Sunday, April 24, 2011
Top Ten Science Fiction Movies Part 1
Okay, so I think I'd better explain what I'm up to here.
This is a list of science-fiction movies that I think are good as science fiction, which is to say, interesting on the level of SF ideas. There are lots and lots of SF movies out there, but very few of them do a good job with the science fiction itself. You take Star Wars, for example. It rips right along, and it's a very important movie in the history of special visual effects...the whole landscape of Hollywood was changed by it. But even though, I think, most people would classify it as science fiction, it's quite ridiculous on that score, a gigantic hodgepodge of ideas, chosen solely for their visual aspect, as far as I can tell. Or, you could take a movie I like a whole lot better, King Kong. The idea of a lost island inhabited by dinosaurs is an SF concept all right...but there isn't any attempt to rationalize any of it...the film depends primarily on pace and atmosphere (and a wonderful soundtrack). In the final analysis, I think you have to say the movie's fantasy.
Moreover, I'm not going to include some very great movies because they seem to fall into a different genre. Frankenstein comes immediately to mind...actually, both of James Whale's Frankenstein movies. The basic premises are SF---nutty geniuses using science to create life---but I think most people would label the movies as horror, although I didn't include them in my scary movie list because they're not that scary.
Nope; what I'm talking about is the kind of stuff exemplified by Nigel Kneale's films...they don't necessarily skimp on the spectacle and special effects (although a couple of his movies deserve better effects than they've got), but they achieve their primary effect by being well-thought out on the SF level.
And oh yeah, I suppose I'd better explain my notion of what science fiction consists in. I view all fiction as a variety of fantasy; but it's also useful to distinguish what most people mean by fantasy from other sorts of fiction. I think that SF, for the most part, is a variety of that sort of fantasy; but it's fantasy in which the fantastic elements are rationalized with scientific explanations, or pseudo-scientific explanations. Thus, time travel achieved by going faster than light, or by the Fredricksen Device, would be science-fiction. Time-travel by means of fairy dust would be fantasy....although, come to think of it, fairy dust might be as good a means of time-travel as anything else.
All that being said, on with the list.
1.The Invisible Man, 1933, Director: James Whale
Just watched this again. Great flick. Plays to all of James Whale's strengths. It's extremely funny, frequently laugh-out loud funny, but it's also the scariest of Whale's Universal horror films. Claude Rains manages to deliver a wonderful performance even though he spends practically the entire film wrapped up in bandages or completely unseen...that voice of his is a such a tremendous asset. In addition to all this, the adaptation of Wells's book is pretty darn good. Takes some liberties, but what the Hell...England in the 1930's is a pretty good stand-in for England in the the 1890's. It's not jarring, like setting War of the Worlds in California in the 1950's.
Now, regarding the quality of Invisible Man's science-fiction, I don't think there had been any talkies up to that point which took their SF responsibilities so seriously...there had been adaptations of Jules Verne, and you had Metropolis and Aelita and suchlike, but some of those were rather lousy as SF, no matter how strong the visual stuff might've been, and you really need dialogue, and lots of it, to do a good job with ideas.Oh yeah, you can suggest all sorts of things, but nothing beats nifty ideas well-put.Fact is, that clown that said "one picture is worth a thousand words" should've been forced to express that expression in a picture, I mean, really say it.
Then he should've been shot.
There's a lot of choice dialogue in Invisible Man....our nutty protagonist has really pondered his plight, and the guys assigned to catch him have to work everything through themselves. The science-fiction doesn't stem so much from a plausible scientific explanation of why invisibility would be possible, but from what invisibility would be like if someone had achieved it. In that respect, Wells is rather different from Jules Verne, and I believe Verne accused him of being a mere fantasist, or something to that effect...Verne would frequently expend a whole lot of energy on rendering things plausible. Wells would just give you a time machine, or take Cavorite as a given, or tell you that there's drug called monocaine that renders you invisible. Verne didn't really come up with such exotic ideas...he'd have guys being shot into orbit around the moon in a cannon-shell.
