Tag Archives: Science Fiction

Top 100 Films #84 – Metropolis (1927)

 

image-w1280#84. Metropolis (1927)
Directed by: Fritz Lang
Written by: Thea von Harbou, Fritz Lang (based on Metropolis by Thea von Harbou)
Starring: Alfred Abel, Gustav Frohlich, Rudolf Klein-Rogge, Brigitte Helm

In 1927, Fritz Lang unleashed one of the most important, most ambitious science fiction films ever made.  Metropolis is recognized as one of the first works of the sci-fi genre, and continues to entertain and thrill audiences around the world. The epic story follows young Freder (Gustav Frohlich), the son of Metropolis’ master Joh Fredersen (Alfred Abel), as he joins the ranks of the city’s oppressed working class.  He meets a woman named Maria (Brigitte Helm), who serves as inspiration to the city’s working class citizens, inspiring them to rise up and take control.  Fritz Lang’s epic film spans nearly 2 ½ hours, but never feels too long or bloated – instead mesmerizing the audience with its incredible sets, inspiring and universally relatable message, and dazzling special effects.  Much of Metropolis was thought to be lost until 2008, when a large portion of the film’s missing scenes were discovered in an Argentinian museum and restored for the public. This new and nearly complete version of the film is the best possible way to experience Metropolis, making the already epic film seem even larger in scope and scale.  My personal highlight of the film has always been the performance of Brigitte Helm, who plays dual roles in the film – the innocent and inspiring Maria, and her mischievous, rebellious robotic counterpart.  Helm’s performance holds up to this day, and really stands out as being exceptional in a silent film full of typically exaggerated and larger than life performances.  If you’re a science fiction fan, you owe it to yourself to discover the roots of the incredible genre. Even with minor scenes still missing from the film, Metropolis is still a masterpiece nearly 100 years after its initial release – I can only hope that someday we get to see a definitive version.

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50’s Sci-Fi Feature #6 – The Blob (1958)

c2399714c67c31cf8024534d98bd2d5dThe Blob (1958)
Directed by: Irvin Yeaworth
Written by: Kay Linaker, Theodore Simonson (Story by Irving H. Millgate)
Starring: Steve McQueen, Aneta Corsaut, Earl Rowe, Olin Howland, Stephen Chase

When you hear the description “characterless, personalityless ball of red slime terrorizes a small Pennsylvania town”, do you get excited for the nearly 90 minute journey that is 1958’s The Blob?  Contrary to what my disappointed sarcasm may convey, The Blob was the film I was most excited to see during our epic 50’s Sci-Fi marathon. Boy, did I set myself up for one of the bigger disappointments of my tenure as an amateur movie blogger.  Originally paired with a similarly low budget science fiction effort entitled I Married a Monster from Outer Space, The Blob eventually proved to be too successful to only serve as a drive-in B-flick.  Directed by the virtually unknown Irvin Yeaworth, who made a career out of directing and producing lower budget sci-fi fare like 4D Man and Dinosaurus!, as well as hundreds of short religious and educational films and videos, it’s a wonder how The Blob was nearly as successful and memorable as it eventually became.  More notable than its director, the film stars one of Hollywood’s greatest early action stars in Steve McQueen.  With an unestablished cast and crew, The Blob is something of an oddity when compared to the five other films we’ve had the pleasure of covering.  The script features none of the smart subtext or social commentary found in many of those previous films, and the film brings few original ideas or set pieces to the table.  So why is it that we’re still talking about the movie more than fifty years after its release?  That’s a great question, maybe somebody reading this review will be able to answer it for me, because I’m all out of ideas.  Made on a meager budget of just over $100,000, The Blob was a tremendous financial success, grossing more than $4 million at the box office. The most notable thing about the film (apart from its surprising financial success), is the fact that it helped to launch the career of future mega star Steve McQueen.  The Blob served as McQueen’s major motion picture debut, and the film’s success likely aided him in scoring bigger projects like The Magnificent Seven.  In his debut, the nearly 30-year old future star of Bullitt unconvincingly plays a teenager who tries to save the town from the slow-moving alien gloopy gloop.  Irvin Yeaworth’s classic film was remade thirty years later under the same title, taking a slightly darker crack at the story.  While 1988’s reimagining of The Blob has managed to accrue a rabid cult following, that film somehow managed to be an even bigger flop both critically and financially.  Studios have been looking at re-launching the premise for a third attempt for decades now, so it’s only a matter of time before The Blob hits the big screen once again.

