Monday, October 29, 2012

Movie Monday: The "Klaatu barada nikto" Edition

So, I'm thinking about 1950s "flying saucer" movies today. I probably do that more than most people, since I was brought up on science fiction films, but today's reflections on the genre, or sub-genre, I suppose, since there were other types of science fiction movies that were popular in the Fifties, were prompted by my viewing last night of "Earth vs. the Flying Saucers" (1956) on Turner Classic Movies.

It's the time of year for movies like this, I suppose, since we're only a couple of days from Halloween. This is when all of the science fiction, horror, monster, and slasher movies get dragged out of the vaults in an attempt to scare the living daylights out of us. But, I'm always happiest to see this particular sub-genre, even though I've seen the three films I'm highlighting here today countless times.

No, really. I've lost track of the number of times I've seen "Earth vs. the Flying Saucers", "Invaders from Mars" (1953), and the granddaddy of them all, "The Day the Earth Stood Still" (1951). You see, we had this thing called the Million Dollar Movie on channel 9 when I was growing up in Southern California. Every week the show would present a movie, and then show it every weeknight and two or three times each on Saturday and Sunday. People complain now about how often cable movie channels, especially, show particular films, but for those of us who grew up in SoCal in the 1960s, it isn't a new thing at all.

Anyway, those three movies got shown a lot on the Million Dollar Movie, and I'd be right there watching them. Now, I might not watch every weeknight, but I'd see the movie of the week at least two or three times on the weekend. Since all three movies were in fairly heavy rotation there, I saw them frequently.

Actually, "Earth vs. the Flying Saucers" is my least favorite of the three. I think that mostly has to do with the fact that the main female character, Carol Marvin (played by Joan Taylor) spends most of her time either screaming or hiding her face in the chest of her husband, Dr. Russel A. Marvin (played by Hugh Marlowe). Dr. Marvin, who is in charge of Project Skyhook, which puts research satellites into orbit, is the one chosen by invading aliens to be their contact with the governments of Earth. This puts him in danger from both the aliens and from his bosses in the government, who order him not to contact the aliens as they have requested. Of course, this being Hollywood, he goes ahead and contacts them anyway. There is a climactic saucer attack on Washington, D.C., the saucers are defeated through the ingenuity of human (American, of course) science, and the day...and the saved.

Earth is also under attack in "Invaders from Mars", but the aliens in this film are much stealthier than those in "Earth vs. the Flying Saucers". In this one, the Martian ship burrows into a sandpit near where a boy, David MacLean (played by Jimmy Hunt), lives with his parents. David sees the landing, but when he tells his parents the next morning, they pass off his story as a dream. But David soon sees changes in his parents and tries to get help. Of course, none of the adults he goes to with his story believe him. Some of them have already been taken over by the aliens, and others just regard him as a boy with an overactive imagination. Again, finally the day is saved...maybe. One of the cool things about this movie is that the resolution, at least in the American version, is left ambiguous. Was it a dream? Was it real? And, if it was real, is the invasion really over?

There was a remake of "Invaders from Mars" in 1986. It is not nearly as good as the 1953 original, which was made on a budget of around $293,000. Possibly the only notable thing about the remake is that Jimmy Hunt, who played David in the original has a one-line role as a police chief in the remake.

There was also a recent remake of "The Day the Earth Stood Still". I've avoided it on general principles, seeing as the original, from 1951, is a classic. I wrote an argumentative paper for a critical thinking course once which argued that the original 1951 film is not only the ultimate first-contact movie, but the perfect science fiction film. It is a little different from "Earth vs. the Flying Saucers" and "Invaders from Mars" in that the aliens here are not invaders, exactly. Instead, they have noticed that scientists here on Earth have developed nuclear weapons, and have used them, and they are concerned that we are going to carry those weapons, and their destructive power, out into the rest of the universe. A representative of the aliens, Klaatu (played by Michael Rennie), has been sent to Earth to warn its inhabitants that if we insist on exporting our violent tendencies and weapons into space, the Earth will be destroyed. But, Klaatu is injured by a trigger-happy soldier and taken to a government hospital. He escapes, of course, and turns up at a boarding house claiming to be a Mr. Carpenter. He befriends a boy (played Billy Gray) and his mother (played by Patricia Neal) who live there, much to the dismay of the woman's boyfriend (played by Hugh Marlowe), who is convinced that Mr. Carpenter is up to no good.

The escape of the spaceman is big news, of course, and it doesn't take long for the boy to start suspecting that Mr. Carpenter might be the spaceman. With the boy's help, Klaatu/Carpenter contacts Dr. Barnhardt (Sam Jaffe), an Einstein-like figure, and charges him with bringing the world's leaders together so that he can deliver his ultimatum. But no one believes the scientist and Klaatu must arrange for a demonstration to convince the world that they must listen. The message is delivered, but Klaatu is killed. But, being alien, there is technology that resurrects him, at least temporarily, and Klaatu and Gort fly off, leaving Earth to make their decision.

It has been said that there are allusions to Christianity in the character of Klaatu because he takes the name Carpenter and then is resurrected after being killed despite his message promoting peace in the universe. Screenwriter Edmund North has been reported as saying that he did insert the references deliberately, but as a sort of subliminal private joke rather than as a serious theme of the film. But, the story goes that the references were overt enough that the Motion Picture Association of America censor at the studio (20th Century Fox) objected to them and a line was inserted into the film which indicated that Klaatu's resurrection was only temporary.

So. Flying saucer movies. Of course, all three of these movies contain overtones, one way or the other, of the Cold War that raged during the 1950s and beyond. These are interesting, just like the allusions to Christianity in "The Day the Earth Stood Still" are interesting. But, ultimately, and overtones and allusions aside, all three of these movies are just plain good fun. Some are better than others, but all three are classics of their genre, a permanent part of pop culture, and stand on those credentials alone.

Do yourself a favor. If you haven't seen them, give them a look. If you haven't seen them in a while, revisit them. You'll probably be glad you did.

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