Thunderbirds Are Go (1966)

My five-year-old daughter enjoys watching the 2015 TV series Thunderbirds Are Go. Little does she know, or care, that the original Thunderbirds series, and also a movie with the exact title Thunderbirds Are Go, are older even than her old dad.

Thunderbirds Are Go (1966)

The plot of the movie is about a spaceship that is sabotaged shortly after liftoff for the first planned mission to Mars. The spaceship crashes before reaching space, but the crew is rescued and a few years later a second attempt is made. This time, the rescue team Thunderbirds are called in to make sure that the crew is safe. They also employ the agent Penelope to ascertain that there is no sabotage this time.

Thunderbirds Are Go ia an animated film, mostly made with puppets and scale models. The scale models, in particular, are extremely detailed and imaginative! Spaceships, houses, cars, not to mention the base where the spaceship takes off for Mars. Those things are still impressive and well made when compared to what a similar production would look like today. At times, I feel myself completely blown away by the imagination and the attention to detail that lie behind this production.

The animation was made with a puppetry technique called supermarionation, which was used in all the 1960s Thunderbirds films and TV series, as well as in several other series made by the same production team. There is no facial movement, except for lip synch, and even though that synch is good, it can be a bit unnerving to watch those completely blank faces trying to express some kind of emotion. In fact, most puppet movements are a bit stiff at times, and unfortunately that is also true of the dialogue, and indeed of the entire plot.

Fans of Cliff Richard and The Shadows will not want to miss this one, since Cliff and the band appear as puppets, performing the song “Shooting Star” during an otherwise too long and somewhat absurd dream sequence.

The aspect ratio of this movie is a bit off, but if you have a good player, you can easily adjust that.

This film is best enjoyed for the magnificent scale models of buildings and vehicles, and for the music by Cliff Richard and The Shadows. Quite frankly, there is little else to enjoy about it, but those things go a long way.

Thunderbirds Are Go
Download link
Year: 1966
Running time: 1 h 29 min
Director: David Lane
Stars: Cliff Richard (singing)
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (640×360)
Sound quality: Good
Best file format: Cinepack (620 M)

Aelita (1924)

This week, I conclude my little “trilogy” of Mars-related films with the earliest of the lot, namely Russian Aelita (Аэлита), sometimes called Aelita – Queen of Mars. Even though it was made as early as 1924, it was not the first feature-length Mars film. That honour goes to the Danish film Himmelskibet (1918), but in many ways, the Russian film feels much more modern. For example, the Mars voyage is made with a rocket instead of a large bi-plane!

Yuliya Solntseva showcasing Martian fashion in Aelita - Queen of Mars (1924)

Aelita was loosely based on a book by Aleksei Tolstoy. This may seem surprising to those who do not perceive Tolstoy as a science fiction writer, but that is because there were actually two writers by the same name (and also the even more well-known Leo Tolstoy). At any rate, though science fiction is somewhat thematically important to the plot, it is actually more about domestic life in the Soviet Union than about space travel and Mars. It holds many allegorical and propagandistic messages, and one of them seems to be that one should strive for the good of society, rather than useless stuff like space travel. The film has been accused both of being pro-revolutionary and anti-revolutionary. At any rate, it is not quite as simple in this regard as it may at first seem.

For the modern viewer who expects a science fiction masterpiece (which it is, to some extent), the ending must be admitted to be somewhat anti-climactic and dissatisfying. Said ending does have several other qualities, however, and should not be entirely dismissed in terms of character development and bringing closure to some aspects of the story. I will not reveal the details in advance, but expect some abruptness in the final twists.

This film is best enjoyed for its groundbreaking and fantastic use of sets and costume. It has been strongly influential, directly and indirectly, on a large number of Western sci-fi films, including Flight to Mars and Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe.

