First Man Into Space

First Man Into Space

Robert Day

UK, 1959


Review by Thomas Scalzo

Posted on 20 April 2007

Source The Criterion Collection DVD

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High above the earth, aboard rocket plane Y-13, pilot Lieutenant Dan Prescott receives an order from mission control: turn back at once. The limits of his craft’s capabilities have been reached, a safe return cannot be guaranteed if he continues. But Lieutenant Dan is having none of it, for he has something to prove; to his brother, his girl, the world. Come what may, he must become the First Man Into Space. Firing his emergency boosters, he blasts beyond the farthest reaches of the atmosphere, into the empty depths, and contact is lost. Some time later, a terrific crash is reported somewhere in the southwestern desert. The Y-13 has returned, a mangled hulk of steaming metal. It is impossible Lieutenant Dan could have survived.

Although this fast-paced space yarn might seem little more than Icarus for the rocket age, a closer examination reveals First Man Into Space actually instilling the myth with a darker, more devastating tone. For where the Grecian fabulists were content to kill their protagonist as punishment for his impudence, the weavers of the First Man tale, including writers John C. Cooper and Lance Z. Hargreaves, and producer Richard Gordon, do not let Lieutenant Prescott off so easy. Chemically altered by a hazily defined alien encounter during his time out of the atmosphere, Dan survives the crash, but is forced to haunt his former home as a deformed monster incapable of thriving on earth without a constant supply of fresh blood. Maddened by this creeping pulmonary suffocation, and unrecognized by his acquaintances who presume him dead, Dan abandons his morals in desperate hope of prolonging his miserable existence.

While the bloody mayhem that results certainly makes for some enjoyable genre fare (Dan’s zombie-like make-up is particularly impressive, and earns the film solid horror credentials), Lt. Prescott’s tormented rampage also marks First Man Into Space as a picture subtly moving away from the bulk of Saturday afternoon thrillers being released at the time. For where the slew of alien- and creature-centric sci-fi/horror movies of the ’50s focused largely on external terrors, here we have a film presaging the stories of internal torment that would come to dominate the horror genre in years to come—a film centered on a monster that is also a man, an Other that is also us.

Though imagining the impact of this frightening idea on contemporary audiences is intriguing, we must be wary of attributing too much importance and influence to a shoestring-budget film with a 77 minute running time—particularly in light of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, which incorporated the idea of neighbors turned nemeses some three years before Lieutenant Dan made his fateful trip. Still, it is interesting to note that while Invasion spawned fears of the irrevocable mutability of those we love, First Man offered an arguably more terrifying scenario—the irrevocable mutability of the self.

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