Favorite Old Sci-Fi Films
It’s another avoidance mechanism, I guess!
Why these particular films?
The first idea was to revisit sci-fi movies I saw as a kid, to see if they still interest me or scare me as they did then. I can report that I’m still rather thrilled by any of these. The scariest things are still pretty scary.
Now I find myself interested in the social and technological aspects of the film. I’ve tried to identify all vehicles, weapons, and computers, those of both aliens and humans. On the social side, I have scrutinized each for the role played by women and non-white actors, and how group behavior is portrayed.
There are plenty of other web pages talking about the quality of the script and plot, and how silly the special effects are.
These movies don’t typically have a lot to say, but what they say to me, I’ve summarized as “parables”.
When Worlds Collide!
|Richard Derr||as pilot David Randall|
|Barbara Rush||as Joyce Hendron|
|Peter Hanson||as Dr. Tony Drake|
|John Hoyt||as Sydney Stanton|
|Larry Keating||as Dr. Cole Hendron|
|Judith Ames||as Julie Cummings|
|Stephen Chase||as Dean George Frye|
|Frank Cady||as Harold Ferris|
(Dr. Bellows of I Dream of Jeannie)
|as Dr. Emery Bronson|
|Sandro Giglio||as Dr. Ottinger|
|Produced by||George Pal|
|Directed by||Rudolph Maté|
|Based on a novel by||Edwin Balmer and Philip Wylie|
Star Bellus will collide with Earth, while its planet Zyra will come just near enough for people to move there.
Computer is a “differential analyzer”. It makes a lot of noise.
Vehicle: inter-planetary “Space Ark”, silver, winged, cigar-shaped rocket that conserves fuel by riding a rail that curves down a mountainside and up another.
There are lots of titanic special effects, mostly done with small models on cellophane.
There are non-white people in the U.N., but the U.S.A., and the rocket ship factory in particular, is completely Anglo.
”Waste anything except time,
time is our shortest material.”
Some naivete about the scale of things and engineering details. but nothing worse than the scale of human population. One gets the impression that the population of the country is reduced to a few people working in the factory to build the ark, and perhaps for a chance to be saved. What became of everyone else?
At the last moment, rabble-rousers do what they must do. The mob fires on the space ship, but to no avail: the bullets bounce off its hull.
The intrepid pioneers take a pot-shot at planet Zyra: without knowing whether or not it is livable, they fling open the ship’s hatch! And fortunately, find that Zyra is a cultivated Grecian countryside, just waiting to be inhabited.
The love triangle seems completely out of place.
Preachy stuff at beginning.
The good will prevail.
The mob is mad and evil.
The universe is taking pot-shots at us.
The alpha male gets the girl.
The Day the Earth Stood Still
1951 Twentieth Century - Fox
|Michael Rennie||as Klaatu|
|Patricia Neal||as Helen Benson|
|Hugh Marlowe||as Tom Stevens|
|Billy Gray |
(Bud Anderson on “Father Knows Best”)
|as Bobby Benson|
|Lock Martin||as Gort|
|Sam Jaffe||as Professor Jacob Barnhardt|
|Frances Bavier |
(Aunt Bee of “The Andy Griffith Show”)
|as Mrs. Barley|
|Screenplay by||Edmund H. North|
|Based on a story by||Harry Bates|
Vehicle: Beautiful flying saucer
Robot: The very cool and scary Gort
Date: 1951 (shows on a cleaner’s tag on a suit Klaatu appropriates.)
Klaatu comes from a planet 250 million miles away. Well, that would have it within our solar system. (Had the term “light-year” been invented by then?) He looks just like a human; his skeleton is “perfectly normal”— the doctors think this implies a “similar atmosphere”.
The reaction of the earthlings is to circle the spaceship with heavy artillery, and to shoot Klaatu after he says he has come in peace. Then they try to imprison Klaatu in a hospital. Then they shoot him again! Government officials are disinterested in his message.
International: Get to hear Hindi, French spoken. There are blacks in crowds of Americans.
Good performances by all the principals. Script is coherent and directed.
Compare to Stranger from Venus, The Man Who Fell to Earth.
Aliens are benevolent.
War is bad, and it’s going to get us into trouble
We tend to shoot first, then not bother to ask questions.
