Film (1954). Ivan Tors/United Artists. Directed by Richard Carlson, starring William Lundigan, Herbert Marshall, Richard Carlson, Martha Hyer. Screenplay Curt Siodmak. 81 minutes. Colour.
Granted, the premise behind this film is absurd – that a safe passage through Earth's atmosphere requires some sort of mysterious coating, found only on meteors, requiring scientists to dispatch astronauts into space in order to scoop up meteors that can be examined to determine the nature of this substance, which turns out to be diamond. Yet commentators who have obsessively focused on this film's single flaw in order to condemn it have obdurately ignored its many virtues – first of which is that this is one of the few films, and perhaps the only film, that accurately predicted the course of the American space programme. Space Flight would be achieved by a government programme – not brilliant individuals or patriotic businessmen; space pilots would be carefully selected and rigorously trained before flight, in contrast to films in which people build a Rocket and then look around to see what random individuals might be available to join its crew on short notice; the first steps into space would involve suborbital flights, not a pioneering flight to the Moon or Mars; and astronauts in space would be carefully monitored by, and in constant communication with, technicians on the ground who would continually advise them as they carried out their missions, unlike cinematic astronauts who, once in space, are all on their own. All of these characteristics of actual space flight were meticulously predicted in this film; as a result, while other early space films can now be dismissed as irrelevant to current concerns, Riders to the Stars is a film that remains in dialogue with the ongoing conquest of space, addressing any number of still-significant issues: do the rewards of space flight justify the risks to human lives? What sorts of individuals are best qualified to travel into space? Should space missions be controlled by knowledgeable observers on the ground, or by the astronauts who are actually in the midst of events?
Further, while Spacesuit Films are regularly condemned for lacking drama and good acting, Riders to the Stars offers a carefully constructed narrative of thoroughgoing preparations for space travel, followed by unexpected complications during the actual flights, as well as consistently persuasive performances from protagonist William Lundigan, who portrays the prototypically unexpressive but determined astronaut as well as anyone (based on his work for this film, he was later given the lead in the series Men into Space [1959-1960]); Herbert Marshall, who conveys both intelligence and empathy as the project's leading scientist; and Martha Hyer, who as Marshall's scientific colleague embodies a passionate commitment to the ideal of space travel. All things considered, it is very strange to proffer this thoughtful, nuanced film as a prime example of all that is nonsensical about science fiction films, when travesties like Cat-Women of the Moon and King Dinosaur (1955) are far more deserving of such scorn. For the record, Damon Knight's oft-cited criticism of the film in In Search of Wonder (coll 1956) was actually directed at the film's unremarkable novelization, Robert Smith's Riders to the Stars (1953), published before the film was released (the book credits Siodmak's screenplay but specifies that Smith, presumably the same Robert Smith who wrote scripts for other Ivan Tors productions, was solely responsible for the novelization). [GW]
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