The question is, Barney, what are we?
Explorers? Or invaders?
— Samuel Merritt
The first thing you notice about Conquest of Space is what it lacks, at least in comparison with other model-happy sci-fi operas of the 1950s. Nowhere in this George Pal/Byron Haskins venture will you find one-eyed alien bodysnatchers draped in space moss. Neither will you find Martian cave dwellers or atomic mutants in loincloths. Instead, Conquest of Space offers a stellar void much as we have come to understand it in the half century since the movie came out: a vastness filled with nothing. During an era that so often regarded outer space as a fount of limitless fabulism, the movie gives us space as we have since found it: an emptiness reflecting our own nature.
It opens with a less-than-stunning special effects shot of a no-frills rotating space station (known prosaically as “The Wheel”) in orbit around a cloudless Earth. Its paramilitary occupants, all male, are having a tough time of it. The privations of life in space are so severe — crewmembers spending months in submarine-like conditions without the prospect of leave, limited largely to eating meal-substitute pills that look like sunflower seeds — that no one ever has any privacy, and the mere mention of real food is forbidden lest a simmering discontent among the crew bubbles over into mutiny.
The mission for which they are paying such a price? A planned trip to the Moon, practice for a later flight to Mars in search of resources for a depleted Earth. The mission’s urgency, and the frustration of its crew, are summarized in the relationship between the Wheel’s commander, Colonel Samuel Merritt (get it?), and his son, Captain Barney Merritt (Walter Brooke and Eric Fleming). The Colonel has conscripted his son into space service out of a sense of patrilineal responsibility — “Space is your heritage,” he says, though Barney would rather settle down back on Earth with his new wife. He begs his father for a ticket home, but Colonel Merritt will have none of it.
In contrast to Barney is Roy Cooper (William Redfield), a youngster with a year on the Wheel who regularly proclaims his enthusiasm for space travel, and toils to endure the rigorous training for the mission to the Moon. Unfortunately, he seizes up with a fleeting paralysis that the Wheel’s doctor diagnoses as somatic dysphasia — “space fatigue” — and washes out. Already the challenges of space are not as sensational as those held out in other sci-fi outings of the time (though the movie does take time out for an obligatory meteor shower). Its threats are mental and spiritual.
The ship’s destination is changed from the Moon to Mars in that facile way so common in such sci-fi movies. No sooner is it underway (it’s known as “Spaceship One,” suggesting that Conquest of Space‘s brainstorming sessions didn’t encroach on anybody’s happy hour), than the elder Merritt contracts a kind of converse Ahabism. Poring obsessively over the Christian Bible, he develops the obsessive conviction that space travel is a blasphemous trespass on God’s domain and starts finding ways to sabotage the mission. These are subtle at first — he gives morale-busting sermons on the sanctity of the cosmos and entertains the prospect that its worlds might be “already tenanted” and so should be left alone. But his subversion becomes more blatant as the Red Planet draws nigh. “This voyage is a cursed abomination,” he rants in a highly discouraging radio report for the big brass back at the Wheel, one that nevertheless shows an excellent grasp of the subjunctive: “If it were possible I’d come back now, return the ship to Earth and blow it up, together with all plans in existence for building another!”
Merritt’s protests actually date pretty well — contemporary liberal sensibilities often subscribe to the view that space travel is a continuation or extension of the colonial impulse — but in the context of the movie, Merritt’s anti-expansionist sentiments are deemed another kind of “space fatigue,” a diagnosable condition. After the elder Merritt storms away from the radio mic in a fit, Merritt the Lesser goes on the air to explain his dad’s bizarre vituperation. “He’s been suffering from severe headaches and insomnia,” Barney says to the presumably puzzled powers-that-be. “He’s very tired, almost exhausted.” Barney goes on to detail Merritt’s despair over a crewmember who died when a fiery asteroid nearly struck Rocketship 1 — never mind that this threatens to make Merritt’s point about the mission being cursed.
Spaceship One’s landing on Mars is troubled: muttering that humans “don’t have the right” to invade other planets, Merritt nearly scuttles the craft. Once landed, another crewmember, the irrepressible humanist Imoto (Benson Fong), tries to plant crops in the arid Martian soil. The question of whether the mission is cursed (and thus whether Merritt is insane) becomes tied in with Imoto’s attempt to terraform the Red Planet, and when he is successful, all else is more or less made right: the father-son crisis is grimly resolved and the crew subsequently rides Spaceship One back to Earth, confident in a job well done.
Imoto justifies his botanical project by citing the war in the Pacific and the tried-and-false philosophy of liebensraum, as reason to turn the solar system into the 51st (well, in those days, 49th) state. “Some years ago,” he explains, “my country [Japan] fought a terrible war. I don’t defend it. But there were reasons. Somehow these reasons are never spoken.” The quaintness the West perceived in Japan before the war — largely unfurnished paper houses, people who ate with chopsticks — was a result not of cultural difference, Imoto contends, but of poverty. “Japan’s yesterday will be the world’s tomorrow,” he concludes. “Too many people, too little land.”
If Merritt’s railing against colonial expansion dates well, this naked appeal to imperialism is mortifying to modern ears, a real squirm-in-your-seat moment. Still, when the gentle Imoto is subsequently successful in planting a modest sprout in the soil of Mars, it’s hard not to feel some sympathy for his purposes. The privation the movie sees for the future is so complete — the poverty of an overpopulated and depleted planet, the stultification of life in the artificial confinement of space — that you ache for any sense of warmth and renewal. It’s easy to miss that Imoto ultimately finds this renewal not in imperial expansion, but in ecological sustainability. Almost as easy as it is miss that Conquest of Space‘s erstwhile, overpopulated future is verging on our present day.