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Destination Moon was one of the first, and remains one of the better, films involving exploration of the Moon.

Cislunar cinema (part 1)

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As we look forward to a new generation of exploration and development of cislunar space, it seems appropriate to look back at how such exploration and development has been envisioned in the past. What follows is a short list of films and other visual media that focus on cislunar space. Aliens are generally avoided, but in some cases unavoidable due to the story.

The Golden Age

Here we find the transition from the fantasy that had reigned before in Moon literature to stories that embraced what we were learning in science. There are still many elements of the fantastical, and it still could be true that one could breathe on the Lunar surface, or encounter giant Moon spiders, or other flights of fancy. The technological advances of World War II in the first half of the 1940s did much to change the tone and nature of science fiction, and while the Moon was the first step, writers quickly expanded to the stars.

Voyage Dans la Lune (1902) is a very loose adaptation of Jules Verne’s “De la Terre a la Lune” and H.G. Wells’ “First Men in the Moon.” A group of scientists constructs a cannon to launch a capsule to the Moon, where they encounter Selenites. Amazing special effects for the time, and enjoyable even today over a hundred years later. [IMDB: 8.2]

Woman in the Moon (Frau Im Mond) (1929) is one of the earliest examples of a sci-fi movie focused on the sci. A scientist works to visit the Moon in search of gold, with lots of plotting, scheming, and machinations along the way. Noted for having astronauticist Hermann Oberth as a consultant. [IMDB: 7.4]

Destination Moon (1950) is generally recognized as the first popular movie about a trip to the Moon in search of exploitable resources. Features a Woody Woodpecker animated STEM short as part of the story, and had Robert A. Heinlein as the writer/consultant. [IMDB: 6.4]

Project Moonbase (1953) takes Moon exploration to the next level with the establishment of the first Moon base. While similar to Destination Moon in its featuring of spywork and skullduggery, it has more of a military rather than private sector approach. The scene where the general threatens to take the mission commander over his knee and give her a good spanking remains a favorite “WTF?” moment. [IMDB: 2.6]

Spaceways (1953) has the development of a space program serving as the backdrop for a tale of potential infidelity and potential murder. It feels like an extended BBC TV drama, but with some interesting high-tech (for the time) sets. [IMDB: 5.1]

Cat-Women of the Moon (1953) is a cult classic of manly-man American astronauts traveling to the Moon only to find a civilization of scantily-clad women and no men. [IMDB: 3.5]

Disney Tomorrowland: Man and the Moon (1955) is a creative look at how Moon exploration might occur that features Dr. Wernher von Braun as well as an imagined first flight around the far side of the Moon and what is seen there. The animations in the Tomorrowland series serve as inspiration for the animations in the update of the Cosmos TV series nearly six decades later. [IMDB: 7.8]

Missile to the Moon (1958) is a remake of Cat-Women of the Moon for no other reason than that people will buy tickets to see scantily clad women on the Moon, and paving the way for the next entry. [IMDB: 3.4]

Nude on the Moon (1960) is billed as a “sci-fi nudie cutie” and tells of a rocket scientist who builds a rocket ship and blasts off to the Moon with a friend, only to discover a colony of, ahem, naturalist natives. [IMDB: 4.0]

Conquistador de la Luna (1960) is a comedy romp from Mexico involving a happy-go-lucky electrician who accidently pushes the wrong lever on a scientist’s rocket. Once on the Moon, he and the scientist’s daughter face peril from the natives. [IMDB: 5.9]

12 to the Moon (1960) presents an international team that travels to the Moon under the aegis of the International Space Organization (ISO) to claim it as the common heritage of humanity. The trip is fraught with peril, and the reception is not quite what they expected. It bears many parallels to First Spaceship on Venus. [IMDB: 2.6]

The Space Age

On October 4th, 1957, the birth of the Space Age began with the launch of Sputnik, leading just over three years later to humanity’s first step beyond Earth when Yuri Gagarin orbited on April 12th, 1961. Those born after this date are sometimes referred to as the Space Generation. Government space programs leapt to the fore in achieving the first space dreams, and popular culture portrayals adopted an increasingly NASA look. There was a marked increase in the use of stock footage of NASA efforts, replacing the earlier clips of V-2 tests in the New Mexico desert.

