Movies about space exploration can essentially be split into two categories: the kind that celebrates the ingenuity and spirit of the endeavor, and the kind that warns of the potential dangers of journeying too far into the cosmos.
One film that falls firmly into the latter category is 1959’s First Man into Space, a black and white British and American co-production that touches on many of the fears defined 1950s and ‘60s space exploration. In 2021, however, the film stands out as a strong example of the kind of fun and cheap sci-fi B-movies that Hollywood used to churn out on a regular basis.
It’s available to stream right now on HBO Max, and here’s why you need to check it out.
First Man into Space is not — as its title might suggest — about the actual first man to journey into outer space (that would be Soviet pilot Yuri Gagarin).
Instead, First Man into Space, which was released two years before Gagarin’s historic 1961 achievement, tells a fictional story about a hotshot pilot named Dan Prescott (Bill Edwards) hellbent on being the first man to reach the stars. The film sees Dan achieve that dream, but like most cautionary sci-fi horror films, he pays a serious price.
The “price” in question results in Dan being covered in a layer of cosmic dust and returning to Earth as an oxygen-starved monster capable of killing anything and anyone that gets in his way. It’s a twist that turns First Man into Space from a pretty standard movie about late ‘50s space exploration into a unique creature feature.
The entire latter half of First Man into Space charts the journey of its transformed pilot as he ravages parts of New Mexico in the hopes of dulling his intense pain and discomfort. It’s a journey that eventually brings in the pilot’s brother (Marshall Thompson) and his girlfriend (Marla Landi), both of whom struggle to come to terms with what’s happened to Dan.
Stylistically, First Man into Space doesn’t lean away from its horror elements and packs in a handful of pretty effective death scenes — all of which feel particularly potent thanks to the film’s striking black and white cinematography. First Man into Space’s status as a fun 1950s monster movie is further strengthened by its central monster costume though, which Bill Edwards dons whenever he appears as the transformed, cosmic-dust-encrusted Dan during the film’s back half.
The costume isn’t the most impressive of its era — its cheapness can especially be seen whenever it folds and flares out around Edwards’ mid-section — but it’s still memorably grotesque. The mask, in particular, turns Dan’s face into a twisted, melted, and charred mess that proves difficult to look at — and even harder to forget.
However, it’s the final minutes of First Man into Space that ultimately lifts it up above many of the other cheap sci-fi B-movies of its era.
The film’s ending sees the transformed Dan reuniting with his brother and girlfriend in an unexpected and moving way, one that returns a level of humanity and emotion to the film that it gleefully abandoned during Dan’s killing spree. It’s a conclusion that makes First Man into Space feel strangely reminiscent of a film like David Cronenberg’s The Fly, even if it never quite reaches the same level of artistry.
First Man into Space is by no means a perfect film, but it’s worth watching for the way it combines its era-specific themes, effects, and overall visual style with a conclusion that remains genuinely moving to this day.
First Man into Space is available to stream now on HBO Max.