Judge Paul Corupe thinks that if space is going to be conquered, it will likely be by a race of super-intelligent dolphins.
"This is a story of tomorrow, or the day after tomorrow, when men have built a station in space constructed in the form of a great wheel, and set a thousand miles out from the Earth. Fixed by gravity, and turning about the world every two hours, it serves a double purpose: an observation post in the heavens, and a place where a spaceship can be assembled, and then launched to explore other planets and the vast universe itself in the last and greatest adventure of mankind-the plunge toward the conquest of space!"—Prologue
At the dawn of the 1950s, producer extraordinaire and special effects pioneer George Pal's three landmark sci-fi films for Paramount all but completely redefined the space opera genre. With determined optimism and an emphasis on plausible science and technology, the documentary style of Destination Moon, the allegorical disaster film When Worlds Collide, and the effects-laden War of the Worlds fueled an industry-wide explosion of outer space films. Coming just a few short years after Pal's biggest hit and greatest triumph, War of the Worlds, Conquest of Space is an interesting but ultimately doomed mission that should have been aborted; an overly talky, religiously domineering film with poor attempts at humor and suspect acting.
Facts of the Case
In the fantastic year 1980, a team of astronauts on an advanced space station called The Wheel rigorously train for the first manned flight to the moon. Before they are about to take off, the space program brass inform General Sam Merritt (Walter Brooke, The Graduate) that the mission has been scrapped in favor of a trip to Mars. For this new assignment, the General handpicks Jackie Siegle (Phil Foster, Laverne & Shirley), Andre Fodor (Ross Martin, The Great Race), Imoto (Benson Fong, The Scarlet Clue), and his own son Barney (Eric Fleming, Rawhide) but not his longtime friend Sgt. Mahoney (Mickey Shaughnessy, From Here to Eternity).
The discovery that Mahoney has stowed away on the Mars flight is the first thing to go wrong with the mission, but when Fodor is struck and killed by a wayward meteor, General Merritt starts questioning the theological implications of intergalactic travel. Wracked with "space sickness" and convinced that landing on Mars is a violation of man's place in the universe as decreed by the Bible, Merritt sabotages the landing, potentially destroying the mission and his fellow astronauts.
Conquest of Space was George Pal's grand attempt to expand upon Destination Moon using his increasing clout as a visionary producer. But despite impressive sets, spectacular (for the time) composite shots, and more of Pal's trademark "realistic" science, audiences stayed away on droves, resulting in the first big flop in Pal's career. It was a major setback that saw him abandon science fiction filmmaking for five years, including a planned sequel to When Worlds Collide. It wasn't until the 1960s that Pal would returned to sci-fi, but tellingly, he completely avoided rocket ships and space stations for more grounded subjects like The Time Machine and Atlantis, the Lost Continent.
While all the thrilling elements of the previous Pal blockbusters are accounted for here, they are, for the most part, sloppily executed. Like the smartly designed retro-industrial space station, the film's special effects are impressive, but they're rarely used in an exciting way. Quite often it's the overall image on screen that inspires awe: the Martian landscape, the General's high-tech office and the vastness of the cosmos. The film's budget is certainly up on screen for your entertainment, but it's just spectacle for spectacle's sake. The composites are convincing enough for the time the film was made in, although these days it's hard not to notice that the film sports enough obvious matte lines to give George Lucas nightmares for a month. More telling is the fact that Pal resorted to stringing the space station and the Mars missile up with fishing line in several scenes, a completely obvious ploy that is damaging to the film's credibility as an A-list studio effort.
In an attempt to be mix the dramatic elements of his last few films with the cold science of Destination Moon, Pal mans this mission with characters from a variety of ethnic and social backgrounds, but ham-fisted scripting and some over-the-top acting turn his intended plea for brotherly love into an assemblage of racial caricatures. Phil Foster's heavily accented, comedy relief Brooklynite Siegle is far more embarrassing than humorous, General Merritt's impulsive die-hard religious fervor is so sudden that even his son has trouble believing it, and then there's Imoto's jaw-dropping racist speech that explains that all Asians are short because they eat nothing but rice, and infers that by joining the mission he will help his people become more like Americans.
Of course, Pal never was very politically correct—his 1950s science fiction films are rife with religious overtones, from When Worlds Collide's Noah's Ark and Garden of Eden allegories to having War of the World's heroes thanking God for viral infections. While Pal's ongoing rectification of science fiction with his own staunchly Catholic views was often worked in more subtly in his earlier films, Conquest of Space is far too direct and overbearing in trying to espouse God's opinion on space travel, with General Merritt spouting ridiculous lines like, "We're getting closer to Mars and closer to blasphemy." Of course, knowing Pal's penchant for these kinds of genre films, it's not exactly a surprise when the miracle-needing astronauts come to realize that the General is the crackpot we all suspected and that truly, God is on the side of science and galactic imperialism.
Finally presented in its proper aspect ratio, Conquest of Space looks fairly good, even if it's not quite as good as the available DVDs of Pal's other 1950s sci-fi films. Color and detail levels are both acceptable, but noticeable grain and a few distracting source flaws keep this transfer from being exceptional. No surprises on the audio side of things either: A serviceable 2.0 mono track delivers dialogue clearly, despite some underlying hiss and distortion. Music is a shade limited in fidelity, but I've heard much worse. No special features have been included.
Perhaps the most interesting thing about Conquest of Space is its obvious influence on later science fiction; the adventures of a racially diverse team of space explorers working together with a loosely defined mission of exploring God's domain is the very bread and butter of Star Trek. Even the scene of Fodor's space funeral, in which a coffin launched into the great beyond (after an appropriate prayer, of course) is uncannily reminiscent of Spock's own send off in the later Trek films. This amounts to further proof that had the diverse elements of the film had been weaved together with more care, Conquest of Space could have been another smash for Pal.
George Pal has blasphemed against science fiction, and Paramount has sinned by refusing to include even a trailer. Destination: Guilty!
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