“Space is there, and we're going to climb it, and the moon and the planets are there, and new hopes for knowledge and peace are there. And, therefore, as we set sail we ask God's blessing on the most hazardous and dangerous and greatest adventure on which man has ever embarked”.
– John F. Kennedy; September 12, 1962.
He never got to see the most ambitious plan of his administration come to fruition, but it was only seven short years later that an American astronaut touched the surface of the Moon. And it was fitting that the President with the leading man looks should be the man who carried America's dreams of space travel on his shoulders. Until Neil Armstrong kicked some moondust on July 20, 1969, it was Hollywood's leading men who made America's dream of space exploration come alive.
From the very earliest days of cinema – from the very first moment man envisioned capturing his flights of fancy on film – it was the allure of life beyond the stars that inspired us. In 1902, French visionary Georges Melies created a work that would dominate the opening pages of cinematic theory books for the next 100 years – La voyage dans la lune (A Trip to the Moon).
The first science fiction film, the first film to use extensive special effects, the first adaptation of a Jules Verne story – Melies' film foresaw many of the technologies that would not only be reimagined in films to come (the 'space cannon' concept, for example, would resurface in William Cameron Menzies 1936 classic Things To Come, Irvin Kershner's The Empire Strikes Back, 1980, and Paul Verhoeven's Starship Troopers, 1997). It was also one of the very first victims of film piracy – Thomas Edison ran off copies of the film to show on his new projection system and made a fortune, while Melies lived in poverty.
Most notably, it was the first film to engage society's fascination with the moon, and soon filmmakers looked to the stars for inspiration. German expressionist Fritz Lang, whose masterwork would be the majestic Metropolis (1927), farewelled his silent-film career with The Woman in the Moon (1929, also known as By Rocket to the Moon). A technically proficient film, it is nevertheless a wildly-fanciful vision of the moonscape (it is covered with gold and diamonds!). But the film is credited with introducing what would become a one of the most recognisable images of man's star-reaching to this day – the countdown.
Science-fiction as a sub-genre was taking hold of popular culture by the 1930's, just as global cinema was entering its golden era. American profiteers – those that put the 'business' in showbusiness – recognised the public's fascination with space travel. Saturday afternoon serials featured the interstellar exploits of Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers, two intrepid all-American types (both played by real-life athlete, Buster Crabbe) who undertook universe-saving adventures in Flash Gordon's Trip To Mars (1938), Buck Rogers Conquers The Universe (1939) and Flash Gordon Conquers The Universe (1940). The characters became iconic, leading to a big-budget (though resoundingly panned) big-screen version of Flash Gordon in 1980 and a much-loved '80's TV series, Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, starring Gil Gerard.
The war years took the edge off the optimism associated with gazing at the stars and, when the dust had settled after years of conflict, the emotional and psychological scars of global conflict made us look at the moon very differently. By the 1950's, the chill of Cold War paranoia was infusing western society and the race to the moon became a symbol of both national pride and deep fear. Out of that insecurity came such significant works of art as Arthur Hilton's 3-D fantasy Cat-Women of the Moon (1953), promoted with the catchy tag 'Love-starved Moon Maiden's On The Prowl!'
And director Phil Tucker, as an ingénue of 26, called the shots on the 1953 Z-movie classic Robot Monster, featuring a man in a gorilla suit with a fishbowl on his head as 'Ro-Man', leader of a randy brigade of moon-monsters who travel to Earth to capture our women for breeding purposes. (Editor's note – Tucker was so scorned in Hollywood because of this film, he attempted suicide). It seems Tucker hated both the moon and women – he would direct the alien-possession shocker The Cape Canaveral Monsters (1960) and the sordid Bagdad After Midnite (1955) before disappearing from Hollywood until his death in 1985.
By the 1950's, however, some American filmmakers were beginning to sense the reality of space travel and were taking serious steps to examine its potential onscreen. Irving Pichel's Destination Moon (1950), an adaptation of acclaimed science-fiction author Robert A. Heinlein's novel, took a technically-solid (if resoundingly corny) approach to rocket-propelled practicalities and lunar living. Industry word-of-mouth spread as to the film's impact; so much so, B-movie producer Robert Lippert cut together Rocketship X-M (1950) to capitalise on the 'buzz'. Both films debuted to stellar box office, indicating outer space and our nearest terrestrial body, the moon, were of paramount importance to the American public.
