Seven years before Sputnik launched The Space Race, and nineteen before the Apollo 11 landing, this 1950 production by George Pál was the first major science-fiction film produced in the United States that dealt seriously with the prospect, problems, and technology of space travel.
Frustrated by his failure (implied to be the result of sabotage) to successfully launch an artificial satellite, a scientist approaches US private industry with a grander project: to build a nuclear-powered rocket to land upon The Moon. Sinister forces try to stop the launch via public protest and legal action, and the rocket has to take off ahead of schedule to avoid a court order. After a spacewalk and the obligatory mid-mission crisis, the rocketship lands on the Moon but uses too much reaction mass doing so. Even after stripping their vessel of every spare component, the only way they can get back to Earth is if someone stays behind...
Oh, and did we mention it has Woody Woodpecker (briefly) appearing in it?
The movie contains the following tropes:
- Applied Phlebotinum: The atomic drive; more apparent now than at the time, when a nuclear engine seemed just around the corner.
- Artistic License Biology / Physics: Joe's difficulty in swallowing in space may seem like Science Marches On, but in fact peristalsis has been a known aspect of human digestion since antiquity. All the producers would have needed to do to verify the difficulty in eating in zero-g is have a gymnast eat something while hanging upside-down. If food can be swallowed without difficulty at what basically amounts to -1 Gs, it would clearly be fine at 0 Gs.
- Audience Surrogate: Joe Sweeney.
- Bold Explorer: The enthusiastic General Thayer is the clearest example of the archetype. To a lesser extent, Dr. Cargraves and Jim Barnes also fit the bill, as all three set off for the moon.
- Boring Return Journey: The movie ends on the Luna launching from the lunar surface. Although it might not have been that boring in practice — thanks to the reaction mass they ditched, they'd be moving at quite a clip! And according to Woody's exposition, the Luna is supposed to hit the atmosphere nose-first, which means the acceleration couches will be facing the wrong direction, with only a single chest and knee strap to hold them in. They then return to the ground via parachutes, an iffy proposition for a 150-foot high rocket that has to land on its fins!
- Captivity Harmonica: Stuck on the rocket with these loonies, Joe plays "Kathleen" on his harmonica to pass the time.
- Character as Himself: Woody Woodpecker, but only in the movie poster.
- Cold Equation: The problem at the climax being that the rocket has burnt out too much fuel and doesn't have the power to lift off at their current weight ratio. After yanking out everything they can think of, the rocket is still overweight by the exact amount of a full-grown man... Joe Sweeney decides to take one for the team and stay behind, but the rest figures out what else to remove (including Sweeney's space suit and the ship's radio) so they can all come home.
- Color-Coded Characters: Invoked with the spacesuits, so the explorers can tell who's who on the Moon's surface. Stanley Kubrick would homage this in 2001 by using the same colors for the Odyssey crew.
- Deus ex Nukina: None of this would be possible without the atomic drive. And the motive for landing on the moon isn't national pride, commercial interest, or even For Science!, but purely and simply to stop those Dirty Communists from setting up a lunar missile base from which they can control the Earth!
- Dirty Communists: Well, the unseen agents of a foreign power, but we all know who they are. They try to stop the project through sabotage, organising public protests, and legal action.
- Exposition: By Woody Woodpecker, no less. Joe Sweeney serves as an Average Joe the scientists have to explain things to.
- Forced Perspective: The reason for the 'cracked' surface of the Moon, despite there being no water to create this, was so they could match the small studio floor to the vast vistas painted by Chesley Bonestell.
- Foreshadowing: After a rocket test fails at the beginning of the film, Sweeney un-hesitantly attempts to go outside to find out what went wrong. He's stopped, but this foreshadows his later attempted Heroic Sacrifice.
- Gravity Screw: The usual zero-G antics first seen in Woman in the Moon, with magnetic boots used to walk on the walls.
- Hard-Work Montage: Several of these, including tearing apart the rocket so it will be light enough to take off from the moon.
- Heroic Sacrifice: While the three main characters are arguing over who's going to stay behind, Joe Sweeney quietly slips out the airlock and laconically tells the others to return to Earth without him. Of course as the comic relief never gets killed the others figure out a way to save everyone.
- Hollywood Science: Averted as George Pal went to great lengths to make everything accurate, with advice from Robert Heinlein and space artist Chesley Bonestell.
- Improvised Microgravity Maneuvering: An oxygen tank is used to rescue someone adrift in space.
- In Space, Everyone Can See Your Face: Averted with no lights in the helmets, though the faceplates are clear. Instead coloured spacesuits are used to tell everyone apart.
- Interplanetary Voyage
- Latex Spacesuit: Averted; the 'Michelin Man' look is a carry-over from the long obsolete 1943 Goodrich pressure suit. The producers wanted to have a pneumatic suit that would both look realistic and cool the actors, but the wire work needed for the low gravity scenes made that impossible. To Hand Wave the issue in scenes where the actors change into the suits, this was justified by making it a two-piece version like a car tire — the outside padding takes the wear and tear, while the pressure suit is inside.
- Ludicrous Speed: The faces of the crew are pulled into ridiculous expressions by six gees of acceleration.
- Mundane Dogmatic
- No OSHA Compliance: Check out that ladder on the Luna. When was the last time you climbed a ladder that was eight stories tall (while wearing a spacesuit)? Plus it leads right past the radioactive exhaust vent for the atomic engine. See also Boring Return Journey.
- Plucky Comic Relief: When one of the original crew falls ill, Flight Engineer Joe Sweeney is reluctantly convinced to come along as radio operator. His general lack of enthusiasm for the project is a Running Gag, but he turns out to be a Cowardly Lion.
- Recoiled Across The Room: In order to illustrate to Woody Woodpecker (who stars in an animated film to help convince various men of industry to help finance and build the first rocket to the Moon) how rocket propulsion works, he's asked to shoot a shotgun. The recoil sends him flying several feet backwards. This is followed by asking him to blast several times towards the ground (which sends him aloft).
- Retro Rocket (also Shiny-Looking Spaceships): Along with Chesley Bonestell's artwork in the illustrated book The Conquest of Space, this movie could well be the Trope Codifier.
- Science Hero: Good 'ole American industry, determination and ingenuity conquer all obstacles.
- Sound In Space: Mostly averted (there's a hissing oxygen cylinder in the man adrift scene) however the trope is lampshaded, and grand orchestral music is used to cover the lack of ambient noise.
- Technology Porn: The movie goes into detail on the construction of the rocket and spacesuits. There's also a Zeerust version involving that wonder of modern technology, the differential analyser. Apparently an infallible Master Computer, as when it works out the Luna is too heavy to get home..."Are you sure? Couldn't you have made a mistake?""I could...but the computer couldn't."
- Tim Taylor Technology: What does a Science Hero do when facing public concern that an atomic rocket will explode on take-off, spreading radioactive debris over hundreds of miles? Take off, of course!"How do you test a machine of this type? It either works or it doesn't."