Scientists are good but ineffectual.
War of the Worlds
|Gene Barry||as Dr. Clayton Forrester|
|Ann Robinson||as Sylvia van Buren|
|Paul Frees||as announcer (voice of Boris Badinoff, among many others)|
|(just before bomb drop a scientist speaks, |
who is the same as the contrary scientist in When Worlds Collide)
|Based on the novel by||H.G. Wells|
|Produced by||George Pal|
|Directed by||Byron Haskin|
|Screenplay by||Barré Lyndon|
Begins with illustrated tour of the Solar System, by Chesley Bonestell. Jupiter scene reminds me of scene from original Disney Fantasia.
Newsreels, ghastly preachy stuff at beginning and ending. (Minister who looks chillingly like Billy Graham prays for deliverance.)
Aliens: Martians, of “cool intelligence”. Single tri-color eye, spindly arms with three suction-cupped fingers and gooey skin. Scream like girls when hurt. They “recognize the significance of the British Isles”, (which, I suppose, means they aren’t all bad).
Martians come to Earth in cylinders that land as meteors, with hatches that unscrew.
Forrester “top man in astro and nuclear physics”, has ill-fitted horn-rim glasses, which he removes to gaze upon Sylvia. Seems he only needed them to look smart.
Very otherworldly magnetically-levitated hovering death machines. Death ray on a stalk “neutralizes mesons”. Protective force-field “electromagnetic covering—a protective blister”. Have a tri-color “electronic eye” on a prehensile cable.
A-Bomb is dropped on aliens by a US Air Force YB-49 Flying Wing, to no effect.
Narrator (Paul Frees) speaks of battle of population of other countries against the aliens.
The only non-white is one mexican-american who gets vaporized right off.
Postscript: I saw a restored version of this film at the Berlinale in 2017. I had never seen it on the big screen. And they had cleaned it up beautifully — sound, color and everything: just gorgeous. The place was packed, although of the audience had never seen it, but the girls still screamed at the appropriate places, and it received hearty applause.
Aliens are evil and want what is ours.
Scientist is handsome when glasses are removed.
The mob is mad and evil.
The Atom is our Friend, even when it can’t cut the mustard.
Very interesting: Neither science nor military wins the war. It is an Earthling bacterial infection (perhaps brought on by the Power of Prayer), that kills the Martians (amen!).
Earth vs the Flying Saucers
1956 Columbia Pictures
|Hugh Marlowe||as Dr. Russel A. Marvin|
|Joan Taylor||as Mrs. Carol Marvin|
|Donald Curtis||as Major Huglin|
|Morris Ankrum||as General John Hanley, father of Carol|
|Thomas Browne Henry||as Admiral Enright|
|Directed by||Fred Sears|
|Produced by||Charles H. Schneer|
|FX by||Ray Harryhausen|
|Screenplay by||George Worthing Yates, Raymond T. Marcus|
|Screen Story by||Curt Siddmak|
|Suggested by||Flying Saucers from Outer Space by Major Donald E. Keyhoe|
Spinning flying saucers that zing and zip and flicker and teeter alarmingly. They are powered by magnetic fields.
On first encounter with flying saucers, driving through the desert, Dr. Marvin wisely takes the wheel from his wife, and offers her a smoke.
Much discussion of purported sightings of UFO’s. Satellites blow up in outer space (or do they?).
Punctuated by newsreels, some of which are stock footage of various sounding rockets, including V-2, Viking VIII. Nice ’50s engineering drawings.
Computers: indeterminate boxes attended by military guys. Electronic translator: an enormous, clicking, table of spinning switches which produces output in the form of cursive writing by means of a mechanical pen. Aliens have a rose-shaped crystal translating device that reads the info from human brains into an “infinitely indexed memory bank”, momentarily rendering the victim’s brain visible. (When I saw this as a kid, I got too scared.)
Worthy of mention: various national monuments being blown up or crashed into.
Aliens: Big-eyed, slit mouth, but with nose. Only seen suited or dead. “Humanoid, and ancient“.
The saucers are protected by an “electronic screen”. When one alien ventures out from under this screen, it is immediately and without warning fired upon with heavy artillery.
The alien space suits are rather cool, if clumsy, and made of “solidified electricity”, and feature helmets with no transparent part. “These suits serve as electronic and mechanical outer skin; take the place of their atrophied flesh and muscles.”
