Science Fiction Movies: Boom
Margaret Atwood famously (or infamously) said that science fiction is "talking squids from outer space." That's a strange construction considering that it comes from a writer of science fiction. Ms. Atwood would claim, of course, that she doesn't write science fiction, that she is instead a writer of "speculative fiction." In that, she may just be following the lead of Judith Merril and other postwar writers. Or maybe she has a kind of school-marmish distaste for the things boys like. After all, the popular view is that science fiction (in its early days at least) was a man's genre, or worse yet, something for twelve-year-old boys. Only after the war did it become more serious, hence more "significant." That's when Judith Merril got ahold of it anyway. (1)
In the late 1940s and into the 1950s, the popular audience would probably have agreed with Ms. Atwood about science fiction, that it's about rocket ships, blasters, interplanetary travel, little green men, bug-eyed monsters, and other such things. There were science fiction movies before the war. Frankenstein (1931) is an obvious example, but Frankenstein is more horror than science fiction. Usually when we think of science fiction in the movies, we start after that, with Things to Come (1936) perhaps, more likely with movies of the postwar. Some of the common themes of those postwar movies are alien invasion, interplanetary (or interstellar) exploration, out-of-control science and technology (usually atomic power), and a loss of human identity. And among all that, there were lots of monsters.
If we can believe Wikipedia, the first Universal science fiction monster movie of the 1950s was It Came from Outer Space, from 1953. Though filmed in black and white, the film is--like Creature from the Black Lagoon--in 3-D. Both movies were directed by Jack Arnold. Despite the lurid title, It Came from Outer Space is an intelligent and well-done movie. It has touches of Ray Bradbury's poetic writing (the movie was based on his story) and some very creepy and frightening scenes. The scene in the alleyway is particularly memorable, as is the scene in the cave with the pencil laser that slices through rock as if it were whipped cream. But then, just when you're starting to build a case for seriousness or at least quality in science fiction, you get to the monster, which is more or less a talking squid from outer space. Margaret Atwood would say, "See, I told you so!" The monster doesn't matter, though. It Came from Outer Space is not some simplistic science fiction monster movie thriller. On the contrary, it's a serious and thought-provoking--though admittedly small--film. It also touches upon a theme that has become central to the question of a monster for the twenty-first century, namely, that of the monster who is disguised as a human being and who passes among us, but lacks emotion, a capacity for love, or a human identity.
It Came from Outer Space was not the first American science fiction movie of the postwar. I won't try to identify the holder of that honor. Instead I'll just list some films from that golden age of movie science fiction, and give some indication of where they might fall. And I'll disregard serials, stories of Lost Worlds, and movies about pulp-type heroes or superheroes.
First, it's interesting that two of the earliest postwar science fiction movies are about the exploration of space rather than alien invasion or the perils of atomic energy. These were Rocketship X-M and Destination Moon, both from 1950. Maybe ideas take awhile to percolate. Rockets of the V-2 type (1944) are older than atomic bombs (1945), which are in turn older than flying saucers (1947). In any case, in 1951, The Thing from Another World and The Day the Earth Stood Still came out. Both featured flying saucers from outer space, one flown by a monster (The Thing), the other by a Christ-like being (Klaatu). In The Thing, the threat is that we will become simply prey to a bloodsucking super-carrot. In The Day the Earth Stood Still, we are in fact the threat, not only to ourselves, but also to other planets should our technology (in other words, we ourselves) go out of control. And should that happen, a technological monster, Gort, the robot, will himself go out of control and destroy us all. Neither result is very encouraging for the frail human ego.
Five (1951) is supposedly the first movie about a world laid waste by atomic warfare. When Worlds Collide (1951) is also about disaster, but is far more hopeful. In it, salvation comes because of the indomitable human spirit and our use of technology. The War of the Worlds (1953), one of the best of the alien invasion movies, is also hopeful and closes with scenes in a church. Unlike When Worlds Collide, our technology is useless before the Martian menace. The Martians are instead defeated by microbes, placed here, the narrator tells us, by God "in His infinite wisdom," a message you would hardly hope to hear in a movie of today. This Island Earth (1955), another Jack Arnold film from Universal Pictures, also carries a message of hope. Although it includes flying saucers, super technology, bizarre aliens, spectacular interplanetary scenery, and a crab-clawed monster with a rugose cranium, This Island Earth is not a some simple science fiction adventure. It is instead--and not at first glance--a sort of rumination on what makes us human, and because we are human, what gives us strength, courage, and a kind of heroic quality.
There were still more science fiction movies in the 1950s, more each year as the decade wore on, more featuring monsters of a type I have already described as the science-fictional monster: the space alien, the manmade monster (i.e., robot, mutant, etc.), the degenerate human, the cryptozoological creature, and so on. Monsters awakened by atomic bomb blasts or generated by atomic radiation proliferated. Some of the movies in which they appeared, The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953) or Them! (1954) for example, have become classics. Some science fiction movies of the 1950s were serious and significant in one way or another. Others were mere entertainments. Most ended with a message of hope. That is to be expected in movies from the 1950s and before. But hope is also about the future, as is science fiction. The end of the Great Depression and the defeat of the Axis powers in World War II would have given the people of the postwar world hope. So, too, would advances in science and technology. They would also have enjoyed a renewed vigor, for America was alone as an advanced and prosperous technological nation. Those vitues--hope, strength, courage, vigor (or vigah, as John Kennedy would say)--put Americans on the moon and the U.S.S. Enterprise at the edge of the galaxy. But there was a worm in the apple, and science fiction--a reflection of our society--went into decline. Or, to use a adjective from earlier in this series, our society became--has become--more decadent. (2)
(1) I'm reminded of a quote from and about the newspaper cartoonist Lillian Weckner Meisner:
She [Meisner] is critical of editorial cartoonists who are amusing but fail to make a "real statement," and she has called such cartoonists "little boys" who like to draw funny pictures because they do not have to be realistic.
--from "Seven Cartoonists" by Lucy Caswell Shelton in
The 1989 Festival of Cartoon Art (1989)
The implication is that whatever form or genre it might be, it should be taken away from people who are having fun with it and given to the people who are "serious" about it, hence "speculative fiction" or "SF" instead of science fiction, "real statement[s]" instead of "funny pictures," and "graphic novels" instead of mere comic books.
(2) An example of decay in science fiction movies of the 1950s: the decade ended with the release of Plan 9 from Outer Space. Described as one of the worst movies ever made, Plan 9 has some enjoyable aspects--enjoyable in a terrible way, I guess. I'm not sure that it's worse than Battlefield Earth (2000), which I haven't seen, or A Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (2005), a fascinatingly bad movie, so bad that you can't turn your eyes from it, like a horrible, gory trainwreck. By the way, Plan 9 from Outer Space was released ten years almost to the day before the first moon landing.
Copyright 2014 Terence E. Hanley