It Came From Outer Space (1953)
by Jack Arnold
Jack Arnold should be near the top of the list of directors of science fiction movies. His films were always surprisingly good, taking pretty stupid concepts and giving them a depth that would seem impossible for anyone else. Some of his titles are classics: The Creature from the Black Lagoon, The Incredible Shrinking Man, Revenge of the Creature,and The Mouse that Roared (well, it's only marginally SF, but it is a pretty good film)..
Science fiction was different in the 50s. The critical cliché is that the films are reactions to the fears of the Cold War and the atomic bomb, but that's a bit narrow. Fifties science fiction was also firmly in the pre-WWII tradition of written SF where scientists tried new experiments and paid the price (it goes back as far as Frankenstein). Unlike today, where SF is just an excuse for mindless action, there was a real intellectual subcurrent in the films. They made an attempt to be "scientific" (even if the science was silly) and worked to make statements about the scientific process and tried to be more than just straight "thrill ride" adventure. Tarantula, for instance, was as much about the scientist involved (Leo G. Carroll, a character actor I hold in great fondness for the TV shows Topper and The Man from U.N.C.L.E.) and his attempt in trying to end hunger as it was about a giant rampaging spider. Carroll becomes a tragic character, a man who wanted to save the world, but who made a tragic mistake.
It Came from Outer Space was one of Arnold's first films, and doesn't have the flash or monsters of his more famous ones. In it John Putnam (played by B-Movie veteran Richard Carlson) and his girlfriend see a meteor land near their desert town. But when they go to look, there is no sign of it. And the people in the town start acting . . . differently. As though they have been replaced by aliens . . . .
What made the story stand above other films of this nature is its ending. It is completely unexpected, and the movie has a surprise message, especially surprising for a movie of its time. Yes, there are aliens involved, but these aliens are unlike most movie aliens, which even today usually fall into one of two categories: evil conquerors or godlike beings here to help us. The aliens in It Came from Outer Space are quite different, and that makes the movie into a classic.
Ray Bradbury got a story credit, and seems to have written some of the dialog, and life in the small desert town is nicely portrayed.
The movie (like Arnold's Creature from the Black Lagoon) was originally released in 3-D. I was lucky enough to see it that way. No, I'm not old enough to remember the original run. But about 30 years ago, a local theater had a 3-D movie night with both Arnold films. It was a lot of fun. The big 3-D effect was the crashing of the meteor (in another sign of the film's determination to avoid the obvious, this wasn't saved for the climax, but rather one of the first scenes of the film). But the effect that was most memorable was much smaller. Putnam is watching the sky with a telescope. He swings the telescope around to view another part of the sky. And everyone in the audience ducked to avoid getting hit by it. Another thing I like about the film: Arnold did the unexpected.
It's a shame that 50s SF seems to be so overlooked. Granted, the special effects could not compare to today's, but the stories of the best of them were way ahead of most current SF, which has devolved into CGI "thrill rides" instead of stories.
So if you get the chance, try to seek out the film. And if you can see it in 3-D -- drop everything.
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