The alien’s voice is suspiciously like Orson Welles’ (really that of Paul Frees). Its message is repeated in Spanish, Mandarin, Japanese, French, and other languages.
Aliens also have flat-screen (presumably black-and-white) TV. They use glowing reconnaissance drones that can be shot down with handguns.
Weapons: Aliens have an ultrasonic ray reminiscent of Star Trek phasers that makes people and things evaporate noisily or blow up. It is fired from arms of alien space suits, and from guns on flexible stalks beneath saucers. The Marvins make an “ultrasonic gun” to no avail; then they make the “induced electrical field” weapon which finally proves effective. (If humans had made use of the saucers’ propensity for crashing into recognizable monuments, this would have been unnecessary.) Soldiers persistently shoot with rifles, only to be evaporated; stock Nike Ajax film portrays futile rocket attacks.
Aliens are evil and want what we have.
People will panic and shoot at scary things—who can blame them?
Soldiers are OK cannon fodder.
Science wins the day.
Have a smoke!
|Walter Pidgeon||as Dr. Edward Morbius|
|Anne Francis||as Altaira|
|Leslie Nielsen||as Commander J. J. Adams|
|Warren Stevens||as Lt. Ostrow, Ship’s Doctor|
|Earl Holliman||as Cook|
|Jack Kelly||as Lt. Farman - Executive|
|Richard Anderson||as Chief Quinn|
|Directed||by Fred McLeod Wilocx|
|Produced||by Nicholas Nayfack|
|Based on a story by||Irving Block and Allen Adler|
Vehicle: Beautiful flying saucer, United Planets Cruiser C-57-D, with
Hyperdrive, which propels it to speeds greater than that of light.
Robot: The venerable “Robbie”, equipped with a food replicator, circuits that will automatically burn out if ordered to harm intelligent life, and a nanny personality.
Aliens: The Krell, long-dead by their own devices
Heading for star Altair, its planet Altair-4.
Very elaborate sets. Morbius’ house is landscaped very tastefully, in a
sort of Southwest rock-garden style.
Atmospheric sound effects are more than background noise.
Have to go into suspended animation during light speed: reminiscent of Star Trek transporter.
Artificial gravity holds them down while they’re in flight.
They get “radar scanned”.
“Blaster”: a sort of laser beam weapon
“Dispose-all” is a household disintegrator unit.
Hand-held communicators have TV cameras build-in.
Talk about “pure nuclear matter” which would “sink to the bottom of this planet”.
Plastic educator makes 3-D images of thoughts; boosts human intelligence
Power of machines is “The number 10 raised almost literally to the power infinity”. (The units this number measures are thus rendered literally inconsequential.)
The plot parallels in many ways Shakespeare’s The Tempest (Prospero - Morbius, Miranda - Altaira, Ariel+Caliban - Robbie, Stephano - Cook).
The crew is unrelentingly WASPy (there’s an Irish stereotype). Altaira suffers from interest in healthy male specimens, and ignorance of kissing.
Gorgeous special effects: including huge metal doors that snap shut in the blink of an eye, massive underground power-plants, force-fields, and a very scary “monster from the id”.
Very convincing scenes of planet from space. (Are these stock footage of Earth?)
At least one of the SFx guys is from Disney. Compare spaceship decor to that of The Black Hole.
The careers of many of the props, notably Robby and the flying saucer, were longer than those of the cast members’. The saucer appeared many times on TV, including the Twilight Zone.
Absolute power leads to absolute blah, blah.
The unknown is bad and scary.
The alpha male gets the girl, stupid!
The Angry Red Planet
1960 Sino Productions Ltd.
|Gerald Mohr||as Colonel Tom O’Bannion|
|Nora Hayden||as Dr. Iris Ryan (Irish)|
|Les Tremayne||as Professor Theodore Gettell|
|Jack Kruschen||as Chief Warrant Officer Sam Jacobs (Sammy)|
|Producers:||Sid Pink Norman Maurier|
|Screenplay by||Sid Pink|
Fairly coherent plot, some very scary monsters, good attempt at science facts (well, there’s the customary encounter with an interplanetary “radioactive meteor”). Too much silly verbal filler.
