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Sunday, April 19, 2009

First Man Into Space

This British film was staged as a tale of the nascent American space program. The plot draws from the same well as Quatermass. It also continues the blurred connection between sci-fi and horror genres. The story was written by Wyott Ordung, creator of the iconic Robot Monster ('53). Ordung's script wasn't selling very well, but finally got picked up by Richard Gordon in the UK. All this necessitated some work to make the film appear American. The title was changed from "Satellite of Blood" so as to sound more sci-fi than horror. In reality, First Man Into Space (FMIS) is both. The first half is rocket planes and technology. The second half is hunt-the-monster.

Quick Plot Synopsis
Rocket plane test pilot Dan deviates from his programmed flight path, eventually causing the crash of his thinly disguised X-1. Dan's brother, Charles, is the mission commander. Charles finds Dan in the arms of his girlfriend Tia, and upbraids him for his disregard for protocol, etc. Sibling conflict aplenty. Despite all this, Dan is allowed to fly the next rocket plane (thinly disguised X-2). On this mission, glory seeking Dan ignores orders to power down and return. Instead, the throttles up and flies beyond the atmosphere. He accomplished his goal, to be the first man into space. As his plane tumbles out of control, Dan separates the nose section for re-entry. He encounters a sparkly cloud which blows off his canopy. When the nose section is found on a Mexican farm, there's no sign of Dan. An odd coating covers the plane's nose. Cattle are found killed nearby. Later, a man is killed and his truck stolen. A nurse is killed and a blood bank ravaged. The monster turns out to be Dan, trapped within a thick rubbery coating. The coating was what space life uses to protect itself from the cosmic rays. The cloud coated Dan. Charles and Dr. von Essen coax monster Dan to the base. They steer him into a pressure chamber. Under lower pressure and colder temperatures, Dan is able to speak, and tells his story. The odd coating is the key to surviving hostile space environments. Dan expires. A moral is uttered about men having to give their lives to learn the secrets of progress. The End.

Why is this movie fun?
The stock footage from the X-1 and X-2 programs have some historical interest. The rehash of the Quatermas Xperiment's man-monster hybrid has some interest too. Of some detached interest is seeing the juxtaposition of "hard" science fiction in the Conquest of Space vein, and the dark murdering monster segments.

Cold War Angle
There is little Cold War in FMIS. Instead, this is a cautionary tale about the dangers awaiting mankind in space travel.

Dangerous Place -- FMiS is another iteration of the trope that outer space is a dangerous place. Some movies, such as Riders to the Stars ('54) dramatized the danger semi-realistically. More typically, that message is handled by analogy, since the danger was largely unknown in the late 50s. Dan goes into space and is "lost". His being turned into a murderous mud monster was at least a way to visualize how a life might be lost in space exploration.

TechnoGothic -- A literary technique of the classic gothic horror novel, was that the monster or ghost turned out to not be supernatural. The Hound of the Baskervilles is a big name example of this. The blood-thirsty killer monster in FMiS follows this formula. The monster is Dan, suffering from his space coating.

Space Secrets -- FMiS repeats the notion at the heart of Riders to the Stars, that the secret of success in space travel lies in space itself. In Riders the scientists discover that meteorites have a special protective coating. In FMiS, Dan, through his foolish bravado, inadvertently discovers a miracle space coating too.

Deadly Pride -- The Dan character is written to have a rebellious and reckless personality. Such traits were actually weeded out of real astronauts. They were brave, and had the "right stuff" but not reckless glory seekers. After his first disastrous insubordination, Dan would not have been given a second plane. But, the culture still liked the persona of the lone wolf risk-taker test pilot -- even though the high-tech world of space travel had no room for him.

Smudge Disguise -- One amusing little moment comes when the "Y-13" is being pulled out of its hangar for Dan's second flight. Just as the "Y-12" was clearly Bell's X-1, the "Y-13" is unmistakably the Bell X-2. When they used the stock footage of the X-2 being pulled from a hangar, the editors had to add a moving gray smudge to the film to cover up the lettering under the canopy which said "Bell Aircraft X-2". The moving smudge is amusing.

Bottom line? FMiS is another sci-fi / horror hybrid. It offers a rehash of some prior themes and messages.

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