It Came from Outer Space (1953) ***Ĺ
I donít know what the hell was going on in 1953, but it was a banner year for alien invasion movies. Itís not just that a bunch of the things were released that year (although thatís certainly true), but also that that one year produced three of the finest films the subgenre has ever seen: War of the Worlds, Invaders from Mars, and It Came from Outer Space. Of the three, It Came from Outer Space is the weakest, but only by a little bit. It was based on a story by Ray Bradbury, called ďThe Meteor,Ē and it is every bit as good as you would expect a film derived from the work of an A-list sci-fi author to be. It was also part of the first 3-D movie boom, and, if the 2-D print that I saw is any indication, it is one of the most skillfully handled such films that Iíve ever seen.
Itís also one of the very few 50ís sci-fi flicks I know of whose main character is neither a scientist nor a military man. True, John Putnam (Richard Carlson, from Creature from the Black Lagoon and The Valley of Gwangi) has a big, expensive-looking telescope in his front yard, but heís only an amateur stargazer. As the movie begins, John is hanging out in the yard with his schoolteacher girlfriend, Ellen Fields (Barbara Rush, of When Worlds Collide and Moon of the Wolf), looking through that telescope when a big, low-flying meteor streaks across the sky and crashes in the desert nearby. (This must have been incredible in 3-D.) Putnam canít believe his luck. As soon as the sun rises the next morning, he and Ellen hire a helicopter from the small-time airport just outside of town and fly out to the part of the desert where John saw the meteor land. The crater, when at last they spot it, is huge, and John excitedly orders the pilot to land so that he can climb down into it and look for the meteor itself.
We know something John Putnam doesnít, though. This is no meteor at all, but rather a spaceship from another world. When it crashed the night before, one of its occupantsó an unbelievably hideous thing resembling nothing so much as a colossal head with no recognizable features beyond a single enormous eyeó crawled out of the craft and wandered off into the desert. So we are unable to share Johnís surprise when he reaches the floor of the crater and finds a gigantic metal sphere all but buried under earth and rocks. Whatís more, thereís an open hatch in the exposed part of the craft, which closes suddenly when John gets close to it, the resulting vibrations causing a rockslide that drives the armchair astronomer racing for safety. But before that hatch closed, Putnam got enough of a look inside to be certain that something was alive within the buried ship, though he didnít see it long or clearly enough to say what it might have been. That last part is unfortunate, though, because Putnam begins ranting about what he saw to Ellen and the pilot the moment he gets safely to the craterís rim, and both members of his audience have lots of questions they want him to answer before theyíll even consider believing him.
The townspeople who start showing up at the crater in response to the racket attendant on the rockslide are just as disinclined to listen to Johnís stories of crashed alien spacecraft as Ellen and the pilot, and Sheriff Matt Warren (Charles Drake, from Tobor the Great and Valley of the Dolls) is the most disinclined of the bunch. This is particularly unfortunate for John because Sheriff Warren appears to be an ex-boyfriend of Ellenís, and thus needs even less reason than the rest of the half-educated neighborhood bumpkins to start making Putnamís life difficult after he hears what the man supposedly saw at the bottom of the pit. The fact that one of the folks who rushed out to see what all the fuss was about works for the townís daily newspaper doesnít help matters any either. The very next morning, itís ďStargazer Sees Spacemen!Ē bellowing from the front page, and everybody in town is talking about that nut who lives out in the desert and spends all his nights looking up at the sky.
Even the university professor Putnam asks to have a look at the crater dismisses the notion that it was made by a crashed spaceship before even beginning to dig in the spot where John saw the craft before the rockslide buried the rest of it. But that night, Ellen at least is converted to Johnís way of thinking. As the couple drive home from their unproductive day out at the crater, they nearly run over something big as it crosses the road. Neither John nor Ellen got a good look at the thing, but they saw it clearly enough to know what it wasnít.
Then people start disappearing. Frank Daylon (Joe Sawyer, from The Walking Dead and The Day Mars Invaded Earth) and his assistant George (Russell Johnson, of Attack of the Crab Monsters and This Island Earth), the local telephone company workers, are the first to go. Something stops them by the side of the road, and leaves their truck sitting there with its doors open for John and Ellen to find when they drive by. Stopping to investigate, John and Ellen find George poking around in a rock formation just off the road, but thereís obviously something the matter with the man. He acts as if he has no idea on Earth how to talk to another person, and he keeps staring, unblinking, at the blazing sun. Not only that, John is sure he sees Frankís lifeless hand sticking out from behind one of the boulders where George had been squatting. But when he and Ellen return with Sheriff Warren, Frank, George, and the truck have all vanished.
