RAY BRADBURY WEEK: AUGUST 24, 2010

john cribbs

 

Jack Smight and John Huston may not have been good matches for Bradbury, but the author really lucked out getting Jack Arnold as the director of It Came from Outer Space, his first film project and the only original treatment he ever wrote for the screen (some claim it's based on a story of his called "The Meteor," but I've never heard of it or found any proof of its existence - Bradbury has stated the treatment wasn't based on any source). Arnold is the innovative 50's journeyman director of such high-minded fantasy films as Richard Matheson's The Incredible Shrinking Man, which revolutionized special effects, and Creature from the Black Lagoon, the best of the classic Universal monster movies. The studio chose Arnold to helm their first foray into the new 3-D technology because of his enthusiasm for pulp magazines and his claim to be a science fiction "expert" ("I wasn't of course, but the studio didn't know so they never argued with me.") Bradbury, not familiar with screenwriting, turned in a 120-page outline from which Harry Essex transcribed a final script in proper format which Bradbury claimed, "very heavily leaned on what I provided in my naïveté." What he provided was the portrait of an alien cruiser crash landing in the desert of Sand Rock, Arizona, rousing its occupants into an alien-fearing frenzy.

From its melodramatic title to its "warbling saw" soundtrack and hulking monster suits, Arnold's movie is prototypical 50's science fiction, firmly stationed in the era of heightened UFO-mania beside titles like The Thing from Another World and Earth vs the Flying Saucers. So what's notable about the movie is its negation of the most recognizable atomic scare movie staples. Although it taps into the Cold War paranoia that inspired so many of its B-movie brothers, Space's aliens don't share aspirations of conquering Earth with their intergalactic cousins from War of the Worlds. They don't bring the secret of world peace to mankind like Klaatu. These guys just crashed on our planet and are trying to repair their ship so they can leave, that itself an inverse of the usual "human-landing-on-alien-planet" set-up.* Bradbury writes them to reflect their homosapien counterparts: the visitors allow fear and mistrust to justify committing hostile acts out of self defense, taking "hostages" (their choice of words) to keep the population away from their repair efforts. Their intrepidation is understandable, but then so is the decision of the impatient town to meet them as aggressors, grabbing shotguns and heading out to the crash site to perform some impromptu alien autopsies. "What we don't understand we want to destroy," laments the hero (a line that feels suspiciously like Essex dumbing down Bradbury's basic message for the viewers at home).

Black Lagoon's Richard Carlson plays reluctant hero John Putnam, described as "more than odd - individual and lonely, a man who thinks for himself" by the skeptical Sheriff Warren, sounding a little like he's reading a character description straight from the screenplay. Putnam is close to Bradbury: a writer from the city who nevertheless keeps good relations with the locals, including the telephone and power linemen (Bradbury's father's occupation while the family lived in Tucson, Arizona). He's not a scientist or a soldier like in so many of these kind of movies, he's just a normal guy with an open mind - it's easy to see how Putnam's representation inspired Spielberg's Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Joe Dante's Explorers, the romantic idea of being a geek among cynical townspeople (this type of character would eventually evolve into a sex symbol in the early 90's thanks to David Duchovny). Even though they're polite enough to him, this "amateur astronomer" is not the ideal ambassador for the stranded aliens in the eyes of Sand Rock's citizens. They look down on him for being an outsider and are critical of local girl Ellen Fields (a luminous Barbara Rush) for hanging out with the guy. They're a progressive couple, hanging out late at night even though it's quickly established they're not married and bantering back and forth, which makes them the ideal detective duo for investigating the alien presence while the old fashioned Sheriff Warren scolds her: "You should be teaching school!" (the script is refreshingly subtle for its time: we know from his protective manner that the sheriff is either an ex-boyfriend of Ellen's or at least has a thing for her, even though their relationship is never made clear).