The red of Mars appears to have been achieved by filming in color with a red filter. The effect very eerie but washes out much of the detail of the scenery.
The vehicle is a rocket that lands on its tail, represented by various U.S. Air Force film clips of Atlas (Thor?) ICBM’s and a cartoon Atlas rocket flying through space. The crew is not inconvenienced by the absence of gravity.
No date is suggested. No computers are mentioned, although some lights flash. No robots. Technology on board consists of stock equipment such as an oscilloscope and a computer tape drive. Sammy uses a sonic freeze gun, to limited effect.
The crew is half U.S. military, half scientists.
The story of what happened on Mars is told by Irish, one of the two survivors. She’s fairly butch and says lots of smart sciency-sounding things though.
On disembarking the rocket, the romantically-interested Irish promises Tom not act like a “hysterical female”. She goes on to explain: “I’m perfectly capable of taking care of myself—I won’t get out of your sight.” Seconds later, she walks right into the tentacles of a giant carnivorous plant, and must be saved by Tom.
Mars is full of life, in a variety that is seldom seen. Besides all sorts of strange plants (including the carnivorous one), there is a bat-rat-spider thing that they mistake for a plant, and an enormous amoeba with an eye in a dome that spins around (exactly) like an old alarm beacon, and whose goo can infect people. The intelligent martians finally show up, evidently from within this goo. These effects are pretty crude, but they are at least imaginative, and when I was five or six, they scared the stuffin’s out of me.
We also get to see a towering crystalline martian city (rather reminiscent of Oz). The astronauts head for this, but we never get to see more because they are chased away by the amoeba.
Smoking, not martians, kills the professor. He’s seen puffing on a pipe, and dies of a heart attack on leaving Mars (“the takeoff—the acceleration pressure”).
Best quote is by Sammy, who says:
Other sci-fi mainstays: Colonel Tom electrifies the rocket hull to repel an amoeba-monster, and is infected by its green goo.
Theme music by Paul Dunlap is suspiciously similar to the Lost in Space theme.
We just aren’t wanted on Mars.
Maybe girls can play astronaut, but they’re going to be trouble!
The unknown is dangerous and scary, and you’re not welcome!
Alpha male gets the girl
|Jeff Morrow||Dr. Lesley Gaskell|
|John Emery||Dr. Eliot|
|George O’Hanlon||Dr. Arnold Culver|
|Morris Ankrum||Dr. Albert Stem|
|Kenneth Alton||Pickup driver|
|John Parrish||General Perry|
|Jose Gonzales Gonzales||Manuel Ramierez|
|Robert Shayne||Air Force General|
|Donald Eitner||Meteorology Sergeant|
|John Halloran||Security Guard|
|Produced and Directed by||Kurt Neumann|
|Screenplay by||Lawrence Louis Goldman|
|Based on a story by||Irving Block|
Space ship: unadorned, glowing, flashing saucer. Scientists think it’s an asteroid, even when looking right at a picture that shows a clearly artificial object. Army tries to blow it up with nuclear guided missiles, to no avail. Splashes very impressively into the Pacific.
Saucer deposits a huge metal robot (referred to as a “monster”) on the beach. Consists of two boxes with a dome on the top one, and four cylindrical pillars that it uses for locomotion, in a stomping fashion. It is at least very strange, and even other-worldly. Unfortunately, while as some points it takes on a sense of gigantic scale, at other points this sense is quite lost. It is the best thing in this flick.
Glowing ball infests people with an “incubus” that controls their behavior as well as that of the monster.
Computer: SUSIE “Synchro Unifying Sinometric Integrating Equitensor”, a big bank of boxes with tape reels and dials, equipped with a buzzer and bells that make it sound like a pinball machine. Vera says: “SUSIE gets a lot more affection than I do”, and taps a few ciggie ashes on her.
Scientists hang out in Mexican house, where much fun is made of the spiciness of the cuisine. There is a brave but ineffectual Mexican Air Force attack.
Nice film clips of White Sands V-2 tests, including lots of factory shots. A B-47 StratoJet carrying a nuke gets sucked in to the monster, who absorbs the full blast of the nuke only to become stronger. F100 Super Sabre used as transport plane.
Don’t use up all your resources!
The aliens want our stuff
Girl gets scientist by being patient.