As for the movie adaptation of Invisible Man, the invisibility's already a done deal, right from the gitgo...we really don't know how the formula works, although we're informed that Germans have already tried it...always a bad sign. Still, we get a great deal of extrapolation about the effects, and depiction of them too....also, a bunch of stuff about how an invisible man would go about launching a (Claude) reign of terror. He realizes he'll need a visible assistant, and coerces one, although he also forsees that he'll have to make that guy invisible at times too; he figures he'll have to start off with terrorism and extortion, utilizing things like trainwrecks; he says he'll kill poor men and rich men alike, just so everyone will realize "he makes no distinction." He realizes there are things that will reveal his presence, even when he's going about starkers; any food he eats will give him away, until it's digested; soot (this was back when there was a lot of coalburning in England) will settle on his shoulders; he'll appear as a kind of a bubble in fog, and of course he'll leave footprints in snow, etc. Once the cops satisfy themselves that he really exists---he's bashed one's brain in with a stool---they have to get clever themselves, turning to things like spraypaint, and techniques like putting dirt on top of walls, and walking nets across rooms to make sure he isn't hanging about. Characters suggest all sorts of ideas, some of which are quite reasonably shot down..you find yourself wondering what you'd do if you were int heir place. The whole thing has a very logical feel...it's not like listening to Dr. Van Helsing talking about garlic.
Of course, there is a visual aspect to all this, but it enhances the science-fiction...you had the special effects guys, or Whale, or whoever, trying to work all this stuff through, and think about interesting and downright startling ways to render invisibility...well, visible, stuff like the creepy way in which you can look right into the guy's head whenever he takes his sunglasses and his fake nose off, or the appalling way in which his whole bottom jaw disappears when he's eating, and Una O'Connor surprises him...you only see it for a second, before he thrust his napkin up. You could do a much better job on some of the visual effects today, but some of them are just about as good as they ever were, most notably the scene where he goes running down a country road wearing nothing but his pants, indeed, appearing to be nothing but a pair of pants, and very crazy pants at that.
In sort, if you'd like to see some early cinematic SF with great performances, dialogue, and presentation of ideas, you should take a look at this thing. I watched it on Youtube, but it's also on the pay-per-view at the moment. Very very cool. Only 71 minutes long, but it does everything it needs to...Claude Rains is simply a gas.
2. Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, 1954, Director, Richard Fleischer
By the time this movie came out, the science-fiction craze of the 1950's had already been in full swing for a while...you'd had The Thing From Another World, Beast From Twenty Thousand Fathom, Them, War of the Worlds, and Day the Earth Stood Still. But in a lot of the fifties movies, the SF was primarily a pretext for serving up some monster stuff; The Thing, for example, is a helluva movie. But as SF, it's pretty basic, if not downright silly...there's a plant from another planet that looks pretty much like a human, and it wants to suck our blood. Almost all the most interesting aspects of Bill Campbell's original story---Who Goes There---have been scrapped. Day the Earth Stood Still is very nicely written, well directed by Robert Wise, has a fantastic Bernard Herrmann Score, and some good actors, notably Michael Rennie, and Sam Jaffe, etc. Also, it's got Gort. But as SF---gimme a break. You've got aliens who are capable of interstellar travel, and they're worried about Earthling atomic bombs...also, they seem to be just plain human beings....the SF aspects of the story sink down pretty considerably before the social criticism, which, given its endorsement of mass extermination, is pretty sinister.
Then there's War of the Worlds, which, I guess, is the first H.G.Wells adaption since Invisible Man and Things to Come. Well, most unfortunately, George Pal et. al decided it needed to be updated ( a mistake they didn't make on Time Machine), and so they expended a lot of their energy on coming up with modern equivalents to H.G. Wells' turn-of-the century imaginings...I really dislike the approach, even though I like the movie on balance, and think it's better than Spielberg's version, which went even farther in the same wrong direction.