Arnold's direction gives the movie an edge and an unpretentious approach to its thriller aspects. Besides featuring some impressive early crane and helicopter shots, the movie makes good use of simple effects: after Ellen has been kidnapped and is being imitated by one of the ship's inhabitants to lure Putnam to the cave, it/she appears on a dune five feet away from John; once he follows her over the hill she's suddenly 50 yards from him, a nice disorienting shot transition. In the one balls-out action sequence in the film the laser from the alien's weapon, which tears into the rock wall mere inches above Putnam's crouching head, is a spectacular looking effect that makes you want to duck to avoid the deadly ray. There's great miniature work, especially the smoking crater where the ship has crashed, and convincing sound design that even manages to make a giant snow cone maker appear threatening. Arnold especially makes practical use of the 3-D effects beyond the movie's flying boulders, falling meteors and flares thrown at the camera by putting the audience into the alien's perspective. When the doors of the space ship open for the first time, the camera enters in a timid 3-D shot: a foreigner to this strange alien environment. It immediately switches to the creature's fishbowl POV as it exits the vessel and again the audience becomes the outlander, new to the exoteric landscape of a different planet. Later on, the same kind of fishbowl POV doubles as a reveal of the alien posing as a human for the first time and a cat scare when an arm extends from the POV to touch Ellen on the shoulder (an example of Arnold's idea that the movie screen should be like a traditional proscenium-arch stage into which people and objects could abruptly enter as if coming in from the wings). Even the non-3-D camerawork does a great job pulling the viewer into the character's perspectives, in one shot tracing the beam of a flashlight going slowly over the dark desert floor to a shadow that turns out to be a harmless joshua tree.

Of course the arm-extending-from POV and flashlight-illuminating-the-tree shots in a piercing scream from Barbara Rush, a superfluous addition to the already effective moments (Bradbury particularly hates the part where she opens the door for a kid in a Buck Rogers costume and lets out a full shriek - "No one would scream that way at a kid at the door in a ray gun outfit!" he once stated in an interview). Still the movie has some genuinely creepy moments, most dealing with the aliens in human disguise. "We can not, or would not, take your souls and bodies," one assures two cowering individuals, but that kind of promise is hard to accept in the flat monotone with which the fake humans speak, the eeriest use of this being when one of them bids farewell to the protagonist in a drawn out "Sooooooooooo long." Of course here the effect isn't nearly as bloodcurling as the changed personalities of adults who are taken over by evil aliens in the classic Invaders from Mars, released the same year (or the pod people of 1956's Invasion of the Body Snatchers), but then these visitors are obviously not required to be as menacing. They still get up to some devious actions, attempting to trick Putnam into walking blindly into a crevice in the dark mine, and issuing ominous warnings from the shadows of a hallway as the hero looks on helplessly. Bradbury has said that he thinks Arnold shows the creature too much, and I agree with him: the shots with smoke and the obscured image of a massive eye are more unnerving than full shots of the made-up paper mache monster. The creature design is otherworldly enough that it's not too distracting, but has nothing on the scene where Putnam is simply sharing dialogue with a disembodied voice coming from inside a deep mine shaft.

While Arnold's direction is ahead of its time, it's the movie's intelligent study of how humans and their diffident alien counterparts handle the situation that makes it stand out among the other science fiction films of the era. The film remains timely (even today we all know how welcome aliens are in Arizona) and patches of eloquent speech that are undeniably Bradbury - the sheriff talking about how people are more likely to commit murder when it's 92 degrees, the telephone lineman musing on the unearthly sounds that come from the desert, John's speech about crushing the spider just because it has eight legs and "a mouth that moves side to side." But what's undeniably Bradbury is the concept that aliens are like us, some prone to mistrust and quick violence and others who are more sensible and show that whatever planet we're from we're all after the same thing, "the grand total of all our dreams."

 - john cribbs, 8/24/10

* They're still as judgmental at the handful of humans they come into contact with as any extraterrestrials, which makes me wonder what a team of space travelers would think if they crash landed in front of a house filled with raging psychopaths like the one in Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Would they assume all humans were like Leatherface?

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