Science fiction movies are like that food you don't eat much but sometimes find yourself in the mood for. Notwithstanding Georges Melies's famous Trip to the Moon, shot at the dawn of the twentieth century, and Fritz Lang's undisputed 1927 masterpiece, Metropolis, the science fiction picture didn't come on the scene in a significant way until after the Second World War, spurred on by two significant and bewildering world developments: the splitting of the atom, and the resulting Cold War.
In this new atomic age, where a subtle paranoia lurked just beneath the surface of everyday existence, two unanswered questions loomed: first, are we alone?; and second, if we really try to find out, just what might we uncover?
Many science fiction films of the fifties have one innate drawback: they don't tend to age that well. Indeed, watching one of the earlier post-war entries, George Pal's Destination Moon (1950), I was diverted more by its undeniable kitschiness than by any authentic thrills or suspense. Given the state of technology today, these early depictions of futuristic space travel or the evils of atomic power most always come off as -- well, let's just say, amusingly quaint. Nevertheless, these films remain inventive, interesting visual documents of their time, and importantly, they also entertain.
The film that really put the sci-fi genre on the map was Robert Wise's The Day The Earth Stood Still (1951). Starring Patricia Neal, Hugh Marlowe and Michael Rennie, this was no "B" movie quickie, but a first-rate drama about an advanced civilization on another planet that sends a visitor to earth with an important message: don't always seek to destroy what you fear. With solid performances and steady, expert pacing, Day holds up unusually well, and its message feels just as relevant now. (Avoid the anemic remake with Keanu Reeves.)
The great director Howard Hawks was quick to jump on the bandwagon, and that same year produced The Thing From Another World. Here, another spaceship lands in a remote frozen tundra, and when thawed out, another visitor makes itself known, one considerably more frightening than Michael Rennie's erudite alien. It is no less than a pre-Gunsmoke James Arness, playing a very large and frightening creature who clearly should have stayed frozen. The Thing remains gripping, suspenseful entertainment.
To any sci-fi aficionado, the name George Pal will be familiar. Having re-introduced the genre two years earlier with Destination Moon, he took a quantum leap forward in 1953 with The War Of The Worlds, starring Gene Barry (familiar to mature TV viewers as Western gunslinger Bat Masterson and later, the suave star of Burke's Law and The Name Of The Game). Based on the H.G Wells classic, War helped feed the public's lurid fascination with the possibility of world annihilation, with a Martian invasion standing in for a nuclear attack. Worlds is skillfully directed and played, technicolor adds vibrancy to the picture, and the Oscar winning effects still work their magic. Personally, I favor the original over the Spielberg's effects-laden but curiously flat update.
Stories involving the mutation of people and animals through atomic radiation comprise a sci-fi sub-genre all its own. And the best of them is called just that: Them! (1954). Imagine if you will hordes of ants mutated to roughly the size of...well, a lot bigger than a Buick. Trust me, you would not want these babies invading your Sunday picnic. This terrifying if unlikely scenario is made sufficiently believable through solid direction, effects, and script, and a sturdy cast, including the talented James Whitmore and the cuddly Edmund Gwenn (best remembered as Santa in the original Miracle on 34th Street).
My personal fifties sci-fi favorite is Don Siegel's ingenious, paranoiac nightmare vision, The Invasion Of The Body Snatchers (1956). The chilling premise: in Everytown, USA, your neighbors are acting strangely. They look the same, but something has gone dead inside them. Soon, strange pods are discovered, and it appears they serve to replicate aliens as these same neighbors, thus beginning an insidious takeover of the earth itself. Invasion remains one of the top science fiction classics of our time, still creepy and disturbing today. And talk about remakes: there have been three to date, and still, first is best.
1956 was in fact a banner year for science fiction movies. Witness the literate, ambitious Forbidden Planet, loosely based on Shakespeare's The Tempest. One Dr. Morbius (Walter Pidgeon) and his comely daughter Altaira (Anne Francis) live on Altair 4, a beautiful planet, but when Commander J.J. Adams ( a young Leslie Nielsen) and crew attempt to land there, it becomes clear that conditions are not as placid as they appear to be, and that in fact, an invisible and malignant force still exists on Altair. Planet is undeniably talkier than my other picks, but beyond its high production values, you have to credit both its ambition and all it has inspired since, from TV's Lost in Space to the Star Trek phenomenon. And who could resist Robby the robot?
The legendary Ray Harryhausen was the fifties' answer to computer generated effects. (Beyond his work in science fiction, his "stop-motion" technology is seen to best effect in the evergreen adventure/fantasy, The Seventh Voyage Of Sinbad). Harryhausen's contribution is pivotal in the ultimate flying saucer movie, Earth Versus the Flying Saucers (1956). Earth may be a welcome counterpoint to the more cerebral Planet, since there is action aplenty, as a fleet of Harryhausen-generated, alien-manned saucers make themselves a nuisance both in and out of our atmosphere, frightening the populous at large, and foiling the efforts of one dedicated scientist (Hugh Marlowe) to explore the mysteries of space. While not a bona-fide classic, Earth is a trim, tight little film that makes for fun family viewing.
The same can be said for Harryhausen's next venture, 20 Million Miles To Earth (1957). Here a rocket returning from a secret flight to Venus crashes into the sea off Sicily, carrying just one survivor (we think), a Colonel Calder, played by William Hopper (best remembered as Paul Drake on TV's Perry Mason). Soon, it's painfully evident that the rocket was carrying one more passenger, an embryo of a Venus resident who is rapidly born, and whose growth is then accelerated by the Earth's atmosphere. Before you can say "Cancel my flight to Rome", this extremely ugly and now enormous Venusian creature is camping out in the Coliseum, causing all manner of havoc. If this is not yet a cult film, it should be: Harryhausen's creation is a monstrous work of art, and having the devastation occur in Rome adds a unique touch to this sometimes silly, but still highly diverting, picture.
Dated as some of these titles are, they're still great fun for those partial to the genre, or game to get acquainted with it. And let us not forget: sitting in those dark theatres back in the fifties were young people with names like Kubrick, Roddenberry, Lucas and Spielberg, who'd be inspired to take the science fiction film to new levels of excellence in the years to come, largely as a result of seeing these pioneering features.
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