Dr. No (1962) features secret agent Bond, James Bond, fighting to stop an evil ultra-wealthy capitalist (but I repeat myself) from destroying the US space program. Features Ursula Andress in a bikini—’nuff said. [IMDB: 7.3]

Moon Pilot (1962) is a Disney tale of a reluctant astronaut encouraged by a young woman who turns out to be from a lot farther away than the Moon. Provides a canvas for a tale of clashing cultural mores (i.e. beatnik vs. straight-laced). [IMDB: 5.6]

Mouse on the Moon (1963) highlights the farcical nature of international politics with a tale of a European micro-nation (Grand Fenwick) that manages to one-up the superpowers once again (previously in The Mouse that Roared they invaded the US) with a secret formula for rocket fuel that takes them to the Moon. [IMDB: 6.5]

H.G. Wells’ First Men in the Moon (1964) is slight re-imagining of the original tale from the renowned futurist, and features the Selenite stylings of famed special effects maker Ray Harryhausen. This was reimagined in 2008. [IMDB: 6.7]

You Only Live Twice (1967) opens with a Gemini spacecraft in orbit being enveloped by an unknown spacecraft. An evil international organization is sabotaging world space efforts to drive the superpowers to the brink of war. Once again, only Bond, James Bond can save the day. [IMDB: 6.9]

Countdown (1967) is adapted from “The Pilgrim Project” by Hank Searles, and posits the question – “Would you be willing to go on a one-way trip to the Moon if it was the only way to be first?” [IMDB: 6.1]

In Like Flint (1967) takes the superspy genre to the next level with a secret organization of women tycoons who take over a space station to threaten the world. From dolphin whispering to ballet master, Flint is the one man who can save the day. [IMDB: 6.2]

The Reluctant Astronaut (1967) tells of an everyman who by pure happenstance ends up selected to fly as a civilian astronaut to beat the Soviets to the first spaceflight. [IMDB: 6.3]

Mission Stardust (1967) is an adaptation of the first story in the Perry Rhodan series of books, wherein the intrepid hero heads to the Moon, where he discovers technology that will lead him to galactic adventures. [IMDB: 4.0]

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) features one of the most memorable Moon bases in cinema. Meticulous attention to detail gave the second act of the movie, set at Moonbase Clavius and Tycho crater, a strong ability to suspend disbelief and allow acceptance of the idea of humans living and working on the Moon. [IMDB: 8.3]

Moon Zero Two (1969) bills itself as the “first Western on the Moon”, with a debris-hauler protagonist who gets caught up in the machinations of an evil ultra-wealthy capitalist (but I repeat myself). Features the board game “Moonopoly”. [IMDB: 4.1]

Marooned (1969) tells of a trio of astronauts who after spending several months at an orbiting lab find themselves marooned in orbit after a failed retro-fire. [IMDB: 5.7]

Diamonds Are Forever (1971) features secret agent Bond, James Bond, fighting to stop an evil ultra-wealthy capitalist (but I repeat myself) from constructing an orbital laser to hold the world hostage to his evil schemes. Includes a Moon sequence (sort of). [IMDB: 6.7]

Post-Apollo Era

With public interest in Moon exploration thoroughly saturated and on the wane, the post-Apollo era saw space movies wandering ever farther afield. A new kind of corporate dystopianism became the popular theme (q.v. Alien, BladeRunner), carrying well into the 1990s.

