It Came From Outer Space

It Came From Outer Space was Universal-International's first serious venture into ’50s science-fiction, as their earlier attempts had been decidedly lighter fare like Abbott And Costello Meet The Invisible Man and Abbott And Costello Go To Mars.  1953’s It Came From Outer Space  (originally titled The Strangers From Outer Space) tells of a crippled alien starship that crash-lands in the Arizona desert, and of the attempts of amateur astronomer John Putnam (Richard Carlson) to convince the frightened townsfolk to leave the aliens alone so they can repair their craft and return from whence they came.

Although Universal released the film in 3-D, recorded it in “Amazing Directional Stereophonic Sound,” and provided it with an ad campaign hyping every aspect of the production, there was much substance behind the exploitation.  Along with The Day The Earth Stood Still and The Thing, It Came From Outer Space set an early high standard for 1950s science fiction films that was difficult for others to match during the remainder of the decade.  This was due in large part to William Alland’s production skills, Ray Bradbury’s contributions to the screenplay, and the direction of Jack Arnold, who was working on the first of his many science-fiction film classics.  Also adding to the production value was the sterling musical score composed by Herman Stein, Henry Mancini, and Irving Gertz.

It Came From Outer Space was a transitional movie between the horror films of previous decades and those that would follow in the ’50s.  One big change was that the villains of the 1930s and ’40s had now become the heroes.  The mad scientists who created the monsters of the past had been replaced by rational, heroic scientists who taught us how to defeat the invaders of the atomic age.  Be they geologists, chemists, or astronomers, no longer were they altering Nature for nefarious reasons.  Instead, they were trying to restore order to a Universe that nameless scientists before them had upset by unleashing the power of the atom.  Even when their experimentation resulted in creatures like Tarantula or the Monster On The Campus, there were usually good motives behind their actions.  Gone were the he-men and reporters who usually saved the day in 1940s monster flicks, as now only a scientist was capable of dealing with whatever menace threatened society.

Science also replaced superstition in most fifties monster films.  The Moon was no longer an occult object that could cause hair to grow on a man's face -- it was merely Earth's satellite, 238,000 miles away.  Atomic power gave birth to many fifties monsters, and was responsible for transporting the aliens in It Came From Outer Space.  And the wooden stake and silver bullet, which logically shouldn't have been more efficient weapons than a silver stake or a wooden bullet, were supplanted by futuristic powers and radioactive weaponry that at least sounded plausible to undiscriminating theatergoers.

The supernatural fatalism of the past, where everyone seemed to be suffering under some kind of curse, was replaced with an optimistic belief that knowledge could help us carve our own destiny.  In It Came From Outer Space, only John Putnam's reasoning powers save the interplanetary visitors, and he does it with absolutely no help from a crucifix or a clove of garlic. 

But some things never change, and Universal still hung onto many concepts they had depended on in the past.  While the movie’s desert setting replaced the spooky European studio backwoods, this was probably more because it was inexpensive rather than visually important.  The foggy Gothic cemeteries found their counterpart in the steaming meteor crater that Putnam descends.  Instead of an angry torch-carrying mob running through the woods, It Came From Outer Space offers us an angry gun-carrying mob driving through the desert.  And unlike many other '50s films that promoted sexual equality, the leading lady in It Came From Outer Space is a schoolteacher who is mainly on hand to scream and offer an unscientific perspective, as she spouts a line of astrological nonsense to her astronomer beau, who in real life wouldn't have had much in common with a woman possessing such medieval notions about the stars. 

One difference is that while the older Transylvanian monsters threatened small, local populations, the atomic age greatly increased our fears, and the films reflected that, as now whole cities or the entire world was in danger from these modern menaces.  While the Xenomorphs of It Came From Outer Space land in a small town, the worldwide implications are obvious.

Although caught between two eras of film making, It Came From Outer Space remains contemporary even to this day because of its theme of xenophobia -- the fear of outsiders -- a message as apropos in these culturally-divisive times as it was during the Cold War.  For as long as mankind can't seem to get along with itself, It Came From Outer Space's plea for tolerance and understanding will remain relevant.

To learn about It Came From Outer Space’s brilliant music score by Herman Stein, Henry Mancini, and Irving Gertz, click HERE.

 

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