Konstantin Eggert and Yuri Zavadsky in Aelita - Queen of Mars (1924)

Aelita
Download link
Year: 1924
Running time: 1 h 21 min
Director: Yakov Protazanov
Stars: Yuliya Solntseva, Igor Ilyinsky
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (712×520)
Soundtrack: Excellent
Sound quality: Excellent
Best file format: Cinepack (988 M)

The Crystal Egg (1951)

Normally, I do not include films that are considerably less than 40 minutes in length, but I am going to make an exception for The Crystal Egg. Partly, I do this because it is the only screen adaptation I have seen of a very good story by H.G. Wells (Wikipedia says that it was also adapted for a 2001 TV series, but I suspect that one may be hard to find), but also because it is an example of what American sci-fi fans could watch on television in the early 1950s.

Thomas Mitchell and Edgar Stehli in Tales of Tomorrow: The Crystal Egg (1951) by H.G. Wells

Specifically, it is an episode from the first season (out of two) of the anthology series Tales of Tomorrow. Tales of Tomorrow was all science fiction, usually based on literary sources. Famous examples include Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (not available at the Internet Archive) and Frankenstein. Like most early television, it was broadcast live.

The Crystal Egg is the story about an antique shop owner who asks his friend to help him examine a strange crystal egg. The egg turns out to produce strange images that can only come from the planet Mars. In the episode (but not in the original story) there is also a mysterious stranger who wants the egg for himself. The TV episode makes a number of changes to Wells’ story, but in my opinion these are tastefully executed in order to make the story suited for the short TV format.

Tales of Tomorrow is notorious because of the uneven quality of its actors. The Crystal Egg illustrates this well. Thomas Mitchell is good as Professor Vaneck (Mr. Wace in the original story), whereas Sally Gracie as his girlfriend can barely remember her few lines. Little problems like this shine through very clearly in a live broadcast, but today it must be considered part of the charm of old-time television.

Another problem is image quality. Old television shows with good images are practically non-existent. This is because video technology had not yet been invented, so episodes had to be filmed from a television screen, when they were preserved at all.

Wells’ story is good enough to be interesting in itself, but also because there is a neverending debate among fans and scholars as to whether Wells intended it as a “prequel” to his famous novel The War of the Worlds. We shall never know whether he did, but it is always fun to speculate.

This episode is best enjoyed as an introduction to Tales of Tomorrow. If you like it, a few dozen more episodes, including radio shows, are available. Many actors appear that either were famous already (e.g. Boris Karloff), or were to become famous (e.g. Paul Newman).

Saturn seen from Mars in Tales of Tomorrow: The Crystal Egg (1951) by H.G. Wells

The Crystal Egg
Download link
Year: 1951
Running time: 24 min
Director: Charles S. Dubin
Stars: Thomas Mitchell
Image quality: Poor
Resolution: Medium (620×480; not counting black border)
Sound quality: Acceptable
Best file format: MPEG2 (432 M)

Robinson Crusoe on Mars (1964)

The term “Mars curse” originally referred to a large number of failed Mars space missions, but has lately come to be more associated with a line of box office crashes for movies connected with the red planet. In reality, of course, the “curse” is just Hollywood’s lame excuse for a combination of bad movies and bad marketing. In any event, Ridley Scott’s The Martian now seems to have lifted the “curse”, so perhaps this opens the gates for more Mars films in the future?

The past has certainly seen its share, and the Internet Archive has a number of interesting movies with a Mars connection. I have written about several of them in the past, and will doubtlessly have reason to come back to others in the future. One of them happens to be a film which is thematically very closely related to The Martian, namely Robinson Crusoe on Mars.

Paul Mantee in Robinson Crusoe on Mars (1964)

In this film, Paul Mantee plays the astronaut Cristopher Draper, who is stranded on Mars after a near collision with an asteroid forces him to abandon his spaceship. His only companion on the planet is the monkey Mona.

Scientifically, Robinson Crusoe on Mars was not terribly accurate even when it was made. This incarnation of the planet has the Martian version of aurora borealis, even though Mars has no magnetic field to produce such a phenomenon, and considerable volcanic activity. I find this easy to oversee with, as also with the nationalistic and religious fervour which sometimes shines through.

Throughout the first hour we follow Draper’s struggle for survival through a combination of luck and inventiveness (and a dose of divine providence). In spite of very slow pacing, this was the part I liked best about the film. Even though we know today that no-one could walk around on Mars in a t-shirt, taking the occasional sip from his oxygen tank, it is nevertheless fascinating to see how the protagonist manages to overcome what initially appears to be insurmountable obstacles. After that first hour the plot takes a sudden twist, unfortunately somewhat for the worse. The last part remains enjoyable, but is somewhat more taxing on the willingness to suspend disbelief.

