Wednesday, 17 April 2013

From the Earth to the Moon (1958)

Aching to fit into the atomic anxiety of 1950's Science Fiction film, From the Earth to the Moon most certainly takes its queues from Walt Disney rather than Michael Todd. Purporting to adapt one of Jules Verne's funniest social satires, director Byron Haskin turns it into a joyless and self-contradictory pontification.

Joseph Cotten stars as Victor Barbicane, head of a cabal of arms dealers who has invented a new weapon dubbed, in suitable Googie Age fashion, "Power X". In the film's opening act we see the first major break with Verne: gone is the ironic comedy of the Baltimore Gun Club, whose amputated members bemoan the end of the Civil War. In its place we have the merchants of death who joke about having sold weapons to both sides and bemoan their loss in profits. Barbicane comes to the rescue with his new substance, which he claims taps into the very fundamental power of the cosmos. The problem is that it needs a test... A way to demonstrate its unmatched destructive capabilities that no affluent government can ignore. Nowhere on Earth would submit to such a demonstration, so there is but one solution.

Stuyvesant Nicholl, played with aplomb by the voice of Shere Kahn, George Sanders, disbelieves the munitions dealer's announcement. He is himself the creator of an indestructible metal plating and wagers his immovable object against Barbicane's irresistible force. Power X not only destroys the metal, but the whole mountainside, and in so doing makes headlines around the world. The governments take notice and President Ulysses S. Grant intervenes. When informed of the political risks of his moon launch, Barbicane suddenly switches into a great philanthropist, extolling the capacity for Power X to revolutionize technology. It's no good. Over 20 nations have already said that they would consider the moon launch and the demonstration and development of Power X to be, in itself, an act of war. Barbicane is cowed by the kind of pressure that would have been applied to the US government had the Manhattan Project been public.

Quietly quitting the project with all its financial donations, Barbicane is crucified by the public. Left to stew in his newfound concern for the future of humankind against humanity's own frightened ignorance, he makes a sudden discovery. The combination of Power X with Nicholl's metal has created a new ceramic substance that would make an ideal casing for a manned moon rocket. The project has revived, with Barbicane, his assistant, and Nicholl off to explore the lunar orb.

The plot thickens in a manner that would be picked up by Contact much later, imperilling the lives of the crew and Nicholl's nubile daughter who decided to stow away so that the audience could have some romantic interest. The ensuing chaos provides ample opportunity for Barbicane to gyrate between benefactor and profiteer as he argues with Nicholl over the progress of humanity, the acceptable limits of science, the benefits of mutually assured destruction, and the wrath of God. The whole thing ends on a downer, with the only person to see the upside being Jules Verne, who has been inserted into the story as an associate of Barbicane.

Atomic and technological cautionary tales are extremely difficult to pull off in a way that is organic and natural without being overly preachy. The most effective of the whole Atomic Age was Gojira, otherwise known as Godzilla, if for no other reason than it was a moving expression of the only nation to have suffered nuclear holocaust. Making use of Verne, Master of the World starring Vincent Price manages to do it convincingly in spite of its limitations. Yet even the mightiest motion picture of them all, Disney's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea can't seem to figure out whether Captain Nemo is a great technological visionary acting for a higher purpose or a merely conventional man out for revenge. From the Earth to the Moon is ponderous and often nonsensical, made all the more noticeable for its divergence from the source material.

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