Now when Disney decided to tackle Twenty Thousand Leagues, he could've tried something similar, I suppose...there had been earlier adaptations, and I don't think they were set in the 1860's. But trying to update classic SF is a perilous business, as Pal's War of the Worlds demonstrates...once you start screwing around with a tapestry, you usually wind up pulling out more and more threads, until finally, a lot of the elements of the original design don't serve any purpose any more. You might still want tripod war-machines, but you don't need them any longer, even if you've tarted the idea up with anti-gravity or whatnot.
Wisely, Disney and co just said, screw all that.
Well, maybe uncle Walt didn't say screw.
But he did realize the audience was sophisticated enough to take a period adaptation: he knew they knew that no one had wonderful submarines like the Nautilus back in the 1860's, but wouldn't care...that if you gave them a really vividly imagined Nautilus, they'd much prefer it to a real thing like The Hunley. Moreover, by setting the movie when the novel was set, Walt's screenwriters simply didn't have to do all sorts of violence to the story. The Twentieth Century does intrude, just a bit, regarding the sub's power source---there's a strong implication that's it's a nuclear reactor, whereas Verne's boat, was, I think, just plain electric. But what the hell---Captain Nemo's a genius, and we've already swallowed a whole lot of stuff before we get to that point.
The story, in case you don't know, opens with a world-wide panic involving a sea-monster that's destroying warships.To try to figure out what's going on, the US government enlists Professor Aronnax, (Paul Lucas), a French scientist who specializes in sea stuff. Accompanied by his funny little goggle-eyed assistant Conseil(Peter Lorre) Aronnax goes off on a warship that bops around the south seas for a while, then gets rammed by the "monster"...Aronnax, Conseil, and harpooneer Ned Land (Kirk Douglas) all get knocked overboard, and after the crippled vessel crawls off, they sight the nautical beast on the surface, decide it's actually a boat of some sort, climb on, and go inside.
The audience is treated to a whole lot of great production design, (everything full of wonderful rivets), which manages to look plausible and very nineteenth-century at the same time. The plush salon, with its pipe organ, huge circular observation window, and great big velvet hangings, is simply delightful...I would love to take a 20,000 league trip on the damn sub.
Well, Nemo's been out on the ocean floor conducting a funeral, and that's why our guys have been able to explore...he comes back in, decides to keep Aronnax and Conseil because Aronnax is a scientist and Conseil is his helper; why he retains Ned Land, I've never been able to figure out, but oh well. What follows is a travelogue of the underseas world, which is depicted with the aid of great underwater photography and a fabulous special effects department, which included Josh Meador, and matte ace Peter Ellenshaw. We get underwater farms, ship graveyards, coral reefs, man-eating sharks, and giant squids. Oh, and more warships being rammed and blown up by Nemo.
In between all the visual splendor, there's a lot of surprisingly cerebral back and forth between Aronnax and Nemo, who's discovered a whole bunch of fantastic things which could made human existence a lot better, but...he's pretty damn fiery in his detestation of the world's governments, particularly their militaries. He was once imprisoned by some unnamed country ("That hated nation"), in an effort to get him to divulge his secrets...escaping from a prison camp in the south seas, he and a group of his fellow prisoners built the Nautilus to his specs, and have been cruising around ever since, doing research, eating great seafood, and making life miserable for great-power navies.
The question is though---has Nemo gone around the bend? Yeah, he's pretty ruthless. But he's also sympathetic and principled...and Aronnax, who'd like to moderate Nemo's behavior, is thoroughly conflicted. All the issues are quite well handled, and treated with total seriousness...at the same time, you have Ned Land commenting on all the high-flown stuff from a very down-to-earth perspective, and it just makes the film that much more complex.
Ultimately Land saves Nemo from the giant squid for reasons that neither of them understand...this, even though Land's been tossing out messages in bottles the whole while, hoping to alert the navies of the world to the location of Nemo's base, Vulcania. The Nautilus is heading there...we learn that Nemo is sufficiently impressed with Aronnax that he plans to send him out as an envoy, to disburse some major scientific goodness to a hungry desperate world. But thanks to Ned's messages, "That hated nation" has located Vulcania, and is landing troops even as the Nautilus arrives...Nemo gets shot, and decides to blow up the island and scuttle the sub. Ned, Aronnax, and Conseil escape, but Vulcania vanishes in a mushroom cloud, and the Nautilus sinks...we are invited to imagine that one day everything Nemo came up with will be rediscovered, although why we should be too happy about nuclear weapons, I'm not sure...
