February 03, 2010

SATELLITE IN THE SKY (1956) - early British spaceshot sci-fi!

(1956, UK)

Miss Moneypenny beats Bond into space!

I recently assumed that The Day of the Triffids (1963) was Britain's first colour sci-fi film. A correction immediately came back - this widescreen spaceshot drama made in 1956! With a handsome budget, extensive FX work and some familiar faces, it proved to be both fascinating and enjoyable. I love fifties sci-fi and would have chased this up sooner if I'd known it existed.

In the fifties, I'd always thought that George Pal had cornered the market in realistic visions of space pioneering. He imagined America's first space voyages with Destination Moon (1950) and Conquest of Space (1955). Satellite in the Sky is similar in approach, but has with more engaging characters and a pacier, more controversial plot. The film was also made at a time when Britain was actually in the space race - when the method of propelling man into space was still 'out to tender' around the world...

It's the story of mankind's first trip into space, launched from England, of course, (note that even the first unmanned satellite didn't make it into space until 1957 - the Russian Sputnik). After the initial tests are successful, the mission gets a green light. But what the crew don't realise is that the government have plans for a secret payload to be installed in the huge rocket ship.

The early scenes of the homelives of the various astronauts have few payoffs in the story, but thankfully zip by and we're soon in space halfway into the story. But the mission doesn't run nearly as smoothly as the ship's artificial gravity...

Of course, many of the story's 'prophecies' haven't come true - it took decades to get a Brit into space, courtesy of the Space Shuttle. The long launch ramp is presumably based on the same rumoured Russian plans that were also depicted in When Worlds Collide. Gerry Anderson's Fireball XL5 used a similar launching method in 1962, probably because it looked more exciting than a vertical take-off. But the rocket of Satellite in the Sky uses less runway, and has a similar tilting launch platform and exhaust vents that Thunderbird 2 would later use.

The extensive modelwork and matte paintings, Cinemascope and colour make this a definite 'A' picture, unlike much of 1950's sci-fi. The visual effects are fairly obvious today, but I was impressed with their scale and design and how favourably they compared to George Pal's films. The viewing ports that emerge from the sides of the ship looked a little flimsy, but predate Dark Star's bubble and Ash's observation window in Alien.

It's marvellous to see Lois Maxwell in a leading role, playing a nosy reporter who's against the expensive project (a concern that hounds space exploration to this day) but is intrigued by the captain. Six years later she lucked into the bit part for which she's famous, Miss Moneypenny, flirting with James Bond in all the Sean Connery's and Roger Moore's. Few other members of the cast manage a mid-Atlantic accent as good as hers. Her Canadian accent also lead her into voicing Atlanta Shore for Gerry Anderson's Stingray (1964), a TV series also aimed at US sales.

Black Hole favourite, Kieron Moore (The Day of the Triffids, Dr Blood's Coffin) is the rocket captain, delivering a typically entertaining uncharismatic performance. He's very 'take charge' and pro-active in an emergency, but his characters are always so abrubt that he's not much of a prize for the love interest. (More about Moore at Brian's Drive-In Theater).

Lurking in the wings is grand thespian Donald Wolfit (Blood of the Vampire, Svengali) posing a threat by daring to scene-steal from Kieron Moore's screentime.

Another crewmen is a very young Bryan Forbes, cheeky stalwart of classic British war movies (The Wooden Horse, The Colditz Story), he was also in the movie of Quatermass II (Enemy from Space). You probably know him as a director - notably The Stepford Wives (1975), Deadfall (1968) and Whistle Down The Wind (1961).

Once again there's a chance to see Donald Gray (Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons) in action. I caught him in another movie last week, Timeslip (1955).

Satellite in the Sky should really have a far higher profile in British sci-fi history, or even as a classic British movie. Perhaps if it had a better title? As it stands, I've never seen this on TV, and the DVD release is of course from the US, in a double-bill with World Without End (also from 1956). Both films are presented in anamorphic 2.35 widescreen (from Warner Home Video).

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