I’VE BEEN FEELING NOSTALGIC LATELY. It’s not often we have to deal with a worldwide pandemic. Everyone handles it in different ways, and over the past few days I find myself reflecting back to old 50s and 60s sci-fi movies. The plots for many of these films hinge on how humanity somehow needs to overcome a great diversity, such as a visitor from outer space, an alien invasion, nuclear catastrophe, body snatchers, environmental collapse, or even giant ants (“Them!”). Most all of these films follow themes of how humankind might, or might not, alter its direction in order to survive.
In the 1951 film, “The Day the Earth Stood Still,” an alien named Klaatu travels to Earth accompanied by an eight-foot tall robot. Klaatu emerges from the spacecraft and announces that they come “in peace and with good will,” then removes and opens a small device. A soldier shoots and destroys the device. Klatuu explains that it was a gift for the president of the United States, enabling him “to study life on the other planets.” There was concern that humans on earth had developed rockets and atomic power. Klaatu declares that if there’s no change of direction, “Earth will be eliminated.” As a demonstration of his power, electricity is neutralized everywhere for thirty minutes—the day the earth stood still. When this movie came out, the first nuclear device had already been detonated by the U.S. in 1945, and more testing was ramping up. The film serves as a strong warning to worldwide aggression and nuclear warfare.
Orson Welles broadcasts his radio show of H.G. Wells’s science fiction novel, “The War of the Worlds,” in a New York studio on October 30, 1938. It was later made into a movie in 1953.
Orson Welles’ famous radio broadcast in 1938 of H. G. Wells novel, “The War of the Worlds,” illustrates how easily the public might be worked into a frenzied panic from these sci-fi stories. Many listeners thought that the broadcast was authentic, with some getting into their cars and fleeing their homes. The 1953 movie under the same name is a classic, followed by a solid remake in 2005. In addition to the human race fighting an invasion of Martians, the film features the ironic twist that the aliens were defeated by a virus—an onslaught of earthly pathogens to which they had no immunity. As a virus is mostly understood as a negative, this one actually yielded a positive result—something good derived out of something normally perceived as bad.
The television series, “The Twilight Zone,” also relied heavily on ironic twists of fate, or “O. Henry” endings. An all time fan-favorite episode, “Time Enough at Last,” takes place after nuclear devastation. In this case, it’s not the human race that is attempting to survive, but one man—and he has the opportunity to live out a dream, only to be foiled by a cruel twist in fate. This story also addresses such social issues as anti-intellectualism, the dangers of reliance upon technology, and the difference between aloneness (solitude) and loneliness. Each one of these topics are all as relevant today as they were back in 1951.
“Time Enough at Last,” broadcast in 1953, is an epic Twilight Zone episode. Who wouldn’t want all that time to read . . . if you had an extra pair of reading glasses.
The 1956 sci-fi film, “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” is based on and extraterrestrial invasion that begins in a fictional California town. Alien plant spores fall from space and grow into large seed pods, each one capable of reproducing a duplicate replacement copy of each human. As each pod reaches maturity, it assimilates the physical characteristics, memories, and personalities of each sleeping person placed near it. These duplicates, however, are devoid of all human emotion. The slang expression “pod people” refers to the emotionless duplicates seen in the film.
Director Don Seigal wrote, “I felt that this was a very important story. I think that the world is populated by pods and I wanted to show them. I think so many people have no feeling about cultural things, no feeling of pain, of sorrow . . . the political reference to Senator McCarthy and totalitarianism was inescapable but I tried not to emphasize it because I feel that motion pictures are primarily to entertain and I did not want to preach. “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” remains an iconic 50’s sci-fi film, both entertaining and thought provoking. Although Seigal’s statement suggest that the film was not created as a political allegory, it can be interpreted in a variety of ways, especially with the fear of communism that was so rampant at the time.
“Invasion of the Body Snatchers” featured the famous line, “You fools! You’re in danger! Can’t you see? They’re after you! They’re after all of us!”
The movie “Silent Running,” falls outside the 50’s sci-fi time period, but in many way it still fits thematically (and I really appreciate the messaging!) As this 1972 environmental-themed sci-fi classic opens, botanist Freeman Lowell has spent eight years aboard the space freighter Valley Forge preserving the only botanical specimens left from earth under huge geodesic domes. When he receives orders to destroy the project and return home, Lowell rebels and hijacks the freighter, while plunging the craft into the gaseous rings of Saturn. From that moment on, he has only the trees, the gardens, and two drone robots, Huey and Dewey, to keep him company on his greatest adventure of all. We are now in the era of climate change and global warming, and pardon the pun, this challenge to humanity is a hot topic. This film provides a glimpse into how one alternative to this major crisis could play out. Climate fiction, or “cli-fi,” deals with issues concerning climate change and global warming, and this movie definitely fits this definition.
Possibly one of the first films now referred to as “ecofiction” or “cli-fi.”
Unlike the “The Day the Earth Stood Still,” the world has yet to come to a dead stop. A way of life, as we know it, might end, but another way will begin. Change is often positive. Our view of the world only a few months ago, is drastically different from today, and more changes are on the horizon.
Looking back at these old sci-fi movies puts a grin on my face, and in some ways, has helped me look forward. Although at times it seems like we’re living through a modern version of one of these dilemmas, we’ll survive and come out of this crisis in a few months—possibly for the better. Maybe a reboot is a good thing. Like the old R.E.M. song declares, “It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine).”
Stay healthy and safe. Humankind is strong, but my deepest sympathies to the many victims of this pandemic.
50s Sci-Fi Movie Trailers:
Trailer to “The Day the Earth Stood Still”
Trailer to “The War of the Worlds”
Twilight Zone, “Time Enough at Last”
1951 (full episode)
Trailer to “Them!”
Trailer to “Invasion of the Body Snatchers”
Trailer to “Silent Running”