Sunday, July 31, 2011

Monster Mash Blogathon: It Came from Outer Space (1953)

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.


Yvette said...

A terrific review. I really enjoyed reading this and being reminded of a film I haven't seen in many years. I'm not a fan of Richard Carlson (he almosts spoils CREATURE OF THE BLACK LAGOON for me - but not quite) but I tolerate him if the rest of the movie works for me.

I saw this on TV once upon a time. I think it's time to see it again.

The theme of the story is the kind of thing that would have been right at home on any one of the Star Trek series with only minor adjustments.

Much less hostile than THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL for sure. Even if I still favor Klaatu and Gort.

Vulnavia Morbius said...

Hi, Yvette! Thanks for stopping by. Don't get me wrong: If I could have a giant robot to serve me drinks it would be Gort. I dig Gort. But for ethics and humanity, I like It Came from Outer Space better.

I'm not saying that Richard Carlson is a particularly good actor, by the way, merely that, for me, he's the face of retro-futurist science education. It's a pleasant association.

Rich said...

This also sounds a little like my favorite 'Twilight Zone' episode - the one where a small town gets so paranoid over the possibility of an alien invasion that they end up destroying each other. I'll definitely give this a look.

Erin said...

I just can't say enough about how well-written this review is. I like how you compare the worldview and propaganda elements of this film to The Day the Earth Stood Still, and that you explain about how knowing the characters' occupations affects your experience of watching the film. Reading something like this is so much better than reading someone summarize the plot.

Mykal said...

Vulnavia: I love this movie as well for many of the reasons you write about. It just does so many things right (wonderful cinematography from the great Clifford Stine for a start).

Completely agree with your observations about the desert. The events around White Sands turned the desert landscape forever "alien" for 1950s audiences. This film and Tarantula are the reasons Arnold is so associated with desert terror (still – no film does it like Them!). Very enjoyable post, per usual!

RVChris said...

Awesome review! I haven't seen this movie before but it sounds interesting. I like the design of the aliens.
Also I love the title of your blog!

Nathanael Hood said...

Great review! I especially liked how you mentioned how the aliens are REALLY aliens and not just anthropomorphized creatures that we see on Star Trek. I'm thrilled that you were able to participate! Thanks for a terrific article!

KC said...

I love your writing. It's entertaining and intelligent, funny too. I agree with you about Bradbury's gentle tone. I think that quality made him special and contributed to his genre-busting fame.

DorianTB said...

Vulnavia, your review of IT CAME FROM OUTER SPACE was a wonderful read! I enjoyed your warmly detailed writing style, and your reminiscences of seeing the film in 3-D. I'll admit I've never had the opportunity to watch it from start to finish (just caught in bits and pieces on TV for one reason or another), but now you've got me wanting to do just that. Besides, Ray Bradbury is The Man! :-) If anyone can turn a science fiction film on its ear with fresh twists, it's Bradbury. I was pleased to see you giving a shout-out to Bell Labs' films with Richard Carlson, too. Great post!

Vulnavia Morbius said...

Wow. Thanks everyone for the comments!

Hi, Rich. There's definitely a touch of the California school of science fiction and fantasy in this movie, which is where TZ came from for the most part.

Hi, Erin. I try to keep plot synopsis to a minimum. Sometimes I can't help it, but ICfOS is so minimalist in that regard that it wasn't hard this time.

Hi, Mykal. I love Tarantula. You're right about Arnold and the desert.

Hi, RVChris. It was either "Krell Laboratories" or "Saturn in Retrograde" (a phrase that may be familiar to fans of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre). Since I don't only write about the horror genre, I went with Krell Laboratories.

Hi, Nathanael! Thanks for having me. I know what you mean about Star Trek and their forehead prosthesis. Writer Dan Simmons relates a story about pitching to Star Trek in which his idea was rejected because the alien was too "alien." Star Trek can be a little too over-familiar sometimes.

Hi, KC. Someone else said this, but when they made Ray Bradbury, they broke the mold.

