Monday, January 17, 2011

Science fiction double feature

This weekend I watched a couple of classic 1950's science fiction movies, Earth Vs. The Flying Saucers and Forbidden Planet. I've seen them many times over the years, but the first time I saw them was during their individual theatrical releases in 1956.

Dr. and Mrs. Marvin first see a flying saucer. "Hey, honey, is the collision insurance on our car paid up?"
Earth Vs. The Flying Saucers is probably best known for the stop-motion animation by Ray Harryhausen. The version I saw on DVD was colorized. Both the original black and white and colorized versions are available on the DVD, and the viewer can switch between them.

Special effects in both movies would be viewed by today's audiences as old-fashioned. The flying saucers in Earth are nicely done, but the way scenes are set up is crude by today's standards. Harryhausen would move a model flying saucer a quarter-inch or so for each frame, against a frame of an already filmed background, then re-photograph both. The second generation rear screen projection gives many of the backgrounds a grainy look.

Forbidden Planet makes extensive use of painted mattes for backgrounds, was filmed on a sound stage at MGM, and looks it. As a nine-year-old I wasn't very discriminating. All the special fx in both movies looked fine to me. But today's movie audience, spoiled by CGI wizardry, would laugh at most of the special effects techniques used.

Earth--which should probably be called America Vs. The Flying Saucers--has a typical alien invasion plot, even though it credits the book Flying Saucers From Outer Space by Donald E. Keyhoe, for its origin. Keyhoe's book describes UFO sightings, and is not a novel about an invasion from space (unless you count weird lights and unidentified things in the skies as an invasion).

The aliens in Earth Vs. The Flying Saucers are close to the descriptions people give of alien "grays", with huge, black-colored eyes.

The creature shown above has been killed by good ol' American weapons technology, invented by Dr. Marvin. The alien's outer suits are "solidified electricity," which is a howler, a comic book-like technological description.

Forbidden Planet has Robby the Robot, a flying saucer to bring the crew to the "forbidden planet", Altair 4, the remnants of a long dead civilization technologically well advanced from us. It's a science fiction version of Shakespeare's The Tempest, with Freudian psychology thrown in.

Robby is shown to obey the first of Isaac Asimov's Three Laws of Robotics: "A robot shall not injure a human being, nor by inaction cause a human being to come to harm." He's also a reminder of the days when we were assured that in the future we'd have robot servants to do all the work. He was also an "actor" who appeared in other films, like The Invisible Boy with Richard Eyer.
Dr. Morbius, played by Walter Pidgeon, is alone on the planet with his daughter, Altaira (also called Alta), whom he has kept innocent. She is so pure and virginal, not unlike Snow White from the Disney movie, that she can even play with wild animals like a tiger. It's when men, the spaceship crew led by Captain J. J. Adams, played by Leslie Nielsen, are introduced into her world that things start to fall apart. When Altair 4 was first colonized, Morbius found the alien technology and began to explore its uses. All of the colonists but Morbius and Alta were killed by a local invisible monster, which has been dormant. But when the crew arrives in their starship the monster reappears. [SPOILER ALERT: Don't read past this point if you don't want to know what makes Altair 4 a "forbidden planet."]

"Surely you're taking me to Earth, Captain!" "Yes I am, and don't call me Shirley."

Anne Francis and Leslie Nielsen died within weeks of each other: Nielsen, 84, in November 2010, Francis, 80, in January of this year.
It's sex. When the earthmen arrive Alta has seen no man but her father. A crewman, played by Jack Kelly, teaches Alta how to kiss, which is followed up by Alta kissing the captain. Although not shown we can figure, reading between the lines, that at some point the captain and Alta have sex (this was the '50s, and the days of movie censorship). Alta's loss of innocence causes the monster to reappear in the form of Morbius's id, a manifestation of murderous jealousy amplified by the aliens' technology. The animation of the Id attacking the spaceship is by the Walt Disney studio. [End of spoiler.]

Earth Vs. The Flying Saucers has some very good scenes of flying saucers knocking over monuments and buildings in Washington, D.C., and that makes up for the hackneyed plot. Although Hugh Marlowe as Dr. Marvin doesn't really seem all that bright, he must be hiding his light under a bushel. He invents a weapon to knock the saucers out of the sky, and given his deadline to make it he comes up with a very sophisticated device. Joan Taylor as Mrs. Marvin is just there to lend support to her husband, as good wives did in '50s movies. All of the characters are stereotypes, right out of central casting.

I always have this question at the end of this type of movie: the earthmen beat back the alien invasion, and act like nothing more will come of it. So what if the aliens learn from the failed attack and come back with a new approach? So that's the movie I'd like to make, one where the evil aliens come back, a lot wiser, for a second try at kicking our earthly butts.

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