The first years of new art forms and many other movements almost always contain the most significant elements of those forms. So it was with the early years of what might be designated the modern science fiction cinema. Most of what would be repeated with bigger budgets and better special effects were born in the first half of the 1950s: rockets, flying saucers, radioactivity and mutation, mind/body control, alien invasion, robots, dinosaur resurrection, post-apocalyptic earth. The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957) was one of the few well-made, thought-provoking and novel science fiction films to appear after 1956. Sci-fi zombies appeared in the less than sterling Invisible Invaders (1959). Time travel came to the fore in 1960’s The Time Machine. On the whole, however, the heyday was over in 1956.
Other than the Frankenstein films of the 1930s with their visionary—but usually mad—scientists, true science fiction movies before World War II were extremely rare. These included Melies’ A Trip to the Moon (1902), Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (1916), Metropolis (1927), Just Imagine (1930), Doctor X (1932), Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932), The Invisible Man (1933), The Invisible Ray (1936), Things to Come (1936), and Dr. Cyclops (1940). Sometimes a serum like juocane was the scientific element. It wasn’t until “the Bomb” of 1945 and ensuing atomic age that the cinematic genre of science fiction came into its own. Atomic and hydrogen bombs and radioactivity, mutations, jet planes, rockets, UFOs, medical breakthroughs—in short, science—became a hot topic. Still, it wasn’t until 1950 that Hollywood ran with the ball. The serious Destination Moon (1950) was the progenitor. Not exciting by today’s standards, it was nevertheless well crafted and reasonable. The promise of technology was on display. There were no aliens, nasty or otherwise.
In 1951 the floodgates opened and aliens appeared. The Man from Planet X (1951) featured a somewhat benevolent and diminutive humanoid visitor in a space suit. In Keep Watching the Skies! Bill Warren described this film as “the first science fiction gothic horror film.”
There were two better alien films that year, both with a flying saucer, which had captured the public’s imagination when on June 24, 1947, Air Force pilot Kenneth Arnold reported a UFO near Mt. Rainier. Curiously, one film story turned on a good alien, the other on a very bad one.
From 20th Century-Fox came The Day the Earth Stood Still starring Michael Rennie, a Brit who had yet to become familiar to U.S. audiences and therefore made a good choice as the emissary Klaatu. Accompanied by his intergalactic robot policeman Gort, this visitor from space arrived with a message that if we earthlings extended our savage ways to other planets, we would be handled harshly: “It is no concern of ours how you run your own planet, but if you threaten to extend your violence, this Earth of yours will be reduced to a burned-out cinder. Your choice is simple: join us and live in peace, or pursue your present course and face obliteration. We shall be waiting for your answer. The decision rests with you.” Recalled by many was the all-purpose alien speak, “Klaatu birada nikto.” The theremin, a hands-free electronic musical device that created an otherworldly sound, was effectively incorporated into Bernard Herrmann’s score.
Less benevolent was the “thinking carrot” of RKO’s The Thing from Another World! It didn’t look like a carrot, nor did it act like one, but the team terrorized by it on an arctic base pictured it that way. It was an intelligent humanoid vegetable, technologically sophisticated as evidenced by the spacecraft that crashed into the ice but went up in flames when the military’s thermite bomb started a fire. Only the pilot survived, frozen but not dead. To the consternation of the scientists and military personnel, the thawed-out creature sought human blood to regenerate its extremities, and its severed arm and shredded flesh began to grow future menaces . Like The Day the Earth Stood Still, The Thing concluded with another warning, the mantra of 50s sci-fi: “The flying saucer which landed here and its pilot have been destroyed, but not without casualties among our own meager forces. I would like to bring to the microphone some of the men responsible for our success, but as senior Air Force officer, Captain Hendry is attending to demands over and above the call of duty. Doctor Carrington, the leader of the scientific expedition, is recovering from wounds received in the battle. And now before giving you the details of the battle, I bring you a warning. Every one of you listening to my voice. Tell the world. Tell this to everybody wherever they are. Watch the skies. Everywhere. Keep looking. Keep watching the skies!”
