Friday, March 18, 2011

Battle of the Sci-Fi Flicks: the 50s

Karen: The 1950s gave birth to a ton of science fiction films, and some of these are among the finest ever made. Most of the films, good or bad, reflect the concerns of that era: fear of "the Bomb", paranoia over communism, and wonder at new scientific and technological achievements. But the best of them takes these concepts and make something special out of them.

I'd like to name my contenders for the cream of the crop from the 50s. This is in no particular order:

The Thing From Another World (1951): Howard
Hawks produced (and some say directed) this suspenseful film about military men and scientists dealing with an alien invader at an Arctic base. What could have been a run of the mill monster movie is turned into an outstanding one by the excellent cast -I love the way they talk all over each other, just like real people do -and intelligent writing. The shot of the flying saucer frozen below the ice and the men forming a circle above it is still inspired. The blood bags hanging up, feeding the alien plants/fetuses, and their cries (even though unheard) always make the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. Keep watching the skies!

The Day The Earth Stood Still (1951): How can you not love a movie with a gleaming UFO and a giant robot equipped with a disintegration ray ? But that's really just the superficial part of this film; the beauty of it lies in the character of Klaatu, the undercover alien played wonderfully by Michael Rennie, and his relationships with the different humans he meets. Klaatu allows us to ourselves from a new point of view, and with that we see both the best and worst of our natures. Yes, the Christ-like overtones may sometimes be less than subtle; still, I find myself riveted to this film whenever it is on. Am I the only one who thinks that the Destroyer of Thor fame looks something like Gort?

Them! (1954): Yes, it's a giant bug picture, but it's the best giant bug picture e
ver made. Just like the Thing, it has a great cast and a solid story which elevates it above standard monster fare. The movie actually feels very much like a police procedural, with a policeman (James Whitmore) and an FBI agent (James Arness, who also played The Thing) investigating a series of mysterious disappearances and break-ins. We soon find out it's all due to ants who have been mutated to gigantic size thanks to atomic testing in the desert. Edmund O'Brien is delightful as an ant expert, and his daughter, played by Joan Weldon, is presented as beautiful but brainy too. Sure, the ants themselves may look a bit hokey today, but they were effective. I can still hear that strange high pitched racket they made!

Forbidden Planet (1956): One of the few color sci fi films of the era, Forbidden Planet has a lush design and is wonderful eye candy. Like Day the Earth Stood Still, we get an impressive spacecraft and an amazing robot. But that's where the similarities end. Set on the planet Altair IV, whose sole surviving occupants are Dr. Edward Morbius and his lovely daughter, Altaira, this movie is much more of a psychological drama. It's a bit odd seeing Leslie Nielson in a serious role, after so many years of Airplane and Naked Gun movies, but he does a good job as the square-jawed ship's captain. Beware the monsters from the Id!

War of the Worlds (1953): Another color-rich extravaganza, with super-cool Martian death ships, atom bombs, and the Flying Wing! We've also got Gene Barry as one of the roughest, toughest scientist-heroes ever, Dr. Clayton Forester. The design of the Martian ship is one of the most unique in all of science fiction films, with the sleek, curvy main body and cobra-like neck extension. The utter destruction wreaked in this movie must be seen to be believed. No landmark is left standing! The ending is a bit hokey but all in all a classic.

So that's my choice for the best of the 50s. Some obvious films left off the list: This Island Earth, and Invasion of the Body Snatchers. I like them but I just don't think they quite make the top tier. One of my personal favorites is It! Terror from Beyond Space, but I can't honestly argue that it is one of the best films of the decade -I just like it a lot.

OK, batter up: what are your contenders for best sci fi films of the 50s?


Rip Jagger said...

I'd have to add Godzilla to that list. Otherwise, you seem to have tagged the best of the best there.

Rip Off

Kevin said...

I can't argue with any of yor choices, especially Thing From Another World which is one of my very favorites of all time. I would add The Quatermass Experiment to the list.

Steve Does Comics said...

I'd go for "Forbidden Planet" and "War of the Worlds" - and throw in an honourable mention for the magnificently paranoid "Invaders From Mars".

ChrisPV said...

I love all these movies, including your honorable mentions (although I have to say I like the 70's Donald Sutherland Invasion of the Body Snatchers better; that last scene kept me up that night when I first saw it, and I was 23!) But if I only got to watch one forever and ever, it'd be The Thing. The dialog in that movie is just so crisp, the characters are pretty well-developed, and it's got a pretty darn good female protagonist. She doesn't just shriek and fall down, she does stuff, has ideas, and very obviously is the one who dumped our lantern jawed hero. Plus, James Arness! All around great movie.

