Saturday, October 6, 2012

12 to the Moon (Luna Productions/Columbia, 1961)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film we ended up running last night into the wee hours was a Mystery Science Theatre 3000 presentation of 12 to the Moon, a rather O.K. sci-fi thriller from Columbia in 1961 that’s essentially Woman on the Moon meets The Day the Earth Stood Still. The premise of the film is that the International Space Order (ISO) has formed to bring all the countries of the world together to contribute to the first journey from earth to the moon (though I couldn’t help but joke, “I wonder how much help Vanuatu was able to give”), and a polyglot assortment of cast members representing a wide range of nationalities and ethnicities is assembled to fly a “moon rocket” whose interior, as Charles commented, is the size of a frat house (whereas the real lunar flights were conducted by people locked into things the size of the average bathroom). As the title coyly suggests, there are indeed 12 people bound for the moon when the flight takes off — though, as you might have guessed, not all of them get back. They are flight captain John Anderson (Ken Clark, and though the MST3K people made jokes about the hunkiness of his body and his utter lack of reticence showing it off, he was a nice hunk of man-meat and entertaining to watch on aesthetic grounds alone!), lady scientist Dr. Hideko Morata (Michi Kobi — I guess Yoko Tani, virtually the only person named “Yoko” anyone outside Japan had ever heard of until John Lennon started dating Yoko Ono, was busy doing a Godzilla movie or something that week), Dr. Feodor Orloff (Tom Conway, the best actor in the piece, but saddled with an awful “Russian” accent), Dr. Luis Vargas (Anthony Dexter, who’d played Rudolph Valentino in a 1951 biopic), spaceship designer Dr. Erich Heinrich (John Wengraf), Roddy Murdock (Robert Montgomery, Jr.), Dr. William Rochester (Phillip Baird), Dr. David Ruskin (Richard Weber) — who despite his Anglo-Saxon name is supposedly a Polish Jew who emigrated to Israel after most of his family was killed in the Holocaust — Dr. Selim Hamid (Tema Bey), Dr. Étienne Martel (Roger Til), astronomer and navigator Dr. Asmara Markonen (Cory Devlin — lists this as his only film credit but his casting is historically significant in that he’s playing a Black African from Nigeria — this may be the first science-fiction film ever to feature a Black character; previous movies like When Worlds Collide had depicted the future as lily-white!) and the only other distaff member of the crew besides Dr. Murata, Dr. Sigrid Bomark (played by an apparently Swedish actress billed only as “Anna-Lisa”).

 12 to the Moon is a decent movie by a major studio (Columbia) with some first-rate talent involved — the screenplay is by DeWitt Bodeen (reuniting him and actor Conway from Val Lewton’s first production, Cat People) and the cinematographer is John Alton (who’d already won an Academy Award for shooting An American in Paris, or at least the big ballet scene at the end, and whose other assignment in 1960 was the big-budget, high-prestige Elmer Gantry with Burt Lancaster and other “A”-list stars) — it’s considerably better than the common run of MST3K “targets” but not so good that we wouldn’t want to see it ridiculed (unlike Rocketship X-M, Teenagers from Outer Space, I Was a Teenage Werewolf, The Space Children and other films the MST3K gang should have laid off of!) — and it’s noteworthy in that there aren’t any big, nasty, baroque action scenes. The closest things to an action highlight are a sequence on the moon’s surface in which two of the actors fall into a pile of something described as “pumice dust” that has the effect of quicksand — Dr. Rochester gets sucked in and killed but Cap’t. Anderson is pulled out just in time (quite unconvincingly) by other crew members — and a scene on the way back in which a glowing hunk of moon rock the crew have called “the Medea stone” spontaneously combusts and they have to put it into a vacuum chamber to put its fire out. (I had expected this object to be a source of limitless energy à la The Invisible Ray, but no such luck; I had also expected once it caught on fire that it was actually consuming itself in a nuclear reaction and would destroy the ship if they didn’t throw it away into space.) Aside from that we get the usual meteor-models-on-a-string the spaceship has to fly through, and a few minor perils; also a lot of angst between the cast members, not only U.S.-U.S.S.R. Cold War arguments between Cap’t. Anderson and Dr. Orloff (had Tom Conway been able to convince us that he was a “Russian” and not just a British actor trying to suggest “Russianicity” by delivering his lines as if he were speaking and gargling at the same time, this would have worked better) but also the subplot that Dr. Heinrich is using a false name to conceal that his father was one of the key people in the Holocaust and he especially wants to keep this fact from Ruskin, who’s understandably bitter about the Holocaust since it killed the rest of his family.