The Blob begins with teenagers lovers Steve Andrews (Steve McQueen) and Jane Martin (Aneta Corsaut) doing what young people in love do best down at the ol’ lovers’ lane.  The pair are soon interrupted by a nosy meteor that crashes nearby, so they decide to chase after it.  We cut to an old man who finds the meteor before the young couple can, and discovers that it is filled with a jelly-like substance.  In the blink of an, the substance latches itself onto the man’s hand. Unable to remove it from his skin, the old man runs into the road where Steve and Jane nearly hit him.  Finding the man in a state of shock, the young couple decides to bring him to the local doctor in order to have it checked out.  Once at his office, Doctor Hallen (Stephen Chase) takes the patient in and asks Steve and Jane to go back out and find the crashed meteor.  Almost as soon as our lead characters have left the doctor’s office, the blob fully consumes the old man and goes after the doctor and his nurse.  By the time Steve and Jane make it back, it’s too late.  By now, the blob has become even greater in size and speed, and is quickly making its way through every living thing in the rural Pennsylvania town. Our two teenage (you’re still a teen at 27, right?) heroes manage to amass a small band of friends to track down the blob and stop it at any cost.  They manage to track the blob to Steve’s father’s grocery store, but are overpowered and cornered by the strange mass.  When they emerge, the two realize that the blob has made its way to the local movie theater, where hundreds of unsuspecting townspeople have no idea that the horrific and certain death is slowly creeping towards them.  Can Steve and Jane save their friends and family from the creeping terror, or will the blob of unknown origins prove to be too much for humans to stop?  Find out in 1958’s The Blob!

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Steve Andrews (Steve McQueen) and Jane Martin (Aneta Corsaut) as our two lead characters in 1958’s The Blob.

If you haven’t been able to tell up to this point, I have to break the news and let you know that I didn’t get a whole lot out of The Blob.  Maybe my expectations were too high going into the film, or maybe my previous viewing of the 1988 remake gave me more of a lust for blood and horror, or maybe it simply isn’t a great film worthy of decades of praise and analysis.  Whatever the reason, I’m at the very least glad that I’ve finally crossed it off the never ending list of films to see.  While The Blob isn’t the worst film I’ve ever sat through (I watched it twice, for what it’s worth), it’s riddled with too many problems for me to consider it worthy of the amount of praise it’s received in the 58 years since its release.  The premise of the film is incredibly unique and full of potential, but the screenplay and uninspired direction neuters most of what could have been so great about a killer alien blob.  Instead of taking an exciting and thrilling approach to the looming terror of the blob, the film spends a LOT of time just kind of…idle.  Even though we spend a lot of time with Steve and Jane, we never really get to know who they are.  Most of their key character traits are delivered to the audience through laborious expository scenes, making them infinitely less interesting or compelling than if the script had taken a subtle, natural approach.  With no assistance from the script, lead actor Steve McQueen displays almost none of the charisma or charm that would make him a Hollywood icon later in his career. Nobody in The Blob feels remotely believable in the roles they’ve been given.  I suppose it doesn’t help the immersion factor when we’re given a cast of people in their mid-late 20’s playing kids in their late teens.  When things finally get exciting and the film is reaching its boiling point, I found myself not caring anymore because the buildup left too much to be desired.  Instead of building to a reveal of the blob, we see the creature (?) immediately, and see everything it’s capable of doing within the first thirty minutes of the film.  By giving us everything we could possibly want upfront and leaving few questions unanswered, the filmmakers give viewers very little to grasp onto for the last hour or so.  The blob itself is a great idea in theory, but the film’s special effects just look silly and cheap when the camera lingers too long – which it often does. On the plus side, The Blob features some incredibly vivid and bright colour photography courtesy of De Luxe color and cinematographer Thomas E. Spalding.  The photography makes watching the film incredibly easy, as it constantly looks interesting despite featuring bland (sometimes almost non-existent) direction.  Luckily, director Irvin Yeaworth manages to get a few scenes right.  Specifically, the famous movie theatre set piece is something that just has to be seen by horror or sci-fi fans.  The tension in these scenes is palpable, and feels unlike anything else found in The Blob.  The creeping horror brings a great deal of real dread with it, and makes it without a doubt the most memorable thing about the film.  The shots of the blob oozing through the movie theatre’s ventilation system is horrifying and subtle, and as a viewer you feel for every single person unknowingly sitting in the dark with the thing.  If only the movie as a whole was as great as these moments.

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The culmination of The Blob‘s famous movie theater set piece.

The amount of love and praise given to The Blob over the years is something I just can’t wrap my mind around.  While I see a lot about the film to enjoy or appreciate, the project as a whole is far too problematic for me to look past all of its flaws.  The film looks great and has one of the greatest set pieces found in any film during our 50’s Sci-Fi marathon, but it’s not enough to offset the sloppy and flat out dull writing, the uninspired and amateurish direction, and the miscasting of most of the principal cast.  The Blob is deserving of a truly memorable and grotesque big screen adaptation, as the idea is terrific despite its inherent goofiness.  Unfortunately, the 1958 original isn’t the memorable or fun thrill ride it could and very well should have been.  The Blob is not recommended.

