Welcome to our weekly field guide to 1950s horror and sci-fi movies and the creatures that inhabit them. This week: things go from pretty darn bad to quite a lot worse to worse in Rocketship X-M
Rocketship X-MDirector: Kurt Neumann
Cast: Lloyd Bridges, Hugh O’Brian, Osa Massen, John Emery
US Release Date: 1950-06-02
Alternative titles: Rocketship "X-tra Manly"; A Cautionary Tale
Sepia filter for Mars segment! Which is spooky overall.
Nifty anti-nuke message.
Unexpectedly dour ending.
Cringe-inducing sexism, despite early lip-service to the contrary.
Astronaut's annoying Texas shtick gets old fast.
Attempt at "realism" = creeping pace at times.
SYNOPSIS: The first-ever attempt at a Moon landing sees four men and one woman launching themselves in a rocket that bears a strong resemblance, with its sleek lines and flaring head, to an enormous marital aid. The crew is the usual assortment of brilliant scientists: physicist Dr. Karl, astronomer Dr. Harry, smug pilot Floyd, and ice-queen chemist Dr. Lisa, with a straight-talkin' Texas good ole boy thrown into the mix. (Yawn here.) Despite the efforts of all these eggheads, the science behind the expedition seems a little dodgy: "By flying parallel with the Earth's surface, we receive added boost from its rotation." Um, explain that one again, Doctor?
Soon the rocket and its crew enters a mysterious realm called "outer space," where some things (jackets, seat belts) levitate due to a lack of gravity, while others (astronauts, for example) do not. How odd! Before anyone can get too worked up about this anomaly, however, the ship gets knocked around a bit by meteors, then develops a malfunction that seends it careening off course. The crew decides this is a good moment to pass out. When they awaken, they're 50,000 miles (or to use the astronomical term, "spittin' distance") away from the planet Mars.
Suddenly everything turns red. Apart from this, Mars looks an awful lot like the California desert—until the crew discover the ruins of an atomic-age civilization who spent their time, for some reason, carving primitive-looking masks. Hey, every culture needs a hobby! Apparently, this civilization had suffered a crushing bout of low self-esteem, resulting in massive destruction and irregularly high radiation levels. Before long, our intrepid astronaut heroes come under attack by a mob of balding, horribly scarred Method actors wearing loincloths and chucking Styrofoam boulders. Wisely, our heroes exit stage left, pursued by a horde of blistered uglies, but there are casualties. It's not pretty.
Nor is the last scene, in which tough-willed Dr. Lisa van Horne reveals herself to be just another simpering lovely clinging to loathesome macho pilot Floyd. Oh well—they don't have a terribly long future ahead of them, anyway. If you know what I mean.
Best "yeah right" line of dialogue: "Today, there is even the possibility that an unassailable base could be established on the moon, to control world peace."
What gets atomized: Quite a lot, actually, including—but not limited to—any hope for women to be accepted as intellectual equals to men.
What gets saved: Not much! Alien civilization: lost; rocketship: fried; astronauts: toasted… nope, no gain on this play. We didn't even get that unassailable base on Luna! You know, the one that would ensure world peace.
Party game: Play "Zero Grav" and pretend there's no gravity in your house. Be as realistic as possible without actually levitating off the floor.
Moral of the story: Make love not war, and definitely not atomic bombs.
Did you notice? The rocket that lifts off from Earth early in the movie, later departing from Mars, looks nothing like the dildo-shaped spacecraft used elsewhere in the movie. Let's hear it for our friend, Mr. Stock Footage. (He makes quite a few appearances in these movies throughout the '50s.)
You can't win, sister: Notice how Dr. Lisa is scorned as an emotionless ice queen when she focuses on her work, but when she grows the least bit testy or arch she is accused of "being a woman" by the smug creeps around her. Sound familiar? And by the way, what's with the captain helping to fasten her seat belt? Does he think this "world-class chemist" can't figure it out herself?
Somehow their careers survived: Lloyd Bridges (Floyd)'s acting career included more than 200 roles over a span of 60+ years, with enough spare time to sire offspring Beau and Jeff. Some of his better-known appearances include High Noon (1952) with Gary Cooper and Grace Kelly, Roots (1977) and Airplane! (1980), along with Peter Graves and Leslie Nielson; Bridges plays the air traffic controller who "picked the wrong week to quit smoking/drinking/ sniffing glue." Hugh O'Brian (Dr. Harry) enjoyed a lengthy career as well, including appearances in westerns such as Little Big Horn (1951), Wild Women (1970), and Wyatt Earp: Return to Tombstone (1994). Osa Massen (Dr. Lisa) had appeared in 1944's Cry of the Werewolf and would star in 1958's war-thriller Outcasts of the City. John Emery (Dr. Karl) would appear in 1957's Kronos. Director Kurt Neumann would direct that film too, as well as 1958 creeper-classic The Fly, starring Vincent Price.
BOTTOM LINE: Mars segments make this worthwhile, but the rest is pretty slow.
NEXT WEEK: Night of the Blood Beast (1958)