Byron Haskin's From The Earth To The Moon (1958), starring Joseph Cotten and Debra Paget, and Nathan Juran's The First Men in the Moon (1964) both fuelled and fed off American society's fascination with space travel. But it was in 1968 that a film premiered that would redefine how space was seen onscreen forever. Under the direction of fiery New York-born filmmaker Stanley Kubrick, from a source novel by Arthur C. Clarke, and with President Kennedy's promise of space exploration before the end of the decade ringing in ears of an idealistic population, 2001 A Space Odyssey transported audiences from the Dawn of Man to the outer edges of Jupiter's moon of Io in cinematic tour de force that, like never before, captured the soulful mystery and immense majesty of the universe. It is by this film that all other space exploration movies are measured to this day.
The film became an international phenomenon. Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky expanded upon the existential ruminations in Kubrick's film and adapted the Stanislaw Lem novel Solyaris (Solaris, 1972) into a landmark science-fiction film that examined the psychological ramifications of loneliness and isolation whilst stationed in outer space. Starring Donatas Banionas (in the role re-created by George Clooney in Steven Soderbergh's under-rated 2002 remake), Tarkovsky captured the frightening solitude of vacuum-living and its impact upon the human psyche.
With Kubrick's masterpiece providing a popcorn-flavoured sense of outer space travel to the masses, Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin touched-down on the moon. The global experience was a defining moment for the new medium, television – the images of the floating, gleeful astronauts astonishing to a worldwide viewership.
It was also a major turning point for how filmmakers portrayed the inherent drama of space flight and moon exploration. The mystery was gone; the awe that the astronautical program inspired was now a bite on the nightly news. So filmmakers did what the rest of American society in the era of Watergate and Vietnam – they turned on their government.
Moon landing my arse, said director Peter Hyams in 1978's Capricorn One. Playing upon society's ingrained mistrust of government, this tale of a staged Mars landing spoke directly to the early conspiracy theorists – did we really got to the moon? How could we afford that whilst fighting in 'Nam? Was it all a con to get the jump on the Russians at the height of the Cold War?
But soon, the moon became passé. Philip Kaufman, a hot young director having scored with hits The Warriors (1979) and Invasion Of The Body Snatchers (1978), secured the rights to author Tom Wolfe's account of the early days of the space program, The Right Stuff. Despite being packed with star power (Sam Shephard, Scott Glenn, Dennis Quaid and Ed Harris as presidential-hopeful John Glenn) and marketed by Warner Bros as their 1983 event film (it won 4 of its 8 Oscar nominations), the public was uninterested and the film disappeared from theatres still $6million shy of its production budget. The Right Stuff is still the definitive film of the early days of the space race and of the heroic men who manned the first orbital space missions.
B-movie producers still saw the draw of the moon as a low-brow crowd pleaser – Roland Emmerich, who would go on to big-budget fame (Independence Day, 1996) and infamy (10,000 B.C., 2008), made his name with the energetic low-budgeter Moon 44 (1990); Julian Sands and the statuesque Brigitte Nielsen starred in Michael Lindsay-Hoggs' Murder by Moonlight (1989, and as awful as it sounds).
It was not until 1995 and the combined involvement of two-time Oscar winner Tom Hanks and director Ron Howard that the American public would find a reinvigorated interest in space travel with the rousing drama, Apollo 13. With Hanks as astronaut Jim Lovell, Kevin Bacon and Bill Paxton as his fellow moon-bound cabin-mates and Ed Harris back at NASA barking orders at his underlings (“We've never lost an American in space, we're sure as hell not gonna lose one on my watch!”), the bravery that was so evident 30-something years ago when the first moon mission launched took on a new perspective in a pre-Bush, free-wheeling-Clintonesque America.
Hanks took on the role of unsanctioned NASA spokesman and championed the HBO-series From The Earth To The Moon, which further re-established the early lunar-explorers place in global history as the best of the best. Hitting cinemas soon is the Duncan Jones film Moon, a return to the dark, humanistic, psyche-defining introspection of 2001 A Space Odyssey and Solaris.
Has global cinema honoured the heroism of moon travel? Whether it be in the honourable drama of Apollo 13 or the fearful imaginings of Robot Monster, filmmakers have never failed to truthfully tap into society's fascination with outer space. It honours the vision of our scientists and engineers that our story-tellers should be so inspired by their efforts.