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Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Riders to the Stars

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.


Robin said...

I agree wholeheartedly with your assessment. I found this film to be dry but also captivating. And the final act was unexpectedly grim.

So many of the elements of this film went on to become cliches e.g. meteor shower, human centrifuge but they felt fresh here.

You just can't go wrong with a film that devotes so much time to diagrams and earnest stares into the middle-distance!

John Drake said...

Howdy Film Fans,

This is one of my favorite movies.

Yup, it is fairly simplistic and who does not love the gadgets?

The scene where Gordon’s ship hits a meteorite and Lockwood sees his body, with the broken face plate, in his viewer scared me silly as a kid.

The acting is very good, the story line is pretty good.

Martha Hyer, what needs to be said?

The “scientific” scenes, like Lundigan holding the glowing fluorescent tube and the centrifuge x-ray views are really cool – for the 1950’s.

The scene where Miss Manners puts her fingers in the air to let Jerry know she wants a cigarette is a hoot, never seen it before or since. Jerry must have had a big problem with self-esteem.

The last line of the movie where Dr. Richard tells Dr. Jane that he brought her a star, as promised, is appropriate.

The film has some dark undertones, but is well worth watching.

Do I hear a whistle from the plastic rockets?

Please remember that it is a 50’s science fiction and you will have a good time.

As a side note.

Many people who are critical of the 50’s scifi genre either have not seen them or just get their jollies out of being mean.

There is a reason that the 1950’s are called the “Golden Age” – they were golden in a time we needed something to brighten the future.

I have read “reviews” of 50’s science fiction by people who have never seen the film they are berating.

See you at the movies, and ladies, please remove your hat as a courtesy to others.


Nightowl said...

Hi John,

I quite agree with your "side note." There is a sort of modernist snobbery that can only see the past with derision. The MST3K way of looking at old films was more of a reflection than a cause. "Youth" raised on glitzy CGI -- for whom Star Wars is ancient material -- the 50s are judged as deplorable.

My own kids, subjected to more 50s sci-fi than they wanted, admitted that in their minds, if it wasn't in color, it wasn't worth watching. For them, they could not get past the lack of color.

As well, modernist critics tend to drag their modern *isms with them. Commons modernist judgements tend to be staunch feminists or diversity warriors who judge the 50s as if it was a culture of dim Neanderthals because their (modern) agenda was not affirmed.

Sadly, they all miss out on the innocent wonder, the new fear (atomic angst) and budding 'faith' in the wonders of Science.

It was, as you say, a "golden" age.

thingmaker said...

There was also a very readable novelization of this film, which I have reviewed, thus:
This novel is often attributed to Curt Siodmak, not surprisingly, as his name appears on the cover and the spine... On the title page is this text: "novelization by Robert Smith based upon the screenplay by CURT SIODMAK"
Like the film, the novel is meant to be taken as hard SF and it spends a great deal of time on detail and procedure but the central concept is... well... rather goofy.
It is the dawn of the space age. The government has sought out a group of men, all former fighter pilots, all with technical backgrounds - for a top secret mission. The problem is that once above most of the earth's atmosphere rockets encounter cosmic rays which break down the structure of their metal. A solution to this problem must be found or practical space travel will be impossible. Meteors, however, seem to travel incalculable distances in space without being destroyed by those ubiquitous cosmic rays... Obviously, meteors in space must be covered in some outer coating which protects them but which is destroyed by their passage through Earth's atmosphere. Obviously.
The plan is to send up several manned rockets to catch a meteor in space and return it to Earth for study. Oh, and this is, naturally, in aid of ... well, the term Pax Americana comes up in the text.
And, yes, I am embarrassed to admit that I love the movie and the book.