Riders To The Stars, 1954. 6/10

To be more accurate, this should be called Forget the Stars, It’s Just A Twenty-Inch Meteor. An expedition is sent into space to intercept the things (it turns out their spacecraft have trap-doors to scoop them up). The astronauts seek to somehow ‘salvage’ the meteor for scientific research. An elite team of scientists is recruited by the Government for the ad-hoc group. The intrepid lucky ones are Drs. Richard Stanton, Walter Gordon, and Jerry Lockwell (William Lundigan, Robert Karnes, and Richard Carlson). Drs. Delmar, Jane Flynn, Klinger, and Paul Dryden (Lawrenece Dobkin, Martha Hyer, Michael Fox, and George Eldredge) are mentors who orient the guys. Dr. Dan Stanton, Richard’s dad (Herbert Marshall) is the guy in charge. Susan Manners is Jerry’s fiancee. Actually, Stanton recruits more guys than they need, knowing not many can hack it the training regimen. “Twelve men travelled across the desert, not knowing where they were going, or why.”

This has a documentary feel, as the premise is a near-future simulation of space travel. So, there’s no aliens, monsters, UFOs, or alternative worlds. Oh, well, at least there’s a skeleton in the offing. The fairly rigorous training phase includes physical and psychological tests (Klinger observes, and sort of informs on them). Not that the testers are very emotional about the deal “Scratch him off (failed centrifuge test), send him to the infirmary.” The loser couldn’t take 12Gs.

Fortunately for the plot, Richard passes “Well, it looks like we’ve got ourselves a boy.” Finally the old man explains the mission to Richard and the other “boys” (Jerry and Walter). Gordon balks initially, he thinks the mission’s suicidal, plus he doesn’t want to contribute to its military applications. Meanwhile, Richard and Jane find time to explore each other’s personal space.

Time for some stock footage of rocketry, with mice astronauts, no less (they beat out our guys by withstanding 13Gs). Interesting scenes of building the rocket, and, thankfully, some less-than-fatal training. “There’s no margin for error.” I really appreciate that key WWII movie phrase too: “We’re going to check, and then double-check.” (but who’s going to check on the double-checkers?) Interestingly, each guy has his own rocket.

Since this has a lot of real science–via the stock footage–the rockets and their launchings are naturally realistic. That is, until we get into fictional space. Then it’s plastic models buffeted about. “Rocket one doesn’t answer!” Ok, Richard, we read you. He can see the world globe, err, the earth. Gordon checks in with “meteors in sight.” He’s toast, though, because the “meteor(‘s) too big!” Gordon’s rocket explodes on impact, then his skeletal remains float by. That’s a worthy corpse, should’ve saved it for a Vincent Price movie.

Lockwood kind of loses it–he reverts to WWII form–and thinks he can bail out. Instead, his rocket hurls out of control, now he’s toast too. Luckily, Richard not only keeps his cool, he chases after a wayward meteor, and bags it. Mission accomplished. Let’s see if he gets back ok. It’s not clear who controls the ship, the astronaut or the guys on the ground. They ‘bring him down,’ but he actually maneuvers the craft. He crash-lands, but survives. “Where’s that cup of coffee you promised me?” he mumbles to Jane. They’ve got their meteor too.

The charm of this movie is the complete earnestness displayed by everyone throughout. I didn’t think the documentary style would work, but it does. It’s almost as though it’s intended as an educational film on space travel. Since there’s plenty of authentic content, the effect is a sustained suspension of disbelief. The fictional aspect is so deceptively layered into the plot that what we see remains believable. We know, for example, that this is a stock story of a bunch of hotshots competing to make the ‘team,’ with a romantic subplot.

But, these guys don’t even know what they’re getting into, and, like Gordon, some don’t even agree with the mission, though they see it through. This ambivalence creates some tension, otherwise there’d be little point dwelling on the recruiting and training. Similarly, the romantic subplot is like a booster rocket, helping to move the plot along. It establishes Richard’s motivation, and narrows the focus from the array of scientists and ground crew down to one couple.

With all this meticulous build-up, though, the actual mission is anticlimactic. It’s almost a joke that all we get out of this is a bitsy meteor (cool-looking though it is) that would fit under a regular-sized barbeque grill. This let-down is compounded by the fact that there’s no imminent danger of any sort. If it were a huge meteor (a comet?) that could pulverize the Earth, then there’d be something to shoot for. The mission is sort of an excuse to train some astronauts.

The story functions more as a prelude to missions subsequent missions; wherein there’s more at stake than bragging rights to some potentially strategic material. So it’s a good thing that Riders To The Stars builds a good story in spite of its fizzling climax and denouement.

Farmermouse wants to zip cross-country in one of those cool jeeps, after he liberates the mouse astronauts. He’ll give Riders To The Stars six teeny-weeny meteors. 6/10.

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