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50’s Sci-Fi Feature #4 – Forbidden Planet (1956)

ForbiddenplanetposterForbidden Planet (1956)
Directed by: Fred M. Wilcox
Written by: Cyril Hume (story by Irving Block, Allen Adler)
Starring: Walter Pidgeon, Anne Francis, Leslie Nielsen, Warren Stevens, Jack Kelly, Robby the Robot

Forbidden Planet’s oddball send-up to the likes of Sigmund Freud and William Shakespeare is far and away the most fantastic of the 50’s Sci-Fi features we’ve taken a look at thus far during our marathon.  Taking place light years away from the planet earth and featuring a very small cast of characters, the science fiction extravaganza paved the way for future massive franchises like Star Trek, Lost in Space, and Doctor Who.  Forbidden Planet was a trailblazer in a variety of ways, being one of the first motion pictures to take place outside of the planet Earth, showing humans travelling faster than light speed, featuring a believable talking robot as a fully-fledged supporting character, and scored entirely electronically for the first time in film history. These features may not seem like much in 2016, but they all had a part in making science fiction and fantasy film-making what it is today.  Director Fred M. Wilcox’s ambitious loose adaptation of William Shakespeare’s The Tempest is without a doubt the most successful film in the filmmaker’s short filmography, elevating him from being a mere footnote in film history.  Forbidden Planet stars Academy Award nominee Walter Pidgeon as Dr. Edward Morbius, the lone human inhabitant of the planet Altair IV.  Alongside the veteran Pidgeon are television star Anne Francis as Dr. Morbius’ daughter Alta, eventual comedic legend Leslie Nielsen as Commander John Adams, leader of the expedition to Altair IV, and Robby the Robot, Dr. Morbius’ highly advanced robot.  Production of the film took place for a little over a month in the Spring of 1955, and believing that Forbidden Planet would have mass appeal, the filmmakers were given a budget of nearly $2 million to work with.  The “Robby the Robot” prop itself cost more than $100,000, and continued to be used for decades in television and films in various capacities.  Upon its initial release in March of 1956, Forbidden Planet was a modest box office success, earning more than $2.7 million from general audiences.  Though the film’s box office performance didn’t exactly change the game or set the film world ablaze, its success ultimately led to the mass production of space-set science fiction movies for decades to come.  Its critical success saw it nominated for an Oscar, and today Forbidden Planet sits in the prestigious National Film Registry.  It is remembered by audiences to this day for being a truly daring and visionary picture that dared to explore the outer reaches of the universe.

The film is set in the distant 23rd century, and takes place entirely on the planet of Altair IV, where a mission is underway to discover the fate of an expedition from two decades earlier.  Dr. Morbius (Walter Pidgeon) is seemingly the only expedition member still in contact with the ship, and he warns the ship not to set down, as he cannot guarantee their safety.  Throwing caution to the wind, Commander John Adams (Leslie Nielsen) decides to land on Altair IV to investigate the situation.  The crew is greeted by Robby the Robot (Marvin Miller), a technical marvel built by Morbius.  Robby the Robot has been programmed to never harm human beings, more or less following the Three Laws of Robotics established by famed sci-fi author Isaac Asimov.  The advanced robot leads the crew of the ship to Dr. Morbius, who shows tells them the fate of his crew from 20 years earlier, and shows off his technical prowess by explaining Robby the Robot’s programming to never harm human beings.  Morbius’ daughter Alta (Anne Francis) is soon introduced to the ship’s crew.  It is immediately apparent that there’s something very peculiar about the way Dr. Morbius and his young daughter have managed to survive and thrive on the apparently hostile Altair IV.  Overnight, the crew’s ship is sabotaged by an unknown force, and Dr. Morbius is confronted by Commander Adams.  He denies any involvement and shows Adams ancient technology discovered by the former inhabitants of Altair IV.  The next night, a crew member is killed by the unknown force, and further alarms are raised by Adams and his crew.  Can Commander Adams convince Dr. Morbius to let them take highly important ancient technology back to earth for study, or will the lone inhabitant of Altair IV do what he can to maintain his intergalactic paradise?  Find out in 1956’s game changing Forbidden Planet!

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Robby the Robot and Cook (Earl Holliman) in 1956’s Forbidden Planet.

Having heard little about Forbidden Planet before seeing it, I had always assumed it was an early ultra low budget, Roger Corman-esque production.  This assumption proved very wrong indeed, as I quickly found out that Forbidden Planet has a lot more to offer than just being a schlocky and disposable science fiction flick.  What it brings to the table is genuine intelligence and charm, more so than I ever could have expected from such an early Hollywood venture into outer space.  From the very first minute of the film, Forbidden Planet is colorful and visually interesting in almost every frame.  Though the planet of Altair IV feels very earth-like in many ways, the planet still manages to be different enough to be constantly intriguing.  Despite his relative lack of big budget experience, the film’s journeyman director (Fred M. Wilcox) manages to make the film visually interesting with tight framing and a wandering camera.  It helps that Wilcox is working with a solid screenplay by writer Cyril Hume, who effortlessly blends hard science fiction concepts with expository scenes.  Hume’s script never sacrifices its quality to explain concepts directly to the audience, instead going for a more subtle approach using elements of traditional sci-fi and horror films, mixed with dry wit and a Shakespeare inspired story structure.  Forbidden Planet’s script is partially inspired by The Tempest, following the same general story arc and hitting many of the same milestones along the way.  This inspiration helps to elevate Forbidden Planet’s story from silly science fiction fantasy to a legitimately unique and inspired tale.  The story never pauses long enough to become dull or overstay its welcome, instead constantly introducing new ideas to the audience.  As soon as you think you know a character like Dr. Morbius or Commander Adams, their characters are turned upside down and new elements of their personalities are uncovered.  I found myself actually caring about the three principle characters in Forbidden Planet, something that hasn’t happened during the course of our ongoing 50’s Sci-Fi marathon.  The pacing of the story alone is a sign of how strong Cyril Hume’s writing is, and helps the movie remain engaging even six decades after its release.  While I wouldn’t exactly call it the perfect science fiction film, I very much appreciated everything it was able to bring to the table, and the tremendous influence it had on the medium.  The introduction of Robby the Robot alone was very forward-thinking and progressive for the time, giving an artificial life-form a degree of autonomy, as well as a somewhat human personality.  By the end of Forbidden Planet, you can’t help but wonder what science fiction would look like today if the film had never been released.

