Ray Harryhausen’s work continues to delight 50+ years later

Note: The First Men in the Moon Blu-ray is available direct from Screen Archives.

Come for the moon people, stay for the English eccentricities. First Men in the Moon has plenty of both. There are also upright insects, anti-gravity paint, and wondrous Ray Harryhausen animation to consume.

This 1964 Columbia production is a darling, a pre-moon landing, moon landing movie with the charming scientific quaintness of Victorian times. It was certainly a late film (one of the last actually) to fictionally take humanity skyward before the realities were cemented in history. That means all manner of scraggly space rocks and dazzling speculative production design.

Much of this feature is taken in full by Lionel Jefferies, a slightly pressured and panicked (but sure) scientist who bestows the film with a squirrely madness. He flops, he yells, he screams; it’s a delight. Not even the bulkiness of a vintage diving suit can stave his energized performance. His is an important role too. First Men in the Moon is amongst the slowest of the Harryhausen legacy, more or less punctured by his animation rather than carried by it.

Jefferies’ enthusiasm is a lightning rod to keep the feature lit as it works through the more fantastical functions. Co-stars Edward Judd and Martha Hyer are swallowed by his presence. In fact, First Men on the Moon does not see much need for Hyer’s character (she was not part of H.G. Wells story) so for part of the picture, it stuffs her alone in an airtight compartment. The ’60s were a different time.

Harryhausen’s rousing effects take the ride from there. Tremendous bugs and insectoid aliens are a delight. The worker bugs (kids in suits) not so much. Budgetary and time compromises were inevitable.

… a score-to-die-for from British composer Laurie Johnson

More than any other in the Harryhausen canon, First Men in the Moon is an insightful movie. The majority of his concern theatrical heroics – a mythical, square-jawed and bare chested male who spears Greek monsters – but not this one. Jefferies, ever the eccentric character, is seduced by his moon findings and the promise of inter-species communication. Then the entire scenario turns foul.

Space movies of the era (and still today) put the pressure against humanity. Don’t go; we will die. Asteroids, rogue planets, aliens. Anything out there exists inevitably to kill us down here. But First Men in the Moon puts us out there for the taking – nothing from space has any interest in us other than as a mere curiosity. When those beings find out what we are, how feeble we act toward our own, only then do these thinking creatures wish us harm. We’re not a valuable or interesting species to this race of Selenites. We are their immediate threat. The usual invasion parable is thus reversed, a thoughtful inclusion for such an otherwise light feature. It’s not scintillating material, but it remains interesting.

Behind the parable are all of these multi-colored organic crystals, lavishly matte painted interiors, crisp miniatures, and a score-to-die-for from British composer Laurie Johnson building an often droll yet exciting examination of pleasantly simply space travel. Even trivia-wise it succeeds – First Men in the Moon was Harryhausen’s only anamorphic widescreen production. There is a little bit of everything in this moon. [xrr rating=4/5 label=Movie]

Control room @ 1:21:27

Twilight Time’s Harryhausen releases continue to impress. First Men in the Moon looks ravishing. Given premium treatment in terms of resolution, mastering work is of a prime quality. Taking out the effects of dated chemical fades and stock footage, First Men in the Moon is outright perfect, actually. Print damage? Such a thing is a forgotten relic by the time this film concludes.

Textural qualities thrive in this frame, bursting with moon rocks, sound stages, miniatures, and puppets. Definition is incomprehensible after seeing this movie for years on VHS, and swells over what is now a miniscule DVD presentation. Video snobs unite. This one is an absolute privilege.

Color, contrast, clarity? Saying they’re perfect does not convey how masterful they are. Eastmancolor hues are generously applied; those scenes in the moon underground with their groovy alien lighting projected onto walls are alluring. English countryside scenes offer a wealth of natural light, building the film’s first portion with zip. And black levels are mighty, casting dense shadows into the lunar underbelly while making space pure black.

Encoding parameters are joyous. Every studio should be held to these standards, catalog or new release alike. Grain is lovingly preserved without noticeable alterations. It feels like projected film. [xrr rating=5/5 label=Video]

Almost certainly pulled from 6-track 70mm presentation, a wallop of a DTS-HD 5.1 mix is a blast. Opening musical cues are enormous and composed with careful use of the space provided by the stereos. Instruments light up repeatedly, building to the full power of this orchestrated greatness. Drums and horns resonate in the LFE channel naturally. There is not a hint of fading to detect.

This is not an exaggerated or grossly overdone 5.1 mix either. Music is relatively strict about where it stays. There is little bleed to the rears. In terms of action, it is the same. Selenites chitter about to adequately surround characters where needed, and the final brain bug is on full blast. Each channel picks up on its voice.

A slightest hint of age is heard within the effects. It’s minimal. First Men in the Moon also may play with directional voices a bit too aggressively. Inside older Edward Judd’s nursing home scene early (and one or two other scenes), they stretch outward to a point where they feel incorrectly placed. Most may not notice. [xrr rating=4/5 label=Audio]

Randall William Cook offers a pleasant introduction to the movie, speaking on Harryhausen in general and the film’s qualities for five minutes. Tomorrow the Moon follows, a pre-moon landing short from Columbia about the excitement of the moon’s potential using clips from this movie and showcasing some behind-the-scenes clips. Trailers follow, and like the previous piece, are all in restored HD and DTS-HD. An isolated score (and it’s a good one) comes in via DTS-HD 2.0.

Finally, a commentary comes from Cook, Tony Dalton, and Ray Harryhausen, recorded in 2012 one year before Harryhausen’s passing. It’s a constant talker and Harryhausen remembers quite a bit about the production process. [xrr rating=3/5 label=Extras]


Click on the images below for full resolution screen captures taken directly from the Blu-ray. Images have not been altered in any way during the process.

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