Thursday, March 14, 2013

The Best Films I Have Never Seen Before: It Came From Outer Space (1953)

It Came From Outer Space (1953)
Directed by: Jack Arnold.
Written by: Harry Essex based on the novel by Ray Bradbury.
Starring: Richard Carlson (John Putnam), Barbara Rush (Ellen Fields), Charles Drake (Sheriff Matt Warren), Joe Sawyer (Frank Daylon), Russell Johnson (George), Kathleen Hughes (June).

The 1950s were a golden age for Science Fiction in American film – especially the alien invasion movie. It really started in 1951, with the opposite films The Day the Earth Stood Still and The Thing From Another World. The Day the Earth Stood still told the story of a peaceful alien, coming to earth to warn them that their nuclear weapons were threatening not just their world, but other worlds as well. The Thing From Another World was about a creature thawed from the ice in Antarctica, who wanted nothing more than to kill humanity. Both films were reactions to the cold war, one indulging in fears of nuclear annihilation, the other in cold war paranoia. 1953’s It Came From Outer Space tries to indulge in both – and is surprisingly successful.

The film opens with something that looks like a meteor crash landing in the desert. Amateur star gazer, and aspiring writer John Putnam (Richard Carlson) and his girlfriend Ellen Fields (Barbara Rush) head out to see the crash site. There is a giant crater, and Putnam is the only one who risks going in. He sees not a meteor, but a spaceship and sees a door closing. But then a rock slide happens, burying the ship. When he tries to tell everyone the truth, they think he’s crazy. But he’s determined to not let the truth be buried. And when a few people around town start acting strangely – completely unlike themselves – others think that perhaps Putnam may in fact be right, and aliens have landed, and are inhabiting the bodies of those in town.

The story is similar, in ways, to Invasion of the Body Snatchers (who wouldn’t see the first screen adaptation for another three years at this point), with paranoia taking over. What if your neighbor is no longer your neighbor? Your husband no longer you husband? And worse, what if no one would believe you? These are classic sci fi tropes, and It Came From Outer Space handles them very well.

Yet, it is also different from many alien invasion movies, because it’s not really an invasion at all. The aliens don’t want to be here – they crashed. They think Putnam is the only one they can trust, and tell him that everyone will be fine – they just need time. Putnam has to try and stop the paranoia that starts infecting the town, especially the Sheriff (Charles Drake), who simply wants to kill the aliens. They are different, so they must be the enemy,

The film was directed by Jack Arnold, who made a few of the classic sci fi films of the 1950s. Alongside this one was The Creature from the Black Lagoon (more horror than sci fi) and The Incredible Shrinking Man. I haven’t seen those films, but his handling of It Came From Outer Space, makes me want to see those films as well. Apparently he – as well as Ray Bradbury who wrote the novel the movie was based on – never wanted to show the aliens in their true form, and I think that that instinct was probably correct. But the studio, who was making this film in 3-D, didn’t want that, and so the giant, iconic one eyed aliens of the film were born. They are effective in the movie, but I think that it would have been more effective to not show anything at all. But subtlety has never been Hollywood’s strong suit.

I don’t think It Came From Outer Space is quite as good as the best of the 1950s science fiction. It doesn’t have the same impact as The Day the Earth Stood Still, The Thing From Another World or War of the Worlds for example. Yet, it is still pretty damned good – and a must for lovers of the genre.

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