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Walter Pidgeon, Anne Francis, and Leslie Nielsen in the classic science fiction film Forbidden Planet.

Forbidden Planet laid the groundwork for the next sixty years of science fiction films, and captured the imaginations of generations of moviegoers.  The colorful and interesting visuals, solid direction, and excellent script form an incredibly engaging tale of interstellar exploration, thirst for power and knowledge, and the search for answers.  The film was far ahead of its time, and its influence on the genre simply cannot be underestimated by viewers.  While some elements don’t hold up to today’s standards, it remains an interesting case study for what science fiction films can be, and a reminder of how simple the genre was before the film’s release.  Forbidden Planet comes highly recommended.

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50’s Sci-Fi Feature #3 – Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)

Film1956-InvasionOfTheBodySnatchers-OriginalPosterInvasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)
Directed by: Don Siegel
Written by: Daniel Mainwaring (based on The Body Snatchers by Jack Finney)
Starring: Kevin McCarthy, Dana Wynter, Larry Gates, King Donovan, Carolyn Jones

As previously mentioned in my review of 1954’s Them!, science fiction and horror films of the time were chock full of political and social allegory that resonated with audiences for decades.  Much of this can be credited to the burgeoning Cold War: the imminent threat of nuclear extermination, the ongoing Red Scare, and the subsequent inability of American’s to trust their fellow man.  Invasion of the Body Snatchers is perhaps the most famous and subtle example of this paranoia, creating a hell of a legacy for itself in the process.  The film is based on writer Jack Finney’s novel The Body Snatchers, which has been the basis for nearly every remake and re-imagining to be released since 1956.  Invasion of the Body Snatchers, directed by cult movie master Don Siegel came out at the perfect time to resonate with audiences who felt they could relate with its subject matter.  It was filmed in just 23 days, and with a budget that had been cut significantly which restricted the use of big name actors that Siegel initially wanted to use.  Invasion of the Body Snatchers starred Golden Globe nominee Kevin McCarthy and television star Dana Wynter, though the Oscar winning Anne Bancroft had been considered by Siegel before the film’s budget slash.  After a re-shoot to lessen the harshness of the film’s original ending and numerous poorly received pre-screenings, Invasion of the Body Snatchers was ready for a successful countrywide release.  Despite being largely ignored by critics upon its original release, the film still managed to earn more than six times its meager budget of slightly over $400,000.  The paranoid adaptation of Jack Finney’s influential novel is now seen as an all-time classic of the science fiction genre, has spawned countless remakes, send-ups, and tributes, and currently sits in the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry.

The film begins with a paranoid and clearly disturbed man being detained in a California hospital.  He introduces himself as a doctor, and begs for the acting doctor to hear out his story.  The doctor in custody begins to tell his story, which leads directly into a feature-length flashback sequence.  We learn the crazed doctor is Dr. Miles Bennell (Kevin McCarthy), who we see meeting with multiple patients.  All of Bennell’s patients suffer from “Capgras delusion”, or the belief that a loved one has been replaced by an identical looking impostor.  His former girlfriend Becky Driscoll (Dana Wynter) has recently returned to town, and she soon finds out that her cousin Wilma fears that her Uncle Ira may also be an impostor.  A psychiatrist Dr. Dan Kauffman (Larry Gates) assures Dr. Bennell that they’re merely experiencing an epidemic of paranoid hysteria.  Later that night, Dr. Bennell’s friend Jack Belicec (King Donovan) discovers an undeveloped body identical to his, and then another is quickly found in Becky’s basement.  Before they can call for help and arrange for more witnesses, the bodies mysteriously (and conveniently) vanish.  Bennell and friends eventually come to the conclusion that the entire town is being replaced with doppelgangers when they fall asleep.  The gang splits up, half to go to the next town over in order to seek help, and Dr. Bennell and Becky seek shelter and avoid falling asleep until backup arrives.  Soon, Bennell and Becky realize that they’re alone in this fight against what they call “pod people”, as even their closest friends and family members succumb to the invaders.  Can humankind prevail against a force they have no idea is coming, or will the invading pod people wipe out humankind, starting with the town of Santa Mira, California?  Find out in Don Siegel’s 1956 classic Invasion of the Body Snatchers!

bodysnatchers 1956 review

Kevin McCarthy and Dana Wynter on the run in Don Siegel’s 1956 classic Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

