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

When Worlds Collide

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(6/10) In a nutshell: Producer George Pal returns with his second sci-fi epic in 1951, still worried about nuclear war. A crack team of scientists and entrepreneurs are mocked by the world as they prepare for doomsday as an approaching rogue sun threatens to turn the world into dust. A modern retelling of Noah’s Ark by way of rocketship, this early Hollywood space travel film stumbles on an illogical and stilted script, weak characterisations and a failure to bring the movie to a satisfying philosophical or moral conclusion. Heavy on religious imagery, but since the source novel is a retelling of a biblical story, this can be excused. A fun apocalyptic adventure, but don’t expect much depth.

When Worlds Collide. Directed by Rupolph Maté. Written Sydney Boehm. Based on a novel by Philip Wylie and Edwin Balmer. Starring: Richard Derr, Barbara Rush, Peter Hansen, John Hoyt. Produced by George Pal for Paramount Pictures. Tomatometer: 77 %. IMDb score: 6.7

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Noah’s Ark anno 1951, heavily influenced by the rocketship i George Pal’s previous film Destination Moon.

1951 was a special year for science fiction: it produced three of the major classics of the fifties’ sci-fi films. The Thing from Another World came out in May, The Day the Earth Stood Still (review)was released in September and When Worlds Collide got its premiere in November. The first two dealt with aliens, one hostile, the other benign. But producer George Pal wouldn’t touch that subject until 1953. Instead he continued where he left off in 1950 with the first American moon landing film. In When Worlds Collide he takes us to a different planet. And if you think the title is a witty metaphor for two different world views or social classes colliding in the movie, you should’t expect such subtlety from the Michael Bay of the fifties. No, when George Pal says two worlds are going to collide, he is being literal. Continue reading

Dr. Cyclops

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(7/10) In a nutshell: Brought to you by King Kong director Ernest B. Schoedsack, along with multiple Oscar winning teams of set designers and special effects technicians, Dr. Cyclops (1940) paints an imaginative picture of mad scientists and shrinking people in the Peruvian Jungle. Unfortunately there was no money left for actors and screenwriters. Nonetheless, this film stands as one of the best sci-fi flicks of the forties (which isn’t saying all that much, though).

Dr. Cyclops. 1940, USA. Directed by Ernest B. Schoedsack. Written by Tom Kilpatrick, Malcolm Stuart Boyley. Starring: Albert Dekker, Thomas Coley, Janice Logan, Charles Halton, Victor Kilian, Frank Yaconelli. Produced by Dale van Every, Merian C. Cooper for Paramount. Tomatometer: 100 %. IMDb score: 6.4

Charles Halton and Albert Dekker in the 1940 film Dr. Cyclops.

Charles Halton and Albert Dekker in the 1940 film Dr. Cyclops.

If anyone remembers Dr. Cyclops today, it is mostly as a curiosity – but it does deserve a slightly better reputation, although it is by no means a masterpiece. But it is notable for a number of reasons, of which the biggest is the amazing special effects, although not flawlessly executed, and aged today. Following the premise of a mad scientist shrinking his nosy colleagues, this was not the first film to toy with the idea of miniature people, but perhaps the most striking that had come along in 1940, and it probably held that title all the way up to the in many ways superior 1957 film The Incredible Shrinking ManContinue reading