“If we’ve been seeing things, it’s because we did see them.”
There were some wonderfully thought-provoking and intriguing science fiction films in the 1950s – it was a great time for the genre, and It Came From Outer Space is one of the classics. Directed by Jack Arnold (The Creature From the Black Lagoon, The Incredible Shrinking Man), based on a story by Ray Bradbury, it’s one of the quintessential sci-fi films of the decade, perfectly encapsulating many of the themes running throughout the genre at the time.
It’s widely acknowledged that, particularly in the 1950s, science fiction and horror were particularly successful in capturing the zeitgeist of the times; it was a decade of great uncertainty about the future. Scientific technology was advancing, and the potential consequences of nuclear experimentation were dire, and the world was in the midst of great political uncertainty, with the Cold War in full swing. It’s little surprise then that the science fiction and horror films of the 1950s were filled with atomic monsters, alien invasions, and pod people. It Came From Outer Space deals with some of the underlying social fears in the United States with a great deal of intelligence under the guise of entertainment, combining a plea for tolerance and understanding with some well-placed gimmicks and impressive, albeit reasonably low-budget effects.
Richard Carlson (The Creature From the Black Lagoon) is John Putnam, an author and amateur astronomer who is one of the first people in a small town in Arizona to witness what appears to be a meteor falling to Earth. With his girlfriend Ellen (Barbara Rush), the next morning he goes to investigate, and is the only person to see what really landed before falling rocks buries the object. Naturally, the townspeople dismiss his claims about the meteor’s real identity, but John remains steadfast, and his beliefs are compounded when his friends and neighbours start acting strangely.
Thematically, It Came From Outer Space echoes some of the sentiments of earlier sci-fi films like The Day the Earth Stood Still, and pre-empts the pod-people concept made famous by 1956’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers. The aliens here are not trying to cause harm, having accidentally crashed on Earth – they do not pose a threat, and are merely trying to get off the planet without incident. Instead, it is humanity that offers the most danger, to both the aliens and themselves. The human instinct to fear the unknown, and fight it, is the most hazardous thing in the film; this is emphasised by the mob mentality of the townspeople when confronted with the possibility of invasion. While John and Ellen are initially fearful, they quickly realise that tolerance is key to everyone’s survival, and they become the aliens’ only allies in a town more concerned with a witch hunt. It’s a slow-burning narrative, with some impressively realised sequences and an intelligent, forward-thinking message, particularly pertinent for the time.
Arnold does not forget that this is a genre picture first and foremost, and he uses his budget well. Originally shown in 3D, the moments designed for this extra dimension are still obvious, but not intrusive, while the aliens – shown only briefly – are great designs, otherworldly and horrible, yet not quite as gruesome as they appear to think themselves to be. Most famously, however, It Came From Outer Space boasts an unusual first person (or should that be, first alien) perspective, allowing the viewer an odd chance to witness our world in an entirely new light. This also adds a valuable sense of empathy with, and relationship to, the aliens, with Arnold literally putting the viewer in the aliens’ position. It’s a great touch, and makes the big reveal all the more anticipated and relevant.
I’ll always have a soft spot for these kinds of science fiction movies – the ones that conceal smart ideas behind seemingly trashy, drive-in aesthetics. The acting is solid, though some of the dialogue is clunky (the constantly repeated claim that the “meteor” landing is the “biggest thing to ever happen” is over-emphasised, for example). Some of the effects are dated, but they add to the kitsch appeal of the film. Yet it is a smart movie, with a valuable and particularly pertinent message – one that remains just as relevant today as it did sixty years ago.