Don’t Squeeze that Alien; Hand me the Phaser!
In 1955 director George Pal released a movie titled ‘The Conquest of Space’, a science-fiction film that dealt with a flight to Mars based principally upon the best hard-science prognostications of the time as to what the first inter solar system space travel was likely to be like.
I was 9 years old at the time, but I saw it at the neighborhood theatre for the shockingly expensive price of 15 cents (this included a newsreel short and one chapter of the ‘Flash Gordon on Mars’ series, although I forget which episode it was).
Pal contracted such contemporary and genuine ‘rocket scientists’ as Willy Ley, Werner von Braun, and Walter Dornberger (these last two figures played key roles in the World War 2 German V-2 rocket development program) to provide the scientific details of the movie and noted ‘futurist’ artist Chesley Bonestell created the artwork that inspired the rather well-done movie sets. Bonestell, for those of who of you were still merely a lecherous thought in mom or dad’s head at the time, was one of the most respected artists of the post-war aerospace milieu, collaborating regularly with distinguished scientists like Ley and von Braun to project realistic hypotheses concerned with what form our future in space would actually take. In these early days before computer-enabled or enhanced graphics, the special effects were all laboriously executed with models and far more primitive animation techniques; nevertheless, they were quite advanced for their day and are still mildly convincing by today’s rigorous standards.
The early 50s were a time of intense scientific and public interest in the world of aerospace, thanks largely to radical advancements in aeronautical knowledge that were directly attributable to wartime Germany’s efforts to develop advanced weapons. By the time the 50s had started, the United States and Russia had both seized substantial qualtities of Germany’s wartime research archives and distributed them to their own aircraft designers. Much of the technical science that enabled a lot of the subsequent developments in both ‘Cold War’ contenders came about as a direct result of scores of former German scientists having joined their former enemies in a common effort to put a human being in orbit around the Earth. In the USA, Dr. Werner von Braun and his colleague Dr. Walter Dornberger figured substantially in the real American space program. Separate from their work for the US government, but in complementary parallel to it, both provided much incentive to the average public to take an interest in the possibilities of future space exploration.
To no small extent, the Walt Disney corporation provided a convenient and highly visible public venue to help fan these flames of interest by the common citizen in space science. The construction of Disney’s first major amusement park, ‘Disneyland’ included among its four distinct areas of entertainment (Frontierland, Adventureland, Tomorrowland, and Fantasyland) an entire part of the park dedicated to space themed activities and displays. Certainly no one in my generation can easily forget the towering TWA rocketship that served as the central focus of Disneyland’s ‘Tomorrowland’. Sleek, white, and highly streamlined, it symbolized every child’s dreams of space adventure, and it is no secret that Howard Hughes’ Trans World Airlines also gained tremendous PR value from the TWA trademark logos appearing on its flanks. The insinuation at that time was that TWA would ultimately operate earth orbit space shuttles in much the same manner that Arthur C. Clarke’s commercial aerospace line lifted visitors into orbit, but such was the enthusiastic and hopeful naiveté of the times. I know for a fact that my entire generation gained a tremendously increased interest in aviation and space flight, in no small part to the Disney people, with their ‘Tomorrowland’ theme adventure and the Sunday evening television series ‘Walt Disney Presents’ (later to become ‘Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color’).
Out in the Mojave Desert (not all that far from Disney’s Anaheim home) the Air Force’s air development center at Wright-Patterson AFB (Dayton, Ohio) moved the majority of its flight test operations to Muroc Air Base (later named Edwards Air Force Base) at about the same time, as serious investigations began in the realm of advanced supersonic flight that would ultimately lead to the nation’s Mercury manned orbital space program.
To say the early 50s were a time of vast and widespread interest in the glamorous future of space flight would be understating things considerably and just about every boy of my age lived and breathed airplanes and aeronautics. Space was clearly the wave of the future as we saw it then, and it was no mistake (although a certain sign of how little we really knew about ourselves and our planet) that space was popularly designated ‘The Last Frontier’ by news writers and pundits of the period.
Several series of books were written and published concurrent with this surge of interest in space, speculating on the question of how we would actually reach space. Many of them were the result of factual scientific extrapolations done by Willie Ley and his peers (von Braun, etc). Some of the leading science fiction authors of the era also maintained parallel careers as respected authorities on space, not least among them such notables as England’s Arthur C. Clarke (whose 2001: A Space Odyssey would soon be recognised as an important work deserving of its own film and sequels). Since mankind had never successfully left the surface of the planet for more than brief hops into the atmosphere, there was much hypothesising about exactly how earth orbit would first be successfully achieved, to be then logically followed by man’s first landing on the moon.
Based upon the best knowledge of spaceflight mechanics extant in the early 50s, von Braun’s theories received far greater attention than most others. As the superstar of the US Army’s program to place an unmanned satellite in orbit in a converted Jupiter-C missile, von Braun theorised that due to the tremendous amount of chemical fuel required to first achieve earth orbit and then travel the roughly 200,000 mile distance to the moon, the most likely method would take one of two forms. The first (von Braun’s pet concept) would be to devise a multi-stage rocket of gargantuan proportions and fly it directly to the moon and back. The other (and equally popular) popular theory was Willie Ley’s concept of first establishing a stationary, earth orbiting space station, at which materials brought up from earth by rocket could be assembled in space to construct a suitable lunar exploration vehicle.
