As a film genre, science fiction by its very speculative and imaginative nature holds the potential to be very good or very bad. Having to depict unreal circumstances can lead to very impressive or very embarrassing results depending on a number of factors, individually or in combination with other factors, from the skill and talent of the production team to the budget of the film. And no decade seemed to epitomize this more than the 1950s, which saw an explosion of sci-fi films both outstanding (The Day the Earth Stood Still) and awful (Plan 9 from Outer Space).

The Day the Earth Stood Still

Indeed, those Fabulous Fifties produced a plethora of sci-fi flicks that decades later remain memorable, for better or for worse. Partly this reflected the overall boom in post-World War Two popular culture, which in turn mirrored technological advancements of the period, from aerospace to atomic power. Yet those technological advancements also yielded fear and anxiety, which found their voice in sci-fi, as did concurrent fears about social and political realities. As the world moved through the Atomic Age to the Jet Age to the Space Age, films that explored the ramifications, both present and future, of those Ages grew in number and popularity.

The Birth and Growth of Science Fiction

To be sure, speculation about the past, present, and future is as old as humanity's first awareness of itself, its potential, and its legacy. Modern science fiction has its roots in the 19th century, particularly in the works of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells, both of whom had written stories that became landmark science-fiction films of the 1950s: the former with 20,000 Leagues under the Sea (1870), and the latter with The War of the Worlds (1898). Even the earliest filmmaking, in the early 20th century, explored sci-fi: French filmmaker Georges Méliès made his visionary A Trip to the Moon (Le Voyage dans la lune) in 1902; Méliès was the subject of the 2011 Martin Scorsese film Hugo, although Méliès's story had been profiled previously in the Tom Hanks-produced miniseries From the Earth to the Moon (1998), about the NASA space programs through Apollo.

By the 1930s, stories, comics, and movie serials of Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon were popular fare. In 1938, actor-director Orson Welles and his troupe the Mercury Theatre on the Air staged a radio version, broadcast across America, of The War of the Worlds that has such verisimilitude that it became known as "the night that panicked America" because so many listeners believed the staged "news bulletin" interruptions announcing the Martian invasion were real. By mid-century, writers such as Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, Arthur C. Clarke, and Robert Heinlein—all have had works adapted to film and television—helped to establish the framework for science fiction that we still recognize today.

Social and political realities also shaped science fiction by the 1950s. World War Two had ended in 1945 with the explosion of two atomic bombs over Japan, ushering in the Atomic Age, and with the drive to use nuclear power for both civilian and military purposes came a general unease about nuclear power. Movies such as Them! and Godzilla feature creatures that have mutated or have become reanimated because of atomic radiation.

With the Atomic Age came the Cold War, or the varying degrees of tension between the two superpowers that emerged after World War Two, the United States and the Soviet Union. Part of that tension involved the superpowers' race to create stronger, more destructive weapons, particularly atomic (or nuclear) weapons, thus combining the atomic threat with a military and political threat. Movies such as The Thing from Another World and The War of the Worlds dealt with outright invasion, seen as a manifestation of Cold War threat, while Invasion of the Body Snatchers addressed the concept of invasion through fifth-column infiltration.

Flying saucers also grew in the popular consciousness as well. While unidentified flying objects (UFOs) have been part of the human imagination for centuries (even the Biblical story of Ezekiel suggests some kind of similar device), they began to inflame the modern imagination following World War Two. In Washington State in 1947, private pilot Kenneth Arnold reported seeing mysterious objects that he described as flying like plates skimming through the air; a reporter paraphrased that as "flying saucers"—and a sociological phenomenon was born. Also in 1947, reports surfaced that an unusual crash had occurred near Roswell, New Mexico, with speculation that it might be an extraterrestrial craft, and that the Air Force appeared to be covering up that story (although the "Roswell incident" as we know it today did not begin to gain mass awareness until the late 1970s).

"Watch the Skies Everywhere!": 1950s Sci-Fi Cinema

These three influences—atomic power, the Cold War and the threat of Soviet (or communist) domination, and a burgeoning awareness of UFOs—found their expression in many of the science fiction films released in the 1950s. It is a well-known axiom but one that bears repeating, particularly for those who might not be aware of the subtext of many of these films. (The phrase "Watch the skies everywhere!" is the warning sounded at the conclusion of The Thing from Another World.)

But regardless of subtexts, science fiction was growing in popularity—and profitability—by the 1950s, which saw a proliferation of sci-fi movies, of varying degrees of quality, many of which, regardless of quality, have persisted to this day. That is because a number of excellent sci-fi films were made during the decade, and they have held up to this day. That is also because a lot more films were not as good, but thanks to two or three generations of late-show repeats, spotlights in creature-feature shows (from Vampira to Elvira, Mistress of the Dark) that underscored their notoriety, and, particularly in eras of videocassettes, then DVDs, then the internet, they have attained cult or camp status with viewers whose parents, or even grandparents, might not have been born when they were first released.

