Since the early days of silent movies, the moon has often figured prominently in films, but mainly as a backdrop for a variety of more or (most often) less well thought out plots. While the realism of rockets and other machines shown in science fiction (SciFi) movies has been discussed before, it is interesting to look at how realistic the moon and the lunar landscape has been depicted in a variety of classical SciFi movies over the decades. The first movie to deal with a trip to the moon was most likely the 14-minute classic Le Voyage dans la lune (1902) by George Méliès. Here, a group of astronomers travel to the moon, are captured by moon-men, escape, and return to the earth. Their spaceship is a capsule shot from a giant cannon, resulting in the famous image of the projectile stuck in the eye of the man in the moon. It can be safely said that the director does not seem to have consulted any astronomers or lunar maps or photographs to create his backdrop. A subsequent highlight was The Woman in the Moon (1929) by Fritz Lang, a 156-minute silent movie. Lang worked with Hermann Oberth, the German rocket pioneer, to depict the first serious flight to another world; in this movie, the countdown to zero seems to have been invented. While the rocket design seemed realistic (for the time), the lunar science was not. The story is based on a rocket trip to the moon and the subsequent discovery of large lunar gold deposits; this causes problems with the representative from a financial cartel that controls the gold reserves on Earth. After an ensuing struggle, it is revealed that two people must remain behind (including the woman from the movie title). The moon in the movie is dominated by sandy, desert-like surfaces, with bizarre mountains and a beautiful starry sky, and people seem to be able to breathe effortlessly on its surface. Somewhat more effort towards space realism went into another “lunar” movie, Destination Moon (1950), directed by Irving Pichel and filmed in color. The movie deals with the first manned spaceflight to the Moon on a fairly scientific level, based on then-current theories. Four astronauts take off for the moon from the Mojave desert with the atomic-powered spaceship Luna; they reach their destination, and, though they discover that the remaining fuel is insufficient to take them back to Earth, they nonetheless solve the problem at the last minute. Chesley Bonestell, the well-known American space artist, was responsible for the astronomical art in the movie, including views of Earth and moon from space and panoramic views of the lunar surface surrounding the spaceship Luna. Robert Heinlein, the author of Rocketship Galileo, on which the movie was rather loosely based, had selected the crater Aristarchus for the landing site, but Bonestell did not like Aristarchus. Instead, he opted for the crater Harpalus, at a high northern latitude, facing the Earth, so that the Earth would appear near the horizon where the camera could see it and still pick up some lunar landscape: craggy, Alpine scenes, which Bonestell (and others) had been painting for decades, and which, by that time, had appeared in so many films. A subsequent movie, Project Moon Base (1953), directed by Richard Talmadge, fell short of the standards set by Destination Moon. Even though Heinlein was involved as a technical advisor and in writing the screenplay, not much science is discussed and the plot of the movie involves a rather simple-minded love story between the female captain of the space flight and the co-pilot. The lunar landscape in this movie shows the usual ragged, unrealistically steep mountains that protrude from a flat, almost polished-looking lunar surface, which contains a few very flat craters. Another movie that was released in 1953, Catwomen of the Moon (directed by Arthur Hilton), was filmed in 3D, and deals with another first flight to the moon; in this case the intrepid astronauts encounter an entire planet of young women (in black tights) living inside large lunar caverns. As in several of the other movies, meteorites are threatening the rocketship, the crew is not affected by weightlessness, and the trip to the moon takes only a few hours. There is an interesting sequence of close-up images of the lunar surface just before landing that gives a fair impression of a mountainous region near the terminator. However, once landed, the astronauts move about between pinnacles and sheer cliffs. Once they enter the cave, which looks like an active limestone cave, and encounter an atmosphere, all realism is lost. The discovery of lunar gold is just as unrealistic as it was in 1929 when Fritz Lang made The Woman in the Moon. Gold is actually very rare on the moon. A remake of this movie followed in 1959 under the name Missile to the Moon, which was directed by Richard Cunha. It probably was not an easy achievement, but this sequel is much worse in all aspects than the original Catwomen. The rocket is amazingly amateurish, and the “lunar” landscape must have been filmed somewhere in the southwestern United States, maybe Arizona or Utah. The astronauts stumble through sand next to low plants, and, in contrast to some of the other low-budget SciFi movies, this one did not even pretend that there is a black sky. The astronauts encounter dangerous rock-creatures, which is a novel touch. However, the heat of the direct sunlight on the lunar surface is greatly exaggerated, as in this movie astronauts who step into the sun are immediately incinerated to a heap of ashes within seconds. Another “pulp” movie was the 1960 film Nude on the Moon (directed by Doris Wishman), which keeps what the title promises – lots of topless women that lounge around under lunar palm trees. There is only a short sequence, when the rocket lands on the moon, which shows the lunar surface – in bright green color and with a black sky. A much more interesting story, and technically superior to most other offerings from that time, is The First Men in the Moon (1964), directed by Nathan Juran, one of several movies made after the novel by H.G. Wells. Of course the lunar landscape is still depicted in an unrealistic way, with a variety of creatures living in caves within the moon, but the storyline is at least internally consistent and keeps the attention of the viewer. Realism, on the other hand, dominated the ultimate SciFi classic, Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 – A Space Odyssey (1968), where features on the lunar surface were depicted with almost correct aspect ratios and roughness. Kubrick paid close attention to scientific and technical details and it is difficult (but not impossible) to find inaccuracies or inconsistencies in this fascinating movie. By the mid-1960s, spacecraft had provided close-up views of the lunar surface, revealing a landscape that was significantly different from the ragged mountains painted by most space artists (e.g., Bonestell) and depicted in most movies. Astronomers had already been well aware of this fact, but the general public, space artists, special effects designers, and directors either ignored or did not care to know (for dramatic reasons, maybe) that the lunar surface is not ragged and bizarre, but fairly smooth. Nevertheless, the lack of scientific accuracy (or even common sense) is not restricted to movies from the earlier part of the 20th Century – many current films subject the viewer to physical impossibilities that would make Newton roll over in his grave.
Dona A. Jalufka and Christian Koeberl
Institute of Geochemistry, University of Vienna
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