Moonbase 3 (1973) is a TV series that took a serious look at what an early Lunar base might entail. [IMDB: 7.2]

Space: 1999 (1975–1977), at least in the earliest portions of the series, depicts a cislunar civilization that uses the Moon as a dumping ground for radioactive waste, which leads to catastrophic results. It was a compelling vision of a Moon base. [IMDB: 7.3]

Moonraker (1979) features secret agent Bond, James Bond, fighting to stop an evil ultra-wealthy capitalist (but I repeat myself) from launching an attack from orbit to pave the way for his evil vision of a utopian future. The climactic space station battle scene is rather fun. [IMDB: 6.2]

Salvage-1 (1979) was a TV series featuring everyone’s favorite small town sheriff, Andy Griffith, as a junkyard owner who, in the series pilot, decides to travel to the Moon and salvage Apollo artifacts. It was an early example of potential value-creation in cislunar space, showing why satellite salvage remains a compelling idea. [IMDB: 7.5]

H.G. Wells’ The Shape of Things to Come (1979) tells of the tomorrow after tomorrow when the Moon has been bedomed, but there are still power-mad dictators who want to tell everyone how to live. That’s when the good guys fight back. May have provided inspiration to the later anime Freedom. [IMDB: 3.1]

Airplane 2: The Sequel (1982) is a farcical romp featuring a trip to Moon Base Alpha Beta, which is commanded by everyone’s favorite captain, William Shatner, who literally chews up the scenery. It helps to have seen the first Airplane! movie, and to have a sophomoric sense of humor. [IMDB: 6.0]

The Gen X Era

While the Baby Boomers (born 1946–1964) had spent their formative years in the shadow of a massive government program that succeeded as no other civilization had done before in the human story on Earth, the next generation, typically labeled as Generation X, grew up in the after-environment of a failed president (Nixon), a failed war (Vietnam), a failed space station (Skylab), and a culture shift around 1980 (Reagan) that gave us the Yuppie culture of the following decade. The gospel of our elders was that “Greed is good!”, which we saw in both their words and deeds as the philosophies of moral relativism and situational ethics, as embodied in the phrase “It’s easier to ask for forgiveness than permission,” diffused through the culture. For Generation X there was much more corporatism, more dystopianism, and a stunning shift in societal use of technology (hey, who do you think coded the World Wide Web?), which strongly shaped the nature of the movies experienced in the young adulthood of Generation X.

SpaceCamp (1986) tells of how a trip to a space simulation camp could lead to an accidental launch aboard the Space Shuttle. Meant to ‘inspire’ a post-Apollo audience into an interest in space, it had to compete with the real-world effects of Challenger that January. Lea Thompson, Gen X heart throb, makes this one worth revisiting. [IMDB: 5.5]

Star Cops (1987) was a TV series that explored the idea of crime stories on the Moon and in cislunar space. As with prior TV series it suffers in modern terms from slow pacing, but does show a complex cislunar society. [IMDB: 8.2]

Wings of Honneamise: Royal Space Force (1987) takes place on a parallel Earth and tells the story of an unidentified Asian nation (read: Japan) whose efforts to develop a rocket to space causes friction with their unidentified neighbor (read: China), leading both to the brink of war. Generally considered an anime classic. [IMDB: 7.4]

Murder by Moonlight (1989) features a joint Soviet-American base on the Moon and a heap of dead bodies, as a pair of detectives, one Russian, the other American, race to stop a madman with a deadly secret. It’s a fun thriller, though only available on VHS. [IMDB: 4.9]

Moontrap (1989) tells of a strange artifact returned from the Moon that turns out to be a representative of a bio-mechanical species that threatens the Earth. This is a cult classic featuring George Takei and Bruce Campbell as the protagonists. [IMDB: 5.0]

Beyond the Stars (1989) tells of a young boy who’s an inebriate of Apollo and debaucher of rockets who gets a chance to meet a Moonwalker, and learns of the secret he brought back from the Moon. Another inspirational-type film, though without the Lea Thompson appeal of SpaceCamp. [IMDB: 5.2]

