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:: Saturday, October 11, 2003 ::

H.G. Wells' First Men in the Moon

A film difficult to pigeonhole, H.G. Wells' First Men in the Moon mixes fantasy and hard science fiction. On the one hand, it's a thrilling special-effects summer blockbuster, but on the other hand, it hews closely to a volume of classic literature. With something for everyone, the film is one of 1964's must see movies. Now available on DVD, it ought to become one of your library's staples.

Science fiction traces its roots back as far as humans have recorded history. However not until the late Nineteenth Century did it become recognized as a separate literary genre. Men like Jules Verne penned daring and (ahem) implausible stories about exciting vaporware. Not content to let the French dominate the canon, British writers such as H.G. Wells answered with novels of their own. Once the genre established itself as high literature, hack writers raced to the bottom of the niche -- yielding for us countless stories of atomic animals, moon maidens, rocketships and their laconic pilots. But before all that came to pass, H.G. Wells' First Men in the Moon set the standard as a landmark, unadulterated tome of classic science fiction.

Of course filming the novel would be a different story. Not content to simply show the book as Wells wrote it, the film-makers decided to make a few improvements. Adding a prologue and epilogue set in the present day (1964), and throwing in a love interest, the film actually improves on the original. Or, at least does justice to its source.

And with that, let's look at the film.

The film opens well after rocket day as U.N. moon mission one lands on the lunar surface. While the crew is annoyingly international, I'm pleased to report that mission commander Colonel Rice (Sean Kelly) and the first man to walk on the moon, Sergeant Andrew Martin (Gordon Robinson), are Americans. Pretty prescient for 1964, huh?

After the crew checks in with mission control, they decontaminate (foreshadowing) and debark to explore. And wait until you see what they find:

A British flag and a claim for the moon (written on the back of a summons dated 1899) lie atop a large moon rock. Rice radios the news to the U.N., which dispatches a crack team of space detectives to Britain to trace the name on the document. Sadly the detectives discover that the recipient of the summons is dead, but her husband still lives at a nearby retirement home.

Confronted with the evidence, the husband realizes that man has reached the moon (again). Once considered a notorious crank for his lunar ravings, he is now the key to unlocking the mystery. But rather than explain, he bears a dire warning: the U.N. explorers are in grave peril!

End of the (admittedly excellent) prologue.

Here's our husband, Arnold Bedford (Edward Judd), back in his swingin' bachelor days. A playwright, Arnold's got everything: a cocktail in hand, a gun over the mantelpiece and a (just off-screen) typewriter. All he's missing is a girlfriend to complete the picture. And here she comes!

Kate Callender (Martha Hyer), a native of Boston and Arnold's longtime-squeeze has just arrived from across the Atlantic. Arnold's sent letters to her about the wonderful new play he's writing. Imagine her surprise when she checks the typewriter: "Act I Scene I." Oops, Arnold has some explaining! Feigning a temporary case of writers'-block, Arnold assures her that the play will be as good as he promised. And it'll make them well off to boot! Enthusiastically, Kate declares that, with such a bright future, they might as well get married right now. After all, they've been dating quite a while...

Arnold dodges the question with the lamest excuse ever. I'm beginning to get suspicious about that Arnold...

Biking down the lane and singing his poor fool head off is our third protagonist, Dr. Joseph Cavor (Lionel Jeffries). Wealthy and eccentric, Cavor bought the manor next door in order to have a secluded place to carry out his dangerous experiments. Imagine his surprise to see activity at the neighbor's cottage. I'll let him say it in his own words.

Arnold's indisposed at the moment, so when Cavor knocks on the door Kate invites him in. Cavor gently conveys to Kate the risk she faces living so near to Cavor's laboratory. When he offers to buy the cottage, Kate (to whom Arnold has falsely claimed he owned it) bargains up the price and accepts. She's only too glad to oblige Cavor and reap a tidy profit with which she and Arnold can start their life together. So excited is Cavor (and believe me he's excitable throughout the whole film) he leaves his bicycle and dashes back to the lab.

When Arnold returns and hears the good news, he's surprisingly muted in response. He grabs Cavor's bicycle and drives over to the lab to set Cavor straight about the cottage. But the scientist can't be interrupted just now: he's whipping up a batch of his miracle-substance Cavorite.

Dubious that Cavor has invented an anti-gravity paste, Arnold challenges him to prove his claim. Cavor paints the bottom of a chair and Arnold sits down. When the paste cools and dries, hilarity ensues.

Amazed, Arnold insists on investing in Cavor's new invention. Realizing the potential Cavorite has for his stock of surplus Army boots (which he does not own), Arnold decides to apply the money from the sale of his cottage (which he also does not own) to the process of testing and marketing flying boots. All he needs is a nice, blonde patsy to explain to the authorities the circumstances of his landlord's disenfranchisement.

