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Reviews » Blu-ray Reviews » First Men in the Moon (Blu-ray)
First Men in the Moon (Blu-ray)
Twilight Time // Unrated // March 10, 2015 // Region Free
List Price: $29.95 [Buy now and save at Screenarchives]
Review by Adam Tyner | posted March 29, 2015 | E-mail the Author
Highly Recommended
E - M A I L
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I'd rather not write a review of First Men in the Moon, but in no way is that meant as a slight against the film itself. Among its many strengths is an awe-inspiring sense of discovery. This isn't a movie that far in advance telegraphs the beats of its story or unveils another pulse-pounding action sequence like clockwork every eleven minutes. One of its principal joys is being in much the same boat as its intrepid adventurers...in having no idea what lurks around the next corner or towards what, precisely, the story is building. This is a film best experienced knowing as little as possible about it. In all honesty, how much more of a review is needed than to say that First Men in the Moon is based on a story by H.G. Wells, boasts a screenplay by Quatermass creator Nigel Kneale, and is propelled by the unparalleled imagination and stop-motion majesty of Ray Harryhausen? I'll do my duty and write a proper review, alright, but I'd suggest skipping down to the technical end of this write-up just the same.

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The world is watching with rapt attention. Mankind stands on the verge of its greatest achievement: breaking the shackles of our planet and setting foot on the moon. Something that even twenty years earlier would've seemed like an impossible fantasy is now mere moments away. These three astronauts are all too aware of what a historic event it is when their boots first collide with the lunar dust beneath them. Imagine their surprise when they stumble onto a faded Union Jack and a letter claiming the moon for Queen Victoria in the year of our Lord 1899.

Arnold Bedford (Edward Judd) is not what anyone would rightly call an astronaut. He's not what anyone would rightly call much of anything, other than a layabout, a scoundrel, or however else Victorian society would scowlingly express their disapproval. Deeply in debt and trying to weasel his way out of marriage to his American fiancée (Martha Hyer), Bedford thinks he's finally stumbled onto wealth and fame. His neighbor, Professor Cavor (Lionel Jeffries), is conducting experiments so dangerous that they could ravage Bedford's nearby cottage. Bedford eagerly agrees to sell the place to Cavor -- nevermind the fact that he doesn't actually own it -- for a stake in Cavor's gravity-defying Cavorite. This paste cuts through gravity like a hot knife through butter, and Bedford has hundreds of thousands of pounds worth of commercial applications dancing around in his head. Maybe Cavorite boots to leap tall buildings in a single bound? Cavor has his sights set quite a bit higher than that, though: all the way to the moon! At immense cost, he's even built a metal sphere to get him there. All he needs is to perfect the Cavorite process, and he'll soon be soaring through the heavens. It's initially intended to be a solo journey, but much to Cavor's chagrin...well, let's just say that the sphere can not-too-uncomfortably accommodate three.

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Cavor, Bedford, and Not-Mrs.-Bedford are, as the framing device and title suggest, the first men (and woman!) to touch down on the moon. That's not to say they're the only ones there, though. An entire civilization of insectoid Selenites exists in labyrinthine tunnels beneath the lunar surface. Where Cavor sees a barrier in communication, Bedford sees imminent danger, and his kneejerk reaction doesn't get intercelestial relations off to the best of starts. Kate is imprisoned in a Selenite laboratory. The sphere is being dismantled by a small army of creatures, much like a parade of ants disassembling a leftover picnic sandwich into crumbs. Cavor stands before the Grand Lunar in what may be a historic conversation between beings from different celestial bodies or what may be a trial. Only one thing stands in the way of whatever it is the Selenites are planning, and his name is Arnold Bedford.

So much about First Men in the Moon wholly fascinates me, and Bedford is chief among them. In this wildly unconventional story, he serves as both protagonist and antagonist...as both the action hero and principal villain. It's a delicate balancing act to shape a character who's this manipulative, this scheming, and yet this charming. In Bedford's eyes, he's not doing anyone any harm. Okay, he duped his fiancée into signing her name to a deed that, unbeknownst to her, he has no right to sell. He's taking a percentage of his neighbor's invention despite not contributing a blesséd thing towards it. In his heart of hearts, he's going to pay everyone back (plus interest!) when his ship comes in. In the meantime...well, whatever. When a gaggle of anthropomorphic insects creep towards him on the moon with long, sharp staves, of course he tosses them into the bubbling, blue magma below. It's not out of cruelty but of self-preservation. These bugs are larger, to be sure, but to his mind, they're no less worthy of being stomped into a smear under his heel. Bedford could never fathom that he's in a movie without an archvillain. There is no sinister Selenite plot to murder them or lay claim to our planet. These creatures don't hold anyone hostage or dangle the Earthlings in a pit with some colossal lunar monstrosity. The only casualties -- the only beings forcefully placed in harm's way -- are at Bedford's hand. As far as he's concerned and as far as the audience knows for quite a long while, Bedford is the hero of the piece, and that dichotomy is brilliant.

