(NOTE: The following review will contain minor spoilers necessary solely for the discussion of plot and/or characters. If you’re the type of reader who prefers a review entirely spoiler-free, then I’d encourage you to skip down to the last few paragraphs for the final assessment. If, however, you’re accepting of a few modest hints at ‘things to come,’ then read on …)
From the product packaging:
“A crew of revered scientists blasts into space on mankind’s first expedition to the moon. A sudden loss of power and freak accident sends their rocket hurtling out of control, and the crew suddenly finds themselves upon Mars. They decide to take advantage to make landing and explore the Red Planet, only to discover evidence of a demolished civilization. Convinced there are no survivors, they let their guard down just enough to learn otherwise.”
Rocketship X-M is one of those films that’s easy to lampoon.
Allegedly (from what I’ve read), the feature was rushed into production by Lippert Pictures just on the heels of George Pal’s announcement that he was bringing Destination Moon to life cinematically. Hoping to capitalize on an impending moon craze and perhaps even a Space Race that was still a few years away, producers Murray Lerner and Kurt Neumann put their thinking caps on and came up with the concept. The script is credited to Neumann along with contributions from Orville H. Hampton and Dalton Trumbo; and their effort managed to beat Pal’s film into theaters by a handful of weeks.
I’ve no way of knowing whether or not its script ended up being rushed (certainly one might assume as much given the curiously out-of-place screen romance as well as some curiously uninteresting ‘scientific’ exchanges), but the film certainly traffics in traditional melodrama of its era against the backdrop of boldly going where no one had gone before. Col. Floyd Graham (played by Lloyd Bridges) woos Dr. Lisa Van Horn (Ona Massen) when they both should’ve been flying the ship, and at least one pair of their eyes remaining on the fuel gauge in the final reel might’ve averted the catastrophe awaiting them upon their return to Earth. I guess that’s what you get when flying by women’s intuition!
Still, Rocketship X-M manages to squeeze more Science Fiction and Fantasy’s famous tropes into its lean 77 minutes than it needed. There’s a pair of brainiacs (Massen and John Emery) competing for who’s grasp of space science is better. (Hint: she’s a woman, so …) At times, the story feels like little more than a twist on the conventional Western, with a space capsule standing in for the oater’s stagecoach. When they arrive on Mars, there’s not only a plotline involving first contact but also hints to the Martian society’s flirtation with atomic energy leading to their demise. And, yes, there’s more than a single sequence involving sound being made in the vast vacuum of outer space.
Still, it’s hard to dismiss the film’s true staying power when it comes to serving as one of the most effective examples of SciFi for the 1950’s. It features a crew required to pilot the spaceship into the void. While perhaps not earth-shattering, the film’s special effects hold up well as an example of what studios found possible in that day and age. Though I could be wrong, I believe the ship may’ve actually been one of the first featured onscreen that portrayed the stages of a rocket required to both launch and achieve escape velocity. Though the flick only flirts with ideas like G-forces and zero gravity, the script never loses sight of the fact that breaching the heavens was a dangerous endeavor … one that would likely involve balancing the risks and rewards of going ‘out there.’
On its own, the film could easily be dismissed as a product of a bygone era. Compared with like-minded entries from that decade, I think it remains one worth a look even by today’s film students and scholars.
Rocketship X-M (1950) was produced by Lippert Pictures. DVD distribution (for this particular release) is being coordinated via Corinth Pictures. As for the technical specifications? The picture looks and sounds probably as good as it ever has. Sadly, this bare-bones release offers not a single special feature for audiences to enjoy.
Recommended. Let me be perfectly blunt: Rocketship X-M (1950) is not a particular good film. Though there’s a set of circumstances the crew must rise together and face, there’s no central conflict to the story … and that’s something required to truly distinguish the good from the bad when it comes to space exploration yarns. While the performances all work, they’re grounded in the mindset and mentality of a certain era, one where men were men, and women were largely regarded as being defined by their women’s intuition. Still, it’s an almost near-perfect snapshot of what Science Fiction and Fantasy was like for much of the 1950’s – perhaps big on ideas but small on relatable specifics. Lastly, a thin sense of optimism salvages an otherwise downbeat finish where all of the crew go up in smoke, not so much as a blaze of glory.
In the interests of fairness, I’m pleased to disclose that the fine folks at Corinth Films provided me with a complimentary DVD of Drive-In Retro Classics by request for the expressed purposes of completing this review; and their contribution to me in no way, shape, or form influenced my opinion of it.