REMEDIAL SF 101: It Came From Outer Space

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If alien invasion films were outgrowths of the paranoia of the Red Scare, then
It Came From Outer Space has a positively leftist theme: the protagonist doesn't want the aliens harmed by the well-meaning sheriff's posse.

The aliens' ship breaks down outside Sand Rock, Arizona, smashing a giant crater into the desert near an old played-out mine, and all they really want to do is steal the parts they need to fix their Dangerous And Very Expensive star-drive and get back on track with their original mission, which is exploring the universe.  These aliens insist that they have minds and souls and are good--despite looking like gigantic one-eyed tomato hornworms. 

They convince amateur astronomer (and not coincidentally, science-fiction writer) John Putnam that they mean no harm, even though they've kidnapped several of the local townsfolk and assumed their human forms.  This, of course, is only so that they can obtain the parts necessary to fix their space ship.  As long as nobody molests them, they will release their hostages unharmed. 

Of course, nobody believes John, least of all the local sheriff, Matt Warren, especially since Matt's ex-girlfriend Ellen is now keeping late hours with John in his place outside town.

Investigators from the press, the Army, and even an astronomer-friend of John's all come to the conclusion that the crater was made by a giant meteor, nothing more.  John is made out to be some kind of crackpot for claiming to have seen a space ship in the crater shortly before a landslide covered it up.

 

However, the sheriff finds it increasingly difficult to blow off John's story  once two telephone linemen go missing.  When Frank's doughty wife and George's smokin' hot girlfriend (and I mean it, how would a girl like her wind up dating a telephone lineman in a little hick desert town like Sand Rock, Arizona?!) show up at the police station to report that their men were acting very strange and had left on some unexplained pretext, Matt has to start paying attention.

John and Ellen had earlier encountered George acting very strangely out in the desert, and they suspect that George may have killed Frank.  George, incidentally, is played by Russell Johnson, who was making a living playing sacrificial bit parts in B-movies before he hit the big time as The Professor on Gilligan's Island

But when John, Ellen, and Matt make a very tense ride out to the desert, to look for Frank and George, the linemen and their truck are gone, and the blood John finds on the rocks is explained away by Matt finding a dead coyote under a bush.

Later, in town, John sees George and Frank walking along the street like a pair of zombies, and follows them into a blind alley, where they confront him and warn him in eerily echoing voices not to bother them.  They don't want to hurt anybody, and assure John that his friends will be OK, but if they aren't left alone there will be trouble.

John tries again to convince Sheriff Matt about the aliens, and Matt slowly begins to come around.  Why would aliens steal a telephone truck?  Because it was loaded with electrical equipment.  Earlier in the day, a hardware store was broken into, and electrical equipment was stolen.  And a prominent astronomer who had come out to study the impact crater disappears, along with three prospectors who had been working the old mine (and who looked like they'd wandered in from the set of The Lone Ranger.)

Meanwhile, Ellen is out driving alone in the desert, when Creepy Frank steps in front of her car.  She slams on the brakes and Creepy Frank gets in, and by the terrified look on Ellen's face, reveals himself to be one of the aliens.

The aliens ring up the sheriff's office to tell John that they've got Ellen.  This draws both men out to the mine, where John convinces Matt to remain with the vehicle while he goes to talk to the aliens.  Matt, you see, would just as soon shoot the visitors, which he proves by smashing a spider that John points out to him.  John explains that humans often try to kill what they don't understand, then goes out to find Ellen.

 
Ellen appears like a will-o-the-wisp, clad in an alluring strapless dress despite the desert cold (we assume it's night) and John pursues her to the mine entrance.  The aliens--speaking from the darkness--tell him again that they mean no harm, and will release the hostages as soon as their ship is repaired.  John pleads with them to reveal themselves in their true form, and he will do what he can to protect them.  The alien spokesman demurs, saying it's not the right time, and that John, a mere human, wouldn't understand.  John insists, and so the alien shuffles out, and John reacts predictably by turning away in horror.  Hey, have you ever really looked at a tomato hornworm?

Now John has to convince Matt to leave the aliens alone, or they will kill Ellen and the other human hostages.  Now that Matt believes him, he's itching to get up a posse and go fry some alien butt.  He tries to peg his irritability on the heat, in a weird soliloquy about how more murders are committed at 92 degrees than at any other temperature.  It sounds a little like a veiled threat aimed at John.

When Creepy Frank saunters by, John has to engage Matt in a fistfight to prevent him from going after Frank.  John even pulls Matt's service revolver on the sheriff.  Talk about your acts of alien and sedition!  John compounds his crimes by jumping in Matt's police car and driving out to the mine while Matt is rounding up some able-bodied men and handing out rifles.

When John gets to the mine, the doppleganger of Ellen appears before him, and tries to lure him into a deep chasm.  Even though he's come to warn them about the approaching posse, the aliens have decided that he can no longer be trusted, and so he has to die, she tells him, and whips out a ray gun and fires it at him.  In return, John shoots the false Ellen with his pistol, and the alien falls into the chasm and dissolves in the pool of water at the bottom.