And the remake was pretty great too, albeit in entirely different ways. It's really the only case I can think of where the original and remake are sufficiently different, and sufficiently worthwhile, that I honestly don't have a favorite.

Anonymous said...

Cannot believe the Incredible Shrinking Man is not here. Surely the proto Ant Man ! Just wait til Doug gets home...we’ll all be sent to bed with no tea!

Can I slip a couple of on-the-cuspers onto the list? Village of the Damned and the Time Machine, both released in 1960. Those kids! Yikes. Also couldn’t believe the Time Machine was so old when I first saw it in the 70's. It looked better than a lot of stuff being made then.

Totally agree with Chris about the Thing. Hawks’ Thing is brilliant because it’s all suggested...shadows down a corridor, fear of the unknown. Carpenter nods to this with things slithering in the darkness to start with, but then he just totally goes for it. Probably the best animatronic ‘real’ special effects movie, before it all starts moving to visual effects and CGI. If I remember rightly, the original was the first time I saw a man on fire for what seemed like enough time to actually fry a stuntman.

Sadly Carpenter spectacularly failed to repeat his trick with Village of the Damned.

Bodysnatchers should totally be on your list. Where, as you point out, Michael Rennie’s Jesus now seems a bit corny and in Forbidden Planet you keep expecting Commander Adams to say ‘don’t call me Shirley’, Bodysnatchers now retroactively captures the McCarthy paranoia superbly. I mean Senator McCarthy, not Kevin McCarthy. OR DO I? Spooky. Rather than having lost its ability to surprise, it’s kind of marinated in its milieu to the point where it’s practically two films. Where The Day The Earth Stood Still sets out to be a parable, Bodysnatchers has become one subsequently.

Them is superb. Remember the bit where they put the formic acid under the catatonic little girl’s nose? She let out a scream that I can still hear now. Cut right through me.

And, of course, Plan 9 from Outer Space.

Can anyone help me with this one: there’s a film about an alien who lands on earth, but looks completely human (conveniently). He is taken to a hospital where all the action takes place. He tells the nurses that he has been sent to recapture two fugitives, but of course she works out that they wouldn’t send one person to capture two, and that he must be the fugitive. That’s all I can remember...saw it when I was very little. It’s black & white , American, looks fifties, might be sixties.

Steve Does Comics said...

Richard said, "Can anyone help me with this one: there’s a film about an alien who lands on earth, but looks completely human (conveniently). He is taken to a hospital where all the action takes place. He tells the nurses that he has been sent to recapture two fugitives, but of course she works out that they wouldn’t send one person to capture two, and that he must be the fugitive. That’s all I can remember...saw it when I was very little. It’s black & white , American, looks fifties, might be sixties."

Richard, I know exactly the film you mean but can't remember its title. Are you sure it's American? I seem to recall it as being British but that could be my memory playing tricks on me.

Steve Does Comics said...

Got it. I think it's, "Invasion," from 1966. The following url should take you to a summary of it.

Karen said...

I knew this post would inspire comments and some debate. Invasion of the Body Snatchers is probably a film I should go back and watch again. It's been many years since I last saw it, so it may have moved up on my list since then.

Honestly, for pure enjoyment, I would take even a grade B like It! over Forbidden Planet -for some reason, FP has never been that entertaining to me. But it's such a well-made movie I feel it has to be included.

I agree with Chris' remarks about the Thing and the Carpenter remake. Both are excellent films, with completely different approaches to the story. Carpenter's Thing will make the 80s list, no doubt.


Anonymous said...

I'd add Earth Vs Flying Saucers..there was a time when I was growing up when it seemed to be screened every school holidays....saucers by Harryhausen, voiceover by Paul Frees...what's not to love?

B Smith

Karen said...

Holy cow -B Smith, I LOVE Earth vs. the Flying Saucers! When I first thought of doing this post I was going to include it and somehow forgot. I must be getting senile. Thank you for bringing up that classic! Great Harryhausen film -and if you love Harryhausen, you should be sure to check out Sunday's post (hint hint).


Anonymous said...

Steve – you da man. That’s exactly the film, and I’m betting you saw it in the same place I did first time. In about 1975 or so, the BBC did a season sci-fi films on Tuesday nights (don’t ask me why). It included Bodysnatchers, Day the Earth Stood Still, maybe the Day of the Triffids? Definitely the Incredible Shrinking Man. Indelible images were left!

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