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Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Stowaway to the Moon

This first sci-fi film of 1975 did not have a theatrical release, but was a made-for-TV movie. Stowaway to the Moon (StM) is included in this study because of its affinity to several early 50s sci-fi movies about the dangers of space travel, and that it has Lloyd Bridges and John Carradine in the cast. Both figured in 50s sci-fi. StM is an example of that sub-genre of “hard” science fiction — which features credible technology doing serious science-y things, just with a fictional story line. This time, it’s told as a for-kids movie.

Quick Plot Synopsis
EJ is an 11 year old boy who dreams of being an astronaut. He has devised a plan to sneak aboard an Apollo mission just prior to launch. Dressed as a worker, he gets aboard and hides in a storage bin. The launch takes place, despite computers saying the rocket is 87 pounds overweight. En route to the moon, astronaut Rick discovers EJ in the bin. There is much official hand wringing and ranting about this ruining the mission. This gets subsumed by the popular appeal of a boy in space. And, since they spent all that money and came al that way, they might as well go through with the mission. This proves beneficial since Ben, the Command Module pilot comes down with a bad flu. He’s too sick to continue, so EJ takes over the necessary tasks. The LEM crew, Rick and Dave, go off course and land somewhere lost. Much worry and fret from Houston. EJ eventually spots them. They find their sought-after Genesis Rocks and fly back up. Before they redock, however, EJ turned the wrong valve and vented most of the Command Module’s atmosphere. Rick docks the LEM just in time. The three adults have their space suits for oxygen, etc. EJ must shelter in the LEM on minimum heat and oxygen. Houston works on fixes to stretch the oxygen supply. EJ is losing consciousness, but Ben has him look at the approaching earth and wax poetic about what a wonderful sight it was. That worked. At the last minute before reentry, EJ pressurizes the LEM and rejoins the 3 adults. This gives the Command Module just enough air for re-entry. Cross-fade the fiery re-entry of (something) to a campfire. EJ remembers the nice things the astronauts said about him. Roll credits. The End.

Why is this movie fun?
While predictable enough, the story remains mildly engaging enough. Happily, the writer and director did not make EJ the more-modern-style smarty pants kid. Instead, he’s portrayed (and acted) more believable. For those who grew up in the Apollo era, all of the stock footage and references will have nostalgia value.

Cultural Connection
Waning Moon — The Apollo program had wrapped up by the time this movie came out. Apollo 17, the last manned moon mission, returned in Decmeber of 1972. This was only two and a half years after the first man on the moon: Neil Armstrong, Apollo 11, July of 1969. But, by those few short years later, America’s fickle interest in manned moon missions had waned. Where once millions tuned in eager to get any scrap of news about Apollo 11, audiences for Apollo 16 and 17 were small. Some viewers even complained that news coverage of Apollo was cutting into their Brady Bunch or Sanford and Son.

Based on the Book — Author William Shelton published his novel, “Stowaway to the Moon: The Camelot odyssey” in 1973, the year after the last Apollo mission. The movie follows his plot and mood — that of a fan of the Apollo missions. CBS turned his story into a movie.

Apollo 13 B — StM can be seen as a sort of mild retelling of the Apollo 13 story. That parallel isn’t played very strongly, however. Its more of an overlay atop the precocious-boy-saves-day plot. Charlie asks his team for solutions to the lack of oxygen problem — just like in Apollo 13 — but no clever solution is shown. Things just work out okay.

RXM Revisisted — The presence of Lloyd Bridges invites comparison to the 1950 film, Rocketship X M, in which the 32 year-old Bridges played Col. Floyd Graham, on a rocket bound for the moon, but which goes errant and lands on Mars. There is also a nice affinity for the 1950 classic, Destination Moon which featured a lunar landing mission which runs into trouble, but by pluck and determination, manage to return to earth okay. Even after 20 years, the story thread still had some legs.

Star Gazing — In addition to Bridges, note another veteran fixture from 50s sci-fi: John Carradine. He gets a small bit part in StM as the backwoods Mr. Avril who does not contribute much to the story beyond supplying the boys with the boat they used to sneak into the launch site. Carradine played in such 50s B-flims as Incredible Petrified World, The Unearthly (’57), and Cosmic Man (’59). His role as Avril was more of a cameo than anything.

Security? What Security? — The portrayal of NASA security in StM was lax and loose, even by the real standards of the day. After all, it was still the Cold War era. But the extremely casual approach to security in the movie can strike 21st century viewers as bizarre. People are able to boat up to drains under the barbed wire fence? All those security cameras, and the guys watching them just nonchalantly guess who an unidentified (and obviously too small) person is? No one is actually watching the capsule? The security gate is a purely voluntary stop? (no gate). Yes, the 70s were a milder, gentler time, but not THAT mild and gentle. After all, there were school shootings, hijackings and the Munich Massacre at the 1972 Olympic games. (The "good ol' days" weren't always that good)

Boy-O-Vision — For viewers who snark at the naivety and simplicity of the story, consider that it could “have all been a dream.” The whole story could be what EJ imagines as he’s sitting in the capsule exhibit at the NASA visitor center in the movie's first scene. As a boy’s daydream, things would naturally be simpler and a bit naive. Instead of snarking, look at StM as the vision of a space program fanboy — and a young one.

God, Before He Was un-PC — Interesting to 21st century ears are the references to God by the crew and EJ. When EJ is marveling at the moon, he summarizes the amazingness with “compliments of the Creator.” EJ and Ben talks about home as the “land of milk and honey”, both acknowledging that it was read to them from the Bible. When EJ is rhapsodizing about how beautiful the earth would look to pioneers looking for a home, he says, “This is the one God picked out for us,” the land of milk and honey. With the 21st century’s tyranny by apoplectic ACLU lawyers, prime time TV just can’t do such things anymore.

Bottom line? StM isn’t a cerebral film or a fanciful sci-fi. Instead, it’s a juvenile-market “hard” sci-fi for fans of the early 70s NASA world. StM is banal enough and mildly entertaining enough. It’s, perhaps, not worth a great effort to seek out, unless one were a big fan of 60s and 70s NASA missions. But, it’s not bad either.


Randall Landers said...

I loved this film when I saw it, except I never understand the "oh my, we're out of time, end the movie" ending.

ender said...

You got obe word wrong, I think. It was most likely money, not time, that ran out.