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April, 2009 : Criticism:

Real Aliens Don't Ask Directions

When the aliens arrive, the movies tell us, we really only have one thing to find out: we need to determine if they are friendly or not. If they are friendly they will try to guide us towards peace (The Day the Earth Stood Still), ask for our help (Starman, E.T.) or simply want to be friends (Close Encounters of the Third Kind). It might be the start of an exciting new chapter in our history.

Of course, if they're not friendly then we're in real trouble. They might try to kill us (War of the Worlds), use us as incubators (Alien), hunt us for sport (Predator), drink our blood (The Thing), take over our bodies (Invasion of the Body Snatchers) or even steal Earth's women (I Married a Monster from Outer Space, Mars Needs Women). The key thing to remember when the spaceships arrive is that it's always about us.

That Earthcentric view shouldn't be surprising. After all, movies are made for Earth audiences; there isn't much of a market—so far as we can yet tell—anywhere else. It's the reason that Godzilla always attacks Tokyo in his Japanese movies but when Hollywood did their misbegotten 1998 version he attacked New York. You try to play to your audience. It's just good business sense.

That's what makes the 1953 It Came from Outer Space so interesting. The humans are utterly irrelevant to the visiting aliens, and only get caught up in the plot out of necessity. Set in the small town of Sand Rock, Arizona, it begins when writer John Putnam (Richard Carlson) and his girlfriend Ellen Fields (Barbara Rush) see what seems to be a meteorite crash in the desert. Putnam is a bit of an oddball—a freelance writer who specializes in articles about science—so when he becomes convinced it was a spaceship the townspeople are skeptical. Nonetheless odd things are definitely happening, with a weird creature appearing and disappearing along the road. Then people start acting strangely. The big revelation comes early, when we see two telephone linemen (Joe Sawyer, Russell Johnson) taken over by the aliens. The real people remain alive (although Putnam mistakenly believes them dead) but are held hostage by the aliens while their doubles move about the town.

The movie consists of much running around trying to get to the bottom of this mystery. There's even a scene where Putnam beats up the sheriff to prevent him from taking action against the aliens and then steals a police car. Apparently freelance writers were given free rein to indulge their eccentricities back in the 1950s. It's only when we discover the aliens' fiendish plot that we learn what makes this film truly distinctive.

It seems they're using Earth as the space lane equivalent of a soft shoulder. They need to do some repairs on their spaceship. They have no interest in enslaving us or in curing all our diseases. They really don't even want to meet us. They just want to get the work done and be on their way. The reason they've taken over the few humans they've borrowed is that they have to be able to move about and get supplies without attracting attention. Indeed, when Putnam demands that they reveal themselves, they refuse, saying that humans would not be able accept their appearance. When he makes his cooperation contingent on their doing so, we see that the aliens are correct. They are as horrible looking—one big eye, tentacles, wild hairas could be expected in an early '50s, black and white science fiction movie, even one in 3D. His curiosity satisfied, Putnam manages to protect the aliens from the armed posse that has come to get them, succeeds in getting the human hostages freed, and then lets the aliens get back into space, allowing them to go to wherever it was they were heading in the first place.

Directed by Jack Arnold and based on a story by Ray Bradbury, this was clearly intended to be a scary film, impressing us with the mysterious unknowns that await us in space. What makes this distinctive is that it challenges the coding that usually helps us distinguish aliens in the movies. Good aliens are human, or at least humanoid, speak English and make it clear they mean us no harm. Some are so warm and cuddly they might easily be mistaken for a child's favorite stuffed doll, as in the famous scene in E.T. where the extra-terrestrial hides in plain sight in a pile of plush animals.

Bad aliens fall into one of two categories. The obvious bad guys have one eye (or more than two eyes) and tentacles, they make no attempt to communicate with us, and they quickly respond to peace overtures with death and destruction. From The Thing to Independence Day, anything that is markedly different from the human norm is evil and to be killed on sight. Those who don't realize this suffer the consequences.

Not to so obvious are the aliens who are shape shifters (as in the 1981 remake of The Thing) or who can possess humans (The Puppet Masters, Invaders from Mars and the multiple versions of Invasion of the Body Snatchers). What's clear about these aliens is that while they may outwardly look like us, they can't get away with it. Children and other close family members may grow suspicious, and dogs and cats will howl and hiss as if the alien is a vampire, which he may well be. One giveaway is that these aliens have no emotions or human feeling at all, so that they all sound like former vice president Dick Cheney assuring people that torture is no big deal.

It's the job of the real humans in these movies to decide whether to be afraid of the aliens or not. Make the wrong choice (War of the Worlds) and you can be zapped. Make the right choice and the musical aliens will dance you aboard their spaceship (Close Encounters of the Third Kind).

It Came from Outer Space is the exception in that it sends out mixed signals. They take over several humans, which makes it truly eerie, as when Putnam confronts the two linemen and, from a shadowy doorway, they warn him off, threatening death if he continues his pursuit. When we see the aliens for real they are indeed hideous. Yet they aren't evil, merely cautious. They turn out to be right in their desire to avoid humanity as much as possible. When Putnam explains to the sheriff how much we fear things that are different from us, he points to a spider on the ground. The sheriff's response is to step on it.

Yet more than a half a century later, those scary aliens aren't quite that frightening anymore. What impresses now is just how mundane they are. They're not interested in our culture, our wars, our availability as food, our women or our water. They don't even want to be friends. Earth is the equivalent of a gas station in a strange town off the highway. The idea is to get up and running as quickly as possible, and get out of here.

It's not surprising to find Ray Bradbury's name on the film for this is a science fiction writer's concept, not a Hollywood one. When Hollywood wants to deal with an alien invasion they do Independence Day or Mars Attacks! The idea of adapting Robert Silverberg's The Alien Years would make no sense to them. It's an epic novel where the aliens who take over the Earth treat humanity with about as much regard as a farmer worrying about animals getting at his crops, something to be controlled, not engaged. Nor is this a film seen as satire, along the lines of Kurt Vonnegut's Sirens of Titans, where all of human history turns out to be a by-product of the need for one alien race to convey greetings to another. When seen in contrast to all the other alien invasion films, It Came from Outer Space turns out to be the exception to the rule and a stirring rebuke to egocentric Earthlings.

Maybe it's not all about us, after all.


Copyright © 2009, Daniel M. Kimmel. All Rights Reserved.

About Daniel M. Kimmel

Daniel M. Kimmel is past president of the Boston Society of Film Critics. His reviews can be found at rottentomatoes.com. He is local correspondent for Variety and teaches film at Suffolk University, including a course on SF. His book on the history of FOX TV, The Fourth Network (Ivan R. Dee, Publisher, 2004), received the Cable Center Book Award. He is also author of The Dream Team -- The Rise and Fall of DreamWorks: Lessons from the New Hollywood . His essay, "The Batman We Deserve," appears in Batman Unauthorized, an entry in the SmartPop series from BenBella Books. His latest book is I'll Have What She's Having -- Behind the Scenes of the Great Romantic Comedies.

COMMENTS!

Apr 3, 00:36 by IROSF
Comment below!
Apr 3, 18:11 by Joan Verba
Great Article! Excellent premise!

Joan
Apr 21, 03:00 by Dotar Sojat
So, watched it last night. It was quite impressive. Also, the sherrif's line about "More murders are committed at 92 degrees fahrenheit" was same sampled in Siouxie Sioux's song "92 degrees". I always thought it was Leslie Neilson from one of his early cop shows, but it was a line from a sci-fi classic.

Of course, what I really want to do now is see the movie in 3D. Distilled awesome!

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