John then proceeds to the place where the other aliens, "dressed" as the stolen townsfolk, are hard at work trying to fix their damaged spacecraft.  One of the aliens has even taken on the physical appearance of John himself, and sarcastically asks him if John can kill him, too.

John's double apparently is the expedition leader, and he's incensed that their peaceful mission is going to turn ugly.  Their star drive took a thousand years to develop, he says, and now they're going to have to destroy the ship in order to keep the advanced technology from falling into the hands of the ignorant, reactionary humans.  He orders the drive device to be turned on their ship.

John begs them to reconsider.  If only they will release their human captives, he will do what he can to delay the posse long enough for the aliens to finish making their repairs.

Why aliens who have a bigass space ship capable of surviving punching a huge crater into the earth, and a star drive that can fry that same ship, have anything to fear from a bunch of desert yokels with projectile handguns, is not explained.  Possibly they just don't want anybody in this backwater on a backwater to know about them.  At any rate, Double John decides to take Original John up on his offer, and releases the humans.  As they depart up the mine shaft, Double John reverts to his alien form.

I've always had problems with alien beings the size of buses who can transform into humans, but I guess that's just how shapeshifting works.  That giant in Puss And Boots turned himself into a mouse, after all.

Anyway, as they exit the mine, John asks the prospectors if there's any way to seal it off, and naturally there are some sticks of dynamite handy.

The aliens must have treated their captives well--despite being, you know, really scary and icky-looking--because none of them tell the sheriff "They're back there!  Get them!" In fact, they try to convince the sheriff that the dynamite finished them off.

Then the ground shakes, and the huge, flaming starship blasts out of the crater, and goes roaring off into the night sky.

 

This movie was originally shot for 3D, so there are some really weird camera angles.  It's also a little difficult to tell which scenes are supposed to be at night, and which are supposed to be in broad daylight, since nobody seems to have remembered to stick a blue lens on the camera to darken the shot.

Writer Ray Bradbury had not wanted the aliens to be seen at all; the movie-goer was supposed to be able to see through the alien's single, squid-like eye, a very weird effect done by shooting through a glass bowl with oil in it.  But the movie's producers demanded an alien, so certain parts of the film were re-shot.  The first design was rejected, and went on to be used as the Metalunan Mutant in This Island Earth, which is just as well because the amorphous monster they finally did use is far more frightening-looking.  It's translucent, it leaves sparkling slime-trails, and envelops its victims with a shapeless pseudopod.  It's really one of the most alien-looking aliens of the old science fiction movies, before CGI made the whole thing  much easier.  In contrast, the Metalunan Mutant looks like a bad Halloween costume.

This movie is kind of interesting, if not unique for the time, in that the aliens are not antagonistic.  They're actually kind of like a Star Trek away team that ran into difficulties and are trying to make sure they don't break the Prime Directive.  There are even two "redshirts" who get killed--John shoots the one masquerading as Ellen, and the posse runs Frank's truck off the road, causing it to explode in a flaming wreck.

The aliens try several times to convince John that they're good and mostly harmless, and he does everything short of build a replica of Devil's Tower out of mashed potatoes to get Sheriff Matt to leave the aliens alone.
 

Alas, a man with access to guns and a badge is not likely to think with his heart, especially when his job is to protect humans from threats.

Which brings me back to my opening statement.  If alien invasion films from the 1950's were inspired by the fears of a Communist take-over of America, then John can be seen as a Commie sympathiser.  He's an outsider in Sand Rock.  He's a writer.  He lives out in the desert in order to "get away from it all."  He's allegedly leading schoolmarm Ellen astray.  He believes the aliens when they tell him they're just making a pit stop, and then when they say they're not going to harm their captives, and later he obstructs a police officer trying to do his job.  Despite his clean-cut appearance, his tie and his suit jacket, John Putnam is a subversive.

There's even a sequence where John and Matt are discussing the idea of aliens who can assume human form, so you're not sure who's human, and who's an impostor.  John suggests, rather wryly, that he himself may be an alien, giving Matt false information.  You never can tell.

That's right out of the Commie-hunter's playbook.

Thing of it is, I don't know how much of this was intentional, and how much is just sixty years of hindsight. Bradbury probably just wanted to do a story about non-threatening aliens.  In fact he submitted two different versions, one with nasty aliens, and the one that got picked; when the producers chose the one they did, Bradbury thought it was the right choice, and stayed with the project.  However, there must be a reason why his works were widely admired in the old Soviet Union.  And Bradbury did get investigated in the 1960's for Communist leanings.

There's a thread of Mary Sue-ism in the story, since Bradbury lived in Arizona and his dad was a telephone lineman.  But I'm not going to pick on him, because the story he helped write (Harry Essex did the screenplay) is actually far more interesting and literate than the bulk of such monsters-among-us films from the era.  Despite the cheesy FX-ploitation title, It Came From Outer Space is a pretty good film.

Would Conservatives like it?  Well, I did, even though I kept seeing John Putnam as a bit of a bleeding-heart...but in a way, it was refreshing to see a guy trying to be friends with the icky monsters, and the icky monsters are not really all that threatening, despite appearances.  True, today, all the aliens are good, and the humans are bad, but It Came From Outer Space was where the theme began.

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