Sunday, June 27, 2010

Movie Turn-Ons, Part 4.4 (Cheesy Sci-Fi: It Came From Outer Space)

As always, let me warn you of spoilers ahead. Also, a lot of the background stuff comes from the very informative audio commentary, by Tom Weaver, on the DVD. 

It Came From Outer Space (1953)

First up, the title. What's with the "it"? If they mean the spaceship that crashes fierily in the Arizona desert, that's the first of very few appearances, all as brief as this prologue; the movie's all about its travellers. "They Came From Outer Space" has a much better ring to it, too, eh?

While the spaceship is making its fireball impersonation, our hero* for this film - the astronomer, Putnam, with a lovely house on the fringes of the desert - is canoodling under the stars with his lady love, Ellen; talking, as astronomers tend to do, I suppose, of horoscopes and stuff. He's just taken his telescope out, when the biggest meteor he's ever seen crashes nearby. Thankfully, the telescope is not a metaphorical one: he's able to confirm the location of the crash.

He hammers down the door of a helicopter pilot, and they go off investigating. The pilot and Ellen wisely stay at the lip of the crater, while he climbs down into it and sees the spaceship. And just in time, too: a landslide buries the whole thing under two tons of rock. Of course, no one else will believe him; he's the designated nut for the rest of the film.

We know better, though. There are aliens out there! The original treatment for the film was written by sci-fi writer Ray Bradbury. He did not want the alien seen at all, except in very brief shots; wanting our imagination to make up a creature so horrifying that, had his dialogue been kept, it would've been described as

"Think of all the bad things, all the bodies you've dredged up out of rivers after 6 days, all the bodies you've found that had lain in the hot sun for a week, think of being thrown into a pit full of 10 billion black widow spiders and tarantulas and mice and snakes; think of that."

The film-makers remain true to this until near the end, when they give in to temptation. For the most part, though, all we see of it is a giant cyclops' eye, and a body trailing icky fluorescent goo on the ground. The camera takes the aliens' point of view quite a bit. Sadly, the alien whose eye we borrow seems to have some sort of severe optical problem - and it apparently left the corrective lens back in the spaceship. Still, from the world seen through its eye, particularly judging from the reactions of the inhabitants that have the misfortune to look upon it, its form is just as horrifying as Bradbury would like to have had it described.

The aliens, doubtless for excellent reasons of their own, start kidnapping people. They're also shape-shifters, and can take human form. Putnam is on to this fairly quickly, and spends half the film trying to convince Sheriff Warren that aliens are amongst them; there's a hint here of the paranoia of the wonderful "Invasion of the Body Snatchers." All of this is done very well, very atmospheric; nowhere more evident than when two telegraph men are listening in on what is very likely the aliens wire-tapping the telephone lines, with accompanying dialogue of

"...It might be somebody up that way tapping the wires, or back that way, listening to us, like we're listening to him... After you've been working out on the desert fifteen years, like I have, you hear a lot of things. See a lot of things, too. Sun in the sky, and the heat. All the sand out there with the rivers, lakes, that aren't real at all. And sometimes you think that the wind gets in the wires and hums and listens and talks."

And a little earlier

"It's alive... it's alive and waiting for you. Ready to kill you if you go too far. The sun will get you, the cold at night. A thousand ways the desert can kill."

The aliens kidnap Ellen, and just when we're about ready to believe the worst of them, the movie springs a wonderful surprise: the aliens reveal all to Putnam. They're on Earth by accident, a malfunction on their ship marooning them on our strange world. All they need is a bit of time to repair it; they're not the least bit interested in us. Still, they know enough of us to not reveal themselves: "Had you fallen on our world, it might have been different. We understand more." I can't help get the feeling though, that if they'd used their powers to appear human to us all the time, and, further, avoided the temptation of kidnapping scores of people for no discernible reason, they probably wouldn't have drawn too much attention to themselves. I'll put this break in reasoning down to culture shock.

Sheriff Warren has, by now, been convinced of the alien presence and decides they're evil. The man, apart from being prone to bombastic pronouncements on the weather, also has an interesting approach to law enforcement; his technique consists chiefly of sneering at the citizens he's sworn to protect, and, when pushed to action, forming a lynch mob.

