Tuesday, November 27, 2012

First Men In The Moon (1964)

The crew of the first moon landing by an UN expedition made up of British, Soviet and American astronauts stumbles onto a little British flag and a declaration of possession of the moon for Queen Victoria made out in 1899.

Hasty research on Earth leads to Arnold Bedford (Edward Judd). Bedford tells the UN the story of his adventure of a lifetime. As a hopeless playwright (which is the only kind of playwright someone can be who never actually writes a play), and well on his way to become a con-man of the sort who has no problems implicating his own fiancée, American Kate Callendar (Martha Hyer), in illegal affairs, Bedford learned that his neighbour Joseph Cavor (Lionel Jeffries) had invented a curious paste with the ability to shield objects from the influence of gravity.

Bedford lied himself into Cavor's trust because he, quite unlike the mad scientist, saw many useful and lucrative applications for the stuff. What Cavor really wanted with his paste was use it to fly to the moon. Bedford, only half a prick, let himself be swayed by Cavor's excitement and agreed to accompany the scientist.

Thanks to Bedford's cons and an accident, Kate also stumbled into the moon capsule when it was about to start, and they all ended up on the moon where trouble with the local population, the Selenites, arose.

When first I realized First Men in the Moon's existence a few months ago, I was quite confused why I had never heard about the movie before, seeing as it was directed by the dependable Nathan Juran, co-written by Nigel Kneale, based on an H.G. Wells novel (if not one of his best, if you ask me) and had special effects by Ray Harryhausen. Having now watched it, I'm not so confused anymore - there may have been a bunch of greats involved, but none of them brought anything even close to their best efforts to the film.

Juran's direction is bland, Kneale's script is - outside of the framing narrative that at least delights with its international moon expedition - devoid of the expected depth and breadth of ideas and never develops any element of the story that could be interesting any further than strictly necessary to let the film slowly lumber on, and the film's narrative is close enough to Wells's original to afford Harryhausen little opportunity to actually do what he does best in the effects area - even most of the Selenites are crappy costumes rather than stop motion creations.

Then there's the fact that the film's first half consists of scene after scene of unfunny comedy that. Does. Not. Stop. It's also less than pleasant how little the movie seems to realize that Bedford is a total tosser and not the charming rogue it thinks he is, so if you hope for some sort of payback for him for all the immoral, illegal, and just really assholish stuff he does, or at least some sort of character development away from being what he starts out as, you will be sorely disappointed. And I don't know why Kate is even in the movie, for she sure as hell is of no import to anything that goes on. Not even her kidnapping by the Selenites is actually important to the plot, making her even less than the usual helpless female stereotype.

It's not all bad though. Once we finally, finally, leave Earth, the "comedy" slowly but surely recedes into the background, and the film turns into your typical fantastic voyage movie with all the basic entertainment value that genre carries in its genes. You'd really need to put a lot of effort into ruining scenes of people in diving suits meeting aliens on the moon, and while nobody involved seems to have had a very good week creatively, they're still experienced professionals enough to not ruin what's left of the film.

First Men also has a secret weapon in form of John Blezard's art direction that shows an eye for the beauties and charms of proto-steampunk-ish devices, giant multi-coloured tubes and curious alien (well, Selenite) cave systems. It's an enthusiastic and wonderful effort in a film that is mostly just coasting on genre standards, and is for me what made First Men In The Moon worth watching beyond my completist impulses and the basic decentness of every cinematic fantastic voyage.

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