Hi, Dorian. I loved those Bell Labs films. Those films, and Donald Duck in Mathmagic land, were some of the highlights of my elementary school education.

Aubyn said...

Excellent review. And you pinpointed some of the exact same things that bugged me about The Day the Earth Stood Still. You really make me want to see this film; it sounds like the kind of "thinking sci-fi" I like.

"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."

I can't help but be amused by the fact that even now, sci-fi films still shy away from making the nice aliens too alien. It reminds me of Avatar and James Cameron deliberately redesigning Neytiri until, in his words, the audience would want to fuck her.

Great writing as always and it gave me much to think about. Glad you decided to write for the blogathon!

Vulnavia Morbius said...

Hi, Rachel,

Cameron did much the same thing with the aliens in The Abyss. I've seen some of the early designs and they were a LOT more "alien" than what wound up on film. Cameron allegedly wanted them to seem more "angelic" than the cephalopod-styled aliens originally provided him by Moebius (among others). Alas.

Grand Old Movies said...

Enjoyed your great post and its evocative writing. ICFOS has one of the most poetic scripts (but look at who's the author, natch!) - I recall particularly the bit when the lineman describes hearing the hum of telegraph wires and the meaning it has for him. Really beautiful. BTW, I thought Krell in your blog title might have referred to the Krell civilization of Forbidden Planet!

W.B. Kelso said...

Nice write-up. The movie is definitely a much needed change of pace for the genre. No Red Scares. No mass disintegrations. And no kidnapping of womenfolk for seedy breeding purposes. Just some rubber-necking blob aliens who threw a rod and want nothing more than to fix their jalopy and jet off back into space.

There was a clip on 3-D YouTube awhile back that showed the scene where they listen to the telephone wires and from what little there was to see the added effect really played up wide-open and yet claustrophobic feel of the desert.

Great flick.

ClassicBecky said...

Vulnavia, I've seen this film several times, love it, and you have described beautifuly the many facets that made it unique. It is a shame that something that looks different and ugly to humans is aways considered automatically a threat. I wonder if you have seen a movie that is quite cerebral, but another unique contribution to the sci-fi genre. It's British, "The Day The Earth Caught Fire." I havn't seen it shown on TV for years, inexplicably, and it is wonderful!

As for Ray Bradbury, he gives the magic touch to anything in which he is involved. He even is responsible for scenes John Huston's Moby Dick that I think Melville himself would wish he had thought of! LOL!

Now that I've found you, I'll be back for more. Great article!

Ivan G Shreve Jr said...

I like The Day the Earth Stood Still, but I haven't been able to embrace it as fully as others, mostly because of its sledgehammer religious symbolism. So when I read your comment "He brings 'peace' with an ultimatum and a big goddamn stick" I just about spit out what I was drinking.

I'm not sure if anyone remembers the show (it certainly isn't rerun much today because of its dated Cold War politics) but Richard Carlson was the star of the syndicated I Led 3 Lives, a syndicated anti-Commie propaganda piece based on the famous book by "undercover Red" Herbert Philbrick. So I guess this adds a little verisimilitude that Carlson was, in essence, the national protector...not only against aliens but godless Commies as well.

Really enjoyed reading your review, Vulnavia. Thought-provoking and incisive.

DorianTB said...

Vulnavia, Ivan, I'm pretty sure I remember seeing an episode of I LED THREE LIVES, but it was so long ago that I don't remember if I saw it in a rerun on TV, NYC's Museum of Broadcasting, or a convention! Strangely enough, I DO remember an episode of HAWAIIAN EYE (back when they aired the reruns on the American Life Network) with Ray Danton as a bigamist, titled "I Wed Three Wives"! :-)

ClassicBecky said...

Dorian! You've got to be making that up! It's just too -- too -- apropos! I Led Three Lives, and then I Wed Three Wives? I almost dropped my lit cigarette on the cat's tail!

Doug Bonner said...

That was a smooth ride into the alternatives of 'fifties sci-fi. Really well done!