A year after the decade that would become known as the heyday of sci-fi cinema, started out with a rocketing bang, moviehouses across the nation were spaceship happy. But, unlike 1950, when the biggest sci-fi films of the year showcased we Earthlings heading for the stars, 1951 brought those aliens down to our planet – and not always in the “we come in peace” mode.
Two of my favourite sci-fi films of the decade, fit into this category- with only one of them being the aforementioned “we come in peace” variety.
Arguably the most famous of these alien films, is The Day the Earth Stood Still.
This classic of the genre was directed by Robert Wise and stars Michael Rennie as the alien missionary, Klaatu. Any Rocky Horror fan worth their salt, surely knows the opening line “Michael Rennie was ill, the day the Earth stood still.”
Anyway, to swerve from one nerdy aside back to an equally nerdy main line, the story of The Day the Earth Stood Still, is simple.
That simple, archetypal story is as thus: Rennie’s Klaatu has been sent to Earth in order to warn the powers that be of the repercussions of our inherent violent tendencies, but of course is instead attacked by the military and looked upon as a threat to the planet – even while telling the planet that he is here to help them, not attack them.
The ongoing theme of fear of the unknown – a theme that stems from the cold war and communist witch hunts of the day. This theme would power most of the sci-fi films of the decade – including the other alien film I spoke of earlier.
Produced by the legendary Howard Hawks (His Girl Friday, The Big Sleep, Red River, Rio Bravo) and directed by Hawksian protégé ;Christian Nyby, though most claim Hawks did all the real directing, The Thing From Another World is the story of a deadly alien creature who is found trapped in ice in the Arctic Circle.
Upon being unfrozen by the scientific team that finds him, the creature – the Thing, if you will – goes on a killing spree of nearly the entire remote Arctic base.
Fun stuff indeed.
Director John Carpenter, as simply, The Thing, remade The Thing From Another World in 1982. No matter how enjoyable Hawks’ version of the story is – and it is very enjoyable in the most late night movie kinda way – Carpenter’s remake is one of those strange oddities of a remake being better than the original. It has only happened a handful of times (Zack Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead and Soderbergh’s Ocean’s Eleven come to mind), but we shouldn’t let such an occurrence sour our feelings for Hawks’ classic monster movie.
There was one other (somewhat) major alien invasion film released in 1951.
This one falls somewhere in between the peaceful mission of Klaatu and the deadly peril of The Thing. It is a film called The Man From Planet X, and it actually came out a few months before either of the previously talked about films.
Directed by legendary cult director Edgar G. Ulmer (if you have not seen The Black Cat and/or Detour, you should really remedy that ASAP), the film is about a strange alien creature who lands in the Scottish Highlands, and who is only able to communicate through musical notes – a trick Steven Spielberg would use a quarter of a century later in Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
Whether the alien is here for good or for evil, no one really knows, but either way he seems to be a threat to mankind – again with the inherent fear of American society at this time.
But enough of these alien invasions and good will missions, for there were a pair of films released in 1951 wherein we Earthlings head to space. The first one is Flight to Mars, which is basically just a b-movie retelling of 1950’s equally b-movie Rocketship X-M.
The other film is When Worlds Collide (again, sharp-eared Rocky Horror fans will recognize this in the lyrics to Science Fiction Double Feature as well). It is the story of a planet that will come so close to Earth as to destroy it, and the rush to get a rocket and crew and passengers together to fly to the other planet before Earth is destroyed in its wake. Why this other planet is not affected the way Earth is, is kind of a huge gaping hole in the film’s logic, but hey, it is still fun to watch – especially with it’s quite ridiculous looking effects, which incidentally, took home a Special Effects Oscar.
Well, that’s it for 1951.
I could babble on about the UK sci-fi-comedy, The Man in the White Suit, starring a pre-Obi Wan Alec Guinness, or even Superman and the Mole Men, which was nothing more than a trial run for the TV show, The Adventures of Superman, though I will be getting to that soon enough. But that is it for right now.
Next time I will be back with a look at 1952. We will travel to Mars (again), visit with Commando Cody, go into both the distant past and equally distant future, in order to check out some rather savage womenfolk (always scantily dressed of course), take a peek at a German film where we will explore that age-old tale of a woman being impregnated by a mandrake root (it really is age-old) and travel into the tiny tube and the aforementioned Superman TV series.
If you are interested in another look at the great decade of the 1950’s, check out a piece I did for Anomalous Material, entitled, appropriately enough I suppose, The 10 Best 1950’s Sci-Fi Films.
Until next time…Klaatu Barada Nikto.