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The unconventional nature to First Men in the Moon certainly doesn't stop there. The name Ray Harryhausen is invariably associated with high adventures that pit a gallant hero against one fantastic stop-motion animated creature after another. There's only one giant beast in this film, though, and its relatively brief attack is over well before anything resembling a climax. The central focus of First Men in the Moon isn't on an adrenaline rush of action or nightmarish monsters; it's about discovery...about exploration...about embracing the unknown. Harryhausen's emphasis is accordingly placed on world-building, and his imagination coupled with such skilled production design make for quite a visual feast. The effects work is first-rate, naturally. Clearly a great deal of care and consideration went into making the moon launch look credible, and much of this continues to hold up remarkably well, despite being dreamt up five years before Apollo 11 touched down on the lunar surface and more than fifty years having passed since its theatrical release. First Men in the Moon strikes a marvelous balance between its sharp insight, its sense of awe and wonder, and, well, in fun. More than a third of the movie, in fact, is spent on Earth at the tailend of the 19th century. Despite that early emphasis on slapstick, Lionel Jeffries' bug-eyed performance, and building its characters in the place of action/adventure beats, the pacing of First Men in the Moon never drags.

I can certainly imagine the lengthy earthbound sequences, the rubbery, less-than-convincing Selenite masks, and the scarcity of his trademark stop-motion animated creatures disappointing some Harryhausen fanatics. Let go of your expectations. Appreciate First Men in the Moon for what it is rather than what it isn't. Celebrate what makes this film unique rather than eviscerate it for not being Jason and the Argonauts II. Despite -- or perhaps because of -- it differing greatly from much of the work in Harryhausen's legendary filmography, First Men in the Moon is still very much a favorite of mine. A Blu-ray release as extraordinary as what Sony/Columbia and Twilight Time have assembled here makes for a golden opportunity to discover or re-discover one of Harryhausen's greatest and most unique films. Highly Recommended.

As much of a struggle as First Men in the Moon was for Harryhausen, marking his first and only foray into anamorphic photography, the consistently dazzling result proves to be well worth the effort. This presentation is, to my eyes, the most striking of Harryhausen's color films on Blu-ray. Considering how achingly gorgeous the likes of Mysterious Island and The 7th Voyage of Sinbad have been in HD, that's high praise indeed. It's immediately apparent that First Men in the Moon has been culled from a 4K master. I often found myself entranced by intricate details and extraordinarily fine patterns that would have been lost if the film had been mastered in any other way. The image is so surreally crisp and overflowing with detail that there are moments in this fifty year old movie that look as if they could've been lensed weeks ago. The TechnicolorLunacolor hues are vividly saturated, not having lost a glimmer of their potency over the past half-century. As outstanding as the otherworldly production design is beneath the lunar surface, the lush, pastoral greens of the English countryside paired with Martha Hyer's candy-colored wardrobe are perhaps even more alluring! I'm similarly taken by the wonderful sense of depth and dimensionality, as First Men in the Moon comes as close to 3D as I could hope to see without having to don a pair of glasses. This is a remarkably filmic presentation, with its fine, unintrusive sheen of grain skillfully preserved on Blu-ray. The remastering is immaculate, without so much as a stray fleck of dust rearing its head. The stock footage as the world celebrates what it believes to be mankind's arrival on the moon unsurprisingly isn't of the high quality as the rest of the film, and there is an unavoidable drop in quality during opticals and the like, but that does nothing to dim my enthusiasm for a presentation that is -- excuse the pun -- positively out of this world.

As much as I've just written about First Men in the Moon's high definition splendor, opening this screenshot to full-size is honestly all the review any reasonable person could need:

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First Men in the Moon's AVC encode spans both layers of this BD-50 disc. The film's theatrical aspect ratio of 2.35:1 has been faithfully retained on Blu-ray.