Nineteen-fifty-two did not continue the trend in excellence, but 1953 did. It Came from Outer Space witnessed another alien craft (crash) landing, this time in the Southwestern desert, that eerie, otherworldly landscape to become the setting for so many sci-fi cinema sagas. Perhaps the image of the scientist standing before the spherical craft is the iconic image of 50s movie sci-fi. The aliens here presented themselves as nebulous and one-eyed, but they were “multi-behavioral,” i.e., not especially anti-human, rather human themselves in their varied emotions. But they could and did take over and control humans.
Dinosaurs, so compelling in The Lost World (1925) and King Kong (1933) made their comeback in The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, based on Ray Bradbury’s “The Foghorn.” A rhedosaurus [fictional carnivorous dinosaur] unintentionally thawed from the polar ice cap via atomic testing, swims south to New York harbor, comes ashore and wreaks havoc. In the destruction within a city and at the Coney Island roller coaster, it seems inspirational for Japan’s Godzilla (1954). Ray Harryhausen created the marvelous stop-motion dinosaur.
Alien possession (more mind/body control) was featured in Invaders from Mars, whose story taken literally has been known to give some people stomach aches. It began with young David observing a flying saucer landing in a nearby sand pit. Or did he? Was it a dream, a nightmare? Various townsfolk, including his father, become tyrants. Large, bug-eyed men with ray guns cart off the lovely town doctor, Pat Blake, after she questions the town astronomer, “Mu-tants! What would they want here?” A tentacled head in a globe controls all and directs the impending inoculation of the physician. Again, eerie music (but not provided by the theremin) played its part in creating a creepy, otherworldly atmosphere.
More purposeful alien invasion was of course the subject of The War of the Worlds. Based on H. G. Wells’ classic novel, it transferred the story from Victorian Britain to modern Los Angeles and employed hovering craft rather than the tripods of the book—and the Classic Comics version.
Oddly, 1953 was also witness to a quartet of sci-fi dreck that did not bode well for the future: Robot Monster, The Neanderthal Man, Mesa of Lost Women, and Catwomen of the Moon. The titles provide a sense of their nonsensical nature. The good news: they are “so bad they’re good.” Melodramatic but sublime dialogue was common: “If we are successful I shall have a super female spider with a thinking and reasoning brain, a creature that someday may control the world—subject to my will.” (Jackie Coogan as Dr. Aranya, Mesa of Lost Women) “Lunacy is it? In other words, you will never accept a new idea unless it is offered with proof. You have no vision, only sight. Small men, small views! You want proof, do you? Well, I’ll give ya proof!” (Robert Shayne as Professor Clifford Groves, The Neanderthal Man) “It’s hooey. You can’t turn love on and off like a faucet. Believe me baby if I ever fall in love with you I’d chase you across the world, around the moon, and—all the way stations in between.” (Victor Jory, Catwomen of the Moon)
Quality sci-fi picked up in 1954. Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, like The War of the Worlds, was based on a classic fantastical adventure, this one by the co-creator with H. G. Wells of modern sci-fi literature, Jules Verne. It was Disney’s first feature-length, live-action drama. The cast was impressive: Kirk Douglas, James Mason, Paul Lukas, Peter Lorre. Unlike 1953’s War of the Worlds, this adhered to the original period and was the better for it. Perhaps Captain Nemo’s undersea Nautilus was the most pleasing of all exotic craft that today might be labeled a steampunk inspiration. It was, after all, coursing through a foreign world beneath the waves.
Radioactivity came to the fore in Them!, the best of the big bug movies. Atomic testing in those Southwestern deserts mutated ants to the size of military tanks. A scary proposition: queens flying off to start new nests. The military raced to track them down. There were horrifying scenes aboard a ship at sea and a battle royal in the Los Angeles sewers in which, also shockingly, one of the policemen protagonists was killed in the jaws of a monster ant. And this was for kids?
