Best 1950s Sci-Fi Films You Have to See
Arguably one of the finest decades for cult movies, the 1950s witnessed a number of great book adaptations and powerful scripts that are worthy of the moniker: classics. One aspect of science fiction that attracts me it can be used to present different views of how we engage in modern life, testing our morality, our vision and our culture while promoting an outlook greater than that just outside our immediate surroundings. This was what was going through my mind when I took advantage of some California car hire on my holiday around Hollywood.
After much thinking and head scratching I’ve compiled this list of my top ten 1950s science fiction films you just have to see.
War of the Worlds
One of my all-time favourite novels, HG Wells crafted an extraordinary tale of relentless invasion of England by Martians in Victorian England. The George Pal film changes the location of modern day America and the alien war machines now glide, rather than walk, across the Earth. While many liberties have been taken with the novel, the film portrays a potent political message that was as true in Wells’ time as it was in the 50s. The denouement where the relentless Martians are defeated by Nature and nothing of Human endeavour serves as a reminder that we, as a race, are not as dominant as we would like to think ourselves. With two film adaptations, a two season television series and a musical; ‘The War of the Worlds’ maintains a prominent position in sci-fi history.
The Thing from another World
Based on the short story ‘Who Goes There?’ by John W Campbell Jr, this is another film that takes liberties with the original but considering Campbell wrote the treatment for the producers I’ll let it pass. Much of current television and movie output is informed by what is happening in the world right now. Science fiction in particular is one of the best media to use to convey a message through allegory and to stimulate the public’s conscience. The 1950s were no different. It was a time of great uneasiness between the USA and the USSR, America’s worry over communism and the ‘enemy within’ was an omnipresent factor of the day.
The ‘enemy within’ is no longer a parable on communism but touches on uncontrolled immigration and acts of terrorism carried out by your own country’s citizens. Such is the strength of the tale that it is little wonder that a further film was produced in the 80s and a new prequel film is to be released in the latter half of 2011.
Quatermass and the Pit
A quintessential British hero – and unusually for early sci-fi – a prominent scientist who is not a mad professor, Bernard Quatermass of the British Rocket Group learns that the human race are actually Martians that have been settled here. An unsettling idea and a prophetic one which has gathered hints of possibility in recent years with the potential of life-starting matter being found in comets and Martian meteorites.
Earth vs. the Flying Saucers
This is one of the best early flying saucer flicks; notable for its excellent special effects, courtesy of maestro Ray Harryhausen (who unfortunately went on to say in his autobiography that this was his least favourite film to work on). ‘Earth vs. the Flying Saucers’ was inspired by the 1953 non-fiction book ‘Flying Saucers from Outer Space’ by retired U.S. Marine Corps Major Donald E. Keyhoe, who believed that certain aerial phenomena were interplanetary in origin.
The Day the Earth Stood Still
‘Klaatu barada nikto!’ Sorry, but you just can’t mention this film without the stand down instruction to Gort. It’s sort of traditional. This tale is based on ‘Farewell to the Master’, a short story by Harry Bates. Michael Rennie, as the protagonist, puts in an amazing compulsive-viewing performance as the Christ-like alien who comes to Earth offering salvation before dying and then being resurrected. In case this allegory is too subtle, the fact that he adopts the name; Mr Carpenter, should add enough weight to it.
The Incredible Shrinking Man
Think of an episode of ‘The Twilight Zone’ and you’ll probably remember he one with the gremlin on the wing of the aeroplane. How about the film ‘Duel’ where Dennis Weaver is chased by a murderous driver in an old petrol tanker? It’s imagery like this that makes Richard Matheson’s work so memorable. In ‘The Incredible Shrinking Man’ Grant Williams plays a character that, after exposure to radioactive dust, begins to shrink. It’s not just the effects and the eerie believability that the film carries, it’s also the nihilistic unstoppable sequence of events that really draw you in and wonder how the heck he’s going to survive.
The Jeff Goldblum gorefest remake is probably better remembered than this movie. However, for sheer psychological impact this film is more effective. David Hedison’s screaming of ‘Help meeeee’ as he loses his personality is genuinely terrifying. This is one of the first ‘body horror’ genre films and it’s easy to see why David Cronenberg chose to remake it.
When you imagine sci-fi flicks of the 50’s then ‘Forbidden Planet’ is right up there. Essentially a version of Shakespeare’s ‘The Tempest’ but with spaceships, ray guns, robots and alien planets (and a straight Leslie Nielsen) this movie combined a multi-layered plot and an alien menace that cleverly wasn’t alien.
Many films of this era preyed upon the worry of radiation and the effects of atom bombs. Commonly this was dramatised by monstrous growth of everyday arthropods (spiders, bees, ants) and size changing humans. Where ‘Them!’ stood out though was its clever build up of threat and menace together with script and performances that made you believe in the story.
Invasion of the Body Snatchers
I couldn’t do a top ten without having this gem being present. If you have been lucky enough to see the original film without the tacked on Hollywood happy ending then this Jack Finney tale will stay with you forever. It’s of the McCarthy communism ‘enemy within’ paranoia ilk again. With at least nine remakes/parodies and two separate but derivative television series, the public fascination with alien takeover by the back door and substitution will undoubtedly be remade for each new generation.