Having seen and loved Philip Kaufman’s 1978 remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, I was incredibly excited coming into Siegel’s original take on the source novel.  While I have to report that I prefer Kaufman’s darker and schlockier take on the story, I’m also happy to say that say that this film is so far the best I’ve seen during my feature on 1950’s sci-fi.  The film has an incredibly tight run-time at just barely over 80 minutes long, and hits every important note needed of an effective thriller without creating unnecessary filler.  The characters and their interactions with each other all have a purpose, and the story clips along at a brilliantly fast pace.  One of the things I appreciated most about Invasion of the Body Snatchers was the setting in the small California town of Santa Mira.  Don Siegel and cinematographer Ellsworth Fredericks do an incredible job of mapping out the town, especially its most notable and relevant locations like Becky’s apartment, Dr. Bennell’s office, and the highway leading out of town.  All this mapping and world-building is done in less than 90 minutes, a feat that most science fiction or horror films couldn’t do even with more than two hours at their disposal.  Don Siegel progressively ratchets up the tension as the film chugs along, creating a palpable sense of dread and paranoia.  Not only do our lead characters not know who to trust or where they can seek refuge, but the audience is constantly kept guessing as well.  When you’re not even sure whether or not your two main characters are still human, you can rest assured that the film is doing an incredible job at keeping you on your paranoid, irrational toes.  Invasion of the Body Snatchers is a genuinely scary film in a lot of ways, because more often than not what you aren’t seeing is infinitely scarier than what you are.  The images of the townspeople slowly being consumed by the pod people swimming through your head as Dr. Bennell and Becky struggle to stay awake and alive are undeniable, and help the film to feel highly effective.  Along with incredible atmosphere and world-building, Invasion of the Body Snatchers is a very well acted film considering its lack of major star power and budget.  Kevin McCarthy shows us that he can flip the proverbial switch and play both crazed and paranoid in one moment, and a strong, confident leader in others.  Dana Wynter’s Becky is very competently played as well, but she doesn’t get nearly as much important screen-time as McCarthy does.  Supporting our lead players is a tremendous script, never wasting a moment of precious screen-time as previously mentioned.  The paranoia of McCarthyism and the fears of imminent Red invasion are weaved into subtle allegory that never overpowers, but is also very clearly there to anybody looking for it.  I can’t imagine growing up in an era where North American’s could not trust anybody they don’t directly know, but this film gives a great (if exaggerated) sense of what it must have been like for some.

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Dr. Bennell (Kevin McCarthy) taking it to a potential pod person in Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

In short, Invasion of the Body Snatchers is a masterpiece of classic horror and science fiction.  Tight direction, a terrific script with little exposition, good lead performances, and an undeniable sense of dread, paranoia, and fear help to make an experience that goes mostly unmatched all these years later.  Don Siegel’s film may have been topped by later efforts, but the film stands as a fantastic example of anti-McCarthyist art that will and should be analyzed for years to come.  Invasion of the Body Snatchers gets my highest recommendation for all sci-fi or horror fans.

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50’s Sci-Fi Feature #2 – Them! (1954)

Them02Them! (1954)
Directed by: Gordon Douglas
Written by: Ted Sherdeman, Russell Hughes (story by George Worthing Yates)
Starring: James Whitmore, Edmund Gwenn, Joan Weldon, James Arness

One of the most charming things about classic science fiction films is that many of them were somehow able to reflect the real fears and concerns of western society, but project it onto something so mundane and have it be so horrifying.  Them! does just that, taking America’s post-war blues and fears of atomic weapons and using giant monster ants to get the message across.  While it may sound goofy all these years later, Them! has been remembered as one of the great pieces of 1950’s sci-fi for a reason.  Prolific child-star turned director Gordon Douglas was the perfect fit for an ambitious B-project like Them!  Douglas had previously directed dozens of films of various genre, size, and scope, but found arguably his greatest success with this Warner Brothers produced science fiction allegory.  The film starred big screen heavy hitters like the Academy Award nominated James Whitmore and future Gunsmoke television star James Arness.  In a classic bit of movie magic, Whitmore was forced to wear lifts in his shoes to compensate for his utterly average height when standing next to the taller Arness.  As a short man myself, I feel every bit of James Whitmore’s humiliating pain.  The two relatively big name actors, a competent director, and groundbreaking and innovative special effects led to Them! becoming Warner Brothers’ biggest success of the year, and would ultimately help the film cement its place in sci-fi and horror history.  It made $2.2 million at the box office, and helped to kick-start generations of “creature features”, often imitating but never duplicating the critical and commercial success of Them!  The Academy Awards honored the film’s special effects with a nomination for Best Special Effects, but the award ultimately went to the bigger budget screen adaptation of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.

Them! starts with two police officers finding a small girl wandering around the hot New Mexico desert.  The young girl is in shock, so the two officers get her to safety and begin to retrace her steps.  After finding no sign of the girl’s family, the girl hears a high-pitched squeal carried by the wind, unbeknownst to the officers around her.  Sergeant Ben Peterson (James Whitmore) is one of the responding officers to the scene of a general store that has been completely decimated from the outside.  The owner is found dead, and a large barrel of sugar is found smashed to pieces.  His partner Ed Blackburn (Chris Drake) is killed by an unknown entity while Peterson is filing a report away from the general store.  The deaths of the general store owner and Trooper Blackburn pique the curiosity of the FBI, who sends Special Agent Robert Graham (James Arness) to aid in the investigation.  Dr. Harold Medford (Edmund Gwenn) and his daughter Dr. Pat Medford (Joan Weldon) join Graham on the trip.  Dr. Medford is able to revive the small girl from her catatonic state, prompting her to scream the words “them!” over and over without any sort of explanation.  The team soon comes face to face with the source of all the chaos in the New Mexico desert, a colony of genetically mutated giant ants.  The first encounter ends after the use of an automatic machine gun, but the group learns that the creature was merely a forager from the colony.  A plan is concocted to gas the ants out of their nest with the use of cyanide, with the team descending into it in order to eliminate any leftover ants.  While inside, Dr. Pat Medford discovers that two queens had hatched and escaped from the nest to establish new colonies.  Can the team stop them with the power of brute human force, or will the mutated ants prove too much to bear?  Find out in 1954’s Them!