There are some dopey bits. Nemo's got the hull of the Nautilus rigged electrically, and he uses cartoon lightning to repel some hostile natives at one point, and fight the giant squid...maybe I'm all wet, but I suspect a big iron object sitting in a bunch of sea-water would just short the hell out. Also, the squid-fight, generally considered the film's high point, is silly in a lot of ways...for one thing, the squid shoots around tentacles-first, whereas squids jet the other way. Moreover, the idea that you could conduct a squid fight in the middle of a storm at sea is absurd...storms at sea have these great big waves and...well, it's just not suitable for controversies with cephalopods.
But overall, the film is surprisingly well-imagined, and holds up just fine today. Certainly it's the best Verne adaptation, and the best of the big period SF movies...it's noteworthy that most of the Verne and Wells movies afterwards, such as Journey to the Center of the Earth, From the Earth to the Moom, The Time Machine, and First men in the Moon, were set in period. It's just the way to go.
3. Forbidden Planet,1956, Director: Fred Wilcox
Sittin' in you
In a lake of poo
There's a thing they call the Id.
And Id wants to do
What you wouldn't do
But you always wish you did.
Poetry aside, Forbidden Planet is one of the two greatest SF movies out there, in my opinion. Its only real rival is Quatermass and the Pit, AKA Five Million Years to Earth...certainly FP was the best SF movie until that flick came along. People keep talking about a remake. They shouldn't bother. They wouldn't have a helluva lot to add.
FP was real departure in a lot of respects...MGM decided to get adventurous and blow a lot of bucks on the assumption that audiences were ready for a big-budget intelligent science-fiction film...but the movie didn't get the response they'd hoped for. Maybe it was simply too smart...I don't know. It made a huge impression on me, though, when it showed up on Million Dollar Movie out of NYC; I was just a kid, but I could tell I was looking at something very different and vastly brainier than the stuff I was used to. The approach to just about everything was pretty radical, the special effects, the production design, the refusal to talk down to the audience, the fact that the movie was set completely in outer space, indeed, outside the solar system...fucking wow. And I hadn't even seen the thing letterboxed or in color.
When I watched it again recently, I thought the first twenty minutes or so really didn't age well...first off, you've got our space-guys zooming about in a flying saucer, which was obviously a concession to the saucer craze of the fifties...I guess we're supposed to think there was something to the idea of those alien visitations after all. Well, they don't seem to have been, and it's pretty silly. Then you have some things like the microphone that Leslie Neilsen addresses everybody through...it's tethered to a transmitter at his belt by a wire...you have interstellar travel, but the guys who made the movie couldn't imagine that he could have a communicator that could broadcast without being tethered to a thing at his belt.
Then you have Robbie the Robot...who really is a cool-looking design, although he sure isn't very ambulatory, and would've had a lot of problems doing anything with those arms of his. Of course, I shouldn't get too bitchy...while SF has frequently gotten some things right, it's gotten a whole lot of things wrong, wrong wrong...assumptions about manned space travel, the importance and capabilities of computers, etc...and Forbidden Planet does a much better job on its "chrome" than most movies of the period. Also, I must say, I was never sold on FP's indoor sets...they're interesting, but they're not convincing, and the decision to build that spaceship big, (but not truly life-sized) was pretty foolish...even when I was a kid, I could tell it could never accomodated everyone and their equipment, etc.
Things pick up when stalwart Leslie Neilsen and his buds go to visit Dr. Morbius, an arrogant prick played by Walter Pidgeon---he and his wife were the sole survivors of an earlier expedition in which everyone else was wiped out by some sort of invisible monster. His wife has died, but not before giving birth to a dishy daughter, named Altaira and played by Anne Francis. The romantic stuff, in which Anne discovers men (I found myself thinking of Lena the Hyena, although of course she doesn't look like that) seemed hopelessly dated. But Altaira, who plays Miranda to Morbius's Prospero (this after all, a riff on The Tempest, with Robbie as Ariel and the invisible monster as Caliban), does have a real part to play in the script...and that becomes clearer later on.
