An American businessman, worried that the government is leaving space exploration to less altruistic nations, funds a moon mission. A four-man crew pilot a rocketship to the moon, and explore the satellite.
Co-scripted by novelist Robert A. Heinlein (Starship Troopers), this colourful George Pal production was ground-breaking science fiction in its day. An attempt to get away from the comic strip conventions of Flash Gordon, it’s a rare serious, monster-free trip into outer space, which deserves its historical place but has worn less well than its scrappier, pulpier competition.
Rocketship XM, a black and white quickie rushed into release as a spoiler while Pal was crafting the effects work of Destination Moon, now plays a lot better, and not just because it includes a woman on the crew and heads off to Mars to run into a fallen civilisation and radioactive mutants. In lieu of mutants and space babes, the film offers elaborate special effects, cardboard characters (the crew consists of three square-jawed scientists and a jerk from Brooklyn the others explain things to) and cliché crises that have cropped up in many subsequent films (spies from 'an unfriendly power' try to sabotage the launch, the rocket needs in-flight repairs which require a space-walk, there's a last-minute need to lose luggage so the ship can come home).
It tries for scientific accuracy by 1950 standards and features a cartoon sequence with Woody Woodpecker explaining the ins and outs of rocket propulsion, but now seems on the quaint, slow and unexciting side. A great deal of the detail turned out to be on the nose when NASA launched actual moon missions, but the elements that stand out tend to be those Heinlein and Pal got wrong – like the private industry-funded space program and the use of a gleaming single-stage lava lamp-style rocket to get to the moon.
Quaint 1950's sci-fi that is a little risible by contemporary standards