Conquest of Space

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(4/10) Back with his fourth science fiction epic, George Pal sets out to explore the mental and theological aspects of a trip to Mars. Good ideas abound, but the movie is scuttled by ham-fisted script. The special effects are very ambitious and impressive when they work. Unfortunately they don’t work most of the time, leaving us with flickering composites and thick matte lines. Pal’s idea of bringing humour into the mix is making one of the astronauts a dim-witted Brooklyn stand-up comedian. Fun to watch, but ultimately disappointing.

Astronauts on a space sled going from a rocket to the space station, "The Wheel".

Astronauts on a space sled going from a rocket to the space station, “The Wheel”.

Conquest of Space (1955, USA). Directed by Byron Haskin. Written by: James O’Hanlon, Philip Yordan, Barré Lyndon, George Worthing Yates. Based on the books Conquest of Space by Chesley Bonestell and Willy Lay and The Mars Project by Hermann Oberth. Starring: Walter Brooke, Eric Fleming, Mickey Shaughnessy, Phil Foster, William Redfield, William Hopper, Benson Fong, Ross Martin. Produced by George Pal for Paramount Pictures.
IMDb rating: 5.8/10. Tomatometer: N/A. Metascore: N/A.

Poster.

Poster.

If someone asks you who was the most important person for the popularisation of science fiction films in the fifties, there can really only be one answer, and that’s producer George Pal. It was Pal’s extremely ambitious and visionary, albeit horribly flawed, independent film Destination Moon (1950, review) that kicked off the whole sci-fi craze. Likewise, it has been claimed that it was his 1955 movie Conquest of Space that killed it. This is a questionable statement, since some of the best sci-fi films of the fifties were still to come after Conquest of Space. And furthermore, even though it has been described as a horrible flop when it came out, it actually didn’t do all that badly. It made a million dollars at the US box office, essentially making back its shooting budget. That is not to deny that it is, at so many levels, a deeply flawed film. Continue reading

The War of the Worlds

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(8/10) In a nutshell: With his third try at a science fiction epic, producer George Pal finally ironed out some of the kinks that made his first two attempts fall below the mark. This adaptation of H.G. Wells’ alien invasion classic is a stunning tour de force of special effects, aided by a fast-paced script and beautiful design. The breezy plot helps to partly cover up that Pal has stripped Wells’ story of all ideology and satire, and reversed the author’s position on key issues, and Pal’s insistence on drowning his movies in schmarmy religious tirades makes for a cringe-worthy ending. Despite this, The War of the Worlds is a brilliantly entertaining nail-biter and visually a true masterpiece.

The War of the Worlds (1953). Directed by Byron Haskin. Written by Barré Lyndon. Based on the novel The War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells. Starring: Gene Barry, Ann Robinson, Les Tremayne, Robert Cornthwaite, Lewis Martin, Paul Frees, William Phipps, Cedric Harwicke, Charles Gemora, Carolyn Jones. Produced by George Pal, Frank Freeman Jr. & Cecil B. DeMille for Paramount Pictures. Tomatometer: 85%. IMDb score: 7.2/10

The iconic war machines of The War of the Worlds, designed by Albert Nozaki.

The iconic war machines of The War of the Worlds, designed by Albert Nozaki. Look closely and you see the wires.

There are a few films that stand towering over science fiction like giants in respect to their influence on the genre. George Méliès’ A Trip to the Moon (1902, review), Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927, review), and Woman in the Moon (1929, review), James Whale’s Frankenstein (1931, review), Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), George Lucas’ Star Wars (1977), Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979), James Cameron’s The Terminator (1984) and the Wachowksi Brothers’ The Matrix (1999) are among these. They are not always the best in their subgenre and some of them are hampered by by serious problems. They are not always first in their field with their ideas, but execute them in ways that make them milestones to which you can pin flags and draw a line: this was science fiction film history before this-and-this film, and this is what it looks like afterwards. George Pal’s The War of the Worlds is one of these films, it is the Magnum Opus of a filmmaker that wasn’t always savvy to what made a good sci-fi script, but without question one of the great visionaries of movie history. Continue reading