Although (in the 100% acuity of hindsight we today enjoy in our knowledge of how the actual space program took shape) we know that von Braun’s idea was actually the proposal used to first reach the moon, in the early 50s Willy Ley’s idea of establishing a space station somehow managed to captivate nearly everyone’s imagination. Ley, together with famed space artist Chesley Bonestell, had collaborated on a series of fascinating books that projected exactly how that station would take form, enabling exploration of the entire solar system from that point outwards. It seemed very compelling, logical, and all quite possible as these gifted early futurists projected Ley’s space station concept. It wasn’t long before Life Magazine (among many) carried full length feature articles on how this project would develop and Bonestell’s beautiful and colorfully compelling illustrations certainly did as much as anything to promote the popularity of Ley’s orbiting space station concept.
Enter George Pal’s screenplay titled ‘The Conquest of Space’. Pal’s first big science-fiction cinema hit had been ‘Destination Moon’, which established a semi-serious, pseudo-documentary style of scripting that was at the time (and by early 50s standards) highly believable. After that benchmark film, Pal produced the more fanciful ‘When Worlds Collide’ as well as a version of H.G. Wells’ classic ‘War of the Worlds’, but returned to his original style to make ‘The Conquest of Space’ in 1955. This was at a time when it was far more popular in Hollywood to depict bug-eyed, green alien space invaders snatching beautiful and big-breasted Earth-women off the planet for presumably nefarious purposes
Although ‘The Conquest of Space’ drew greatly upon state-of-the-art special effects expertise of that era, by today’s computer-generated SFX standards the film would be considered somewhat primitive and slow-paced; that is understandable, given the order of magnitude increase in authenticity and life-like imagery that microprocessor-enhanced special effects technology provides today’s viewers with. And although the acting is a bit stiff and overly dramatic at times, ‘The Conquest of Space’ has many redeeming qualities that entitle it to remain high on the list of especially worthwhile science fiction films of past decades.
The plot of ‘Conquest’ centers on a Willie Ley inspired version of the earth-orbiting space station, referred to by the characters in the movie as ‘the Wheel’ , a term clearly attributable to the shape of the station that consists of a large circular structure that provides simulated gravity to its occupants through its continual spin. Pal’s characters form the station’s crew, a select international group of which have been chosen to pilot an orbit-built space vehicle to the moon for the first trip to that body.
The spacecraft itself, hanging in space nearby the station, incorporates large wing-like structures, although exactly why is uncertain, given the complete lack of atmosphere on the moon. This mildly perplexing anomaly is itself overshadowed by a plot nuance that is even stranger still, when very suddenly the lunar mission spacecraft crew are informed that the first moon mission has been cancelled and they have instead been tasked with a flight to Mars! Considering how carefully and painstakingly such missions are conceived, planned, and undertaken today, the idea of capriciously switching from a relatively nearby lunar mission to a vastly farther away Mars mission is ludicrous to an extreme. It would be along similar probability lines of suddenly informing every US soldier in Iraq that the Iraq war was being discontinued and tomorrow they would all be transferred to Afghanistan, ready or not.
The plot continues to unfold as the spacecraft leaves earth orbit and begins its flight to Mars. Just after departing the station, it is discovered that one of the station’s crew has stowed away on the Mars vehicle…another of those absolutely impossible circumstances, as determined by today’s understanding of the terribly complex requirements for supporting human life over the lengthy times and distances required to reach Mars and return.
Some of the technical aspects of the Willie Ley 50’s science forecast are today laughable, again given our present knowledge of what the genuine technological requirements ended up being. The simplistic controls used to fly the Mars spacecraft are pretty much on a par with the sort of WWII type aircraft throttle, speed indicator, and so forth found on airplanes of late 40s vintage and the craft’s viewing screens resemble little more than ordinary TV set screens of the 50s era. Amusingly, as the spacecraft accelerates from the Earth orbiting station towards Mars, a single lever is used to increase the speed of the vehicle while a camera pans a seriously funny speedometer that shows an indicator needle rapidly moving past a range that spans from 2 to 50,000 mph! When the right speed is reached, the mission commander simply reaches out and chops the throttle, much like Buck Rogers or Flash Gordon would do in a 30s vintage theatre movie serial. For anyone familiar with highly complex control systems characteristic of modern aerospace vehicles today, such scenes are vastly amusing, needless to relate.
