This is the second of Ivan Tors' sci-fi dramas. The first was Magnetic Monster. The third will be Gog. Each dealt with a presumed government agency, the Office of Scientific Investigation. Riders is one of the last "hard science" fiction films which tried to deal with real (or at least probable) science at the edge of our understanding. This, as opposed to more fantastic sci-fi of aliens and monsters. Destination Moon was the foundational example. The story was fiction, but the science within was as realistic (or at least credible) at the time. Riders is in that vein. Granted, the scientific presumptions that the movie is based upon are in error, but were presented as plausible hurdles which techno-scientific, rational man would conquer. People's fascination with actual space travel (which had not happened yet) was enough to rake in an audience.
Curt Siodmak wrote the screenplay. He had just recently adapted his novel into the movie Donovan's Brain, which was another example of sci-fi without aliens. Richard Carlson (who starred in Magnetic Monster and It came from Outer Space, is both the director and acts in the role of Dr. Jerry Lockwood. Carlson directs the tale in a documentary style, reminiscent to the "Dragnet" style of Tors' Magnetic Monster.
Quick Plot Synopsis
A returned space probe has it's steel plating turned brittle and fragile, giving the depressing conclusion that mankind could not venture into space. The cosmic rays were too corrosive. It is theorized that meteorites in space, which do not deteriorate, must have some super-durable elements in them, or a protective coating. This coating or element is burned away on meteors which fall to earth. The only way for man to copy this meteorite protection element is to go into space and return with meteorites before they enter our atmosphere. With that coating, earth's rockets can have an effective radiation shield, making future missions possible.
The Office of Scientific Investigation selects a group of candidates for this mission, though they're not told what it is. They are subjected to rigorous tests. Many fall away as unsuitable. Finally, three are chosen. They are launched into space, each in their own rocket, to scoop up a meteorite and return. The first man, Gordon, tries to capture too large of a meteorite. His ship explodes. Seeing Gordon's charred body float by, Lockwood snaps, flails around, turning on his rocket engine. He flies out into deep space oblivion. Only Dr. Stanton captures a meteorite successfully and returns. This provides the answer ("It's pure crystalized carbon!") but also satisfies the developing love interest sub-plot. Now manned space missions will be possible.
Why is this movie fun?
This is a somewhat depressing movie, so it's not exactly "fun." Yet, it's attempt at matter-of-factness in style set it apart from the more sensational films. Riders may be the last of the science "fact" sub-genre. The pre-space-program view of a space program is fun to apply hindsight to. They had many of the right "stuff", but seriously underestimated the time required. Seeing Richard Carlson in a sort of non-hero role adds some depth. (see Notes)
Cold War Angle
While ostensibly focused on solving a technological problem, the background urgency to it all is pure Cold War. Early in the movie, the voice-over says, "...our men must be the first (in space)...the security of the whole world may depend on it." Their mission is to make it possible to prevent "a space platform operated by a dictatorship which would make slaves of all free people."
Pre-Right-Stuff -- One thing that stands out about Riders is that it amounts to a mid-50s version of "The Right Stuff." What makes this more remarkable is that Riders was created before there were any astronauts, or an astronaut program. It's easy to see where this more "factual" look at astronaut training would fascinate audiences.
The Flawed Hero -- It is interesting that Richard Carlson, who played the more typical stalwart hero in Magnetic Monster and It Came from Outer Space opted to play a more secondary role of flawed would-be hero. Instead of the buff stud who gets the girl and saves the day, Carlson's Dr. Lockwood is a man dogged by failures and inadequacies. Near the point where he dies in space, he's the man haunted by battlefield memories from WWII. This is, perhaps, the source of his failings.
Cruel World -- An undercurrent in Riders is that of a harsh and unrelenting world of science. Many otherwise normal men are rejected as "unfit" by a cold authoritarian agency. Even those deemed more fit are subjected to semi-torturous tests. With the deaths of two astronauts, Riders presents the world of space travel as highly demanding and deadly dangerous. This was a sobering view, given the almost glib space travel of Flash Gordon, etc. Destination Moon and Rocketship X-M tried to focus on this danger, but they weren't as stark and graphic about it as Riders was. The technological world of an astronaut program in Riders was almost dystopic. It wasn't the gee-whiz glittery world of other films where science was the noble hero.