“Riders to the stars, that is what we are, every time we kiss in the night”: so begins the theme song to the 1954 sci-fi film, Riders to the Stars. I get the distinct feeling that the writers of this song weren’t given a lot of direction regarding the movie’s plot.
After the opening titles and theme song, a voice-over narrator explains that humans have conquered every challenge except one: space. Yeah, it sure was nice to have every conceivable human problem licked by 1954…
Riders to the Stars tries to imagine what the near-future of space travel will be like, as the USA rushes to get a manned rocket into space before the Soviets. After a test rocket drops some kind of box out of the sky that causes scientists to go apeshit, the United States government initiates a program to recruit astronauts for the space program. Computers the size of my house are used to pick 12 men out of all Americans based on specific qualifications: past accomplishments, intelligence, and an unencumbered personal life. These men would then go through some rigorous training and testing to determine which of them would finally qualify as astronauts.
In this sense, Riders to the Stars is a sort of precursor to The Right Stuff, the movie that makes me proud to be a white man. However, the qualifications and training for astronauts as imagined in 1954 are a bit different than those that would be used in the Mercury program. For one, as far as I can tell, no one has to give a sperm sample in Riders to the Stars. Also, the recruits in the earlier film tend to be scientists with a military background instead of pilots.
Much of the movie’s running time is taken up with the testing and training, and all but four wash out by the end of the centrifuge test. Meanwhile, we’ve also gotten a peek into the private lives of two candidates. Jerry Lockwood (Richard Carlson, who is also credited as director) is a pipe-smoking mathematician who looks a lot like Phil Hartman and dates a model. His desire to marry his model-girlfriend provides the movie with some dramatic tension. Dr. Richard Stanton (William Lundigan) gets a slightly more interesting story. His father directs the space program, which makes me think the computer selection process was kind of bullshit, and he starts a budding romance with the lone female scientist in the program: Dr. Jane Flynn (Martha Hyer).
Once the four finalists are selected, they are apprised of their mission: they must go into space and retrieve some meteors that can be used to create rockets that will survive the rigors of space. As the elder Dr. Stanton explains, any metal that they’ve tried shooting into space has been molecularly altered by cosmic radiation to become extremely brittle. Since meteors survive the bombardment of cosmic rays, it stands to reason that they are made out of some kind of metal that could make spaceships survive. Curiously, none of the astronauts ask about what their ships might be made of, though one of them does wisely chicken out when he hears of the mission. Also, no one points out that this science is bullshit.
The mission, along with the real action of the film, only takes place in the final 20 minutes or so. Each of the three astronauts gets his own rocket and heads out to intercept the meteor shower. One tries to take in a meteor that’s too big, causing his ship to explode and his spacesuit, containing only his skeleton for some reason, floats off into space. Seeing the skeleton, another astronaut freaks the hell out, screws the pooch, and heads for the stars. But, luckily for the USA and the space program, the third makes it back with a meteor, and the scientists go off to spin how a 67% mortality rate constitutes a successful program.
Riders to the Stars is more interesting as a historical artifact of retrofuturism than it is as an entertaining sci-fi film, much like the kind of comics stories pal Dave Lartigue writes about in his regular “This Used to be the Future” feature at his Dave Ex Machina blog. This is particularly disappointing considering the fact that the movie’s poster advertises “space vikings of the future,” which should be the greatest movie ever made. However, the movie suggests the entertaining possibility of a Mad Men-style series featuring a bunch of chain-smoking, hard-liquor-drinking, fedora-wearing, sexual-harrassing scientists trying to start the space program in the 1950s. I’d watch the hell out of that.