The motive behind aliens visiting the Earth in movies varies from the benevolent and often misunderstood aliens, to the outright malevolent creatures with the destruction of mankind on their evil little minds, and in 1953 Universal released their first 3D picture with extra-terrestrial beings that kind of fell in the middle of that spectrum, they weren’t here to conqueror the Earth, but they also weren’t collecting for the Intergalactic Red Cross either.
Based on an idea from producer William Alland, which science fiction icon Ray Bradbury fleshed out into a taught little sci-fi drama, It Came From Outer Space deals with an average man trying to deal with an extraordinary situation, while also being heckled by the locals for his beliefs.
Prior to this film the scientist character in movies were rarely portrayed in a good light – either they were of the “mad scientist” variety working on some experiment that was an affront to God and nature or they were blind to the dangers of alien invaders – and they tended to ignore the advice of the hero by wanting to learn from our cosmic cousin, instead of killing them, even if said cousins were plant based and seemingly bent on eating us. In the case of It Came From Outer Space we were introduced to amateur astronomer John Putnam (Richard Carlson), who for years afterwards would be the model for the hero scientist, a man who could come up with a way to defeat the alien menace, using his brain and relying on just brawn. The appearance of such a man in these movies was almost standardized, he was good looking, smoked a pipe, had patches on the elbows of his jacket, and normally came attached with a cute assistant or beautiful girlfriend.
When Putnam, and his schoolteacher girlfriend Ellen Fields (Barbara Rush), witness a large meteorite crash near the small town of Sand Rock Arizona, the two become the Nick and Nora Charles of alien investigations. Unfortunately Putman is new to the area and thus not to be trusted by the locals – the residents of the nearby town mostly laugh at his claims that he saw an alien craft imbedded in the crater the “meteor” left – but when people start to disappear Sheriff Matt Warren (Charles Drake) starts to take Putnam seriously. The fact that the sheriff rather dislikes Putnam, which seemed to be based on his jealously of Putnam’s relationship with Ellen, results in the two becoming reluctant partners. The odd thing here is that once the sheriff gets on board with the whole “aliens walk among us” idea Putnam suddenly insists they do nothing. In an almost regression to the “blinded by science” character Putnam informs the sheriff that the aliens mean no harm, and that once their ship is fixed they will go home.
Unlike the invaders from War of the Worlds these aliens haven’t come to kick us off our planet, but they are also not of “benevolent” nature of say Klatuu from The Day the Earth Stood Still, the visitors in It Came From Outer Space simply crash landed on Earth, and they are just doing their best to repair the spacecraft so they can get the hell out of Dodge. To fix their ship they’ve been snatching the locals so that they could assume their Earthly forms so as to make the “acquiring” of parts a little easier, small towns being notorious for not helping illegal aliens. The key issue here is that aliens never asked for help they just took what they needed, and screw those backward yokels for a bag of crisps. Worse is that when Putnam finally learns from the aliens the truth of the situation – aliens who have also just kidnapped poor Ellen – they inform our hero that only non-interference will result in the safe return of the townsfolk, and if they are interfered with things could get rather unpleasant. This point is hit home when an alien wearing his girlfriend’s face basically states, “This is a nice planet, shame if something were too happen to it.” So these aren’t your typical good aliens – picture E.T. The Extra-terrestrial holding Elliot’s family hostage until he was able to phone home – and you get the gist of this story. Now the reason the aliens have to sneak around stealing people is that they are horrific one-eyed creatures, and as they are also of an intelligent race they know exactly how mankind would reactor to outer space visitors who look as they do.
These aliens aren’t so much evil as they are dicks. Not only do they kidnap people and steal their identities, but when poor beleaguered Putnam tracks them into the mine – with the Sheriff’s help – they attempt to kill him while wearing his girlfriend’s form. Which is totally not cool. Not to mentioned the fact that these shapeshifting one-eyed aliens aren’t able to reproduce the clothing of their abductees, so they are forced to later break into their victim’s homes and steal some of their duds, and that’s beyond rude.
It Came From Outer Space is the kind of solid science fiction story that one would expect from a treatment written by Ray Bradbury – though the screenplay is credited to Harry Essex most believe he simply changed some of the dialog and put his name on it – and with director Jack Arnold at the helm it’s no surprise that this film has become a classic. Despite the studios insistence that we see the aliens – both Bradbury and Jack Arnold were against the idea – the film manages to be as thought provoking as it is fun, and this is also the film that Spielberg said most inspired him to make Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
Of course one of the more memorable elements of this film is the 3D effects – I’m happy to say they are quite good – and they rarely go for the “coming at ya” gimmick that plagues most films of this kind, but instead they work on creating a sense of depth the 3D process can provide. At eighty minutes it’s a fast moving story that never gets bogged down – Richard Carlson is constantly rushing from one crisis to the next with the untrusting sheriff hot on his heels – until the film reaches its Earth shattering conclusion, or I should say non-Earth shattering if our hero succeeds. It Came From Outer Space is a genre classic that has earned its spot amongst the greats, and one I can highly recommend.
Special shout out to Russell Johnson who plays a telephone lineman that gets abducted by the aliens. Kids today would most recognize him as The Professor from Gilligan’s Island.
Bad Science Moment: It’s not a 50s science fiction movie if somebody isn’t spouting off some scientific gibberish that makes little to no sense, in the case of this movie we get a local university professor who disputes Putman’s claim that an alien craft made the crater, and not simply a meteor that everyone else assumes it was. The professor states all the evidence points to it being a meteor, “There’s no sign of excessive radiation anywhere in the area. Odd, wouldn’t you say for something coming from outer space?” Umm, If I’m not mistaken don’t meteors also come from outer space? Somebody really needs to check that dudes credentials.
It Came From Outer Space (1953)
It Came From Outer Space is one of my favorite science fiction films of the 50s as it’s both smart and a little goofy, a blend that I particularly love.