Presented in 24-bit DTS-HD Master Audio, First Men in the Moon sounds every bit as phenomenal as it looks. This 5.1 remix is based on the stereophonic sound from 70mm engagements. The score by Laurie Johnson is impressively rich and full-bodied, seizing advantage of every available channel. The surrounds and LFE alike are used to terrific effect: the '60s-era lunar module careening to the surface of the moon, the low-frequency snarl of retro-rockets roaring to life, Cavor's sphere crashing through the greenhouse, and the colossal door to the Selenoids' subterranean lair as it opens. A subtle, otherworldly rustle -- something like wind -- also helps set the mood as our amateur astronauts first land on the lunar surface. I remain in awe of how clean and clear every last element in this remix is. Frequency response is spectacularly expansive, and the film's dialogue isn't marred by the slightest flicker of distortion. No hiss, background noise, pops, clicks, dropouts, or the like ever threaten to intrude. This is perfection.

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The optional English subtitles (SDH) can come in handy for deciphering some of the heavier accents. Also included are an isolated score and audio commentary, both in 24-bit DTS-HD Master Audio.

  • Randall William Cook Introduces First Men in the Moon (5 min.; HD): Although I wish there had been an option to view this introduction before the start of the film -- the Special Features submenu traditionally isn't my first stop on a Blu-ray disc -- that's the only gripe I can muster. Randall William Cook, a visual effects legend in his own right, provides a terrific introduction to both First Men in the Moon and this Blu-ray disc in general. The first half serves as a primer to Harryhausen and his extraordinary body of work, and the last few minutes are oriented more specifically about First Men in the Moon, particularly in how it differs from Harryhausen's more creature-oriented films.

  • Audio Commentary: Never before heard until now, this commentary was recorded in 2012, one short day after Harryhausen first experienced one of his films on Blu-ray. Cook disclaims in his introduction that his fandom and admiration took over, preventing him from contributing to the commentary in quite the way he would've liked, but he has nothing to be the least embarrassed about. This track is a terrific listen, propelled by the enthusiasm of Cook, Harryhausen archivist Tony Dalton, and, of course, Ray Harryhausen himself. Among the many topics of conversation are H.G. Wells' son Frank visiting the set, Harryhausen's longstanding interest in adapting Wells' work, and some of the concepts and ideas abandoned during production, such as Nigel Kneale's "army of Selenoids" and a Grand Lunar that sounds like something out of Metroid. Harryhausen was involved in First Men in the Moon on most every level, and while there is a great deal of technical discussion about his stop-motion effects work and the challenges of anamorphic cinematography, the conversation is so much farther reaching than that. The three of them speak about the construction of the story, editing, score, production design, budgetary constraints, and live-action cinematography as well. I'm thrilled that the foresight was had to record these commentaries with Harryhausen, who has since left us, and I'm greatly looking forward to hearing more from these sessions in the near future.

  • Isolated Score: Perhaps it's better described as dialogue-free rather than an isolated score -- there are a number of sound effects scattered throughout -- but Laurie Johnson's compositions are showcased in this secondary lossless soundtrack.

  • Tomorrow The Moon (5 min.; HD): I'm thrilled to see that this vintage featurette, which delves into how the film strikes its balance between realism and fantasy as mankind was feverishly preparing its own voyage to the moon, has been newly-transferred in 1080p. It's such a treat to be able to see all of this behind-the-scenes footage -- including Harryhausen at work! -- in color and at such a wonderfully high resolution:

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  • Promotional Material (5 min.; HD): Rounding out the extras are a teaser and theatrical trailer.

First Men in the Moon is a region-free disc, and it's a limited edition of 5,000 rather than Twilight Time's traditional 3,000, further ensuring that any Harryhausen fanatic will be able to add this to his or her library. A terrific set of liner notes by Julie Kirgo have been included as well.

The Final Word
I can't conceive of a more exceptional release of First Men in the Moon than what has been lovingly delivered here. I realize that reactions to the film over the years have been mixed, but a Blu-ray disc that looks and sounds this phenomenal is the perfect opportunity for a re-evaluation. Though it's not exactly the type of adventure that leaps to mind when I think of Ray Harryhausen, its boundless imagination, visual flair, and awe-inspiring sense of discovery ensure that First Men in the Moon stands proud in his filmography just the same. Absolutely imperial, or in other words, very, very Highly Recommended. Bring on The Three Worlds of Gulliver, Twilight Time!
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