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Sandy Deschner as the young catatonic girl who unknowingly sets off the events in Them!

I was originally going to review another film as my second feature of this spotlight, but I felt compelled to write about Them! as soon as the credits rolled.  I went into it expecting nothing but a fun, mindless cheesy science fiction flick, but what I got was so much more.  While it might not be nearly as thought provoking or innovative in hindsight, this is a film that was doing a lot of new and original things at a time where studios weren’t taking many major risks.  Allegory always seems like a better idea in genre films, and it works perfectly in Them!  The fears of the common American citizen can be felt towards the end of the film, especially when the research team finds out the scale of the colony and what the ants are capable of.  They know that they’ve indirectly lent a hand in their creation by allowing atomic weapons to be created, and they know that they must now stop something that’s far more powerful than they themselves are.  The entire first act of the film with the little girl being found has enough atmosphere to match even the best modern sci-fi/horror films.  The fact that the audience doesn’t see the actual ants right away is another effective decision, forcing viewers to create their own monstrosities in the theatre of the mind.  While none of the performances are exceptional (or even noteworthy), it’s probably worth mentioning that the entire principal cast has really solid chemistry together, with no one performance trying to hog the spotlight.  This isn’t exactly a character study as much as it is a “giant monsters destroy things and get destroyed” kind of film, which makes the unmemorable performances a lot easier to swallow.  The direction fits under this “good, but ultimately forgettable” umbrella as well, which I pretty much expected from a journeyman director like Gordon Douglas.  He does his absolute best to hide weak moments in the special effects using dust storms and playing with light and darkness effectively, which helps the creatures feel much more imposing and threatening.  Other than hiding some potential weak SFX, Douglas doesn’t do anything particularly interesting with his camera, nor does his direction stand out in any way.  The best part about Them! is without a doubt its screenplay, which says a great deal about the aforementioned nuclear holocaust fears and Cold War-era paranoia, but does so in a fairly subtle and evenhanded way.  The film’s message is obvious and anybody with any knowledge of the time period can figure out where it’s going and why it’s stressed so much, but it never overshadows the best part of the film: giant, badass killer ants.  The effects hold up better than those previously seen in something like previous year’s The War of the Worlds, mostly due to the decision to not overexpose the ants and the effective use of animatronics.

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The famous first encounter with a giant mutated ant in 1954’s Them!

Overall, Them! is an incredibly fun science fiction film that in no way feels like it should be nearly as good or important as it is.  At face value, none of the cinematic aspects of the film actually stand out as being different or even anything more than competent, but it just somehow works.  Them! gets by on having a tremendous script that plays its hand at being allegorical, but never opts for heavy handedness that would overshadow the intentions of the B movie that it really is.  The special effects look incredible for the time period, and the atmosphere during the first and lasts acts of the movie feels perfectly chilling and creepy.  Them! is a hell of a good time, and is highly recommended for anybody who loves some allegory in their giant ant movies.

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50’s Sci-Fi Feature #1 – The War of the Worlds (1953)

Film1953-TheWarOfTheWorlds-OriginalPosterThe War of the Worlds (1953)
Directed by: Byron Haskin
Written by: Barre Lyndon (based on The War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells)
Starring: Gene Barry, Ann Robinson, Les Tremayne, Bob Cornthwaite, Lewis Martin, Sir Cedric Hardwicke

H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds is one of the most famous science fiction stories of all-time, largely in part to how many times the story has been adapted and improved upon.  The classic novel led to Orson Welles’ infamous panic-inducing radio drama, which would originally lead to a big screen adaptation of the novel, and that film led to countless remakes.  The original film version differs greatly from the novel, mainly by setting it in modern America, rather than the Victorian England setting of the Wells story.  The film instead takes place after the first two World Wars, which saw humans banding together to defeat a common enemy, a theme that becomes important in the film version.  The War of the Worlds was directed by former special effects artist Byron Haskin, and it would go on to be the biggest success of his long career.  Haskin teamed up with his friend and producer George Pal, making it one of the many successful projects the two underwent together.  The special effects experience and knowledge held by the film’s director would lead to an Academy Award win for Best Visual Effects, and would cement the film’s legacy as a special effects marvel.  The film stars Gene Barry and Ann Robinson, both of whom had successful careers as television actors, and would both later appear in cameo roles in Steven Spielberg’s modern take on the story.  The War of the Worlds was a massive financial success, becoming the highest grossing sci-fi film of 1953, and spawning a great deal of imitators in the years to follow.  The tremendous success and influence of the original film has been mostly overshadowed by Steven Spielberg’s highly successful (and arguably much better) 2005 reimagining of the story.  Today, Byron Haksin’s The War of the Worlds sits in the National Film Registry, and is looked back upon fondly by historians for pushing the boundaries of the genre.

