First Men in the Moon (1964)
Directed by Nathan Juran

Artistic Value: * * * ½
Entertainment Value: * * * * ½

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In Victorian England, Arnold Bedford (Edward Judd), a writer having financial difficulties, moves into a country house, where he is visited by his fiancée Kate (Martha Hyer). There, he befriends his eccentric neighbor, a scientist named Joseph Cavor (Lionel Jeffries), who has invented a paint he calls Cavorite that is able to block gravity. If applied to the surface of a container, this substance can, therefore, be used to create a vehicle capable of travelling through the air or even into space. Arnold is impressed with Cavor's discovery and helps him to develop it. Eventually, after their work has been completed, the two men, and Kate, who has stowed away in their craft, journey to the moon. There, the three Earthlings discover an underground civilization of intelligent insects, who are promptly named Selenites by Cavor.

Nathan Juran's First Men in the Moon is a truly wonderful, even magical film. From its comedic and light-hearted beginning until its adventurous conclusion filled with marvellous sets and creatures, the movie is a genuine delight.

For much of its duration, the film consists largely of the director's often silly but consistently entertaining depictions either of the efforts of the two male protagonists to develop and test Cavorite or of their preparations for their voyage to the moon. While these are unlikely to awe the viewer, they are charming, colorful, and fun. The whole of the movie's first act is, in fact, quirky, humorous, and pleasant to watch.

Once the protagonists have arrived on the moon, however, the film comes alive with a variety of wondrous places and fantastic monstrosities. In the vast warren of tunnels honeycombing the moon, the three Earthlings discover outlandish jungles, cyclopean cities, and impossible machines, including a whirling, glowing perpetual motion generator. What is more, dwelling in this amazing world are a variety of even more incredible beings, all of which have been brought to life by Ray Harryhausen with stunning stop-motion animation. The chirruping, spear-wielding Selenites are like locusts as big as children and are absolutely astonishing. At different points in the movie, the viewer is treated with opportunities to watch them slaughtering a gigantic, caterpillarlike moon cow, sleeping in a vast hive, fighting the heroes, and more. They truly are thrilling simply to look at. I cannot begin to congratulate Harryhausen enough for the skill he has demonstrated in bringing them to life.

Even the Selenites' civilization is captivating. A large part of the movie's second half is given over to revealing their society, and, while the viewer may not be satisfied by what is disclosed to him, he is likely to be intrigued by what he does see. Moreover, not only are the moon's inhabitants themselves interesting, their lives and perspectives are used by the director to ask questions about our own values and our own civilization. The moviegoer, having so been made to wonder about human weaknesses, is, as a result, left with a genuine sense of sorrow.

In addition to its fascinating depictions of an alien people and their society, and its critiques of human nature, First Men in the Moon contains a number of other intriguing elements. For one thing, the protagonists, while not the most complex or inventively realized of persons to be found in film, are presented in a way that may surprise the viewer. At the movie's beginning, Cavor appears to be a typically effete and neurotic scientist and Arnold a standard masculine hero, but, as the film progresses, far more is revealed about the two. Cavor, by the story's end, has been transformed into a genuinely tragic and decidedly heroic individual, and Arnold has been revealed to have a real capacity for selfishness and dishonesty. Even his manly bravery is shown to be little more than an expression of his narrow-minded, violent bigotry. Instead of making him a villain, however, Arnold's faults imbue him with a touching humanity. In fact, both his shortcomings and Cavor's virtues arouse a poignant sense of tragedy in the viewer. What is more, such elements, and several others as well, make the movie's conclusion surprisingly affecting. First Men in the Moon is, consequently, a truly memorable film.

Review by Keith Allen

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