by David Cornelius
When one traces the timeline of sci-fi extravaganza producer George Pal, his “Conquest of Space” feels a bit of a letdown compared its predecessors, “Destination Moon,” “When Worlds Collide,” and “War of the Worlds.” “Conquest” was a box office failure compared to his earlier hits, and yet, like those earlier hits, it still manages to survive the decades, remaining as dazzling entertainment. In other words, it really kicks in that giddy 50s spaceman kind of way. The 1955 release continues Pal’s fascination with blending authentic science with outlandish melodrama, and if that sounds like your kind of film, please follow me.First, the praise. In the 50s, Pal was the prime innovator in science fiction cinema, and not just in terms of special effects - although he certainly was the king of the effects movie at the time, launching an entire craze of then-modern sci-fi with his works of sheer spectacle. Granted, many effects shots pale in comparison to today’s films, but no matter; they were amazing for their time and deserve much praise for their breakthrough status.
"Giddy retro sci-fi fun."
But anyway. Pal’s real main contribution to science fiction was his decision to add intelligence and seriousness to the mix. Before Pal, the majority of sci-fi was all Flash Gordon ray gun stuff, oodles of fun but heavily unbalanced with fi in favor of sci. When Pal’s “Destination Moon” hit screens in 1950, it became a revolution - here’s a film that takes science seriously. And even if plenty of the science turned out to be iffy as the decades rolled on, the notion that an adventure movie could want to be smart was something that laid the groundwork for such later, invaluable efforts as “2001.”
“Conquest” can be seen as Pal’s unofficial follow-up to “Destination.” His in-between works dabbled more with the fantastic, but “Conquest” was a return to realism. Well, as close to realism as you can get when most of what you see is conjecture. (It’s very easy to chuckle at several of the film’s ideas, most questionably the one that suggests you don’t need to wear gloves with your space suit.) The plot here is divided into two parts, the first being a study of life on “the wheel,” a space station used as a base from which to build a massive rocketship; the second being the adventures of those who blast off on that ship, heading to Mars.
It’s the stuff on “the wheel” that pushes the film closest to reality. Pal and regular director Byron Haskin (along with a rather large crew of scripters adapting various space-related books) treat this segment like a submarine picture, not too shabby a move, really, considering the themes of isolation, the military, male bonding, and exploration. And even if things venture far into the arena of camp (more on that later), there’s a feel to it all that keeps us hooked. The notion that some astronauts, having already served a full year away from their families, may actually not want to volunteer for a multi-year trip into space seems rather daring in its honesty; you’d expect characters in such a film to be overly heroic, yet Pal and Company present them as ordinary people, with a variety of concerns and fears.
Part two of the film plays a little trickier. The mission to Mars is a pure delight, to be sure, but in order to spruce up the already breathtaking adventure, Pal pushed for a barrage of religious ideas. A devout Catholic, Pal often shoved religion into his otherwise strictly scientific films: his “War of the Worlds” adaptation, for example, added (quite awkwardly) the notion of God’s deliverance to Wells’ original finale. In “Conquest,” one character quite unexpectedly decides mid-mission that such a journey is an abomination against God. He then works to sabotage the flight. It’s a plot point that comes out of nowhere and never makes much sense.
Later attempts at religious discussion do click, however, including one astronaut’s theory that God may not exist on Mars, that perhaps the lifeless planet must be beyond a heavenly reach. Later still is a deus ex machina that would certainly be laughable had we not already been warmed up to the idea that such a thing is possible.
Even here, in the film’s questionable second half, we still get plenty of fun, with a steady supply of melodrama and spaceship action to carry us through. Better still, it’s in the film’s second half that it tones down the iffy attempts at comedy and the embarrassing, if unintended, moments of racism.
Yeah, racism. There’s a scene in “Conquest” that almost kills the entire film. In it, a Japanese astronaut gives a head-scratcher of a speech that implies that had the Japanese had silverware instead of chopsticks, World War II might have been averted. (Seriously, don’t ask. It’s an argument that must be seen to be believed, and even then, you probably won’t believe it.)Oddly enough, such a scene isn’t quite as annoying as the hamminess on display courtesy of comic relief Phil Foster (later of “Laverne & Shirley”), who plays an uneducated New Yawker hired, apparently, just so he can crack wise at any moment. But here’s something: despite all of Foster’s mugging (including the most overshot double take in the history of cinema), “Conquest” still works. All of it - the iffy science, the dopey comedy, the sheer datedness of it all - adds up to something innocent and likable. The movie is a purely 1950s affair, and despite the occasional sour note, it manages to zing along quite fine. It’s not for everyone, to be sure, but it is for anyone who likes a little retro in their rockets… and a little thought behind their entertainment.
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originally posted: 02/01/05 16:11:28