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Sputnik Left its Mark on the Silver Screen


Space veterans and an honor guard laid flowers today at the tomb of Sergey Korolyov, the father of the Soviet space program. It was Russia's way of marking the start of the space race, the launch 50 years ago today of Sputnik -the first artificial satellite in Earth orbit. The legacy of Sputnik quickly spread beyond science and space exploration into popular culture. Within a year, there was a TV series called "Men in Space."

And Bob Mondello says Hollywood was quick up the launch pad as well.

BOB MONDELLO: If Hollywood is a dream factory, in 1957, its science fiction assembly line was churning out nightmares - "Attack of the Crab Monsters," "The Deadly Mantis," "The Amazing Colossal Man," "The Incredible Shrinking Man." Many of the threats in these movies came from atomic mutants, others were from outer space.

(Soundbite of movie "The Monolith Monsters")

Unidentified Man #1: Another strange calling card from the limitless reaches of space. Its substance unknown. Its secrets unexplored. The meteor lies dormant in the night, waiting.

MONDELLO: Invading meteors in "The Monolith Monsters." Then came the Sputnik launch. And a year later, you could still find that kind of sci-fi film - "The Blob," "Attack of the Puppet People." But mixed in with those was now the kind of science fiction in which man wasn't just looking up, he was heading up.

The first of the post-Sputnik space movies was Jules Verne's 1865 fantasy "From the Earth to the Moon" brought to rather silly life with a rocket ship that had Victorian interiors and with a tacked on arms race plot line.

Within 18 months, moviemakers had fully embraced the space age with "Missile to the Moon," the "First Spaceship on Venus," and the "First Man Into Space" in which a jetfighter test pilot defies orders and launches himself into orbit.

(Soundbite of movie "First Man to Space")

Unidentified Man #2: Flight 15, come into your turn immediately.

Unidentified Man #3: All clear. I'm going straight up. First man into space.

Unidentified Man #4: Can science prepare him for what no man has ever experienced before? Will the hypnotic effects of weightlessness or dredonoxia(ph) lure him beyond all human control?

MONDELLO: Dredonoxia, the hypnotic effects of weightlessness? When this guy reenters the atmosphere, an extraterrestrial virus turns him into a bloodthirsty gooey monster, which means Hollywood's just repackaging old ideas in new space suits.

But if you think of all these films as Cold War parables, Tinseltown's way of embodying the creeping menace of communism, then Sputnik had caused a shift. With the Soviet Union nearly dominant in the skies, no one had to look to other galaxies for adventure, as Buck Rogers had done.

Now, there was fresh intrigue in what you might call inner space - the outer edges of the Earth's own atmosphere. Fantasies about sleek, aerodynamic spacecraft could give way to science and a techno look. Sputnik was a sphere, a tiny, new moon. And suddenly, it was everywhere in pop culture. Even in a Bugs Bunny cartoon called "Hare-Way to the Stars."

(Soundbite of movie "Hare-Way to the Stars")

BUGS BUNNY: Yikes, what was that?

MONDELLO: Where Bugs doesn't realize he's been rocketed into space.

(Soundbite of movie "Hare-Way to the Stars")

BUGS BUNNY: Ask a silly question.

MONDELLO: Until a round, beeping ball with spiky antennas whips him into all sorts of Cold War inspired trouble.

The Cold War was still the point as audiences worried about losing the space race. A worry that was receding by the time the Apollo astronauts were circling the moon a decade later. Realism was by then the norm in space procedurals. Robert Altman's "Countdown," Stanley Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey," and the John Sturges drama "Marooned" all looked plausible. And all assumed tensions between the Soviets and the West would follow man into space.

Sputnik's film legacy: A blend of realism and Cold War angst. Wild fantasies brought down to Earth so that they could be sent soaring again.

I'm Bob Mondello. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Bob Mondello, who jokes that he was a jinx at the beginning of his critical career — hired to write for every small paper that ever folded in Washington, just as it was about to collapse — saw that jinx broken in 1984 when he came to NPR.