Left to its own devices, Hollywood favored spectacle over speculative fiction, which can be seen, for example, in Disney's thrilling live action version of Jules Verne's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954), the not-quite-as-thrilling but gorgeously designed Journey to the Center of the Earth (1959), the retro-futurism of The Time Machine (1960) and the inner-space trip into the human body Fantastic Voyage (1966). But science fiction has always been more accurate at reflecting the conditions of its own time than predicting the details of things to come, and 1950s SF cinema is rife with anxiety and paranoia.
Watch the Skies!
It doesn't take a stretch of the imagination to see the alien invasion films as a veiled reference to the Red Menace, at least not in films like I Married a Monster From Outer Space (1958) and Red Planet Mars (1952; now there;s a giveaway of a title). "Watch the skies," is the warning given the audience at the end of The Thing From Another World (1951), Howard Hawks's paranoid portrait of an isolated group of soldiers and civilians in an Arctic research station fighting the savage alien survivor of a UFO crash landing. ("An intellectual carrot. The mind boggles!") Taut, tense, energetic and bubbling with vivid characters who band together despite clashes, it's classic Hawks (whose fingerprints are all over the perfectly structured, crisply directed ensemble piece, though he only takes credit as the producer) and the first great alien invasion film.
Less allegorical is War of the Worlds (1953), the George Pal-produced adaptation of HG Wells's legendary novel, which he updates to modern day California and fills with sleek, sinister looking jet-like flying saucers in place of the spider-like walkers of the novel. Created on a large canvas, it was one of Hollywood's first attempts to take science fiction seriously (it helped that it came from a respected work of literature) and remains a landmark of the genre. In its wake came Earth Vs. the Flying Saucers (1956), famous largely for Ray Harryhausen's images of flying saucers crashing into landmarks in our nation's capital, and such low budget invasion thrillers as Target Earth (1954), in which Earth is invaded by giant robots and the best special effect is the unsettlingly empty city, and Kronos (1957), with its single, skyscraper-sized robot, a giant battery propelled by pile driver feet across the desert.
Invasion of the Body Snatchers
Don Siegel's paranoid classic Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), the most insidious of alien assaults on mankind, coined the phrase "pod people" and explored the boundaries of conformity. This was an invasion from within as friends and family suddenly become "other," emotionless beings that trade personality and joie de vivre for ruthless efficiency. While it's been identified as both anti-communist and anti-McCarthy, at its core, the film is about the loss of soul and self and remains the most powerful of this subgenre to this day, despite two remakes (Philip Kaufman's 1978 Invasion of the Bodysnatchers and Abel Ferrara's underrated 1993 Body Snatchers).
Britain's entries into the genre include two hard-edged, smartly written classics - Hammer Films' The Quatermass Xperiment (1955) and Quatermass II (1957) (see the Hammer Horror primer for more details, especially on the superior 1967 SF/horror masterpiece Quatermass and the Pit) - and the low budget thriller The Crawling Eye (aka The Trollenberg Terror; 1958), a minor but memorable assault on the psyches of a small town population by an alien "brain."
Not all films saw the invaders in such black and white terms. In Jack Arnold's It Came From Outer Space (1953; often cited as an inspiration for Steven Spielberg's E.T.), the visitors are neither marauding killers nor diplomatic emissaries, merely travelers from outer space attempting to repair their ship after it crash lands outside of a desert town. But mutual fear and a breakdown in communication creates a modern mob version of the obligatory angry villagers. Intelligent and strikingly directed, it was the first of a series of excellent forays into the genre for Arnold. Edgar Ulmer explored similar territory in The Man From Planet X (1951) on a much smaller budget (where he created a truly alien atmosphere), and Arnold returned to the theme in The Space Children (1958), an unfairly neglected tale of the bond that develops between a pacifist alien trying to sabotage an atomic experiment and the children who protect the creature.
The most thoughtful of the first contact films, The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), is as much Christ parable as science fiction film (a messenger from the heavens on a mission of peace is killed by the people of Earth, rises from the dead for a last sermon, and returns to the heavens), yet its message is delivered less like a sermon than a threat. Michael Rennie's alien, though curious about humans, is neither conquering villain nor apologist for mankind, merely a messenger warning mankind to stop spreading atomic war... or else! Handsomely directed by Robert Wise, who places the fantastic elements in a scrupulously realistic Washington DC setting, he gives the film dramatic weight and narrative elegance as well as the most intriguing movie robot ever. "Klaatu barada nikto!"
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