Marketing a modern blockbuster eats up such a tremendous amount of money, that it’s usually safe to assume for every dollar spent on production, the studio spent a dollar on the marketing campaign. That’s why you get quickly made cheapies like Atlantic Rim (2013) and The Day the Earth Stopped (2008) that are rushed out of production just in time to cash in the marketing blitz for a suspiciously similarly named blockbuster. This, as it turns out is not new. When a big budget sci-fi film called Destination Moon (1950) was slated for release, Rocketship X-M, a smaller and vastly cheaper knock-off, beat it to the box office. Even in the 1950s, when marketing costs were a fraction of their current (astronomically high) averages, this was nothing unusual. Independent filmmakers (and occasionally the smaller studios) had to use every tick in the book to compete with the majors. What makes the whole incident worth mentioning is the surprising fact that the cheaply made knock-off is a considerably more intellectual film than the big budget spectacular.
The NASA analogue in the world of Rocketship X-M obviously has a lot to learn about public relations. Case in point: they make their announcement that they are sending a manned rocket to the moon about half an hour before the launch is scheduled to take place. They’re also considerably less concerned with double checking each component of the launch, because the scientists, senior technicians, and even the astronauts themselves are stuck answering questions for the newspapers until twenty minutes before launch! Sure, our space farers may have to run to get to the launch pad in time, but at least the Weekly Gossiper will be able to print the first woman in space’s feelings on being the only woman on an otherwise all-male mission. The priorities here are so backwards I can hardly wrap my head around them! Well, we know who to blame for the various fuck-ups that will beset the Rocketship X-M (that’s eXpedition Moon, evidently they’ve hired Dr. Quartermass to handle their abbreviations) on its journey to earth’s largest satellite.
Crewing this spaceflight are: pilot Floyd Graham, the rocket’s designer Dr. Karl Eckstrom, the inventor of the rocket’s fuel Dr. Lisa Van Horn, Harry Chamberlin and astronomer assigned to act as navigator, and Major William Corrigan who will serve as the ship’s engineer. The male characters, except for Harry Chamberlin who is just a space-filler, all sit comfortably within familiar archetypes. Eckstrom is a classic 1950s – 1960s cinematic scientist, calm under pressure, rational in all things, and devoted with an almost religious zeal to the expansion of human knowledge. Floyd Graham is the two-fisted man of action who takes point at every dangerous situation. A real man’s man who would feel at home with John Carter on Barsoom or Flash Gordon on Mongo. Corrigan is the obnoxious comic relief that filmmakers of this era mistakenly believe was amusing. Lisa Van Horn is a bit more unusual, being a character that has wholly suppressed her human instincts in favor of a purely cerebral existence. The overall effect makes her seem so robotic an inhumane that for the first half of the film that you could be forgiven for mistaking her as an alien fifth columnist sent to sabotage the launch from within. Obviously, this façade of cerebral remoteness is bound to crumble under pressure. An uncharitable critic could interpret this as a product of the filmmakers’ and era’s sexism, but I would like to propose a different interpretation. Van Horn is a flawed character, yes but she is also the most interesting character in this film, the only one to undergo a major transformation by the film’s end. A transformation that is central to the film’s intellectual message. This is her story, the men are just along for the ride.
En route to the moon the spaceship’s engine malfunction and has to be repaired. When the crew gets the engines up and running again, Eckstrom and Van Horn screws up their calculations for the fuel mixture and send the rocket careening off into space way faster than anyone expected. The acceleration is so much that the whole crew is knocked unconscious by the G force. Before anyone can wake up the ship is so far off course that they have missed the moon entirely and wound up near Mars. This is the part where the more scientifically literate of my readers will start shaking their heads. Given the unbelievable vastness of space, the chance of the spaceship missing the moon and winding up at Mars accidentally are comparable to shooting a rifle blindly and hitting a bull’s-eye target some ten miles away. However, Rocketship X-M is cagily aware of the impossibility of what is happening on screen. Eckstrom goes so far as to acknowledge it directly saying: “there are times when a mere scientist has gone as far as he can, when he must pause and observe respectfully while something infinitely greater assumes control. I believe this is one of those times.” Some higher power wants to steer these five explorers to Mars, and the reason for its intervention will be apparent soon enough.
On the surface of Mars the crew makes an unsettling discovery: Mars was once inhabited by an advanced, scientific civilization. All that remains of this once great people though is a few ruins, scattered amidst a vast irradiated wasteland. The conclusion is inescapable: the Martians have annihilated themselves in a nuclear war in which there were no winners, only victims. Eckstrom hopes that there were no survivors to this horrible conflict, because anything stayed alive on Mars would have reverted back to a stage of primal savagery unknown in modern times. Just as you cannot draw the audience’s attention to the gun over the mantle without expecting it to go off later on, you cannot mention the cannibalistic survivors of nuclear war without having them emerge from their caverns and try to eat your leg. In short order, the astronauts of Rocketship X-M are attacked by a veritable swarm of the very same feral abominations that Eckstrom imagined. If the crew is to have any chance of making it off world they will have to fight their way through the mob of Martian savages.
Rocketship X-M is a movie with a message, and it’s not particularly subtle about how it gets delivered. Granted that message is a novel one, and as far as I know Rocketship X-M is the first film to try to deliver it, beating out Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) by a full year. The hand of God Himself has steered mankind’s first extra-planetary expedition to Mars, and He has done so for a very good reason. Mankind is on the brink of the Atomic Age, a time of tremendous promise but also unimaginable peril. The almighty wants mankind to know about the fate of the Martians who eradicated their own civilization with atomic fire, so that we don’t repeat the same errors. I’ll leave it to theologians to square God’s behavior here with His acts in the bible, though on first glimpse it seems like more of a pagan deity strategy than an Abrahamic one. All the same, even an inveterate heretic like me can admit there is something appealing about the notion of a mysterious, non-intrusive but nonetheless benevolent God. It is nice to think that a force greater than ourselves is looking out for us, and occasionally feeding us the information we need to solve our greatest challenges.
This brings us back to the character of Lisa Van Horn: She starts the film as a brilliant scientist but an odd, emotionally stunted human being. Over the course of her journey to Mars, she learns how to admit to her mistakes and healthily express her emotions. This mirrors the necessary transformation that mankind at large will have to undergo in order to safely adapt to the perils of the Atomic Age. Scientific brilliance, removed from emotional intelligence is what put mankind into such a dangerous position in the first place. Critics that are eager to label her a sexist artifact of a bygone age are missing the point. They are giving voice to a very stupid modern opinion that a female character that has flaws is somehow representative of all women everywhere. The idea that every female character must be a boring perfect protagonist, lest women feel their entire gender is being criticized, is ironically far more sexist than anything in Rocketship X-M.
Enough gushing: Let’s talk about the film’s shortcomings. The biggest problem with Rocketship X-M is that almost nothing happens for the first 2/3rds of the movie. Almost every interesting idea, event or action sequence is crammed into the last act when the expedition finally lands on Mars. In my mind, the payoff is decidedly worth the wait, but it would have been much better had the audience not had to sit through an hour of tedium and poor attempts at comic relief. The Martians are a bit of a let down, being entirely human in appearance beside some make up that makes them look like they are covered in radiation burns. Those hoping for a legion of rubber-suited mutant aliens will be disappointed, though to be fair they arguably had their hopes too high. In terms of special effects, the film is completely blown out of the water by its nearest competitor: Destination Moon (1950). Still, shortcomings aside, Rocketship X-M is a fascinating Cold War film.