“You realise what you’re implying? That we owe our human condition here to the intervention of insects?”
Also released as Five Million Years to Earth, Quatermass and the Pit is the third in a series of Hammer films, originating from a BBC television series. It received favourable reviews on its release in 1967, and today is considered to be one of the UK’s finest sci-fi movies. Michael Weldon, in his review in The Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film, describes it as “the best of the series and one of the better science-fiction movies ever made.”
Scottish actor Andrew Keir is excellent as Professor Bernard Quatermass, a rocket scientist and head of the British Experimental Rocket Group, an organisation that has just been reclaimed by the military, much to the professor’s disgust. It is, however, because of this new situation that Quatermass first learns of the strange objects discovered in Hobbs Lane underground station, London, where renovations are taking place.
After first discovering oddly shaped skulls, which palaeontologist Dr Roney deduces are one of the missing evolutionary links dating back some five million years, a metal – but non-magnetic – object is located beneath the mud and clay. Initially assuming it is an unexploded German bomb left over from WWII, the professor’s new associate Colonel Breen and, by default, Quatermass are brought in to investigate. It becomes clear, however, that the object is not a bomb, but some kind of vessel, containing gigantic insect-like creatures, and exuding an unsettling and harmful influence on both objects and people around it.
Nigel Kneale wrote both the television series and the film adaptation of this story, and several plot points are inevitably altered for this later version. Praised for writing intelligent sci-fi, his scripts are filled with clever concepts, but in this film at least, the plot is convoluted, moving at great speed and relying on everyone’s assumptions being utterly correct without other possible alternatives.
Some of the special effects are undeniably hokey – not just when viewed today, but surely for audiences of the time, who had already been subjected to grand and impressive Martian invasions (The War of the Worlds, 1953) and giant insect attacks (Them!, 1954) a decade earlier. As intelligent sci-fi films go, this is a late addition to a trend that was phenomenally successful in the 1950s, influenced by earlier authors such as HG Wells, and by more contemporary writers like Richard Matheson and John Wyndham. By the late 1960s, aliens had invaded Earth for almost every reason possible; they had arrived in peace and with designs for domination, had been fearsome and harmless, had brought about destruction and provided a glimmer of hope to the world. Kneale’s decision here, however, is a curious concept, in which the aliens had landed millions of years previously, had already influenced the evolution of humanity, and now were only posing a threat because of the residual power of their spaceship – unusually for a sci-fi movie, these aliens died a long time ago, and remain so.
Being a Hammer production, it is inevitable that some supernatural events feature, but the script cleverly twists local superstition into a pseudo-scientific phenomenon. The kinetic and psychic power emanating from the vessel results in the film culminating in horror – violent, unsettling scenes in which buildings collapse, roads are ripped apart, vast demonic apparitions loom over London, and crowds of hapless reporters are transformed into an army of single-minded killers. Although his name is in the title, Quatermass actually has little to do with stopping this wave of destruction, though he does provide an explanation for the events.
A quintessentially British film, this oozes Englishness from every pore. Everyone is delightfully polite, even sworn enemies, while a stiff upper lip is adopted by everyone, unless they have succumbed to manic hysteria and delusions. Even Dr Roney’s associate, who appears to be employed simply because he has a similarly shaped cranium to prehistoric man, seems perfectly fine with the idea that he is a modern-day example of an unevolved human. Viewed today, it’s wonderfully retro, but it still packs a punch both in its visual flair and its intelligent, if somewhat garbled, ideas.