Richard Carlson of It Came from Outer Space was back to find and study The Creature from the Black Lagoon. (Yes, there was a Devonian Age, Virginia.) A scaly, humanoid “gill-man” is found inhabiting a crystal-clear, jungle-bound lagoon in which Julie Adams swims on the surface while the admiring gill-man parallels her below. This was another iconic scene from 50s sci-fi films. The Gill-man returned in two lesser vehicles, Revenge of the Creature and The Creature Walks Among Us. This solidified his status as one of Universal Studios’ signal monsters, joining the Frankenstein monster, the wolfman, the mummy and the invisible man.
In 1955, an alien civilization was visited by earthlings. In This Island Earth a man and woman were transported to the planet Metaluna, under attack by creatures from the planet Zahgon. The humans cannot save Metaluna and their alien mentor Exeter returns them to Earth. But, mortally wounded, Exeter’s spacecraft crashes into the sea.
In 1956, Britain dramatically weighed in with Nigel Kneale’s The Quatermass Xperiment, known as The Creeping Unkown in the U.S. It became part of a trilogy, Enemy from Space appearing in 1957 and Quatermass and the Pit in (aka Five Million Years to Earth) in 1967. The first two were in black and white and filmed in semi-documentary fashion. In the first, the rancorous Professor Quatermass deals with the mystery of a rocket that returns from space missing some crewmembers. The lone survivor of the mission is uncommunicative and sports a hideously infected arm. He escapes the hospital and before long is transformed into something no longer human.
With Forbidden Planet, MGM entered the sci-fi sweepstakes. This was an outer space retelling of Shakespeare’s The Tempest with state-of-the-arts special effects. United Planets cruiser C-57-D lands on Altair-4, hoping to find the crashed Bellerophon, and it does, with two survivors: Morbius and his daughter Altaira. Or were there three survivors, the third an invisible monster from the human Id? The monster, which can melt metal but can only be seen in its basic outline when breaking through a force field, traumatized a generation of young filmgoers. “The fool! The meddling idiot! As though his ape’s brain could contain the secrets of the Krel!” exclaimed Morbius. The famous Robby the Robot made his first appearance on screen.
Invasion of the Body Snatchershas come down to us as the ultimate alien possession film. But who’s doing the possessing? That is the subtext. Is it a metaphor for Communist brainwashing? Don Siegel, future director of Dirty Harry and other hard-boiled crime films, denied that subtext, maintaining the film wasn’t rightwing or leftwing, rather an indictment of soulless citizens (pods) of any stripe.
The second half of the 50s experienced a lull, or perhaps a devolution. Budgets for science fiction films were never that great but became even less. Even without big budgets a few gems were in the offing. It! The Terror from Beyond Space (1958), for which a convincing case can be made as the best “B” science fiction film of the fifties, inspired Alien (1979). That same year another alien appeared to take its place in the lore of cinematic sci-fi: The Blob.
Although the 1960s featured such good movie sci-fi as Britain’s The Day the Earth Caught Fire, the low-budget but compelling Panic in Year Zero, and Fantastic Voyage, the decade was not full of innovation—until 1968. Makeup and special effects technology had improved dramatically as was manifestly evident in two big hits that year: Planet of the Apes and 2001: A Space Odyssey. But there was another lull till Star Wars (1977) and Star Trek (1978). The first was pure space opera, the second more hard-wired. Their descendants are with us today.
Further Reading: The bible of science fiction film books for the 1950s and early sixties is Bill Warren’s monumental Keep Watching the Skies! American Science Fiction Movies of the Fifties (1982).
A beautifully conceived and informative survey of 50s sci-fi is Bruce Lanier Wright’s Yesterday’s Tomorrows: The Golden Age of Science Fiction Movie Posters .