Spaceways (1953)

Hey peeps, Nate here with another classic old sci-fi movie from the land of bad teeth and tea kettles. As with most b-movies from this era, it’s a mixed bag of good and less good. Is it badly acted? Yes. Is it about 15 minutes too long? Of course. Are all the clothes and mannerisms terribly dated? Yes. Does it look like it was filmed on a single “open room” set? Yep. Is it unique and full of twists and turns? Also yes! Let’s take a run through this one.

We start out with a traditional sci-fi plot, with a team of lab coat-wearing scientists working on England’s first manned space rocket in a Government complex. They’re still in the prototype stage as we open, sending unmanned test rockets starward to see what works and what ends up in a fiery ball of twisted metal. The smartyiest of the smartyhead scientists here is an American ex-pat with awesome hair and a face out of a GQ center spread. His name is Steve and he’ll be our hero for the day.

Steve (turn down the lights!).

Unfortunately, as great as his professional rocket scientist life is going, Steve’s personal life is a dumpster fire. His shrew of a wife is boinking one of his fellow scientists, but he’s not even sure he cares because he’s also having impure thoughts about that sexy Hungarian scientist chick that works on his team. Plus, he’s totally devoted to his work and nothing else matters. In a way this is such a stereotypical portrayal of the typical cinema scientist, a guy who is so focused on his research and his work that he doesn’t even notice when his wife is unhappy or his coworkers are backstabbing him. I’m sure people like that exist in every discipline and field, but that overly-broad caricature of scientists seems to be over-represented in b-movies.

Steve’s wife is most unhappy.

And she doesn’t even know about the other woman yet.

But back to the rockets and the science stuff. Be prepared for lots of 1950s-vintage techno-babble about how fast and far their test rockets are going, and about special fuels and range instruments and white mice in sealed boxes. Their rockets not only fly quick and powerful, but they look amazing with swooping fins and birdcage canopies and everything else you’d expect to find in the old Flash Gordon prop locker. All very impressive for 1953, especially for a movie made in England (recall that the majority of the Nazi’s moon rocket technology was captured by the Russians and what little the Americans got their hands on they were loathe to share with the Brits right up until the joint US/UK assault on the Nazi Moon Base in 1957).

Watching a movie in a movie, how meta.

Many slide rules are slid and blueprints rolled and the penultimate test flight comes, and disaster strikes. The unmanned rocket’s motor sputters out of fuel too soon, leaving it stranded in an irretrievable low-earth orbit for a thousand years. Almost immediately a simple mechanical failure becomes a matter of National Security as one of the scientists turns up missing and is thought to have been a spy for the Rooskies. This guy also left with our hero’s wife.

Hitchcock watches the launch?

Out of nowhere the film turns into a murder mystery who-dunnit! The Government sends an investigator to look into the mess, and this guy, with his Buddy Holly glasses and sweater vest, fingers Steve as the culprit, both in the double-murder of his wife and her lover, but also the sabotage of the rocket flight. Even more incredible is that he has a theory that Steve killed them and stuffed their bodies in the fuel tanks of the rocket late at night, after first draining them of some fuel. Now the bodies, and any proof of his crimes, are orbiting hundreds of miles above the earth. While that turns out to be false (the two are eventually found on the English seashore trying to rent a boat to Mother Russia), is that not the best CSI: Britain plot device ever? Such an inventive way to dispose of dead bodies, shame that’s not more a part of the actual plot resolution.

Steve is grilled by the feds.

The film lurches back into a sci-fi movie as the first manned rocketship is prepped for launch, crewed by trained-in-everything Steve and another dude. The cockpit set is a fabulous fusion of art deco design elements and the gauge-rich control panels of a submarine, and the spacesuits really look like something that would work in space and not just RAF flight suits with knobs and nozzles hot-glued on. Real money was obviously spent on this movie. There’s a bit of drama here as Steve’s stalker girlfriend takes the place of his copilot at the last moment, a fact that Steve doesn’t realize until they have already launched and it’s too late. Clearly this is one of those movies that treats space travel, specifically flying a rocketship, much like driving a lorry down a sleepy country road, anyone can do it and it takes virtually zero specialized training. See that a lot in b-movies.

The ship, it’s big.

That’s a lot of gauges.

The ending is a weird cop-out as it looks, right up until literally 8 seconds are left, that they’re both going to die in space as there‘s an engine malfunction. But then all of a sudden the motor starts working again and they are saved. Yay? Kinda sucked the tension out of the moment, I was really expecting them to die in some noble sacrifice to science, but it didn‘t happen. Wouldn’t having these two lovers stranded forever together in space not be a perfect mirror to the other two (dead) lovers in the other rocket in the next orbital lane over, also entombed together forever? The bit where the other wife and the spy are found to be alive and on the run could have easily be cut. But then again, that would have made Steve, in fact, a murderer and maybe the director balked at having the film’s hero be such a dark and violent character. If only I could remake this movie…

With Channing Tatum!

So that’s the end, a really interesting show with some unique plot points and a couple pretty girls, but handicapped by some truly wooden actors and way too much sciencey gobbledygook in the script. Maybe check it out while waiting for a bus.

Wow, you dudes 1953 much?

The End.

Written in February 2015 by Nathan Decker.

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