Thursday, January 30, 2014

Conquest Of Space

THE WAR OF THE WORLDS was a big hit, so Paramount asked producer George Pal to produce another science fiction for them, this time set in outer space. CONQUEST OF SPACE, despite being somewhat based on a book by Willy Ley and Chesley Bonestell, was not a hit, however, and the studio cut ties with Pal.

To be fair to Paramount, the film isn’t very good, though it makes great use of painter Bonestell’s fascinating “astronomical art” (as it’s billed in the credits) and the studio’s crack visual effects department. Sure, the models look more like plastic than sophisticated machinery (the miniatures are too small), and the thick black lines surrounding the matted images are distracting. The stock characters drawn from decade-old World War II movies were clich├ęs even then.

However, Pal and director Haskin, who worked together on WAR OF THE WORLDS, somehow manage a sense of wonder, perhaps because space travel was a subject that fascinated them. One can derive pleasure from CONQUEST today from its cast of then-unknowns who went on to familiar faces, mostly in television, and the film’s progressive casting of Chinese-American actor Benson Fong as an equal member of the astronaut crew was unusual for the era and quite welcome.

In addition to Fong, five others agree to man the first rocketship to Mars: Ross Martin (THE WILD WILD WEST), odious comic relief Phil Foster (LAVERNE & SHIRLEY), stowaway Mickey Shaughnessy (EDGE OF ETERNITY), RAWHIDE star Eric Fleming, and Fleming’s father Walter “Plastics” Brooke, the genius who designed The Wheel, an advanced space station from which the journey begins. After one of them is killed by a meteor shower, Brooke, the mission’s commander, freaks out in a religious epiphany and tries to sabotage the ship and kill them all.

Frankly, this plot twist comes from nowhere and neither Haskin nor Brooke is able to sell it as anything more than a cheap device to damage the ship and strand the crew on Mars. O’Hanlon continues to stretch credibility to build suspense when another crew member is killed in self-defense, yet Shaughnessy, who witnessed the struggle, accuses the other party of murder. He saw what we saw, so why is he so insistent upon a court martial?

Haskin’s films, even the good ones, were rarely lauded for their performances, and CONQUEST OF SPACE is no exception. Despite its soon-to-be name cast, the acting ranges from colorless (Brooke) to lousy (Foster in a gross caricature of an unsophisticated Brooklynite). Since the film is attempting to be “realistic,” there are no monsters or space babes on Mars, which puts more pressure on the cast to carry the drama. Unfortunately, they just aren’t up to it.

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