Yesteryear’s Movies of Tomorrow
By Will “The Thrill” Viharo
In the first of this three-part series, B-movie conoisseur Will Viharo ventures into the vaults of vintage sci-fi cinema to highlight the best in classic spaceship celluloid . This isn’t just a lesson in cinematic history, it’s a look deep into the collective American psyche in the mid-20th century. So, pour yourself a tumbler of rocket fuel, kick back, and get ready to blast off into uncharted realms known only to diehard science fiction fans.
Many of us poor Earthlings stuck here in the dawn of the terror-stricken, economically challenging, morally complex, gas-guzzling 21st Century wonder one simple thing: Where are our personal jet-packs promised by The Jetsons back in the early 1960s?
Today’s sci-fi blockbusters are decidedly more pessimistic than the space-age films of yore. Beginning with cynical cyber-punk classics like Blade Runner (1982), modern science fiction movies invariably depict dreary, dystopian futures for our species, full of screeching sound, smoke and steel. (See also: Mad Max, Matrix, Alien and Terminator franchises, and the more recent I, Robot.) Even relatively optimistic options offered by the sundry Star Trek spin-offs or the Star Wars movies are noisy, busy and, by certain standards, downright ugly. As they say, the future is not what it used to be.
Perhaps this accounts for the current, rampant nostalgia for mid-20th Century pop culture—people of this real “future” are now longing for the pretty past that placed much more faith in us than we do ourselves. The hopes and dreams this nation had for its own technological and cultural evolution following the euphoria of the prosperous 1950s was slowly and systematically shattered by the revolutionary ’60s. The assassinations of John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, as well as the rebellion of the counterculture, and the angry ascent of rock ‘n’ roll, destroyed the collective aspirations of an entire generation by the finale of this tumultuous decade—which, ironically, also ended with the first moon-landing, in 1969. Although many positive changes resulted from this massive upheaval, mainly in the arena of civil rights, a certain idealism and innocence was tragically lost in the explosive exchange. By the beginning of the 1980s, the country was riveted by Michael Jackson’s moonwalk, not the steps taken by our brave astronauts. Goodbye, Jetsons; hello, Joan Jett.
ROCKETS, ROBOTS & RAYS OF HOPE
Nowhere is the post-WW2 generation’s faith in (and fears of) the future more evident than in the science fiction movies of the 1950s and early ’60s, which often and ironically contradicted the public’s real fears that we’d blow ourselves up any minute and there’d be no future at all. Still, filmmakers dared to dream for the masses. For the purpose of illustrating these reveries, I’ve compiled a list of movies I strongly recommend for your homebound blast to the past. All of these titles are available either on DVD or VHS; some are still occasionally shown on late night cable TV (including re-runs of Mystery Science Theater 3000). I’ve broken them down into eclectic, and rather eccentric, categories, leading off with my own personal favorite of the bunch. But be forewarned: my tastes tend toward the pulpy end of the spectrum. I’ve also provided alternate choices from the A, B and Z lists as well.
This list leaves out obvious ’50s sci-fi categories like Big Bugs (Them!, Tarantula, The Deadly Mantis) or Red Scare Alien Possession (Invasion of the Body Snatchers, It Came From Outer Space, It Conquered the World), focusing more on films that represent the mid-century man’s dreams, and nightmares, regarding The Future, be it In Space, From Space, or right here on “Terror” Firma. Most of these films contain the popular iconography associated with this genre—rocket ships, robots, ray guns—and represent a fairly comprehensive cross-section of sub-genres, commonly bonded with that essential B movie ingredient: Cheese. Welcome to the interstellar cocktail lounge of the Space Age imagination.
