First Men in the Moon

Tell me what you think of this premise: An international team of astronauts lands on the Moon in the 1960’s. While exploring their landing site, they come across a dusty Union Flag and a scrip of paper claiming the moon in the name of Her Majesty Queen Victoria, in the Year of Our Lord Eighteen Hundred and Ninety-Nine.

A rather stellar premise, wot? If you think this premise is as good as I did, you may be tempted to seek out the 1964 film H.G. Wells’ First Men in the Moon. A word in your ear before you do so: the movie fails to live up to its premise. Gadzooks, does it fail.

The plot of the film starts exactly as the premise indicates: modern (well, modern at the time) astronauts find evidence of a lunar landing having occurred in 1899. When the space agencies back on Earth hear of this, they seek out the lady who wrote the note, Katherine Callender, but she has passed away, probably from shame at having been in this movie. Her husband, Arnold Bedford, is still alive, and the space agency people find him in a retirement home where he is known as the resident lunatic for his claims of having been to the moon. Get it? Lunatic… because he went to the moon… Ahem. When he hears that there are people on the moon again, he exclaims that the astronauts are in terrible danger (don’t get your hopes up; it doesn’t come to anything) and he tells the story of his lunar voyage.

Well, eventually he does. At first he tells the story of how his Bostonian fiancé (Kate) had come to visit him in his charmingly out-of-the-way English cottage, and how his only neighbor, a crackpot inventor named Cavor, had gotten the two of them involved in his wild scheme to go to the moon. This storyline takes up 45 minutes of the movie and fails on virtually every level. It attempts comedy, but that comedy mainly consists of Cavor calling to his incompetent servant (ask a balding, mustachioed friend of yours to scream “Gibbs! Giiiiiiibbs!” for half an hour and you’ll get the same result).

Equally unfunny is the subplot of Kate’s astounding lack of common sense. Imagine the scene: Cavor’s greenhouse must be kept to a certain temperature. Kate comes in, leaving the door wide open. Cavor sees this and hastily closes the door, warning her that the door must be kept closed at all times. Kate catches sight of Bedford outside the greenhouse and rushes to greet him. As you have already guessed, she leaves the door wide open once more, which leads to more yelling from Cavor. Later, she also ignores all serious considerations of her fiancé’s impending lunar voyage, but is only concerned about what he will be eating on the trip. Canned food is so unhealthy!

Then there’s Cavor’s unhappy and unhelpful servants, led by Gibbs (you’ll remember his name until the day you die if you see this film). They gleefully abandon their station, where they’re supposed to be watching the doctor’s experiment, to go to the pub. Their negligence ends with the experiment blowing the building’s roof sky-high. Nothing actually comes of this, and its only purpose in the plot is to fill up time.

Did I mention that Bedford’s picturesque cottage is about to be taken by his debtors? Ah yes, another completely pointless plotline that takes up time but never comes to anything.

At this point, you’re probably wondering when the lunar monsters are going to come out to play. Well, first they have to get there, and that will be accomplished with the help of the only truly steampunk thing about the film: the space vessel, which looks like one of those old mines with the spiky bits. You know what I mean. And their means of propulsion… steam perhaps? An enormous magnetic cannon? Electro-propulsion? Solar wind? Good old-fashioned rocketry? No sir, it will be Cavorite, a material that Cavor has invented. He explains that, just as a shade drawn over a window blocks light, Cavorite blocks gravity.

No, I’m not crying, it’s just I… I have something in my eye…

Cavor and Bedford are in the spaceship preparing for takeoff when Kate comes by and starts knocking on the craft, trying to give Bedford an earful about the men coming to repossess his cottage. Bedford has other things on his mind, as the ship is about to blast off at any second. Kate ignores their warnings to stay clear, so they have no choice but to pop the hatch, pull her in, and quickly close the hatch, mere moments before the spaceship launches.

At this point it’s worth noting that the effect for things blasting off in this movie, whether the craft taking off now or the roof being blown off the house earlier, is created by a model of a building being turned upside-down and having things dropped out of it. The effect is less than satisfactory.

The trip to the moon is momentarily derailed when Kate pulls back a shutter, exposing some Cavorite and sending them racing toward the sun. “I was trying to take a look,” she explains. Fortunately, Cavor corrects the course, and they land on the moon with no further ado.

Kate has packed an elephant gun, just in case, which Cavor protests. Naturally, science fiction fans and Steampunk aficionados eagerly await the use this gun will see. We will be sadly disappointed, as its triumphant scene will be when it is used to bash in a plastic door, clublike.

Cavor and Bedford don their diving suits. “If it keeps water out, it must keep air in!” Bedford explains. Apparently, this even works without gloves. Then we have a short scene of lunar exploration, which consists mostly of Cavor laughing, singing, and bouncing around until he gets stuck in a V-shaped rock. Hilarious!

Then our heroes find a cave in the moon, which leads to a climbing sequence in which Bedford’s helmet falls off. I hear you gasp, but worry not! There is air below the surface of the moon. Whew! Bedford retrieves his helmet, but then our heroes see movement in the cave. Bedford remarks that he wishes now that he had brought his elephant gun. Any creature on a foreign planet must be hostile, right? Sure enough, a group of actors in bad insect suits come out and start attacking! Well, not so much attacking as trying to push our heroes along a path above a ledge. Brave Bedford is taking none of this coaxing, however, and he starts to shove back. Fortunately for our belligerent buddy, the moon creatures turn out to be weak as kittens: their biggest threat is the annoying sound they make.

