Recently, we had occasion to watch a couple of early science fiction movies. Sci-fi is such an interesting genre. In some ways, the creators have carte blanche, because they’re only limited by imagination (and technology, I suppose) in terms of what they can dream up. That can be a double-edged sword, of course, because one would assume most creators don’t want their premises to be too terribly ridiculous, although that’s clearly not always the case. The two films that we watched, in fact, are prime examples of both sides of that argument. One was certainly imaginative, but very scientific and exacting. The other one was, well, possibly the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever watched. Anyone care to guess what it was? Never mind, I’m going to tell you.
Destination Moon (1950)
I had never heard of Destination Moon before it arrived in my mailbox. Apparently, however, it has the distinction of being the one and only screenplay written by Robert Heinlein, of whom my husband is a big fan, and so there we are. It’s the pretty straightforward story of a group of men who endeavor to build a rocket that will carry them to the moon, and then about their journey and experiences. Now, please note the date of this film. 1950. Apollo 11 landed on the moon in 1969, so for the time, I’m assuming Destination Moon was some really crazy stuff. To a modern audience, while it’s obviously dated, however, there’s nothing crazy about it. Admittedly I am not a rocket scientist or an astronaut, but the numerous scientific discussions in the movie sounded fairly accurate to me; and the special effects, again cheesy to a 21st century eye, were exceedingly well done. In fact, it won an Oscar for its effects. The acting is nothing problematic but pretty forgettable; there’s very little humor and only one particularly dramatic scene that is effective, if not truly gripping.
Mostly, I’d say the movie was kind of dry. I kept waiting for some kind of ridiculousness, like little moon men or something, but that never happened. I think I stated at the time that it played sort of like a dramatized account of what the actual process of getting men to the moon was like, which is again fascinating considering the time-frame. Mr. Heinlein was known for championing scientific accuracy in his work, and Destination Moon certainly seemed to showcase that. While there are a few light and entertaining moments, it’s sort of slow going unless you are prepared to appreciate the content for its prescience and plausability. Having said that, I actually really enjoyed it. It was extremely interesting in a “historical” context; both in terms of the science being discussed and in the movie-making exhibited.
And in the other corner …
Plan 9 From Outer Space (1959)
Plan 9 is pretty much everything that Destination Moon is not. Directed by Ed Wood, this cult classic is a haphazard mishmash of a few big-name scary actors, extremely poor effects and cinematography, and something that purports to be a plot. Basically, alien beings are putting into action Plan 9, which entails resurrecting recently dead humans in order to … take over the earth? Destroy the human race? I guess it’s the latter, although how they are actually going to manage that is never made particularly clear. Mostly, you’ve got some footage of Bela Lugosi, Vampira, and Tor Johnson, apparently none of which was actually shot at the same time, skulking around, some little UFO models hanging from wires (I kept waiting for them to swing and bang together), and the ridiculous concept of aliens using some form of electromagnetic science to resurrect dead people and control them. It would be laughable if it were not so incredibly flat.
If you’ve not heard of Ed Wood, he was apparently an eccentric “filmmaker” who had some success during his career, but is ultimately a cult figure known for making bad movies. Plan 9 From Outer Space has, in fact, received various awards for being the “worst movie ever”. To me, I’m not sure it can claim that title, mostly because I have some difficulty in calling it a movie at all. I don’t know what to call it. Some kind of artwork? It was so completely absurd and lacking in anything that could credibly be called a “performance,” that it just didn’t feel like I was watching a movie, even a bad one. Take my vote for Worst Movie, Battlefield Earth. There’s a plot, although I don’t remember it, and there’s atrociously bad acting from actors who aren’t always bad (Forrest Whittaker has an Oscar now, people) and by comparison the effects and costumes and things are totally brilliant. It’s a cohesive unit. It all goes together. Plan 9 doesn’t seem to follow the same mold, somehow. It’s like sitting in front of a screen while a series of images and sounds, connected in the loosest of ways, flash in front of you.
The one semi-positive thing that I will say about Plan 9 is this: it’s a form of protest. I won’t spoil it for you, just in case you’re seriously bored or curious and want to see it, but the reason that the aliens want to destroy the earth is a really interesting statement. The explanation comes toward the end (it’s blessedly short) and after all the inanity it was kind of a surprise to realize that, whether or not he consciously intended to, Mr. Wood injected a valid argument, something to think about, into this collection of sounds and images. I might even be forced to say that Plan 9 succeeds as a film based on that argument. Wow. English majors really can find meaning in anything.