As I said, after about twenty minutes, the really smart stuff kicks in...Morbius wants Neilsen and co. to go...they won't. He's a philologist who's been deciphering the writings of the planet's ancient extinct inhabitants, called the Krell...they were real different from people (you can tell that by looking at the archways that survived), and they left a vast machine that's still chugging along down inside the planet... they also had a device for boosting the intelligence of their children, and Morbius has used it to turn himself into an even bigger more arrogant smarty-pants than he was before. We get a look at some sort of control room, in which gauges on the walls, each ten times more powerful than the one before, reveal that the Krell had almost unlimited power at their disposal. Then Morbius takes his would-be rescuers deep into the planet for a mind-blowing look at the big machine...the shots of a stupendous ventilation shaft are among the most awesomely vertiginous visuals ever committed to film. And you realize you're looking at something extremely rare...movie spectacle wedded to extremely clever ideas. A great of really wild things happen in the course of the film...the matter of the Krell's extinction needs to be addressed...the guy who wrote the screenplay (someone named Cyril Hume), realizes that you'd need a lot of power, and that you'd have to dramatize it with things like those gauges, and that you'd need ventilation shafts, and that the whole set-up would have to be enormous, enormous, enormous.
Now if you look at other SF films of the period, everybody's tootling around in V2 rockets or something very much like them, in which the question of artificial gravity is never raised, and you really can't tell whether a space ship's interior reflects a vertical or horizontal or radial symmetry...of course, in most of the period's SF, the main issue is the effect of radiation on dinosaurs (frequently dinosaurs on other planets) or ants. Nope the guys who made Forbidden Planet have given some genuine thought to force fields (and realize that they'd have to be projected somehow, by a fence with posts or something) and how heavy something would have to be if you couldn't kill it with concentrated neutron radiation, and how the big machine kinda perks up and gets a little bit more active as the earth-saucer comes in towards the planet...
Moreover, along with all this SF well-thought-outness, you get some nifty stuff about psychology and human nature...the film winds up wading into fairly deep waters without being pretentious. Turns out the Krell whacked themselves...the big machine was a device to relieve them of all physical effort, by projecting matter in any design or quantity to any point on the planet...but instead of creating a utopia, this unleashed terrible forces from the Krell's subconscious minds, "monsters from the Id," Id being Freudian jargon for the crappy irrational barbarism that bubbles and stinks under our civilized facades. Well, in a single night, the monsters destroyed the whole Krell culture and everybody in it, leaving only the big machine...which Morbius, using the brain booster, has acquired the ability to operate, and make monsters of his own. Unconsciously, in his sleep, he wiped out all the other members of the first expedition, aside from his wife...they wanted to leave, and he didn't. He's really happy living with his daughter and Robby...when fresh earthmen show up, and Altaira gets interested in the captain, Morbius gets horribly jealous, and the monster starts bumping people off again. Yeah, it's invisible, but we get to see it outlined in the energy when it tries to penetrate the force-fields surrounding the spaceship...the monster is itself a very original creation, supplied by Disney animator Josh Meador.
Ultimately, all the main protags finds themselves back at Morbius's place; Morbius is informed that the monster is him; the monster starts bashing its way in through yards of Krell armor plate, all those gauges in the control-room lighting up successively as the big machine supplies it with all the energy it needs to bash through well, just about anything. Ultimately Morbius confronts the beast and has a stroke or something; it's a bit anticlimactic, but the doings leading up to it, with the monster beating these huge dents in the armor, and then turning the armor white-hot, and thrusting its invisible fists through the increasingly molten metal is tres cool. When Morbius blows a gasket, the monster vanishes; Morbius lasts long enough to set off a planetary self-destruct sequence; the captain and Altaira and Robby and everyone else who survived get in the ship and lift off...the whole planet explode, and we get a moral tag that's basically, "he tampered in God's domain," but it's one of the best ones in movies. Very high marks.