Over the next couple of days, it becomes increasingly clear to John that aliens from the crashed ship are kidnapping people from town and impersonating them. They seem to be doing so in order to get supplies to repair their vessel, but the question is, what will the aliens do when their work is done? Are they simply here by mistake, shipwrecked interplanetary castaways? Or are they the vanguard of an invasion, a scout mission paving the way for the conquest of Earth? John, on the strength of a series of brief conversations with the space travelers, believes itís the former, and he hopes to keep the townspeople in the dark about the aliens long enough for them to fix their ship, release their hostages, and go on about their business. But eventually, the aliens kidnap enough people that even Sheriff Warren is convinced of their presence, and he naturally figures them for an invasion force. Putnam is able to hold the sheriff in check for a while, but thereís only so long he can do so. And if John is right about the aliens, the prognosis for the hostages (by now including even Ellen) is likely to be pretty bleak when Matt gets his posse together and heads off to the crater to crack extraterrestrial heads.
It Came from Outer Space stands out from the 50ís alien-invasion-movie crowd in so many ways that itís difficult to keep track of them all. For one thing, thereís the portrayal of the aliens themselves. These spacefarers are a far cry from the Martians of War of the Worlds or Invaders from Mars, but they are equally far from the stern but benevolent Klaatu of The Day the Earth Stood Still. Of all the movie aliens of the time, I believe these are the most plausibly portrayed, the ones whose actions and motivations most closely resemble what one would expect from intelligent organisms in their position. They are neither villainous conquerors led by a diabolical megalomaniac (think Earth vs. the Flying Saucers) nor beatific missionaries of interstellar peace. They are reasonable beings who have gotten themselves into trouble, and who are willing to do whatever they have to in order to get out of it again. If that means treating the natives a bit roughly, so be it. Itís refreshing to see creatures from another world portrayed in such a human light, rather than as either superior, perfected beings barely distinguishable from high-tech angels, or as Tatars from space, sweeping across the galaxy pillaging as they go.
Then again, this movieís aliens are also delightfully grotesque products of the effects technicianís art. Because their appearance is so utterly inhuman, they are far more convincing than comparably budgeted creatures of more conventional anatomy. They look less fake than they probably should because your eye has nothing to evaluate them against, no points of reference in the real world.
The human characters are also perfectly believable. John Putnamís travails as the lone intellectual in a town full of gossiping, insular, suspicious busybodies should be recognizable by anyone in America who has had the misfortune to stand out from the crowd in a less than cosmopolitan environment. But the characters on the other side of the divide are more than mere 1950ís updates of the torches-and-pitchforks thugs of the old Frankenstein movies, instinctively ready to lash out and destroy anything unfamiliar at the slightest provocation. Though his character performs roughly the same function in the story as the old anti-monster mobs, Sheriff Warrenís personality is far more nuanced than that. The aliensí conduct on Earth is, after all, far from benevolent, and Warrenís first duty is to protect the people of his town. His understanding of the situation may be erroneous, and that misunderstanding may lead him to endanger the very thing heís trying to protect, but his motives are both good and understandable, and have little to do with any knee-jerk fear of the unknown. Like the aliens themselves, Warren is only doing what he feels he has to in order to survive, and see to it that the people depending on him survive as well.
Finally, it would be remiss of me not to call a little bit of attention to the mastery director Jack Arnold displays of the 3-D process. Iíve already addressed his directorial talents in my review of his later Creature from the Black Lagoon, and those abilities are equally well in evidence here. But in contrast to Creature from the Black Lagoon (also originally shown in 3-D), It Came from Outer Space displays a strong understanding of the then-new gimmickís potential. As with Arch Obolerís earlier Bwana Devil, nearly every frame of this movie reflects a consciousness of the new compositional possibilities opened up by 3-D cinematography. In addition to the expected spectacular set-pieces (the crash-landing of the alien ship, the repeated sight of space creatures lurching out of the shadows toward the camera, the lingering look down into an underground chasm late in the film), Arnold makes a point of spatially layering the objects in the cameraís field of vision. Nowhere is this more evident than in the aerial tracking shot over the desert that opens the movie. The scenery here was clearly chosen for the complicated texture of all its surfaces, and is eye-catching even when viewed flat. It Came from Outer Space is a good enough film that it really doesnít need such embroidery, but itís still a pleasure to see the extraneous frills so well executed.