Incidentally, Arnold is supposed to be leading man and the sympathetic foil for the eccentric Dr. Cavor. And somehow he is both.

While Cavor's not unkind to the idea of flying footwear, what he'd really like to do with Cavorite is paint his spherical spaceship and take a trip to the moon. He takes Arnold out to the greenhouse and shows off his craft. Arnold's impressed enough to volunteer to join on the moon mission. It's a bit odd that Cavor would first build the spaceship and then invent the anti-gravity paint. But after all, he's British. And did I mention excitable?

Arnold heads home to explain to Kate the good news about his new sky shoe enterprise. He also convinces her to (reluctantly) sign the deed of sale. Although he assures her everything's o.k., Kate is not so sure. She visits Cavor's lab to see for herself. When she discovers what the two men are really up to, she delivers an ultimatum to Arnold.

One guess as to who Arnold picks.

Ever the decent lady, Kate takes the news well. After all, she's American. And because she is, she thoughtfully packs some provisions for Arnold's trip. Cavor inspects the goods and is not impressed.

As Arnold and Dr. Cavor prepare for blast-off, the recorder-of-deeds grows wise to Kate's false deed. With police escort, the landlord's attorney arrives and delivers to Kate a summons. Since we know this is the summons which will eventually end up on the moon, we wonder: how does it get inside the spaceship?

Yep, she walks over to the space-sphere and bangs on it, hollering for Arnold's scalp. Since said sphere is seconds from lift-off, this is not an especially safe course of action. The crew have no choice but to drag her inside. And with that, it's rocket day (er, sphere day).

Because the sphere lacks for Kate an acceleration couch net, she has to fake the Gees on the floor. And how does Kate handle weightlessness? Not well I'm afraid. In fact she creates a crisis of comedic proportions.

Once the crew settles down, the film adopts a pace better suited to domestic comedy. Kate adjusts the blinds (actually the sphere's control surfaces) sending them hurtling toward the Sun (oops). And when she and Arnold grow tired of canned rations (apparently all sardines), she unpacks her chickens.

Yep, chickens. Weightless in space. That's why you rented this film right?

At journey's end the sphere rumbles to rest against a moon mountain. Everyone is amazed with the success they've had thus far -- especially Dr. Cavor (who by this point you surely realize is not the laconic pilot we would otherwise expect in a film of this genre).

With Kate aboard, exiting the sphere is going to be tricky. You see there are only two diving suits (yep, exposed hands and all) and no airlock. However, there is an airtight storage compartment big enough for her to fit. So Cavor and Arnold suit up, turn the sphere's oxygen gauge to full-open and depart. In other words, they leave Kate in the trunk.

While Arnold bangs on the hull to let Kate know it's safe to leave her compartment, Cavor goes space-happy. He doffs his weights and bounces around, wedging himself between two rocks. With no radio, he can't call for help, so there's some drama before they get about to the part where they claim the moon for Queen and country.

And guess what else they find:

It's a giant lens with retracting cover. Whoever built the thing has air to spare, so when our astronauts crash through the glass nobody takes notice.

Arnold and Cavor find themselves at the top of a deep shaft. And somewhere at the bottom is the answer to a mystery -- and Arnold's helmet. Using a convenient circular staircase they descent into the moon. At the bottom, they find Arnold's helmet and an army of Selenites. They'll need more than helmets to fight!

Heedless to potential ruptures to his diving-suit, Arnold tears into the horde. Since he's feet taller than the Selenites, he has no trouble throwing them by the bushel into a deep chasm. Horrified at the slaughter, Cavor realizes he's missed his chance to make a good first contact. Escaping, they suit up and return to the sphere.

Or rather, they don't. Someone or something has dragged off their ride home. Following the tracks takes our heroes to a giant door. Forcing the door open, they find themselves back in the Selenite city. But how else to write Kate into the rest of the film?

With Kate still aboard, the Selenites begin disassembling the sphere. Like any good American, she picks up a rifle and defends herself. But for how long can Kate hold out? We'll learn the answer after Arnold and Cavor escape the attack of a giant stop-motion caterpillar.

This is a Harryhausen film, what did you expect?

Narrowly avoiding certain death, Cavor is captured by the Selenites. Arnold takes cover in a convenient crevice -- and just in the nick of time. The Selenites wheel out the world's Moon's biggest electric bug-zapper and dispatch the poly-legged predator.

Meanwhile, Kate's lost the battle and finds herself in an observation chamber. It's pretty neato. We could use a few for our airports, I tell'ya what.

Just because Kate's down doesn't mean she's out of the fight. She hurls hurls invective and threatens to do worse! Atta girl Kate!