The Dark Side of the Moon (1990) features everyone’s favorite Satan, who has been kidnapping ships, plane,s and spacecraft from a section of space defined by the Bermuda Triangle on Earth and an area on the far side of the Moon, which is where they all end up so he can feed on the souls of the crews. [IMDB: 5.2]

Plymouth (1991) was the pilot for a proposed TV series about a small mining town destroyed by evil corporatist environmental carelessness (but I repeat myself) whose inhabitants are offered the chance to relocate to the Moon and the evil corporation’s resource extraction facilities there. This one used to be popular at space conferences. [IMDB: 6.7]

Destination Moon/Explorers on the Moon (1992) is one of the most widely translated books for youth on the planet. The animated adaptation of the 1953 books by Hergé about a boy detective’s journey to the Moon is remarkably faithful to the original, and is enjoyable by all ages. [IMDB: 7.7]

Solar Crisis (1992) is an odd movie. It’s loaded with star power, the special effects are pretty good, and they didn’t skimp on the sets as they bounce around between an Earth baking in intense sunlight, Skytown in Medium Earth Orbit (MEO), and a spaceship headed to drop a bomb into the Sun (a la Sunshine). Still, it’s a mess, and one gets the feeling it was made as part of a tax scheme of some sort. [IMDB: 3.8]

Rocket Girls (1993) is not to be confused with the later anime of the same name (nor the 1962 Bollywood movie Rocket Girl). The paper-thin plot is that a spacecraft is sent to space to re-seed the ozone layer. That’s not what ends up getting seeded. Where Nude on the Moon might be considered soft-core erotica, Rocket Girls is straight up (pun intended) pornography. If MST3K did X-rated films, they’d have a hoot with this one. [IMDB: N/A]

Bounty Dog (1994) is our second anime entry, and tells the story of a high-tech cybernetic mercenary team that travels to the Moon to confront a dark and ancient force. While steeped in the Japanese fascination with “demonic” forces, it nevertheless features an interesting vision of future Lunar development. [IMDB: 6.0]

Mighty Space Miners (1994) is an anime much more grounded in physics and science and tells the story of an asteroid that has been parked at one of the Earth-Moon Lagrange points for exploitation. But of course, hidden agendas imperil everyone. A real Sword-of-Damocles cliffhanger as the planned second half was never produced. [IMDB: 7.5]

Space Island One (1996) was a British/German TV series that explored the trials and tribulations of running a for-profit space station for scientific research. While described as turgid (combining the best of British high-brow and German humor), it is nevertheless an interesting exploration of the topic. [IMDB: 7.4]

L5: First City in Space (1996) is the IMAX contribution to the mix, featuring the adventures near the end of the 21st century of young Chieko and her family on the first space colony at the Earth-Moon Lagrange-5 point (EML-5, or L5). Efforts to retrieve a comet for its water have hit a snag, threatening the whole colony. It’s definitely for younger audiences. [IMDB: 5.2]

Dead Fire (1996) is set in 2062, when the Earth has become an environmental disaster, and people are stored in cryogenics units in orbit. On USS Legacy Station, they hope to channel a solar flare through the Hubble to trigger atmospheric ionization to clean up the air. Of course, a maniac has other plans where he’s in charge of a newly reborn Earth. [IMDB: 4.2]

Hellraiser: Bloodline (1996) continues the tradition of “if you have nowhere else to go with a franchise, go into space” (q.v. Leprechaun 4, Critters 4, Dracula 3000, Jason X, etc.) In this case, a descendant of the creator of the dimensional puzzle box is using his research on a space station to create a perfect trap for Pinhead and his twisted demonic minions. [IMDB: 4.9]

Precious Find (1996) is set in 2049, where a Moonbase serves as the logistics point for prospectors headed out to the asteroids in search of riches. A treasure map and a poker game are the launching point for a loose remake of The Treasure of Sierra Madre. [IMDB: 3.7]