This film is best enjoyed for the good camerawork and for several very nice matte paintings, combining to create a fascinating and partly alien Martian landscape.

The twin moons of Mars, Phobos and Deimos, in Robinson Crusoe on Mars (1964)

Robinson Crusoe on Mars
Download link
Year: 1964
Running time: 1 h 50 min
Director: Byron Haskins
Stars: Paul Mantee
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Low (720×306; not counting black border)
Sound quality: Good
Best file format: MPEG4 (1.2 G)

Santa Claus Conquers the Martians (1964)

In a recent poll about the worst ever Christmas movie, the Swedish film site Filmtipset nominated Santa Claus Conquers the Martians as one of the candidates. It is not the first time the film has been mentioned as one of the worst Christmas movies ever, or indeed one of the worst movies ever, period. Among many other accolades, the film currently holds 87th place on IMDb’s Bottom 100 list.

And, well, yeah, Santa Claus Conquers the Martians is a bad film and a true turkey. But is it really that bad? Read on and find out!

John Call, Victor Stiles, Donna Conforti, Bill McCutcheon and Leila Martin in Santa Claus Conquers the Martians (1964)

The story is, it must be admitted, pretty inane. Martian kids are far too serious and just watch a lot of Earth television. After consulting a wise man, some Martians decide to kidnap Santa Claus from Earth, and they happen to bring a couple of Earth kids along as well. Santa agrees to help build a workshop for making Martian Christmas presents, but some of the Martians think that this is a bad idea, and want to close down Santa’s business.

So, if the story is that bad, and the special effects and sets are on par, then how come lots of people enjoy the film? The truth of the matter is that Santa Claus Conquers the Martians is an enjoyable film to watch not mainly because of its faults. After all, many films have been made that are infinitely worse than this one, and in most cases watching them is just painful. But Santa Claus Conquers the Martians, in spite of its many faults, also rests on a solid foundation of good. The pacing is adequate, and the actors do the best job possible with the material they have to work with (even though John Call as Santa Claus is a terrible case of bad casting). It is this foundation which makes it possible to enjoy the spectacularly bad qualities of the film rather than choke on them.

This film is best enjoyed with good company. Some nice chatting and commenting will not spoil this one. Quite to the contrary.

John Call in Santa Claus Conquers the Martians (1964)

Santa Claus Conquers the Martians
Download link
Year: 1964
Running time: 1 h 20 min
Director: Nicholas Webster
Stars: John Call
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Medium (640×480)
Sound quality: Acceptable
Best file format: Windows Media (917 M)

Flight to Mars (1951)

Tomorrow, Mars reaches opposition to the sun, as seen from the earth. It does so about once every two years, and this is the time when it can most easily be observed by the human eye and amateur telescopes. In the mid 20th century, many still thought that Mars was capable of harbouring advanced life, and Mars and the Martians often appeared in films in the 1950s and 60s. Producers of movies such as Flight to Mars also mistakenly believed that an opposition was the perfect time to send a spaceship to Mars.

Flight to Mars is one of the many science fiction movies that were produced in the wake of Rocketship X-M. An amusing detail is that it even reused much of the spacecraft interiors from the 1950 film. If you look closely you can see that the rightmost panel in the image below is the same as the leftmost one in the first screen shot I used in my Rocketship X-M review.

Richard Gaines, Cameron Mitchell, Arthur Franz, Virginia Huston and John Litel in Flight to Mars (1951)

The first half of he film is very simple in terms of story. A rocketship is going to Mars, and a team has been put together to pilot it. We get some early glimpses of the different personalities and their varying reasons for wanting to make the journey.

In movies, as well as in literature, a template seems to exist for the archetypal exploration story. Whether it is about exploring a hidden jungle (as in the 1925 adaptation of The Lost World), going into the interior of the earth (Unknown World from the same year as the subject of this post) or travelling into outer space, there is always a team of about half a dozen people, one of whom is the scientist who came up with the idea. There is usually also a newspaper reporter and there is exactly one woman, so that there can be a romantic interest for the hero.