By the way, if you're inspired to watch this thing---and you really better had---make sure you see a properly letterboxed version. The movie really took advantage of its Cinemascope. The compositions in the usual TV version are extremely messed up, and there are awful issues with resolution. Also, get the uncut version. There's a certain amount of stuff that simply doesn't make any sense at all in the snipped version, such as that business about the eclipse at the beginning of the movie.
The scene with the Krell reactor, by the way, is a very direct rip-off of the reactor scene in Twenty Thousand Leagues.
4.Enemy From Space (Quatermass II), 1957, Director: Val Guest
As I'm sure a lot of you know, Hammer films was a British production company that began pumping out Technicolor horror in the 1950's, featuring quite a bit of blood (remarkable for the time),bosomy babes, and nice-looking production values...Peter Cushing and Chris Lee achieved horror stardom in films like Curse of Frankenstein, Horror of Dracula, and The Mummy.
But Hammer's best films were never the semi-remakes of old Universal movies...their science fiction was a whole lot better, their ace in the hole being a fellow by the name of Nigel Kneale, who wrote three of the movies on this list. He'd done some TV SF for the BBC, and did a good job adapting his own teleplays for film...the first of these was The Quatermass Experiment, which was released in the US as The Creeping Unknown.
In it we're introduced to Dr. Quatermass, a UK rocket scientist played gruffly and rather obnoxiously by veteran Yank actor Brian Donlevy...don't know why the Brits would have an American rocket scientist, but the Hammer folks apparently thought they'd gain a bit of boxoffice by importing Donlevy from the US (a most bizarre idea)...they pulled the same trick with a couple of other American b and c-list stars, namely Forrest Tucker in The Crawling Eye, and Dean Jagger in X the Unknown..
Anyway, in Creeping Unknown, Donlevy's Quatermass has overseen a manned shot into space, and things have gone horribly wrong...the ship's returned with most of the crew just gone, and the one survivor infected by some sort of alien organism that's transforming him horribly, even as he devours lots of limies. Ultimately he becomes something like a big octopus. It's all fairly well directed, and the dialogue and the acting are good...but I was never too crazy about the film. The basic concept's not that interesting. But Nigel Kneale turned out some more Quatermass for the BBC, and Hammer, did a couple more adaptations, which I like a whole lot better than the first installment.
Enemy From Space (Quatermass II) seems to me a superior product in every respect...it's wonderful fifties paranoia and extremely ingenious. Brian Donlevy's back, and he's not quite so much of an asshole this go-round...he's pushing the idea of a moon-colony, but the British Government is shutting him down, even though they've spent some preliminary bucks on one of his rockets. He doesn't know what he's going to do with himself, but he channels his energies onto a whole new track when his subordinates make some interesting discoveries...showers of strange meteor-like things are raining down in an area not too far from his rocket-base. When one of his guys does some forensic reconstruction on a sample, it turns out that the original object was probably aerodynamically designed, with stabilizing fins and an interior compartment, although all these characteristics were (intentionally?) obscured when the thing was deformed and burnt up by its descent through the atmosphere.
Quatermass goes out to take a gander at the area where the objects have been landing...there are fragments all over,but one of his assistants finds a rock that's largely intact; when he picks it up, it splits open in a burst of ammoniac gas, and something shoots out, entering his face, making a v-shaped wound. Immediately, strangely dressed security guards from a nearby plant arrive and take the poor fellow into custody...turns out the facility they guard is a dead ringer for the moon-base that Quatermass was pushing!