“FIRE UP THOSE RETRO-ROCKETS”: DESTINATION MOON (1950)
During the most xenophobic era in modern American history, rife with communist witch-hunts, racial prejudice, and social malaise, many Americans dreamed of a better world “Out There”. George Pal, who by now had established himself as a special effects wizard due to his innovative, award-winning “Puppetoon” animation shorts, was the first filmmaker to successfully capture these starry-eyed ambitions on celluloid. This film, though slow-paced, is a graceful (albeit naturally cornball) little masterwork of style and creativity, also considered to be scientifically sound at the time. While dated, this film is worth seeing because of its historical significance as prototypical space exploration cinema.
Also see: Rocketship XM (1950), rushed into release when it was learned Destination Moon was in production, making it the first official “rocketship” movie, complete with a little theremin on the soundtrack; Cameron Mitchell and Arthur Franz take a very early, and colorful, Flight to Mars (1951), using spacesuits left over from Destination Moon;and Pal’s next excursion into planetary orbit, the more ambitious but less successful Conquest of Space (1955).
“ALIENS ARE PEOPLE, TOO”: THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL (1951) and THIS ISLAND EARTH (1955)
It’s astounding that right in the middle of a conservative era dominated by militant American chest-thumping, a film with a liberal anti-war message could even get made, much less become a hit. But Robert Wise’s sci-fi masterpiece The Day the Earth Stood Still not only went down in Hollywood history as one of the most sophisticated, exciting and intelligent sci-fi movies ever made, it was also a popular favorite with audiences across all demographics, making it the first big sci-fi “blockbuster.” It also boasted the first major sci-fi soundtrack to fully employ a theremin, composed by the great Bernard Hermann, setting a B movie trend that would last for over a decade (though non-monster movies The Lost Weekend and Spellbound were the very first to use this eerie instrument in their scores).
Day’s iconic imagery—the giant robot Gort emerging from the immense flying saucer on the White House Lawn, led by interstellar ambassador Klaatu, played by Michael Rennie—is both an emblem of classic sci-fi cinema and a symbol of peace during an uncertain, unsteady era. Of course, the actual message from space was a bit more blunt: Earth’s nations either learn to get along or they will be obliterated by an inter-galactic police force, before our volatile inclinations can infect the rest of the apparently peace-loving universe.
Another equally emblematic alien of the era was the big-brained Metaluna Mutant from This Island Earth, Universal’s official entry in the epic outer space sweepstakes. This classic popcorn movie, while not quite in the league of its classy predecessor, opting for cheap thrills over political subtext, also featured an alien ambassador. The visitor, Exeter (played by genre regular Jeff Morrow), whose intentions are at first sinister, is finally revealed as noble only after he has abducted two hapless Earthlings (fellow genre stalwarts Rex Reason and Faith Domergue) to his doomed planet. The Technicolor production still stuns with imaginative visuals, and its soundtrack music, including cues by Henry Mancini, is equally essential. This Island Earth’s “interocitor” machine became as famous amongst ’50s fantasy film fans as the ultimate quote from Day the Earth Stood Still: “Klaatu barada nikto.”
Also see: Edgar C. Ulmer’s moody, sympathetic portrait of The Man From Planet X (1951) ; the bargain basement one-set wonder The Astounding She Monster (1958), with Robert C. Clarke, gangsters and a voluptuous visitor from beyond the stars; the atmospheric British chiller Devil Girl From Mars (1954), whose sexy space-travelling siren also sports her own imposing robot enforcer; and Teenagers From Outer Space (1958), which proved that juvenile delinquency had truly spread to all corners of the galaxy and the most insidious enemy was already among us.
There’s more celluloid magic in store, readers.
Check out Part Two of Will Viharo’s sci-fi cinematic escapades!
Beatnik lounge lizard and writer Will “the Thrill” Viharo and his wife, Monica “the Tiki Goddess,” host a live cult movie cabaret called “Thrillville” at the Cerrito Speakeasy Theater in El Cerrito, CA. Will also has a B-movie tiki lounge at home, where he watches his DVD collection while drinking homemade Mai Tais, the effects of which may have influenced these reviews somewhat.