Of further interest are the extra-vehicular space suits used by the crew, with their accordion pleated arm and leg sections. This concept was at the time actually proposed by Ley and others who were trying to imagine what the first real space suits would look like. [The accordion-like arm and leg sections of the suits used in this film were actually based almost entirely on experimental US Army experimental full pressure suits of the late 40s that were known as ‘the tomato worm suits’, interestingly enough.] The film’s space suit helmets have no provision for protection against solar glare and the life support system shown looks just like someone had taken a 1950s era open-regulator SCUBA rig, painted it white (to match the suit), and hooked it up to the suit’s exterior. I admit that it is easy enough to be excessively critical of these details in the year 2007, when back in 1954 no one had the foggiest clue as to what would actually be required to keep human beings alive and comfortable in the hostile vacuum of space for protracted periods of time. Although the space suits, as with the station itself, are practically taken right out of the beautifully Bonestell-illustrated Willie Ley books, it might come as a small surprise that some of the modern moon and space equipped suits in use today actually incorporate many of the basic systems concepts seen on those Willie Ley fantasy space ensembles of the 50s.
Perhaps the key incident of the Conquest of Space plot occurs when the commander of the mission suddenly undergoes a rather awkward transformation from sober secular scientist to a bible-reading scripture thumper who goes around the craft (with a hollow, strained look) telling his crew that it is a violation of God’s will to dare to fly to another planet (a modern variation of the medieval argument that ‘..if God had intended men to fly, we would have been born with wings’). Other somewhat stilted plot gimmicks abound, including a flip street-smart Noo Yawker sergeant that sounds as if he just stepped out of the Bronx, a selfless Japanese crewmember who is depicted as a noble and peaceful humanitarian (this just 10 years after the war had ended), and an over-acting Irish-American Master Sergeant who is devoted to the Commander (crazy or not).
Despite all these distracting flaws and minor detractions, the movie still stands alone as a classic early science fiction depiction of what 1950s science saw as a realistic, believable space-flight scenario. Contrasted to the modern 2000s era hard space science we are familiar with today, it is of course laughable (as are all antique science fiction films, so rapidly has the knowledge and technology advanced), but it is nonetheless one of those hallmark films that must be seen and enjoyed periodically as we carefully advance even further along the path to an actual Mars mission, now estimated at taking place sometime in the next 20 years.
Seeing The Conquest of Space again recently (it has been released in DVD form) was quite a treat for an old long-time science fiction fan of the 60s like myself, but by coincidence a few days ago I happened upon a far more recent movie that deserves also mention for its perceptive spoofing of space science, as much as Conquest does for earnestly trying to depict realistic solar travel. The movie is reference is Mike Hodges ‘Morons From Outer Space’, a vastly tongue in cheek film that was made in the UK back in 1985 and screen-written by British Comedians Griff Rhys Jones and Mel Smith (themselves somewhat famous for their televised cult comedy series ‘This is Not the Nine O’Clock News’).
In a nutshell, in the opening scenes an Starwars-like alien starship approaches Earth from somewhere out beyond our solar system and a close focus on it reveals some zany touches such as a 50 foot caravan (travel trailer) being towed behind it at the end of a long chain. The inhabitants of the starship (two men and a woman) appear to be quite Earth-like and affect a superficial pop-culture cluelessness that is mindful of 1980s London’s East End. Long story short, one of the occupants of the craft casually twiddles the controls a bit out of boredom, causing the starship’s control module craft to suddenly disengage from the starship and careen out of control towards Earth.
The erratic pod slams through the atmosphere and ploughs down a major highway, finally furrowing to a stop in a rural suburb just outside of a major Earth city, which we are given to assume is in the UK. Shortly, the United States Army converges on the still smoking craft along with the British military, and the emerging three aliens are taken into custody for study.
After a short period of interrogation, it becomes apparent that the aliens, instead of being super-advanced, are about as intellectually astute as an ordinary Earth moron. Fortunately, a BBC reporter manages to save them from an uncertain fate at the hands of the US & British interrogators and spirits them off to a safe house. In the ensuing scenes, he manages to sell them to the public as celebrities and stars, acting as their agent, after which the ‘average’ public begin to adulate them like rock stars. The celebrity super-star promotion soon builds into a frantic national and planetary obsession, with the aliens performing stupidly on stage, singing, and largely acting like themselves, albeit in rock-star costumes and accompanied by rock music, etc. It doesn’t take much presence of mind to feel the palpable parody portrayal allegorizing modern pop-culture super-star popularity (like that of Madonna, Britanny Spears, etc.), whose assets really are (in many cases) more hype than factual talent.
Eventually, right at the height of a public rock-show event, a colossal alien mother-ship appears out of the skies and lands almost on top of a performance by the aliens and takes them back home (wherever that is). It turns out, we are made to understand, that the moronic aliens had ‘borrowed’ the space ship they traveled to earth on for a joy-ride, back on the home planet, and the interstellar company that had rented it to them had come to collect it (and them) for breech of rental contract.
Over all, ‘Morons From Outer Space’ is an enjoyable and deliciously satirical little space farce that gets better the second time one watches it. The first time I viewed it, I was rather neutral about it, but seeing it a second time helped considerably towards my gaining an appreciation for the lightly cynical satire and understated ironic humor it presents.
Definitely a recommended film for anyone who appreciates the entire, broad spectrum of science-fiction subject matter and one that provides a very amusing, light-hearted, and highly entertaining contrast to Willie Ley’s much more sober 1955 ‘Conquest of Space’ portrayal of serious space flight. If at all possible, see them together, since they seem to complement each other, in my considered opinion.