Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Illustration for article titled A Ray Bradbury sci-fi classic has empathy and inventive special effects to spare
Photo: Moviepix (Getty Images)

Watch This offers movie recommendations inspired by new releases, premieres, current events, or occasionally just our own inscrutable whims. This week: With A Quiet Place Part II postponed, check out these earlier movies about hostile alien invaders, all available to rent digitally or stream from home.

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It Came From Outer Space (1953)

Released during the mid-1950s’ twin craze for sci-fi and 3D, It Came From Outer Space opens with what looks like a fiery meteor streaking through the sky and crashing into the Arizona desert. The impact forms an enormous crater, at the bottom of which amateur astronomer John Putnam (Richard Carlson) finds a strange object—one with too many perfectly hexagonal shapes to be anything but artificial. Before he can explore further, however, an avalanche buries the craft beneath additional rubble, making it impossible for anyone to confirm his crazy story of possible aliens among us. We know it’s true, though. Not merely because we saw the spaceship, but because the movie starts intermittently adopting the aliens’ point of view, showing humanity as seen through the distorted lens of their own cyclops-style eyes.

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That’s unusual for the era, but typical of Ray Bradbury, who by that point had already published The Martian Chronicles (in which earthlings are the invaders). Harry Essex gets sole screenwriting credit for It Came From Outer Space, but Bradbury conceived the film’s story; it’s long been speculated that he actually wrote most of the script himself, with Essex simply revising the dialogue. In any case, this is a tale of inadvertent invasion that empathizes heavily with its ostensible threat, even as the aliens proceed to kidnap the nearby town’s residents and assume their forms. Jack Finney’s novel The Body Snatchers was still two years away from publication, but Bradbury here concocts a more benign variation on the same idea, with various actors voiding themselves of all emotion to create a palpable sense of unease. At one point, our hero, already suspicious, says “so long” to a human-looking alien (played by Russell Johnson, later famous as Gilligan’s Island’s Professor), and the alien’s stilted reply—“Soooo long”—feels almost Lynchian.

Not that the aliens always look human. Director Jack Arnold (Creature From The Black Lagoon) invests enough energy in the 3D presentation that it comes across even in 2D: super-long telescopes thrust into our field of vision, a helicopter’s rotors whirring dangerously close in the foreground, etc. (Recent home releases also include the film’s original intermission, which seems superfluous given that it’s only 80 minutes long, but was necessary at the time because 3D employed both of theaters’ two projectors at once, necessitating a reel change after about an hour.) But Arnold and his F/X team also put real imagination into their depiction of an otherworldly life form. Glimpses of the aliens in their true form are kept to a minimum, and generally semi-obscured, but the translucent, gelatinous single-eyed slug-creature design looks quite impressive by ’50s standards. So does the recurring use of Thing-O-Vision (not an actual term), which fits the lens with some sort of wobbly, transparent filter approximating alien eye jelly. The creatures even leave a glittery snail trail in their wake, in the movie’s most pleasingly fanciful touch.

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As is often the case with science fiction classics, you’ll need to tolerate some wooden acting and clunky dialogue. Carlson (who also stars in Black Lagoon) looks and sounds like Phil Hartman with every comedic instinct surgically removed, and the script is full of nonsensical lines like “If we’ve been seeing things” (i.e., imagining the aliens), “it’s because we did see them.” On the other hand, the local sheriff (Charles Drake) somewhat incongruously tells Putnam that more murders are committed at 92° F than any other temperature (“Lower temperatures, people are easygoing; over 92, it’s too hot to move”)—a thought memorable enough to have inspired Siouxsie And The Banshees’ 1986 song “92°,” which samples Drake’s lines. Mostly, It Came From Outer Space still delights with its quaint yet visionary notion of extraterrestrial life, as well as Bradbury’s atypically anti-xenophobic worldview. And lovers of spooky ’50s theremin-based scores will be treated with all that they can handle and more.

Availability: It Came From Outer Space is available to rent from Amazon Prime, Google Play, iTunes, YouTube, and VUDU. It’s also streaming on History’s Vault for some reason, and available via Hoopla from some libraries.

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