Instead Bodeen, working from a story by Fred Gebhardt, has the “villain” of the piece turn out to be an unseen secret menace: it turns out the moon is inhabited by a race of beings who live inside it, and they just want the earth people to leave them alone and not spread their penchants for hate and war to the moon people. The moon people lack the power of speech but communicate with each other telepathically, and at one point they start beaming messages to the earth crew via a series of gibberish symbols that supposedly have a close enough relationship to Japanese characters that Dr. Murata is the only one of the crew who can read them. (An contributor posted in the film’s “Goofs” section that “The ‘Oriental picture writing’ that the moon people send to the ship is obviously just random shapes and designs, and doesn’t resemble Japanese writing in the slightest,” but it’s possible that Bodeen meant for the writing to be just a blind: the real communication between the moon people and Dr. Murata may be happening telepathically and they’re sending shapes that look vaguely like Japanese characters just so it will look to the other crew members that she’s reading something.) Anyway, what the moon people are saying — however they’re saying it — is that they’ve captured Drs. Murdock and Bomark and want to keep them and study them to see what this “love” business is all about (they want the two cats the earthlings brought to the moon for a similar purpose) and they plan to demonstrate their far superior technological power, which they do by sending some sort of ray to earth that causes everything on the North American continent to freeze. Drs. Heinrich and Ruskin end up drawing the short straw for a suicide mission back to earth to fly a D.I.Y. atom bomb (made from the fissile material the crew was using for mini-bombs to be used on the moon) into a volcano, set it off and thereby undo the moon freeze (given that the big ecological concern right now is global warming, one wonders where those moon people with the big freeze gun are when we need them?), and the Jew and the Nazi’s son perish together but without accomplishing the result — though eventually the moon people take off the freeze themselves once they’ve become convinced from watching the two lovebird scientists that were left behind that love is indeed a positive emotion and balances all the earthlings’ negative ones.

 12 to the Moon has some real scientific howlers — there is no attempt to depict the effects either of acceleration (the several-times heavier gravity astronauts feel as they escape earth velocity and head into space) or weightlessness, and since other previous moon-flight films (including Fritz Lang’s great 1928 movie Woman on the Moon, the best space-flight film made until 2001: A Space Odyssey 40 years later) had got weightlessness more or less right there’s really no excuse for the writers and director David Bradley to have totally ignored it here — though there is a nice scene in which the captain accidentally walks in on the two crew-women just after they’ve finished their sound-wave shower and I joked, “Now we finally know what the inside of the ‘Zero Gravity Toilet’ from 2001 looked like.” But it’s an O.K. film that, unlike a lot of the MST3K presentations, would have made a tolerable evening watching “straight,” even though a lot of the dialogue was clunky (well, the screenwriter got his start for Val Lewton, and Lewton could use off-screen sounds so eloquently it didn’t really matter that much what his characters were saying) and, given how few people (three on each crew, only two of whom actually hit the moon’s surface) the actual Apollo moon flights took along, one wonders why they need 12 people for this mission when they only seem to be getting in each other’s way and on each other’s nerves! Incidentally an poster noted the irony that the name of the spaceship in this one is the Lunar Eagle — and the name of one of the component spacecraft in the first Apollo flight actually to land on the moon was Eagle.