Well, for some reason, the security guards don't take Q in, and he goes right to London to see if he can't figure out what the hell's going on...bit by bit, he discovers that nasty little aliens have been arriving in those entry-vehicle things, which are full of atmosphere from wherever they come from---Quatermass suspects a moon of Saturn, a nice bit. The aliens have been moving in on us for some time, it turns out...once they penetrate a human body, they take over the nervous system, and they've been making a particular point of going after government officials, which is, of course, precisely what you'd do if you wanted to conquer the world in a very economical low-profile way. Having penetrated the government, they found out about Quatermass's moon base project, and decided it was just right for them...just as he intended to use it to colonize the moon, they could use it to colonize earth, growing giant communal brain organisms inside the huge domes, which they've filled with their atmosphere from Titan or wherever. They've had the place declared top-secret, and they're using secrecy laws to keep nosy folks away...they've built the place with workers who live in a dismal company town, are browbeaten by infected bureaucrats and threatened by the security guards. Whenever one of those meteors lands in the town, the workers think nothing of it, because they've been informed it's just "an overshot," a mistake, part of the process that's used at the plant, which is is supposedly producing synthetic food. In reality, though, those big brain critters in the domes are being acclimatized to the earthly atmosphere with steadily-increasing amounts of oxygen, and sooner or later there are going to be enough infected folks to take the planet away from us, and so on. But Quatermass and a cop buddy get into the company town, and incite the workers, who rise up against the regime at the plant...there's quite a bit of shootin' and killin', and our guys wind up barricaded in the place that controls the flow of atmosphere to the domes...
Unfortunately, the last quarter of the film is not particularly persuasive...pretty much everyone winds up in a big chamber and things get rather static...it seems exactly like it was originally written for live TV, and involves a lot of looking out windows, which you'd think our heroes wouldn't want to do, seeing as how the plant's full of guards with submachine-guns. Moreover, when the domes wind up getting breached by anti-tank grenades, and the big gooey aliens come out, the miniature work is pretty small and substandard, and there are a number of explosions and flame effects that really needed to be photographed in slow-mo. The aliens themselves look rather like giant chocolate sundaes sprinkled with seaweed, and they just hulk and slop about and fall over. It's all a pity, but...the film does most of its work with the stuff about an off-the-shelf on-the-cheap alien invasion, and I really couldn't bring myself to get into a high dudgeon about the climactic visuals.
The FX would be a whole lot better in the next Nigel Kneale opus on the list, which is coming right up.
5. First Men in The Moon, 1964, Director, Nathan Juran
This is a Ray Harryhausen flick, but rather an atypical one. I'm a huge Harryhausen fan...his movies were kind of religious experiences for me when I was a kid, but...they tended to be showcases for his special effects. In the final analysis the reason you went to see Seventh Voyage of Sinbad or Jason and the Argonauts was the monsters, even though Jason had quite a good screenplay and handled the mythology quite well. But in general, the films tended to be driven by big FX set-pieces.
First Men in the Moon embodies a very different approach. Oh, there are lots of FX, and cool ones too...but they take rather a back seat to the SF, which is entirely appropriate for a Wells movie. Harryhausen is a Wells fan; he'd always wanted to do a version of War of the Worlds, even going so far as to do some color test footage of a dying disease-ridden Martian back when he was a kid (Harryhausen, not the Martian). I guess all that got scuttled when his old employer George Pal beat him to the punch...I can easily imagine I would've preferred Harryhausen's take on the material. But whatever.
Harryhausen and producer Charles Schneer et al., coming off a long box-office dry spell that followed Seventh Voyage of Sinbad, turned to Wells for inspiration, and First Men was the result. It's actually an interesting example of an non-updated update...most of the story is set in 1900 or so, but it's actually a flashback. The framing device is fairly amusing...UN astronauts land on the moon, thinking they're the first ones to pull this trick, only to discover a Union Jack, and learn that Victorian Brits actually beat them to it!
From a document left with the flag, investigators track down Bedford (Edward Judd) the last surviving member of the expedition, who's living out his last years in a nursing home, and considered to be quite cracked by the staff, seeing as how he's completely obsessed with Old Luna. But he's very happy to talk to
someone who's willing to believe him, and cracks right into his story...we find ourselves back in the age of knee-pants, bicycles, quaint country cottages, and eccentric Brit scientists who are accompanied by near-constant tuba music.
