Friday, April 3, 2015

Review: 'First Men in the Moon' Blu-ray

A crew of U.N. astronauts think they’re the first Earthlings to set foot on the moon. Imagine their surprise when they find a Union Jack planted there already. The strange discovery leads U.N. representatives to a rest home where they meet the man who helped transport that flag to the seemingly barren satellite. Back in 1899, Arnold Bedford (Edward Judd) was a ne’re-do-well playwright living in a cottage near mad scientist Joseph Cavor (Lionel Jeffries), inventor of a metallic goo capable of deflecting gravity. Together the men scheme to use this “Cavorite” to lift a little vessel straight to the moon where they encounter a race of insect-like aliens.

Nathan Juran’s adaptation of H.G. Wells’s First Men in the Moon is like two very different movies. The first 45 minutes, concerned with everything that goes down on Earth, plays like a goofy Absent Minded Professor Disney flick for kids. The second takes a dark turn as Cavor suddenly becomes less hapless and more philosophical and Bedford succumbs to a disturbing hawkishness. Here First Men in the Moon falls in line with fifties science-fiction monster movies, and it is by far the more interesting section of the movie. On the moon, Cavor, Bedford, and Bedford’s fiancé Kate (Martha Hyer), who accidentally comes along for the ride, move from strange environment to stranger environment, while the assortment of creatures—some wondrous Ray Harryhausen stop-motion creations; some kids in rubber monster suits—apparently threaten them, though it’s possible that the humans are the real threats. The moon portion of First Men is surprisingly complex, with our ostensible heroes either making genuine sacrifices for the sake of pacifism and good will or succumbing to Eisenhower-era paranoia. By the time we get to the last scene, in which a man takes satisfaction in the death of an entire civilization, it’s hard to even remember that 45 minutes of family-friendly comedy ever took place.

That’s a good thing for First Men in the Moon, since it leaves the picture feeling better than it probably is. Edward Judd and Lionel Jeffries are both very good comedic actors, but their Earth-bound capering feels like it goes on forever. The decision to shoot in widescreen Panavision depleted the budget, which may account for why so much of the film takes place on Earth and certainly accounts for the costumed aliens that are so much less effective than their stop-motion overlords. The difficulty of constructing sets long enough for Panavision accounts for the preponderance of traveling matte shots. Despite those issues First Men in the Moon  is still half a great movie  willing to deal with some pretty weighty matters. Plus, Harryhausen’s psychedelic sets and creepy creatures are superb.

Twilight Time’s blu-ray is pretty terrific too, presenting First Men in the Moon without a blemish but with its natural grain. Aside from a couple of passing mildly rough elements, the film looks great and it’s a relief that Harryhausen’s effects hold up so well under the HD microscope. Twilight Time supplements the feature with a fun but very short vintage featurette that ties the film to NASA’s actual space program, a brief video introduction from Randall William Cook (a special effects artist whose work includes animation design in the Lord of the Rings movies), and Cook’s feature commentary with Ray Harryhausen. Recorded shortly before the master’s death, the commentary is a bit slow moving and Cook is a bit too insistent about the film’s “perfection,” but there are still some interesting tidbits here and there and it’s always a pleasure to hear Harryhausen discuss his own work. First Men in the Moon also includes an isolated score track and is available in a limited run of 5,000 units. Get one on Screen here.
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