Thursday, June 10, 2010

First Man into Space – review

Director: Robert Day

Release date: 1959

Contains spoilers

It is a shame that certain films will fail, almost automatically, to carry the same weight as a movie now, compared to when they were released. We look back with, perhaps, nostalgia but the film itself does not stand the test of time.

Such has happened with First Man into Space, the effects are actually rather good, given when it was made, and the central premise of a tortured soul (rather than simply a ravening beast) was great. It is a tale of sibling rivalry told in an unusual way but, nevertheless, it still feels a little clunky now and the performances are perhaps not exceptional enough to have us overlook the problems.

Y12 carried up by plane
The film starts with a plane, which is carrying a rocket dubbed Y12, The rocket test pilot is called Dan (Bill Edwards) and, down on the ground, his commanding officer is his brother Chuck (Marshall Thompson, It! The Terror From Beyond Space). The plane releases the rocket which then soars up towards the outer atmosphere.

piloting the rocket
The rocket passes through the “controllability barrier” and gets into the ionosphere. Dan becomes weightless, unable to control the rocket as he cannot think straight. He is talked through the dilemma by Dr Von Essen (Carl Jaffe) but, once he regains control he is going too fast and moves out of radar range. Later the base receives a call that the ship has been found, crash landed with the pilot safe.

Tia and Dan
Chuck and his commanding officer Ben (Bill Edwards) go to the retrieval but Dan is missing. He had some cops drive him into town for a change of clothes and has gone off on a date. Chuck finds him with Tia Francesca (Marla Landi) and orders him back to base – confined to quarters. However the press have got a hold of the story and the pentagon want him flying Y13. Dan just wants to be the first man in space. Chuck believes him reckless (a trait perhaps necessary in test pilots).

Tia and Chuck
Y13’s flight seems to be going well until Dan is told to make his descent and fires his emergency rockets to push himself further. He passes the atmosphere into space but does not have the means of getting back. In desperation he jettisons himself in the nose section but, as he is doing so, he passes through a cloud of dust before re-entry. When the nose is found it is coated in a strange substance and the pilot is missing, presumed dead. A farm near the crash site has had its cattle slaughtered.

checking a victim
We see a hospital and a lumbering shape heading towards the blood bank. It smashes through the door. A nurse enters the room (seemingly unperturbed by the smashed doorway) we hear slurps and then she screams. Chuck has a hunch and gets involved in the investigation of the nurse’s murder, with the blessing of Police Chief Wilson (Bill Nagy). The nurse’s throat has been slashed open and there are specks of meteorite dust on the wound. Chuck quickly realises that the killer is Dan.

a lumbering deformed creature
Dan has been coated with the same material that the nose section was coated in. It has been become a protective coating that has enabled him to survive – though it has made him bulky and clumsy – a lumbering deformed creature. Before this occurred he was also subjected to cosmic rays which have changed his metabolism permanently.

in a car, with his victim
The need for blood is tied into this, he actually says later that it feels as though there is no blood in his veins – but at first he is simply driven by a rudimentary instinct to survive. He has some degree of consciousness – he can drive a truck or car and is heading towards Van Essen – but mostly it is subsumed in the need to survive as his lungs (now suited to higher altitudes) struggle to gain his breath.

examining material
The coating makes him invulnerable to bullets and also becomes his weapon as, whilst it is flexible, it is sharp on the surface. And there you have it folks, a man transformed into a space vampire. In many respects the idea of the rocket heading up (into the heavens) can represent death and the fact that he is drawn back down to earth, has a relentless need to consume that needed to live and is transformed into something not quite human is a great simile for being drawn away from the afterlife (as it were) into undeath. Whether they thought about that when making the film is probably more than debatable.

The film is a little slow until Dan returns from space, at which point the creature (plus the other character reactions to it) are treated sympathetically. Not so well handled was the depiction of Mexicans. Be it the Mexican farmer (Barry Shawzin) who was depicted as an insulting stereotype or the Mexican Consul (Roger Delago, Doctor Who: The Claws of Axos) whose appearance was entirely unnecessary, there was an unpleasant undercurrent to the way they were portrayed. However, this aside, it becomes great nostalgic fun when Dan appears and yet manages to treat the monster with dignity. 4 out of 10. The imdb page is here.

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