Most of the preliminaries are overscored, and there's quite a bit of not very good comedy...still, we get interested, as Beford and his American fiance Kate (Martha Hyer) meet crazy Cavor (Lionel Jefferies), a wacky dude who's come up with a substance which can screen off the power of gravity...paint it on something, and the object will go shooting off into the sky as soon as the stuff dries. Bedford, who's drowning in debt, immediately sees the financial potential of such a formula...selling his cottage (which he doesn't own) to Cavor, he uses the money to convince Cavor to accept him as a backer.
But Cavor couldn't care less about Bedford's ideas...what he has in mind is a trip to the moon, and he's already built the sphere that'll take him there, once it's had some of his substance slapped on. Ultimately, Bedford and Kate join him on board, and the sphere goes flying off into space, with them suspended in rope netting or walking with the aid of magnetic boots.
Now when the sphere bashes down on the lunar surface, bouncing about on railway buffers (a nice touch), we do get a bit of updating...in Wells' version, there was a thin lunar atmosphere, and there were plants and things living on the surface. But the guys who made the film had some problems with that...the surface is depicted as a Chesley Bonestell sort of thing (the lighting isn't bright enough), and all the lunar life gets moved underground. It's understandable. It's worth noting that Wells had most of his moon life underground too.
Once you get inside huge doors, there are weird fungusy growths, and giant mooncalves, and Selenites....the Selenites are capable of surviving outside the doors for a while, but the idea is really not too much wierder than marine mammals or reptiles that can survive for a very long time without oxygen...painted turtles, for example, can hibernate under the water for five months at a stretch.
As in the novel, the Selenites are presented a hive society...they even look like big bugs. They can be threatening---Bedford gets into a pretty violent clash with them, on a bridge over a gulf full of bubbling blue lava---but really, they're just going about their business, and actually not such bad fellows. Kate is taken prisoner and studied by them, and Cavor gets an audience with the Supreme Selenite, a big-brained bug who questions him closely about human wars...Cavor, innocent soul that he is, doesn't realize he's being interrogated by a creature who thinks (probably pretty reasonably) that he has everything to fear from human incursions. But Bedford's listening to all this, and he rushes in, shotgun blazing, and hauls Cavor out. Having developed a bit of a cold,Cavor helps him and Kate reassemble the sphere, which the bugs have taken apart; when Bedford and Kate take off, he opts to stay behind and study the Selenites, maybe make amends for Bedford.
Ultimately, we return to the present...watching TV in the nursing home, Bedford sees a live transmission of the UN astronauts descending into the Selenite galleries. But everything's dead and decayed...the whole Lunar civilization has been wiped out. In an ending cribbed from War of the Worlds, we find out that the aliens have been killed off by an earthly disease. "Poor Cavor," says Bedford, "He had such a nasty cough."
Some critics have opined that the film doesn't devote enough time to Wells' ruminations on a hivelike society, but there's still quite a bit of that...screenplay was by Nigel Kneale (with an assist from Jan Reade) and Kneale obviously didn't have any problem with playing with the ideas. In fact, in certain respects, the story prefigures Kneale's own Quatermass and the Pit, which features buglike aliens who look rather like the Selenites, although they're just as evil as hell. And really, given that this is a Harryhausen movie, there's a remarkable shortage of stop-motion beasties...there's the huge caterpillar-like mooncalf, and some animated brain selenites, but that's just about it...almost all of the special effects are devoted to impressive scene-setting and exposition, as with a vast solar-power device, and towering cylinders that supply the oxygen. Given that the cylinders are necessary to supply the oxygen, I suppose we can assume that the place actually lost its atmosphere at some point...the point isn't made explicitly. But it seems to have been on Nigel Kneale's mind. Of the three Kneale flicks on this list, I think it would be fair to say that First Men is the weakest as SF---there's some worrisome stuff like the fact that a huge hole gets knocked in a big lens that holds the oxygen in, and all the caverns don't get depressurized...moreover, a lens so weak that someone could just fall right through wouldn't be able to contain the pressure to begin with, and so and so forth. But there's nothing that simply stops you dead, and overall it's intelligent fun, if you overlook that initial comedy and tuba-music.