The War of the Worlds begins with a montage of Earth’s first two World Wars, with a narrator remarking how much technology has rapidly advanced throughout these decades.  The narrator then gives us a quick explanation of the harsh conditions on Mars, and explains the motivations for its inhabitants wanting to scout the planet Earth for eventual relocation of the remaining Martians.  We meet a scientist named Dr. Clayton Forrester (Gene Barry), just as a large meteor-like object is touching down on Earth.  Dr. Forrester and his troupe go to investigate the crash site, where he meets Sylvia van Buren (Ann Robinson) and others.  Later that evening, after most of the crowd has called it a day, the “meteor” opens up and the inhabitants found within kill all those in the area of impact.  All technology in the town is disabled by the invading Martians after an EMP is set off, causing the United States military to investigate the invaders.  Reports from all around the world are soon received with similar stories, meaning that the invaders are here to conquer.  After an attempted peace offering, the Martians destroy the military’s best with little effort and move on to the next town.  Dr. Forrester and Sylvia take shelter in an old farmhouse, where the two fall in love.  After a close encounter with the invaders, the two manage to steal a sample of alien DNA and escape to the relative safety of Dr. Forrester’s Pacific Tech.  When they are, the doctor, Sylvia, and their fellow survivors and military officials begin to develop weapons of mass destruction in order to take down the seemingly indestructible Martian ships.  Can humankind overcome the impossible odds stacked against them, or will the Martian invaders squash human beings from existence?  Find out in the iconic 1953 film The War of the Worlds!

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Ann Robinson and Gene Barry, stars of The War of the Worlds.

I was thirteen when I saw Steven Spielberg’s epic reimagining of The War of the Worlds, and it instantly became one of my favorite films as an adolescent. While I don’t look back on it with the same fondness I once did, the film inspired me to read H.G. Wells’ terrific novel, and launched my love for all things science fiction.  It took me a decade to finally get around to seeing the original film, and I can definitely see why 1953’s The War of the Worlds was so influential on the genre.  While I can’t say that I’m in love with the film by any means, I also can’t deny the fact that this is a very fun, very fast moving action sci-fi flick.  Its groundbreaking use of special effects haven’t aged well, but they’re still incredibly charming today in all of their faults.  The heat ray weapon used by the Martians is still really effective, even if the actual effect looks completely silly with actors just kind of disappearing.  The effect used in Spielberg’s film where those affected by the weapon “disintegrate” into dust doesn’t look great today either, so it’s clearly a case of the effect being hard to realize visually.  Despite the charming goofiness of the heat rays and the actual snake-like alien ships, the design of the aliens themselves is quite creepy and definitely adds to their presence.  Of course, it helps that we very rarely see the creatures through the film’s last half, adding to the uneasiness felt by their presence.  Aside from some obviously dated effects, The War of the Worlds features consistently flat and unremarkable direction from Byron Haskin.  While the Martians feel like a threat throughout, it has almost nothing to do with Haskin’s steady and lazy direction.  Haskin’s direction doesn’t do much to detract from the overall film, but it does absolutely nothing to add to it.  The direction brings the film down from what could have been incredible heights, making it instead feel like what it is: a pretty good science fiction film that was ahead of its time in terms of visual effects.  On top of unremarkable direction, the lead performances in The War of the Worlds are nothing to write home about.  Both Gene Barry and Ann Robinson do an admirable job of being likeable protagonists, but they never quite go into the territory that Spielberg brought Tom Cruise’s multi-layered loser father character to.  While this isn’t exactly a quiet character study, the lack of any sort of depth or development certainly doesn’t help the film’s case.  Luckily for science fiction fans, The War of the Worlds still feels significant because of its ridiculously fast pacing.  It never pauses for too long, never focuses on insignificant side stories or characters, but instead gives it to us straight.  At the end of the day, isn’t that what everybody wants from a cheesy, fun sci-fi flick?

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The iconic Martian spaceship design from 1953’s The War of the Worlds.

Overall, The War of the Worlds isn’t a great film.  I’m not even completely convinced that it’s a really good film, to be honest.  What we have here though is an incredibly charming and fun (albeit goofy) thrill ride.  While the special effects may seem dated to most today, they do the trick in getting the audience engaged enough to buy into the fantastic story at hand.  The direction and acting may be completely ordinary, but that doesn’t hinder The War of the Worlds the same way it would completely destroy most films.  If you want a fun piece of American history to digest after something with a little more weight like Spielberg’s 2005 film, this might be your ticket.  It may not wow you like it did for audiences in 1953, but it’s a hell of a good time.  The War of the Worlds is cautiously recommended.

