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Thursday, August 7, 2008

Satellite in the Sky

This little British sci-fi movie, brought to you by the people who gave us Devil Girl from Mars, ('54) is almost impossible to find these days. It was released in America in July of 1956, but seems to have failed to linger in fan memory enough to keep it even nominally active in the late-late-show runs, or sci-fi DVD collections. This obscurity is undeserved. Satellite in the Sky (SitS) tried to be a serious sci-fi genre commentary on the nuclear arms race. It has rockets and astronauts and some respectable sets (for a B movie). What it lacks is an alien or a monster. Perhaps it is this lack of a monster (absurd or impressive) which hurts SitS. It's not silly enough to laugh at (MST3K-style). Instead, it's a serious topic set in a space-flight story with technology being fairly credible, as in Conquest of Space.

Quick Plot Synopsis
The British space agency is about to launch it's first space mission, "Operation Stardust." First, it needs to test the engine design one last time -- one being installed in a small jet plane. The test is successful. At a press briefing afterward, a prickly anti-space-program lady reporter named Kim gives the pilot a hard time. He tries to charm her. She asks to see the Stardust up close. He shows her. She notices the serious lack of security within the base and sneaks back later to get into the Stardust and hide in an equipment locker. Meanwhile, there are several romantic back-stories spun out about the various crew members. When it's time for launch, the secret is revealed that the Stardust is to carry aloft a "Tritonium" bomb, more powerful than the H-bomb. It's to be exploded in space for the whole world to see the folly of continuing notions of wars. The crew balk, but comply. Once in space, Kim is discovered. She spews a few anti-nuke phrases. The crew deploy the bomb, but it's internal thrusters fail after a short burst. The bomb drifts back to the ship, magnetically attracted. They can't fly away from the bomb. It stays stuck on them. Attempts to fling it away fail. It just drifts back to them. With only a short while remaining before the bomb goes off (timed fuse they can't stop), two of the crew (one with guilt, the other with a tragic love life) sneak out in space suits. They use their suits' thrusters to carry the bomb away. The Stardust is able to power away to safety. The bomb blows up impressively. The End.

Why is this movie fun?
Firstly, British sci-fi has a certain charm to it. Secondly, the sets and models are pretty good for B-grade productions. The pace is pretty good, despite the interjections of love-life back story. More tidbits in the Note section.

Cold War Angle
SitS is in-your-face blatantly about the Cold War. It's all about a nuclear bomb co-developed by the US and UK, intended to deter others (i.e. the Soviets).

Nuclear Irony -- SitS is an interesting time capsule of Cold War thinking. The whole point of the Tritonium bomb explosion in space was to shock and awe the "other side" into giving up on ideas of war. Ironically, this is the same rationale that underlaid all the previous nuclear weapons test demonstrations. (which all failed to accomplish this same goal) The writers clearly still believed the (flawed) reasoning.

Plane Crazy -- Stock footage of airplanes is standard fare for B-movies. Usually, they're P-80s or B-47s. SitS gives the viewer something special. First off is ample footage of the Avro Vulcan, Britain's huge delta-winged bomber -- symbolic of its nuclear might. For Americans, this is rare footage. The second is even more rare. The little test jet that Mike Hayden flies is the Folland Midge. Though given an underpowered engine, the little jet was able to break the sound barrier in a dive (which they do in the movie too). The particular prototype in the footage first flew in August of 1954 but crashed on September 26, '55, about the time production on the movie began. For fans of old airplanes captured in B-movie stock footage, these are two rare treats.

Space Soap -- One feature of SitS that stands out is its soap opera quality. The crew, and their various love interests, are given a prominence that Hollywood typically didn't. In that regard, all the relationship back story seemed tedious, but it did suggest that the writers were trying to paint their characters as fuller than the usual two-dimensional hero / heroine sort that Americans were growing accustomed to.

Mixed Feminism -- A recurrent sub-theme in SitS toys with women's place in the world. The reporter, Kim, is a strong willed, capable woman. Yet, when they're all trapped aboard the Stardust, Kim (like a good girl) cheerfully makes and serves the men coffee. Professor Meritty rankles at her for having stowed away, "You attractive young women think all you've got to do is smile and wave your hips and all will be forgiven you." The writers got in their digs.

Bottom line? SitS is a drama about the risks, and human toll, of nuclear supremacy. It uses space and rockets as a setting, but in a more realistic tone. The sets actually aren't that bad for a B-movie, and at least they didn't re-use someone else's props. Overall, it's not riveting entertainment, but for a fan of the genre, it has it's own little rewards.

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