I was having a discussion a few weeks ago with a friend of mine about Robert Wise's The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951). For a long time, The Day the Earth Stood Still was the touchstone for "thinking man's" sci-fi, and it's not hard to see why: it's sober, cerebral, and significantly lacking in bug-eyed monsters. Its plea for peace, too, is a refreshing change of pace for Cold War sci fi. But over the last ten years or so, I've kind of fallen out of love with that movie. The political undertones kind of bother me. Klatuu (Michael Rennie) strikes me as a neo-con alien, who is pursuing an intergalactic version of the Bush Doctrine of pre-emptive warfare. He brings "peace" with an ultimatum and a big goddamn stick. If I squint, I see the same kind of xenophobia in this film as I do in other fifties sci fi film, except for the fact that the movie has cast human beings in the role of monster. I'm also uncomfortable with the veiled religious allegory that casts Klatuu as a messianic figure, but that's a whole different kettle of fish.
I find that I much prefer Jack Arnold's It Came from Outer Space (1953) as a paragon of "thinking" 50s sci fi.
I first saw It Came from Outer Space at a college film society showing. I never saw it on television when I was a kid that I can remember. I'm not sure how it escaped me, given that I was voracious when it came to sci fi and horror movies. The benefit of seeing it when I did was that I saw it pristine. Not only was it unmarred by commercials, it was a 35mm print rather than a battered TV print. And it was in 3-D. I'm a pretty vocal critic of 3-D these days, but I won't deny the thrill it originally gave me with this film. It doesn't hurt that there was no up-charge at the box office. Details. It Came from Outer Space is, perhaps, the most coolly rational science fiction film of the 1950s, and while that calm detachment tends to drain a little of the excitement out of it, it also comes as a relief when compared with its immediate cousins, which mostly provide eye-drugging fantasies of destruction.
It Came from Outer Space finds amateur astronomer John Putnam and his girlfriend, Ellen, witnessing a meteor strike out in the Arizona desert. Putnam hires a helicopter to take him to the crater, where he finds a crashed ship. A rock slide buries the evidence before the authorities arrive, and Putnam's story is dismissed as the rantings of a crank. But something crawled out of that crater, and soon, Putnam and Ellen witness an alien impersonation of a couple of telephone linemen. Putnam becomes increasingly desperate as he tries to convince the authorities of the danger. Finally, the sheriff (and rival for Ellen's affections) begins to listen when other people report strange behavior on the part of their loved ones, and once electronic equipment begins to vanish from around town. He forms a posse to investigate. Meanwhile, the aliens contact Putnam. They explain that the people they are impersonating are unharmed and that they are merely repairing their ship so they can continue on their journey. The impersonation is "necessary," they say, because humans would find their appearance horrifying. Putnam is now in a bind: having whipped the town into a frenzy, he must now defuse the mob he has inadvertently created long enough for the aliens to finish their repairs and leave.
This plot turns a nice trick, especially when you consider how early on in the cycle of 50s sci fi this movie appeared. It sets up all the xenophobic dogwhistles of the genre, including the disturbing notion that the commie aliens are corrupting from within, only to turn it all on its head. It anticipates the creepy takeover of a small town in The Invasion of the Body Snatchers by three years. In a lot of ways, it's forecasting the direction of the genre and gently trying to divert it at the same time. I think we have Ray Bradbury to thank for that. It's the sort of gentle, visionary sci fi that Bradbury was known for. This movie, along with The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, cement the author as THE literary source for 50s sci fi. More than that, though, it assembles many of the iconic signifiers of fifties sci fi and places them in a foundation of Americana.
The desert is the setting for sci fi. It's where fifties sci fi was born when in July of 1945 at Los Alamos, New Mexico, the atomic age was born. It is to the desert that the big bugs and the aliens of the 1950s would return again and again. Echoes of this heritage find their ultimate expressions on Dune and Tatooine. It Came from Outer Space isn't the first sci fi film to go out into the desert (Them beat Jack Arnold to the punch), but it's the first film to really make something of the alien-ness of the desert. At one point, Ellen mistakes a Joshua tree for an alien. At another point, Putnam points out that the desert is teeming with strange life. This is the film that establishes the iconic role of the desert for sci fi, just as Stagecoach established the Monument Valley as the backdrop for the epic western.
One of the things that I took away from this viewing of It Came from Outer Space is the fact that by the end of the film, you know what everyone in it does for a living. Putnam is an astronomer and writer. Ellen is a schoolteacher. Frank and George are telephone linemen. And so on. There's an underlying backbone of the American as worker in this movie, of the working man as the builder of the American dream. As an interesting side note to this idea is the notion that scientists are another kind of worker. They aren't ivory tower elites here, as they are in so many other sci fi films. They come out and get their hands dirty with the rest of us: not just Putnam, but also Dr. Snell from the nearby University Extension. There's a subtle propagandist feeling to this, given that the US was building its supremacy in the Cold War on science and engineering, but it's also something that vanishes from more recent films (and even other films from the 1950s, where distrust of science--again, courtesy of The Bomb--ran high).
Richard Carlson is, for me, the face of fifties sci fi. Not necessarily because he played iconic roles--frankly, Gene Barry and Kevin McCarthy were better in essentially the same part--but because I see Carlson and I see the face of science education. This has nothing to do with It Came from Outer Space, mind you, but the film benefits from the association in my mind. Carlson was the star of a series of science education film by Bell Labs in the 1950s (produced by Frank Capra, no less!), and I grew up at the exact right time to see these in grade school. These films primed the pump for me. As John Putnam, he functions more as a kind of icon than as an actor, but he's not bad in the part. It's fun watching him play against himself when he confronts his alien doppelganger. Barbara Rush is my favorite of the heroes' girlfriends, in part because they've made her a school teacher, which suggests that she has agency all her own. I like that.
But the thing that really fires my imagination in It Came from Outer Space is its commitment to filming aliens that are really and truly alien. These aliens are ethereal gelid nightmares out of the darkest dreams of H. P. Lovecraft. They make no concession to anthropomorphism. They are not cute. They promote a kind of atavistic loathing just to look upon them. As a result, the fact that they're peaceful, that, in their own words, they possess souls and goodness, is the most subversive thing about the movie. This is a film that takes xenophobia to task in the most extreme way imaginable by providing an "other" that's as far from human beings as possible. More than that: the film promises the audience an "it" from outer space, and by golly, it makes good on its promise. The kid I used to be, who grew up disappointed by monster after monster in bad sci fi and horror movies, appreciates the payoff.
The 50s began with a warning: "Keep watching the skies!" But I like the way the end of It Came from Outer Space turns that on its head. Carlson's character declares that "It just wasn't our time to meet, but there will be other nights and other stars to watch." Which is one of the more hopeful endings in science fiction movies if you stop to think about it.