It is within this expansive context that 1950s science-fiction cinema mutated and multiplied. In the spirit of starting at the top and working our way down, this article presents ten of the best sci-fi flicks of the 1950s. Subsequent articles on this theme will explore 1950s sci-fi flicks that might not be among the best but are still pretty decent, along with flicks that are a long way from the best—hint: the name Ed Wood surely will be mentioned—and that give 1950s sci-fi cinema its just notoriety.

Now, "best" is a relative term, weighted as much toward the film's concept, potential, or influence as toward its artistic or technical excellence. And although I've seen a lot of 1950s sci-fi flicks, I have yet to have seen them all, so I will refrain from the usual hollow internet braggadocio of claiming that these ten are the "greatest ever," or even that they are the only ten "best." But all are definitely in the running. Presented in chronological order. And, if you have not seen any of these films before, with no spoilers!

The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)

The Day the Earth Stood Still

There are a lot of elements that mark The Day the Earth Stood Still as a science-fiction film, starting with tall, gaunt, otherworldly-looking Klaatu (Michael Rennie) causing a sensation by landing his sleek flying saucer practically on the White House lawn, then emerging from same in the requisite spacesuit and helmet, accompanied by a giant robot, Gort (Lock Martin), which literally has the looks that kill—he shoots a death ray from beneath his visor.

But Klaatu has a message of grave importance for all of Earth, and he insists on imparting it to representatives from every country at the same time. Kept in a local hospital after being accidentally shot, Klaatu is told that gathering delegates from every country would be impossible—and when he realizes that he is being held almost as a prisoner, he escapes and takes refuge under an assumed name at a local boarding house. There he befriends Helen Benson (Patricia Neal) and especially her young son Bobby (Billy Gray), who introduces him, more or less, to Professor Barnhardt (Sam Jaffe), who promises to organize a summit of top scientists—but when Helen's boyfriend Tom Stevens (Hugh Marlowe) realizes that the urbane yet peculiar "Mister Carpenter" is really the man from outer space, the manhunt escalates, leading to the immortal words "Klaatu barado nikto."

That is the set-up for one of the greatest science-fiction films ever—and what makes The Day the Earth Stood Still, shot in black and white, relevant six decades on is its inherent intelligence and humanity, all the more so for being so modestly presented. Granted, to show the world that he means business, Klaatu arranges for a quietly dramatic demonstration of his powers, a harbinger of what belligerent Earthlings, now armed with nuclear weapons—there's the atomic fear of the time—can expect if their destructive meddling manages to go beyond the confines of the planet and into the galaxy. But even during the tense climax, Klaatu manages to keep his motivations and intentions—and actions—above mere aggression.

Edmund North's script, based on Harry Bates's short story, reveals its stunning simplicity throughout even as its import cannot be missed. Rennie is gently compelling while Neal resists the urge to overplay and Gray succeeds in a pivotal part. Director Robert Wise doesn't ignore the magnitude of the story but clearly relishes the unassuming moments to emphasize the interpersonal dynamics that ultimately accrete as a civilization's collective behavior. Meanwhile, Bernard Hermann's eerie score makes full use of the soon-to-be-ubiquitous Theremin to add alien atmosphere. Shunning overkill, The Day the Earth Stood Still triumphs with Klaatu, not Gort. Remade in 2008 with wooden wonder Keanu Reeves. As Klaatu, not Gort. Now there's a move that could provoke celestial intervention all on its own.

The Thing from Another World (1951)

The Thing from Another World

Taking the opposite tack from The Day the Earth Stood Still, The Thing from Another World, also shot in black and white, was one of the first successful science fiction films to warn of death from the skies, which would become the default approach in science fiction right up to the present day. Fortunately for us, this influential thriller packs shades of complexity along with purposeful economy into its efficient running time while introducing or refining keynote sci-fi archetypes: the isolated locale in which the monster can terrorize its victims at will, the headstrong but bumbling military types intent on destruction, and the just-as-willful but naïve scientists insisting on cooperation and understanding.

