The imagination of H. G. Wells and the visual talents of Ray Harryhausen are such a good match for each other that it’s a surprise they only came together for one film. The trailblazer of stop-motion animation planned to adapt the Victorian novelist’s most famous work, The War of the Worlds, but because that film never came to fruition, First Men in the Moon must suffice.
Directed by Nathan Juran, with Harryhausen credited as associate producer and visual effects creator, this ‘60s classic adapts Wells’ 1901 novel of the same name. When Victorian businessman Bedford (Judd) discovers that the reclusive inventor Cavor (Jeffries) has come up with a technique to negate gravity, he immediately invests in it, hoping to become rich off the practical applications. But Cavor has other ideas, and soon Bedford is whisked along on a trip to the moon, with his narked-off girlfriend Kate (Hyer) accidentally on board, too.
The characters and performances are clichéd (perhaps the fair term is ‘of their time’) – the opportunistic businessman, the mad scientist, the whiny-but-actually-not-as-annoying-as-she-could-be girlfriend – but this does allow for some lively comic interplay between them. There’s also tension derived from Bedford and Cavor’s attitudes to the aliens, as the businessman wants to shoot them on first sight, while the scientist would rather learn about their society; it’s an ultimately optimistic message about the importance of understanding other cultures.
The script, from Jan Read and Quatermass creator Nigel Kneale, retains much of Wells’ tale. This means it’s a fantastic science fiction adventure, and one where the naïveté of the Victorian science only adds to the quirky charm – it’s a film where you can jump around the moon in a diving suit, because “if it can hold water out, it can hold air in”. However, there is an added framing story; the opening of this, in which the first American moon landing team find Bedford’s Union Jack, is a fun way into the story. The ending, however, doesn’t work as well; its weird twist nabs a plot element from another Wells story, which really doesn’t work here and serves only to ruin the story’s message.
But what allows this 1964 movie to remain entertaining today is the delightful animation. Though some of the moon creatures are simply men in fly suits, others are rendered using Harryhausen’s ‘Dynamation’ stop-motion, a highlight being the giant caterpillar-like beast that accosts Bedford and Cavor.
For animation enthusiasts, sci-fi fans, and kids not yet corrupted by the lure of CGI, First Men in the Moon showcases the work of two of the most pioneering, revered names in fantastic entertainment. Quality viewing that’s not dated half as much as your average CGI-fest blockbuster will do in half the time.
FIRST MEN IN THE MOON (1964) / CERT: PG / DIRECTOR: NATHAN JURAN / SCREENPLAY: NIGEL KNEALE, JAN READ / STARRING: EDWARD JUDD, MARTHA HYER, LIONEL JEFFRIES / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW