 1983 and Space in 1985.

So there we have it - over one hundred years of the moon on film. It's interesting that although there have been films about voyages to other parts of our Solar System, the moon has been most often favoured as subject matter, both before and after 1969's events. But with the revival of interest (and funding) in interstellar travel, over the next hundred years will the subject matter for sci fi movies change to Mars...or beyond?

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