Christopher Nolan take note – sci-fi works best if the premise (no matter how preposterous) is simple to understand. In this endearing adventure, set in Victorian times, Professor Cavor (Lionel Jeffries) has invented a paste that defies gravity. Thus liberated, a spaceship covered in the stuff, for example, would fly to the Moon.
The story begins in present times with a worldwide space mission landing on the moon where the astronauts discover the British have been there first. Investigation on Earth leads to Arnold Bedford (Edward Judd, The Day the Earth Caught Fire, 1961), the last surviving member of the original endeavour’s three-person crew.
Space pioneers are usually stalwarts, but Bedford is a bit of a con man, an impoverished wannabe playwright, convincing his American fiancé Kate Callender (Martha Hyer) that he owns the cottage he is renting. Continuing with this ploy, he sells the cottage to the madcap inventor before realising the fortune that could be made from investing in Cavorite (the anti-gravity paste) and signing up for the voyage to the Moon.
Jeffries is a delight as the manic inventor, a far cry from the stuffy seriousness of modern movie scientists, and in a very British way sets up some wonderful comedy, obsessed with keeping out the draught, which would affect the temperature of his experiments. He thinks the mission will survive on a diet of sardines. The romance is not quite as old-fashioned as it first appears. Where Hyer is madly in love, Judd is madly in love with making money. Eventually, she goes off in a huff only to return with supplies for the journey – chickens (to provide further comedy), a shotgun and alcohol. Inevitably, accidentally, she joins the mission.
Then we are straight to Ray-Harryhausen-Land. The title offers a clue to proceedings – “in the Moon” rather than “on the Moon” – as the explorers discover intelligent life in the shape of a race of insectoids under the surface of the Moon. The science, based on genuine scientific principles, continues to be simple – the aliens employ solar power; they live underground because they lacked irises to protect their eyes from the sun; and they hibernate in pods. Maybe the giant centipede has no truth in scientific possibility, but who knows? But the aliens are smart enough to try to replicate the paste and they attempt to communicate. A stand-off naturally ensues though where Jeffries sees the potential for scientific partnership the other pair see danger.
Screenwriter Nigel Kneale (the creator of Quatermass) added Kate Callender to the original H.G. Wells tale. Director Nathan Juran was an old hand at sci-fi, being responsible for The Deadly Mantis (1957) and Attack of the 50ft Woman (1958). Producer Charles H. Schneer had previously teamed with Harryhausen on The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958), The Three Worlds of Gulliver (1960) and Jason and the Argonauts (1963).
If you’re desperate for time-travel nonsense and gigantic gunfights and want sci-fi to be a mystery nobody can unravel, give this one a miss. If, on the other hand, you fancy a well-crafted story and accept the limitation budgets place on sets and alien creatures, then sit back and watch.