Wednesday, August 15, 2012


Tonight is the last night to catch this classic 1950s science-fiction double feature at the Paramount Theatre. If you can't make it to the show, here are my film notes to enjoy.

The 1950s were the one, true Golden Age of American science fiction films. More films in this genre were produced during this time period than any before or since. And with good reason. Science fiction cinema was the perfect tabula rasa upon which to project the zeitgeist of the era. The heady optimism of the nascent space race was reflected in such films as Destination Moon (1950), Flight to Mars (1951) and Rocketship X-M (1950), among others.

But it wasn’t all sweetness and light. Fear and paranoia of various kinds informed a number of other films. The newly harnessed power of the atom, while capable of providing good in the form of energy, could also result in death and destruction on an unprecedented scale, as was recently witnessed first-hand in the 1945 atomic bombings of the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of World War II. And it was the atom run wild that created so many memorable giant beasts in such classics as Them! (1954), The Beginning of the End (1957), Tarantula (1955), The Deadly Mantis (1957) and The Amazing Colossal Man (1957), among many others.

America was involved in a Cold War with the Soviet Union and the fear of being invaded, either by forces from without or from within was shown in The War of the Worlds (1953), Invaders From Mars (1953), The Thing (From Another World) (1951) and Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956). To be sure, there were countless cheap, exploitative films produced during this time as well. But even when hampered by budgetary restrictions, some of them at least tried to address these issues (and others) in a sub-textual way without interfering with what really sold tickets: spaceships, flying saucers, alien beings and mutated monsters. Two of the all-time best science fiction films of the 1950s are on display here.

Though it lacks any CGI special effects (which the execrable 2008 remake was chock full of), Robert Wise’s masterpiece The Day the Earth Stood Still ranks as one of the greatest science fiction films of all time. Soberly, almost solemnly, it depicts the arrival of an alien dignitary, the enigmatic Klaatu (Rennie), who has come to earth along with his implacable giant robot Gort (Martin), to deliver a message. Klaatu calls the world’s leaders to Washington, D.C. (where his saucer has landed), but while they squabble amongst themselves, he goes about the human race incognito to discover why humans can’t hear the truth. He is aided in his quest by a young widow (Neal) and her son (Gray), both of whom come to have real feelings for the alien.

Wise orchestrates the action in a very realistic manner and the special effects are effective and convincing. Michael Rennie, in one of the most iconic performances in the genre, is superb as the Christ-like alien who dies and returns to life before ascending back into the heavens from whence he came. Gort is suitably menacing and the eerie score by maestro Bernard Herrmann is unforgettable. And finally, the message of the film, live in peace or face utter annihilation, is as resonant now as it was then. Science fiction films rarely get any better than this intelligent and literate classic. Gort, Klaatu Barada Nikto!

Ray Harryhausen is the only special effects technician in the history of film to rightly be called an auteur. Harryhausen’s science fiction and fantasy films all bore the stamp of his signature work: eye-popping, jaw-dropping stop-motion animation. Forget computers. Harryhausen did it the hard (and best) way: by hand. Every one of his miniature models were uniquely and elaborately designed to move. Using an armature of wire and meta, with ball and socket joints and a covering of rubber or fur, Harryhausen’s creations came to life under his expert, skilled hands as living, breathing, moving, real flesh and blood, three-dimensional characters. And that’s what his creatures were, characters, not just special effects. Each one had a personality and distinctive mannerisms that made them all unforgettable.

Stop-motion animation is a painstaking process designed to try men’s souls and sanity. Each model is moved in minimal, micrometer measured increments. After each movement, one single frame of film is shot. Then the models are moved once again, ever so slightly and, again, a frame of film is exposed. When you consider that twenty-four frames of film equal one second of running time, you begin to comprehend the sheer magnitude of the task at hand. Once the models were put through their movements, the film was then composited into previously filmed scenes of live action with human actors. Matching the movements of monsters and men took almost preternatural skill, but Harryhausen appears to have it in is DNA. Working from illustrated storyboards done in pre-production, he knew exactly what each animated sequence should look like. The results were a seamless blend of action, producing some of the greatest and most enduring images in the cinema of the fantastic.

Harryhausen worked with legendary stop-motion artist Willis O’Brien on Mighty Joe Young in 1949 before embarking on his first solo effort for Warner Brothers in 1953. The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms was loosely based on the short story “The Fog Horn” by Harryhausen’s boyhood pal, Ray Bradbury. Both men shared an intense passion for all things dinosaur and that love is clearly on display in this film. An atomic blast (what else) thaws out and reawakens a prehistoric monster dubbed a rhedosaurus. The monster, superbly animated by Harryhausen, makes its’ way down the east coast of the United States and begins wreaking havoc in New York City. The beast is finally destroyed in a spectacular, fiery climax at Coney Island amusement park.

It’s a simple story but it’s extremely engaging. Genre icon Kenneth Tobey (The Thing, It Came From Beneath the Sea (1955) is on hand and future bad guy Lee Van Cleef is the sharpshooter who figures in the beast’s demise. Harryhausen moved to Columbia Pictures for the next phase of his career where he made three more ‘50s science fiction landmarks: It Came From Beneath the Sea, Earth vs. The Flying Saucers (1956) and 20 Million Miles to Earth (1957).

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