Flight to Mars is no exception to this. After the initial half hour’s trip to Mars, however, the film goes off in new directions and becomes much more interesting after the ship’s arrival to the red planet. This part is probably inspired by the Russian film Aelita (1924), which will doubtlessly appear on this blog sooner or later.

This film is best enjoyed if you are interested in corny sci-fi architecture and fashion. Both clothes and buildings seem awfully impractical (“We find these [clothes] very comfortable.”), but they certainly are evocative. Also, the men’s leather jackets produce a never-ending stream of farting noises that are rather amusing.

Arthur Franz and Marguerite Chapman in Flight to Mars (1951)

Flight to Mars
Download link
Year: 1951
Running time: 1 h 11 min
Director: Lesley Selander
Stars: Cameron Mitchell, Marguerite Chapman
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (640×481)
Sound quality: Good
Best file format: MPEG4 (2.1 G)

Rocketship X-M (1950)

This week marks the 25th anniversary of the TV show Mystery Science Theater 3000 (commonly known as MST3K). The show’s premise is that a man has been captured by an evil scientist, the obvious plan of whom is to find the worst movie ever, and use it to numb the minds of all humans. So in each new episode the man, together with two robots, is forced to watch one more B movie. The TV audience see the same film, but in the foreground we see the three beings watching, and we hear their comments.

MST3K became a cult favourite, and it was very good in many ways. It was funny, thought provoking and highly original. Even so, I dislike watching it. But why?

The show’s problem is that not every movie featured is rotten throughout. In fact, a number of them are really good, but when you watch them through the MST3K filter (especially since some films have been cut to fit the show’s program slot) they become bad. And people who have seen an MST3K episode unreflectingly assume that they watched a bad film.

Lloyd Bridges, Osa Massen, John Emery, Noah Beery Jr and Hugh O'Brian in Rocketship X-M (1950)

By all means, there is certainly opportunity for satirical snides at Rocketship X-M, which is the subject of today’s post, and which opened MST3K season two in 1990. But Rocketship X-M was also a unique and inventive film, with many interesting qualities.

Decades before the term was invented, Rocketship X-M was an early “mockbuster” (possibly the first). It was produced extremely quickly in order to beat George Pal’s Destination Moon to the theatres, and ride on its marketing. The budget was only about one fifth of the Pal movie. Because of the fast production, there are a few really stupid moments in the film, not least so in the noticeable lack of all scientific sensibility.

The successful race against Pal’s movie made it the first outer space movie after World War II. It thereby became the masthead of the long range of sci-fi movies that followed in the coming decades. I have written in connection with Battle Beyond the Sun about the way that the Cold War was reflected in many of these movies. Rocketship X-M is no exception, but it is not the communist fear that is the driving force here. Rather it is an anti-war analogy, said to have been the first film to fictionalise the effects of all-out nuclear war.

It was also the first science fiction film with electronic music in the soundtrack. Composer Ferde Grofé added a theremin to the orchestration, for excellent effect. The theremin was later used in many sci-fi movies, including The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951).

Rocketship X-M was the first American movie to feature a female astronaut. This, however, does not earn it a place in the history of movies questioning traditional gender roles, since the only reason to include Danish actress Osa Massen (except maybe for her good looks) was to tell the message that a woman’s place is at home, not aboard a spaceship or even in a laboratory. This sexist crap would be disturbing to say the least, except the film is over 60 years old, so I mostly find it a little amusing and somehow touching.

The film also has a very interesting ending, unexpected and certainly not standard Hollywood. This, too, makes it worth watching.

This film is best enjoyed in its original clothing (or the 1970s recut, which I believe is the one available at the Internet Archive), not the MST3K garb.

Astronauts on Mars approaching an alien building in Rocketship X-M (1950)

Rocketship X-M
Download link
Year: 1950
Running time: 1 h 17 min
Director: Kurt Neumann
Stars: Lloyd Bridges, Osa Massen
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (693×576, not counting black border)
Sound quality: Good
Best file format: DivX (699 M)