In any event, she is joined by Cavor. The two try to reason with the Selenites, who aren't as interested in them as they are in the sphere and its miracle Cavorite. To further fathom the mystery, they defrost some chemical scientists and set them to work on the problem. When said scientists can progress no further (apparently because the Moon lacks the secret ingredient of Helium), they are re-frosted until again necessary. Because you don't usually see that kind of behavior in a scientist, Cavor suggests an explanation.

Back to Arnold: he discovers the disassembled sphere and its ever-more-important gun. Date an American long enough and it rubs off on you. He rejoins Cavor and Kate and begins planning their return to Earth. Said plan would necessarily require them to steal back all the neccessary pieces of sphere in the Selenite's possession. I told you that gun would be important..

Cavor's having none of it. He came all this way to explore. Now that he's found intelligent life, he simply must meet the Selenite's leader and reason with him. The Grand Lunar grants his request.

At this point, we become well aware that Cavor isn't feeling too well. Climbing all those stairs to the Grand Lunar's throne exacerbates his cough. Cavor's cold isn't just something thrown in at the last minute. It's an important plot device introduced near the beginning of the film and subtly referenced throughout. Now the prologue's decontamination scene begins to make sense. And yes, Wells is introducing the same theme he put in War of the Worlds. "Steal from the best," I suppose he must have thought.

While Kate and Arnold make repairs to the sphere, Cavor sits down and chats with the Grand Lunar. One's from a freedom-loving capitalist society; the other's from a hive mind and absolute dictatorship. Can they work things out?

Er, no. In fact, they can't even see eye-to-eye: one's got an iris; the other's got some compound structure.

While the film deftly suggests there can be no meeting of the minds, I'm a bit cheesed at who comes off as more decent. The film suggests that because the insect-dictator has absolute control over every Selenite, the Moon has no conflict, and is therefore superior to our war-infested world. That's just Wells at his fin-de-siecle worst. Wells and his ilk -- the new progressives -- are responsible for a good share of the Twentieth Century's evil. Experience shows there's no such thing as an enlightened dictator, and no band of forward-thinking intellectuals has ever led a population out of the woods. And don't try to convince us of the wisdom of the command economy by showing us a race of incorruptibles. That's cheating: even the most decent people retain the capacity for evil; they just don't act on it. But put them into exactly the kind of situation Wells suggests, and...

Or maybe I'm wrong, and Wells wasn't such a fuzzy-head. The Grand Lunar keeps coming back to the subject of war. He wants to know what it's like, and how to win. After all, more men from Earth might be coming this way.

In fact, one does. Nearly finished fixing the sphere, Arnold stealthily arrives to retrieve Cavor. Overhearing the martial conversation, Arnold realizes Cavor's been had. With his trusty rifle, he leaps out to save his scientist friend.

Cavor's still in ignorant bliss. Struggling for the rifle, he accidentally sets it off. The round strikes the Grand Lunar's throne and announces the final Selenite push. To escape the lunar horde, our heroes race back to the sphere. There Cavor has a change of heart. He really wants to patch things up and establish a bond of goodwill between the Earth and the Moon. But he doesn't have time. If he and his friends are to escape, they must leave immediately. Sacrificing himself for the good of humanity, Cavor elects to stay behind and continue negotiating with the Grand Lunar.

Ascending through a lens-assembly, Arnold and Kate return to Earth. And we jump ahead sixty-five years into the epilogue.

As Arnold finishes telling his tale to the space detectives, the matron wheels a television into his bedroom.

The U.N.'s astronauts have discovered the Selenite's city. Are they about to be attacked by a tide of lunar insects? And what about the giant caterpllars -- they can't be far off.

Or rather they are. Far off to the point of being dead and gone. The city is ghostly quiet and empty. It's even falling apart. Deducing what you wouldn't think they could from inside their spacesuits, the astronauts conclude that the mysterious inhabitants must have died from a terrible epidemic. As the city crashes in on their heads, the astronauts run back to their craft.

And Arnold gets the last laugh after all.

H.G. Wells' First Men in the Moon is an amusing look at an admittedly turgid book. Overflowing with charm, the film isn't afraid to feature implausible space gear and sit back and laugh at the clumsy results. Frankly, the idea of Victorians in Space is too good not to turn into a feature film. Of course, nowadays, they'd call it "Space: 1899" and fill it with quickly-dated CGI (go back and watch Star Trek VI, and tell me if the Klingon blood looks real). By contrast, the mattes, blue-screens and stop-motion of this film have aged rather well in forty years.

Of course it's a cliché that you don't find films like this today, but it's true. It hasn't got a potty-mouth, or a power-ballad montage, or any toilet humor. Instead it's got an offbeat sense of humor and nostalgia enough for two features. It's also got the U.N. getting to the moon first. That I could do without, but the rest of the film is like a flawless diamond... covered in cavorite and flitting about your house while you reach for the swatter.

In other words, I can't recommend it enough.

Two ears up!
:: Anna 8:27 PM [+] ::

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