Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Microreview [film] : The Great British Sci-Fi Xperiment - The First Men In The Moon (1964)

The Meat and Two Veg :
This film is a bit lovely, frankly. It was based, none too faithfully, on the H.G. Wells novel of the same name, and was preceded by both a more loyal adaption, lost in time, and the famous early Voyage Dans La Lune by Méliès. This version of the Wells story streamlines the tale somewhat, and much of the complexity is lost, but what is left is a joyous mess of colour and ideas.

The film begins with the fictional first moon landing by mankind. This being 1964, this is amusingly imagined as a UN space mission, rather than the nationalist space race that was the reality of the time, and of 1969. On arrival on terra luna, however, one astonished astronaut spots a dusty old Union Jack, and a note, dedicating the moon to Queen Victoria, prompting the line "Well I didn't put it there!" and a sprint to solve this somewhat embarrassing mystery.

They trace the note to an elderly man in a home in England and, with the warning of "Don't forget England is the land of eccentrics", a team is sent to interview him. Played by a heavily-made-up Edward Judd (minor star of several sci-fi movies of the time), he recounts the tale and we follow him back to 1899, where we meet his younger self as he meets an extremely manic and eccentric inventor who has created a substance that defies gravity's pull. Judd spots the potential of such a discovery, but the inventor (Lionel Jeffries) insists it should be used for exploration of the stars, and after a lot of rather zany but rather dull incidents, which generally involve Jeffries shouting a lot and running around, that is what happens. The two men slowly form an uneasy alliance, and are joined by Judd's fiancée, who stows away on the craft. 

Some wonderfully-realised effects and model work follow (including the explosion above) and finally, half way through the film, we arrive again on the moon. They stroll around in old diving suits and in about five minutes discover an underground city run by insect-like humanoids. These are the residents of the moon, the Selenites, and the crown of the film's quirky and ambitious design work. We might laugh now but an insect man as wrought by Ray Harryhausen's 'Dynamation' stop-motion work would have been fairly scary at the time. And his work remains, as on Titans and Argonauts, far more brilliant and convincing than most that came before or since.

Anyway, these Selenites no likey humans as they have been watching our warlike ways and they take them in for questioning. What is most interesting is the different reactions Judd and Jeffries have- the inventor is peaceful, beguiled by his captors, and keen to communicate, whereas the businessman is the classic reactionary, proud posh Englishman abroad, and keeps hitting them with rocks and running away.

There is no real point to proceedings, and no great sense of sympathy for the Selenites, apart from perhaps an old-school 'don't meddle in what you don't understand' message floating around Judd's erroreous behaviour. This is mainly one of those films I like to call 'explorer' stories : posh Brits go somewhere foreign and poke the locals with sticks. Things end back in the 'present', and a rather somber coda is delivered, but this film for the great part is a refreshingly light-hearted and thrilling member of the post-war British sci-fi canon. Shot in bold widescreen and big colours and with great performance from Jeffries (borderline annoying, but gets away with it), this is the sort of film I probably saw when I was nine on a rainy afternoon and have forgotten, but loved at the time, blind to its period trappings. Now it feels very old-fashioned, and hilariously out-of-date given what NASA did five years later. But it is entertaining and a worthy addition to the Xperiment.

The Math:
Baseline Assessment: 6/10

Bonuses: +1 for the beautiful Harryhausen effects; +1 for much-needed humour in the era of fear-mongering sci-fi

Penalties: -1 for the achingly-uncool music ; -1 for the righteous Judd, who wears thin by the film's end

Nerd Coeeficient: 6/10 Flaws hard to ignore, but well worth a gander.