The aliens, convinced now that they will be destroyed, throw an extraordinarily hissy fit. They prepare to blow themselves up, and take the Earth along with them. Where's the noblesse oblige? Where's the resigned shrug, the wry smile and the dignified martyrdom befitting an older, wiser civilisation than ours? Tsk tsk.

Anyway, Putnam convinces them not to; and, rounding up a busy afternoon, keeps the mob at bay, too. The aliens complete repairs and blast off. Putnam, eyes shining, delivers the obligatory Hopeful Dialogue, gibbering for a while about the time not being right, and speculating confidently that someday in the future, it will be. Everyone lives happily ever after. The end.

The film's director, Jack Arnold, has this to say,

"We are prone, all of us, to fear something that's different than we are; whether it be in philosophy, the colour of our skins, or even one block against another in a big city. Because your form is different than theirs, you wanna hate, you wanna kill; that is your first reaction. Until we're mature enough to meet something different from ourselves on a higher level - without being afraid of it, without recoiling in horror - only then will we be worthy of meeting whatever else is there in the cosmos."

Here's a bit of unused Bradbury dialogue that would've gone to Putnam:-

"We find a spider horrifying. But then, we are equally horrible to it - with our hidden bones, and our flesh covering our bones, standing upright with only four limbs - we are the spiders' nightmare. The human race can build rockets and go to other planets, but when we get there and see the spider civilisations and the ant civilisations, the bird civilisations, we won't understand them; they won't understand us. There might be complete civilisations made up of giant, intelligent bees, black-widow spiders or humming birds. Men would instantly destroy civilisations as these. How did we treat the American Indian? We killed them, or put them on reservations. How have we treated the Africans? Exploited them, used them. If men treat other men this way, what won't he do to things like giant insects and insects from other worlds?"

A mite heavy handed. Then again, it's not like the parts that did make it into the film are any less subtle. Besides, whatever Bradbury's good intentions, it's obvious that the filmmakers themselves were not above feeding the paranoia of their audience. Maybe the alien POV shots, and the horrified expressions of the people seen through it, can be explained in retrospective as a comment on us. But what of the portrayal of the aliens as bumbling and childishly vengeful?

All that aside, it's still a nice, moody sci-fi flick. For a change, the aliens are here neither to preach, nor to conquer. The film has a pretty snide wit to it, too. Oh, and if you watch all the way till the end, you'll see a certain Kathleen Hughes get a giant credit; she also appears on the cover of the DVD case. This is rather mystifying, especially given that she appears for all of two minutes in the film. Turns out, this is one of the first-ever 3-D sci-fi films. Watching it at home, the only thing in 3-D was the TV set itself; on jumping to that scene again, though, it's easy to imagine how she must've wowed the theatre audiences. Big kudos to the filmmakers for exploring the possibilities of 3-D.

*Thankfully, a rather more likeable one than Meacham from "This Island Earth."

Coming up next: "The Thing from Another World"


missjane said...

I do still like this, even sober. Perhaps a little less, err, enthusiastically, but now I've read the linkage as well, in a more considered way. Great linkage. Metaphorically speaking.

I enjoyed the Bradbury interview link, and have added another book to my wish list. I remember reading several collections of Ray Bradbury short stories when I was younger, and then taking weeks to recover from the quiet horror. They still rank in my personal scariest stories ever list, although I must admit to being a complete wuss, so I haven't read much horror per se.

I am also still fond of "neither to preach, nor to conquer;" it encapsulates the genre quite neatly and differentiates this film from said genre, much more succintly than this sentence. And it sounds nice.

Also the literal telescope.

missjane said...

P.S. the Kathleen Hughes link doesn't work. Also I had no idea what that paragraph meant when I was reading it while... not sober. I went to sleep trying to figure out what she'd done in the movie.

missjane said...

P.P.S. Just off to add 'also' to the list of words I use too often.

Rohan said...

You're just about the only person who reads these sci-fi posts, I think.

Though I'm supposedly this huge sci-fi fan, I've never read anyone apart from Clarke and Asimov. Must correct.

I've fixed the link for Hughes; a lazy Google image search admittedly, but it should give the general, ah, picture...

The trouble with 50s American films, what the Hays Code and everything, is that Putnam was never likely to take out the metaphorical telescope. That's something I like about the modern entries in the genre.

PkS said...

"You're just about the only person who reads these sci-fi posts, I think."


Dude, me?

Rohan said...


My reply to Jane should've read, "You're just about the only other person who reads these sci-fi posts, I think."