Ray BradburyRichard CarlsonCharles DrakeBarbara Rush
It Came From Outer Space
Medium: film
Year: 1953
Director: Jack Arnold
Writer: Ray Bradbury, Harry Essex
Keywords: SF
Country: USA
Actor: Richard Carlson, Barbara Rush, Charles Drake, Joe Sawyer, Russell Johnson, Kathleen Hughes
Format: 81 minutes
Url: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0045920/
Website category: SF
Review date: 8 March 2011
It's good. I'm hardly a fan of 1950s SF, but that was a decent movie.
The secret is that Ray Bradbury wrote the script. (The final screenplay is credited to someone called Harry Essex, but as far as I can tell all he did was dialogue rewrites.) Anyway, we thus for once have an actual writer involved, someone who understands that a plot requires human involvement. There's a bit of "they don't believe me!" but not so much that I wanted to kill people. Noteworthy things about this film include:
1 - the hero (Richard Carlson) is neither a scientist nor a military man. Instead he's an amateur astronomer who makes a poor living by freelance articles and hasn't married his girlfriend (Barbara Rush) because he's worried about being able to support her.
2 - he doesn't spend half the film attempting to persuade the authorities. Instead there's a sheriff. His name's Matt and he's played by Charles Drake. The two of them certainly have a fine old ding-dong together, but Drake also happens to be an abrasive semi-redneck who could be said to be as dangerous as the aliens. There's a scene near the end in which Carlson's trying to stop Drake from being stupid, which starts with some fairly intense pressure and ends in the two hitting each other. Drake's speech about the temperature at which people are the most likely to commit murder... whew.
3 - the film's last act involves drama for the protagonists, instead of the scriptwriter airlifting in the U.S. Army to shoot hell out of the aliens until they're dead.
4 - the aliens themselves. Bear in mind that this is the 1950s. Aliens normally come in two varieties: (a) slavering monsters, or (b) infallible saints who've come to save us from our narrow-minded human follies. There are exceptions (e.g. This Island Earth), but not many. These aliens though are far more believable, with an agenda of their own and a fairly peremptory attitude towards mankind. They're benevolent, in their way, but arrogant. They make their own lives harder by kidnapping people unnecessarily, not taking into account the locals' reactions and then making a pig's ear of where the situation ends up going. They have no interest in mankind at all, actually. They hadn't wanted to land here and their objective is simply to get off our rock again as soon as possible. Personally I thought they were stupid, but they're certainly far more complex creations than, say, Them! or Klaatu.
Things like this make a difference. The result is that this feels like a real movie, which I hadn't expected. I could have lived with a bit less screen time given over to Carlson being called a liar, but at least Bradbury has a mildly interesting angle on the formula. There's a bit of a media circus. Journalists ask obnoxious questions. The army and the university briefly poke their noses in. Furthermore this isn't New York or Washington, but some scraggy town in the middle of the desert, so people aren't worried about what the government will do so much as Barbara Rush not turning up to her classes as the local schoolteacher to help Carlson investigate.
The desert's an important feature in the movie, actually. They're always talking about it. It's nearly as integral as, say, the Arctic in The Thing from Another World. It's lonely and intimidating. The heat is oppressive and it has spooky Joshua trees. Look out also for the "15 years in the desert" speech from a man up a telegraph pole.
So that's the script, which I like. The production I like too. It's always enjoyable to watch a black-and-white movie, but this one has the additional feature of also being Universal's first one in 3D. The director was Jack Arnold, famous for his 1950s science fiction films like Creature from the Black Lagoon, Tarantula and The Incredible Shrinking Man. (I really want to see the latter, by the way.) This obviously isn't as beautiful as Creature from the Black Lagoon, but it's still a classy piece of work that never looks cheap or lazy. The only production hiccup I can identify is the very occasional scene in which people won't quite be meshing with Carlson. The actors' line deliveries will individually be fine, but together they don't work. Ah well. Those are just a few moments, mostly towards the beginning with Dave Willock as Pete the helicopter guy, and it's hardly more than a nitpick anyway.
The actors are solid, incidentally. Carlson has charm and he'd go on to do quite well out of 1950s SF movies, eventually also becoming a director and screenwriter. Barbara Rush even won a Golden Globe as "most promising female newcomer" for this film, while I liked the slut (Kathleen Hughes).
The alien creature designs are something special, by the way. Universal's make-up department submitted two designs, of which the rejected one was later used for the mutant in This Island Earth. They made the right decision. The mutant from This Island Earth works really well in the context of the film, but it's still basically a guy in a suit and in photographs it's very funny indeed. These aliens though are freaky. Even after seeing them twice, I couldn't tell what I was looking at.
Then there's the fact that Bradbury's doing Invasion of the Body Snatchers, beating Jack Finney to it by a year. I wouldn't be surprised if this was an influence, actually. (Alternatively, given the political atmosphere of the time and the McCarthy hearings, maybe it was inevitable that this theme would appear in films and novels?) It's only a SF story element rather than the basis of an outright horror story, as in Finney's novel, but that's interesting in itself. Bradbury's using the idea for very different purposes and one day I might rewatch this and the 1956 Invasion of the Body Snatchers back to back, as a double bill. That sounds like fun.
The ending doesn't make a lot of sense. The aliens are on the point of destroying their spaceship to keep it out of human hands, but about sixty seconds later it's ready for take off! The humans weren't that near anyway! Presumably what we see is a emergency lift-off, putting strain on the ship and possibly endangering the lives of its crew, but that's still not enough to sell the earlier "blow up the ship" scene. My theory is that they were bullshitting Carlson.
This is a good film, not a great one. It's not transcending its genre, but merely being a well-made and unusually thoughtful example of it. I liked it. It's atmospheric and even elegant. Its aliens are creepy, if not perhaps a bit scary, and its characterisation is more deft and interesting than you'd expect. Fundamentally though, I like its story. It's about an avoidable conflict, in which idiots on two sides bring themselves to a position where they're trying to kill each other for no good reason. There's a speech about what man doesn't understand, he destroys, but the aliens don't have the moral high ground either. I like the characters and I also like the occasionally resonant dialogue, which I'm going to assume was by that fine and lovely writer, Ray Bradbury.
"Wouldn't it be a fine trick if I weren't really John Putnam at all?"
"More than odd, Bob, individual and lonely. A man who thinks for himself."