Sunday, December 24, 2017

It came from Outer Space

It came from Outer Space is a 1953 flying saucer picture, directed in a workmanlike manner by Jack Arnold and based on a story by Ray Bradbury.  `The picture enjoys a reasonably high status among critics -- it's supposedly one of the best of the genre.  I don't like the picture much and, indeed, must admit I'm not really a fan of Jack Arnold's films.  (He also made Creature from the Black Lagoon and The Incredible Shrinking Man.)

It came from Outer Space was produced by Universal Studios, renowned for its horror films in the thirties.  The German expressionist designs that made Universal pictures remarkable in that era are gone without a trace by 1953.  The shadowy, womblike grottoes in the Frankenstein and Dracula films have been replaced with well-lit cubicles, crisply designed sets that seem to be film adaptations of some kind of abstract owner's or operator's manual -- everything seems enclosed, even the outdoor shots and there are no shadows to speak of:  rather everything is bathed in a clear, anonymous and clinically bright light.  Even shots in an underground mine or purporting to be outside at night (shot in unconvincing "day for night") are executed with a weird administrative efficiency -- the shots never seem to be "realistic" but they aren't expressionistic or atmospheric either:  rather, the images present us with a series of transparent signs:  the desert set stands for the desert even though it is obviously shot indoors on a soundstage, a fireplace stands as a sign for a house, a small town, in this film Sand Rock inArizona, stands for an America besieged by alien (Communist) forces.  The signs are not only uninteresting and schematic in themselves; generally, the things they stand for are also obvious and banal. 

A science writer named Joe Putnam and his girl, Ellen, a beautiful brunette, see a meteor crash into the desert near the remote town of Sand Rock, Arizona.  The meteor has gouged out a big crater in the desert, somewhat similar to the meteor crater near Winslow, Arizona.  Joe goes into the crater, finds a space ship, and sees an alien, before a landslide covers up the UFO.  A monster, or several monsters, hustle around the desert.  When people see them -- the shots are POV from the monster's perspective (to avoid having to show the critters) -- the folk scream hysterically and collapse in puffs of white fog.  No one believes Joe's claims that the aliens are among us. The monsters are benign -- they are just borrowing people's bodies in order to collect hardware to repair their space ship.  (The people who have been borrowed for this task are affectless, talk in a monotone, and walk stiffly in tandem -- they are assembling copper wire and "metallic parts" to fix their UFO:  this aspect of the plot was later made a part of Spielberg's ET, the construction of the device improvised from hardware with which to "phone home.")  Conveniently, the monster's space-ship has fallen into the rear galleries of an abandoned mine and so the cave where the repairs are underway can be accessed through the mine adits.   This allows the protagonist to spy on the monsters from within the mine.  After about half the town is taken hostage, including Ellen, the hero's girlfriend, there is a confrontation -- by this time the monsters, who look just like zombie townspeople have constructed a very cheesy-looking death ray.  There are some tense negotiations but all is well -- the space monsters are just trying to escape and they jet away from earth leaving the hero to sententiously remarks that "someday they will return."   Many elements of this film were later incorporated into Don Siegel's 1956 sci-fi noir The Invasion of the Body Snatchers, a much better film.  It came from Outer Space is based on an plot premise that is ubiquitous in fifties sci-fi and horror films -- the idea is that we will never be able to interact cooperatively with space aliens because the damned things are just too hideously ugly. (For instance, Howard Hawks' film about a space monster found frozen in an Antarctic glacier, The Thing.)   It's probably tasteless to make this reference and unhistorical to boot, but I see this motif in terms of the struggles in this country at that time involving Civil Rights -- race is about a kind of human being who doesn't look like us, but that, nonetheless, has all our rights and responsibilities.  Films like It came from Outer Space and The Thing (among a hundred others) posit that we can't get along with aliens because they look different from us and we find them esthetically unappealing.  It's interesting to note that this motif has vanished from recent films -- no one has any problem with the octopus-monsters in Denis Villeneuve's Arrival because they are ugly.  The problem with the theory that ugliness necessarily breeds conflict is that we live in a world full of things like centipedes and tarantulas and scorpions and the mere existence of the genre of the giant insect movie demonstrates that people are very, very fascinated with what seems ugly and alien to them.  The monstrous and ugly exercise a strong appeal -- otherwise, why would be there such things as freak shows?  Accordingly, the whole premise for many 1950's horror and science fiction films seems fundamentally flawed.  One is reminded of Marlene Dietrich's exclamation after the Beast has turned into the Prince in Jean Cocteau's Beauty and the Beast:  "Give me back my beautiful beast."  In Arnold's film, the space critters are disembodied large foreheads with a single small eye and, perhaps, some ivy-like tentacles dangling from their Easter Island-sized jumbo brow -- the creatures aren't even frightening; they just look ridiculous.  Originally made in 3D, the picture has the UFO fly straight into the lens to explode, features some impressive rock falls with boulders lurching at the audience, and, finally, not one but two helicopter landings in which the helicopter seems to land right in your lap. 

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