While Cavor cries out that Bedford should stop and leave the totally nonthreatening creatures alone, Bedford has a grand old time shoving them into an abyss. Eventually, our heroes decide to get out of there before more bug-men arrive, so they race out of the cave and back to the surface, where they find that their craft is gone, and Kate with it!

Our heroes follow the drag-tracks to a closed gate, which they manage to open with laughably little effort. Once inside, they encounter an enormous Ray Harryhausen caterpillar. Yes, I wish I was only joking, but the moon-caterpillars in this movie was seriously designed by Ray Harryhausen. The beloved special effects wizard who brought us Jason and the Argonauts and Clash of the Titans gives us one scene with monsters in it, and they are not even particularly interesting.

The scene begins with our heroes passing an enormous caterpillar. Cavor notes that they are probably not dangerous, and he supposes that the bug-men must raise them for meat, like we raise cows. Bedford remarks that if these are cows, he would hate to meet the bull. Right on queue, an angry caterpillar shows up and starts clacking its mandibles at our heroes. Caterpillars don’t have mandibles, you say? Well, erm, this one does. Bedford complains about Cavor’s earlier prediction that the creatures were harmless, when Bedford himself had just recently commented that he would hate to meet a bull. Which one is it, Bedford? You can’t have it both ways, old chum.

Our heroes run from the caterpillar, hiding among some plastic crystals, which the monster seems unable to get past, though it clearly breaks them whenever it touches them. Soon the aliens arrive, and they quickly zap the rampaging caterpillar with a raygun, saving it from embarrassing itself further.

Wait, the bug-men have a raygun? Now this is getting good! Surely, this raygun will… oh who am I kidding, they never fire it again. It shows up in one of the later scenes, but the special effects budget must have fallen through on this, as the weapon is never actually fired after this point.

The bug-men give our heroes the twopenny tour, which includes columns of bubbling water in colored plastic tubes. “This must be where they make their oxygen,” Cavor helpfully points out. He might as well have said that it is where they tap-dance on marzipan, for all the sense it makes. Or, for that matter, for all the effect on the plot it has.

We then see Kate, who is still inside the spaceship but now surrounded by bug-men. She pulls out the elephant gun and starts pointing at the window of the spaceship, shouting that she’ll shoot. Yes, because I’m sure a silly thing like a window on a spaceship won’t come in handy later on. Maybe for something like, oh I don’t know, a return voyage? Fortunately for our heroes, the bug-men manage to open the capsule, preventing Kate from destroying the spaceship. They then capture her and take her away, because they are B-movie aliens and capturing Earth women is what they do.

Cavor finds Kate where she is being kept prisoner behind a plastic door. He lifts the door up with no apparent effort at all, and enters. At this point, I am willing to cut the moviemakers some slack and accept that the door can be opened from the outside, but not from the inside. In any case, the door shuts behind Cavor, trapping him. Again, I would not make something like this up.

Some aliens show up with a glowing crystal device that lets them learn English. The scene that ensues goes on for too long, as the filmmakers must have been laboring under the misapprehension that watching a balding British man slowly sounding out words is the height of hilarity.

Bedford finds the elephant gun where Kate dropped it by the spaceship and goes to her rescue. He then uses the elephant gun in the clublike manner I alluded to earlier. Meanwhile, Cavor is taken before the leader of the bug-men, who shows far too much interest in Earth, especially the wars we fight. Almost as though he were planning to… no, he couldn’t…. could he? Maybe he is only trying to make conversation with Cavor. Yes, I’m sure that’s it.

Before Cavor and the bug-man leader can get out the tea and biscuits, Bedford arrives and starts once again shoving bug-men. At this point I start to wonder if Bedford came on the trip just so that he could give each and every bug-man a good shove. Cavor protests, trying to convince Bedford that the bug-men really aren’t that bad, and maybe they should try more talking and less shoving. “But… but I like shoving!” Bedford replies. Not in as many words, of course.

They make their way back to the spaceship, where Kate is already waiting to go. Cavor makes the completely unsurprising decision to stay behind, which is probably for the best at this point, since you just know Bedford is going to spend the whole trip back boasting about his best shoves and wondering why nothing ever came of the elephant gun and bug-man raygun.

Cut back to the present day, and Bedford explains that the spaceship landed in the ocean and sank (explaining why nobody believed him until now), but he and Kate survived and got married. We don’t hear much about their marriage, so I can only assume that it was spent with Bedford telling Kate, “Woman, get me a beer! I shoved bug-men for you, and all you ever accomplished was almost sending us into the sun!”

The movie ends with Bedford warning the space agency people that the astronauts are in terrible danger from the bug-men, no doubt because they don’t have a master shover like Bedford along. To everyone’s surprise (and the audience’s disappointment), the astronauts find that the tunnels of the bug-men are now abandoned. They even start to crumble and collapse, with the astronauts barely making it out in time.

The movie ends with Bedford peering through a telescope at the moon, mumbling to himself, “Yes, that really was quite a terrible cold that Cavor had…” It turns out that, borrowing an ending from another H.G. Wells story, the filmmakers decided that the cold germs that Cavor brought with him to the moon ended up wiping out all the bug-men, and apparently destroying the integrity of their structures as well (rather shoddy construction, that).

So ends this movie. Unless you are very easily amused and chuckle to yourself at the thought of a balding British man shouting and making faces, you may want to give it a miss. Otherwise, don’t say I didn’t warn you….