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The Martian (2015)

Disclaimer: With The Martian being an adaptation of a highly successful novel, I find it appropriate to voice my opinion on the accuracy of big-screen adaptations.  Novels and films are two very different mediums, and should always be seen as such.  If a favorite moment, dialogue exchange, or character has been left out of the movie adaptation, there is usually a reason for it.  Unfortunately the two mediums have different run-time and budget expectations, which leaves studios, writers, and directors to the difficult task of deciding what to drop.  In my opinion, it isn’t fair to hold writers and directors responsible for not wanting to put out a 6-hour long, detail-oriented film.  The two are always going to be different and hopes and expectations will almost always be dashed.  Don’t get so caught up in the differences, and instead sit back and enjoy the ride for what it is.  The novel will always be there for you to enjoy, and the film will always be there for others to enjoy.  No harm, no foul.

martian2015The Martian (2015)
Directed by: Ridley Scott
Written by: Drew Goddard (based on The Martian by Andy Weir)
Starring: Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Jeff Daniels, Michael Pena, Kristen Wiig, Sean Bean, Kate Mara, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Donald Glover

It seems Ridley Scott is at his utmost best when dealing with science fiction and space-themed films, and that is only furthered by The Martian, his latest directorial effort.  After disasters (or just sheer mediocrity) like The Counsellor and Robin Hood, I’m sure Ridley Scott is sleeping easily with how well-received his new space thriller has been.  The film chronicles the journey of NASA astronaut and botanist Mark Watney (played wonderfully by Matt Damon) after he is marooned and presumed dead on Mars after a vicious storm on the planet’s surface.  Back on Earth, NASA quickly figures out that Watney is still alive, but with his team on their way back to Earth there’s little to no hope of recovering the botanist.  Mark Watney must put his survival skills to the test in order to farm food on the unlivable and un-colonized red planet if he hopes to live to see the next NASA Mars mission – a short four years away.  

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Matt Damon (Mark Watney), Jessica Chastain (Lewis), Sebastian Stan (Beck), Aksel Hennie (Vogel), and Kata Mara (Johanssen) as the crew of the Ares III.

Having read the novel in the lead-up to The Martian’s release, I can with authority say that the film is incredibly accurate and respectful to the novel, and sticklers for that kind of thing will be very pleasantly surprised with the results.  As with every novel-to-film adaptation in the hundred-plus year history of the movies, there are both major and minor changes to the story and characters, but these all serve to make the movie much more audience and screen-friendly.  The scientific nature of the novel is still there, the quirkiness and sarcasm of Damon’s Mark Watney is still in full force, and all the lovable side characters are still every bit as compelling as they are in Andy Weir’s terrific science fiction work.  As for the actual technical side of the film, the visuals in The Martian are for the most part absolutely astounding, and Ridley Scott directs those visuals and action like few other established directors can.  Matt Damon’s performance is very believable and probably my biggest takeaway from the film; he showed the world once again why he’s been a staple of big budget Hollywood cinema for well over a decade.  Damon’s mannerisms and dialogue throughout the film is always delivered with a layer of sarcasm and self-awareness, but thankfully it never breaks your immersion in the film.  Damon’s terrific and always fun performance is backed up by an absolutely stacked ensemble cast, featuring Jessica Chastain, Kate Mara, and Michael Pena among others on the Ares III, the ship travelling back to Earth, and Jeff Daniels, Kristen Wiig, Sean Bean, Chiwetel Ejiofor, and Donald Glover on the ground at NASA, all of whom deliver more than serviceable performances in the small roles they all play.

Matt Damon portrays an astronaut who faces seemingly insurmountable odds as he tries to find a way to subsist on a hostile planet.

Matt Damon as Mark Watney, a marooned NASA astronaut presumed dead on the unlivable red planet.

Unfortunately there are some problems with The Martian, despite everything it has going for it.  I am by no means a critic of 3D films, as I find the technology to be highly immersive in the technology’s best moments.  This immersion never really happens in The Martian, instead serving no real purpose in the film; it’s never distracting nor does it take away from the film itself, but it also doesn’t seem to serve an explicit purpose.  The film’s script by writer Drew Goddard (The Cabin in the Woods) also features a fair bit of pandering to the film’s wide audience (which the novel does a fair bit of as well), with over-the-top references to Lord of the Rings and Iron Man among other pop-culture staples.  Instead of being subtle and clever, these references are completely out-of-place and the delivery of these pandering exchanges of dialogue pulled me out of the film for brief moments.  My last gripe with The Martian comes from the last ten minutes or so (no spoilers, I promise), where the visuals become extremely awkward and clunky, a feat that other recent space epics like Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity and Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar managed to overcome.  Luckily the scene in question is rather brief, so it’s not a major complaint with the film.  There is also an unnecessary and very ham-fisted ending tacked onto the film, which left me writhing in my seat.  There were opportunities to finish the film on a perfect note, but instead it’s dragged on for five or so minutes that the run-time absolutely doesn’t need.

With all this said, I very much enjoyed both the film adaptation and Andy Weir’s novel of The Martian.  The visuals are consistently top-notch, the performances are fun and compelling, and the writing is mostly very clever – if a little too comedic – leading to a highly enjoyable big screen experience for all audiences.  Is The Martian a major contender for awards season?  Probably not, but it’s a hell of a ride and there’s a lot to admire about the picture.  If you’re looking for thrilling action and adventure with a great cast and a snappy script, Ridley Scott’s impressive The Martian is absolutely the film for you.  Recommended.

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