Ordered to support a scientific expedition, led by Dr. Carrington (Robert Cornthwaite), in the high Arctic, Captain Hendry (Kenneth Tobey) and his flight crew, with reporter Ned Scott (Douglas Spencer) tagging along, spot a giant object newly frozen in ice. It's a flying saucer, and in their zeal to free it they blow it up. However, they recover a giant body encased in ice, but at the scientific base they accidentally thaw it and unleash the Thing (James Arness). Adapted by Charles Lederer from John W. Campbell, Jr.'s, novella Who Goes There?—although Ben Hecht and producer Howard Hawks did significant re-writes, and Hawks reputedly directed as much as credited helmer Christian Nyby—The Thing from Another World contains other sardonic asides along with a fillip or two—Hendry gets a little kinky with Carrington's sultry assistant Nikki Nicholson (Margaret Sheridan). But when the creature is discovered to be plant-based, blood-drinking, and intelligent, The Thing from Another World buckles down to serious menace as the isolated humans, able to communicate only intermittently with the outside world, must battle a creature that might be more clever—and is more powerful—than they are.

John Carpenter's 1982 remake ratcheted up the horror angle considerably, so don't expect any graphic depictions in the original, while the performances take a back seat to the narrative, although the blueprints for later stereotypes are present in Hendry, Carrington, and Nicholson. Hendry is the prototypical military man: He and his men might have bungled removing the flying saucer from the ice, and one of his men did leave an electric blanket atop the block of ice encasing the Thing, but with the base under siege he knows how to defend it. Carrington appears to be motivated by scientific curiosity, but in his quest to protect the Thing from harm he might be willing to sacrifice a human or two. And Nicholson? She does seem to fetch an awful lot of coffee. Let's face it—feminism was still a few years away, but her attractive-appendage role got perpetuated numerous times before that happened. The Thing from Another World still delivers top-notch suspense in a tense atmosphere. As reporter Scotty warns: "Watch the skies everywhere!" Because the communists—er, the aliens, rather—might be coming.

The War of the Worlds (1953)

The War of the Worlds

Not even watching the skies seems to help in The War of the Worlds, the first film adaptation of H.G. Wells's 1898 novel of alien invasion—the Big Daddy of Death from the Skies—although Orson Welles and his Mercury Theatre on the Air had done a notorious radio adaptation of the story in 1938 as a rather effective Halloween prank. But thanks to Oscar-winning special effects that still look pretty impressive sixty years on, in Technicolor, no less, this The War of the Worlds reinforces the terrifying sense of helplessness as the seemingly impervious Martian invaders are poised to vanquish Earth and all its inhabitants.

Wells's original story predates the Cold War, but the suggestion of takeover and annihilation was readily understood in the early 1950s, and Barré Lyndon's adaptation, which moves the locus of the story to Southern California, also flashes a religious streak absent from Wells's (and Welles's) conception—if anything could stand up to "godless communism," it was the power of God himself. Not that this The War of the Worlds stands ready to preach—at least until the finale. Lyndon pares the story to its essence, and while that might sketch in the characters perfunctorily, director Byron Haskin, with a background in special effects, doesn't let the pace flag in a film filled with edge-of-the-seat excitement.

Their civilization dying at home, the Martians decide that their neighbor Earth looks suitable for colonization. Soon a strange meteor crashes in the Southern California hills. Fortunately, renowned scientist Clayton Forrester (Gene Barry) is fishing nearby; as he waits for the temperature- and radiation-hot meteor to cool, he dallies with local girl Sylvia Van Buren (Ann Robinson). But then the Martians emerge from the meteor, and many others like it landing around the world, with ray guns blazing. Soon General Mann (Les Tremayne) realizes that the Martians' war machines are impervious to conventional weapons—and even to nuclear bombs. As Clayton and Sylvia race to stay one step ahead of the terrible Martian craft, the fate of humanity looks hopeless.

Designed by Al Nozaki, the Martians' craft retain a sleek, lethal appearance even today—the manta-like machines project a deadly efficiency. The strident sound effects of the death rays enhance the air of deadly invincibility projected by the craft, which sweep across the world spreading increasing dread and despair. The War of the Worlds still resonates with vivid, haunting images: Clayton and Sylvia trapped in a farmhouse as Martian machines land around it; Martian machines emerging unscathed and ready for action even after withstanding a nuclear blast; and, perhaps most chilling, Barry running down deserted Los Angeles streets as the city helplessly awaits Martian destruction. The literal deus ex machina at the conclusion remains an iconic twist as the religious angle, particularly in the final scenes, gives The War of the Worlds a different complexion from previous versions, but that doesn't diminish its alarming power.

Steven Spielberg remade The War of the Worlds in 2005, bringing his technical brilliance to bear on a story that reiterated his obsession with suburban domestic melodrama, this time framed by the imminent destruction of the Earth. Sometimes it does feel as if your whole world is collapsing, doesn't it?

Prev Next »

Last modified on Thursday, 19 March 2015 18:47

Comments powered by CComment