Scorpio One (1997) tells of a rescue mission to a space station that has made a remarkable discovery, at the cost of the crew. The rescuers aren’t all on the same agenda, and secret forces have more sinister goals. [IMDB: 3.8]

Spacejacked (1997) tells of a luxury cruise liner on its way to the Moon that is hijacked by nefarious forces looking to steal the passengers’ millions. Lots of virtual reality hanky-panky for those so inclined. [IMDB: 3.1]

Moonbase (1998) tells of a waste disposal plant on the Moon visited by some convicts escaped from an off-world penitentiary who are desperate to return to a life of crime on Earth. Things spiral out of control once the Marines arrive. [IMDB: 3.8]

Armageddon (1998) and the next entry, Deep Impact, marked a change in the nature of asteroid impact movies. Previously, humanity was helpless to avert disaster and, consequently, much chaos (and drama) ensues (q.v. Meteor, Asteroid, Without Warning). In this case, some deep sea drillers are tapped to plant nukes in an asteroid, blowing it in half with the pieces passing either side of Earth, harmlessly. Largely derided in the space community for the sheer scale of scientific and technical inaccuracy, everyone else loved it because it’s a rock & roll tale. [IMDB: 6.6]

Deep Impact (1998) is generally regarded as the better of the two big rock from space movies, again with a souped-up shuttle intercepting a big rock from space after it has passed the Moon on a collision course with Earth. Features a couple of decent sized impacts to appeal to the disaster porn aficionado. These two movies unleashed a slew of big rock from space disaster porn movies that continued well into the 2000s. [IMDB: 6.1]

In the Dead of Space (1999) tells of a Russian space station that falls (quite literally) victim to terrorist efforts. [IMDB: 2.4]

Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me (1999) continues Mike Myers’ homage to the spy movies of the 1960s, with Dr. Evil returning from orbit to steal Austin Powers’ mojo. Features a climactic battle at Dr. Evil’s Moon base. Frankly, it’s not as good as the originals from the 1960s. [IMDB: 6.6]

Fortress 2: Re-Entry (2000) features a dystopian corporatist (but I repeat myself) future in which the most dangerous of the world’s criminals are housed in a prison at geosynchronous orbit. It is inescapable, so of course the protagonist sets out to do just that. [IMDB: 4.4]

Space Cowboys (2000) is an early entrant in the “old movie icons get together for one last adventure” genre, and features a quartet of almost-astronaut mavericks who must disable a Soviet weapons platform plummeting from orbit. Younger viewers (i.e. less than 50 years old) may not get all of the jokes. Features a final sequence with another real-world application of the Moon, that of graveyard. (q.v. Celestis) [IMDB: 6.4]

Solar Force (2000) Lunar settlers deny eco-recovery to Earth; Earth folk not too happy about that. [IMDB: 3.8]

2001: A Space Travesty (2000) is a Leslie Nielsen farcical romp where the President travels to Vegan, a base on the Moon, only to be kidnapped and replaced with a clone. Marshall Dick Dixon is the only man who can save him. A little better than his previous space foray (no, not Forbidden Planet, which is a classic, but Naked Space, a Dark Star spoof, which was not). [IMDB: 3.2]

Black Horizon (2001) Rescue mission to Russian station goes bad. Real bad. [IMDB: 2.6]

Thunderpants (2002) seems targeted to that demographic for whom fart jokes are hysterically funny (four year old boys and girls?). One young man’s petomanic gifts lead to a rescue mission in space. [IMDB: 3.5]

The Adventures of Pluto Nash (2002) highlights the idea of the Moon as a place to escape from the fundamentalist religionists seemingly taking over here on Earth and to enjoy the licentious thrills of gambling, drinking, and other “vice” behaviors. A thorough mess given the star power brought to the tale, it is typically panned by critics and viewers alike; think Solar Crisis set on the Moon. Still… Lunar casinos… [IMDB: 3.7]