FAVORITE SCIENCE FICTION FILMS: 5: THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL

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The Day The Earth Stood Still (1951) was a brilliant science-fiction film that set the standards, in many ways, for other following films.  One of the great strengths of the genre of science-fiction as well as horror and fantasy is its ability to comment on direct issues in contemporary society.  In this 20th Century Fox film, the director, Robert Wise uses the arrival of an alien spaceship on earth as a cautionary message about the potential of the human race to cause its own self-destruction through atomic warfare.

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The core plot element is that beings from advanced civilizations on other planets have found people on earth have developed both nuclear weapons and a space program. They have sent an emissary, Klaatu, played by Michael Rennie, to deliver a gift and a warning to the people of Earth.  The gift, a small box, was destroyed by a frightened soldier who thought it was a threat. In reality, it was a device that would have allowed humans to study the universe. With the gift gone, what is left is a warning that if human beings insist on bringing their atomic weapons and violence into space with them, then earth and its inhabitants will be destroyed utterly. This message is a quietly subversive challenge through what was seen as just a movie to the nuclear states of the world.

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A staple of science-fiction, both cinema and television is the robot.  This kind of machine will figure into film in many ways from the earliest days to recent film.  The Day The Earth Stood Still has such a machine in Gort, a robot that serves as an aide  to the alien Klaatu.  Earth people view it as a threat, as they do everything alien, which is yet another point to the movie.  Xenophobia and bigotry, unfortunate human capacities, were at the forefront of American society in the late 1940s and 1950s.  If someone was different from the so-called norm, then they were somehow bad and immoral.  This will be the main point of the next movie I will examine in this series: Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

The Day The Earth Stood Still was a critical success and has been named by several film organizations as one of the most important films of American cinema.  If you have not yet seen this movie, and I am NOT talking about the remake, then I recommend it highly.

Favorite Science Fiction Films: 4: Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

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Based on Robert Louis Stevenson’s novel Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde from 1886 , which gave the world the epitome of the double, one of the central characteristics of the Gothic genre, this 1932 film is one of the best horror and science fiction films of that decade or any other time. Robert Mamoulian directed and Adolph Zukor produced the film for Paramount.  Fredric March played Jekyll and Hyde and won the 1932 Oscar® for Best Actor. The film was expensive, coming in at approximately one half million dollars to make, and it was also a financial as well as critical success, making about one and one quarter million dollars–a huge amount of money in those days.

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The film is an excellent adaptation of the novella, something I rarely say about any film.  I love films almost as much as I do books, but almost any adaptation of a film is inferior to the book. The novel has the ability to speak directly to the reader, and the reader’s mind creates images that go much further and deeper than the particular aspect of a director’s vision, at least usually.  Stevenson’s novella is oddly short and would have benefited from begin developed in much more depth.  I can speak to that in another post in the future.  This film develops much of what is only hinted at in the Victorian era novella and is one of the few examples of when a film is superior to the book on which it is based.

The book hints at being a metaphor for drug addiction and the concurrent behavior of addicts, when their worst selves emerge. This film, in a manner that is overt for the early 1930s, visually makes these suggestions.  When Jekyll transforms for the first time, Mamoulian uses Jekyll’s POV (point of view) and shows us the images whirling through his mind.  Rather than eliminating his negative and evil impulses, he manages to bring them out to the front, and Mr. Hyde indulges his desires.

The book and the film also speak to the issue of the misuse of science and the unguarded pursuit of knowledge. This hubris, always punished by the gods in Greek Drama, was seen earlier in Frankenstein, and it is an issue that will continue to haunt us not only in contemporary films such as Jurassic Park but also in the very real world of scientific research.  Atomic weapons immediately come to mind as an example of how science can produce terrible as well as wonderful ends.  This film, in Gothic fashion, speaks to the problems of scientific hubris, uncontrolled by ethics.

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Fredric March was one of the great leading men of the time. He had a long and extraordinary career, including winning the Best Actor Oscar® two times.  Arguably, his performance in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde was his best work of his career.

If you have never had the opportunity to watch this film, I recommend it highly.

Favorite Science-Fiction Films: 3: Frankenstein

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The movie that I will discuss in this installment is Frankenstein.  This 1931 film was directed by James Whale and produced by Carl Laemelle, Jr. Universal Studios was following up its huge success with Dracula earlier in the year, so this film seemed like a natural choice to make. I have posted on Frankenstein before in my series on horror films, but like its namesake novel, it can also been seen as early science-fiction.

While the title and characters come from the 1818 Mary Shelley novel, it is a loose adaptation of the text.  Interestingly, the sequel, The Bride of Frankenstein, is a much more faithful treatment of the novel than this first film. This movie, one of the most important in horror film history, introduces Boris Karloff as the Creature. Karloff gives an impressive performance as the lost and lonely being who is unsure of who he is and his place in the world.  This sounds like so many teenagers and young people, and while frightening, Karloff also gathered empathy from viewers in his nuanced performance.

Bela Lugosi had been offered the part of the creature but apparently turned it down because of its lack of speaking lines.  Lugosi made a terrible career choice, because Karloff would supplant him after this film’s success as the top box office star and would continue to dominate Lugosi’s subsequent film career.

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The movie is powerful and atmospheric and is highly influenced by the artistic movement German Expressionism that had a stylistic impact on cinema especially in the 1920s and 1930s. Whale used large Gothic structures in the set and deep slashing shadows in creating the atmosphere of the film.

Jack Pierce designed the Creature’s distinctive makeup, which was an ordeal to apply and remove from Boris Karloff each day before and after filming. It is a work of design masterpiece, but it is completely different from the Creature’s appearance in the novel.

For those familiar with the novel, it is significant that not only the Creature’s appearance but also his personality and level of intelligence are vastly different from that of the character from the book. In Mary Shelley’s work, the creature is one of the narrators and is both intelligent and self-educated.  Both of those characteristics are missing from the inarticulate and not very bright film Creature. This kind of vastly different portrayal of characters and themes is something that is, unfortunately, typical of many horror films, or should I say, many film adaptations of books. That, however, should be the topic of another post.

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This movie incorporates the stuff of science-fiction, and we see Dr. Frankenstein and his then advanced technological equipment as he attempts to capture the essence of life. In fact, there is more such machinery in the film than exists in the book. So, is Frankenstein horror or science-fiction? I argue it is both.

The film was very successful financially for Universal Studios.  It is also considered by many cinema historians and critics to be one of the most important films made. It spawned numerous sequels and parodies, not limited to movies.  From Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein to the character of Herman Munster in The Munsters to Young Frankenstein, the story of Victor Frankenstein and his creation have been fertile ground for satire and spoofing.

Favorite Science-Fiction Films: 1: A Trip To The Moon

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I teach a course for the Department of Graduate and Continuing Education at Muhlenberg College: English 255 Literature & Film, which makes me very happy, because I am able to look at both literature and film, both media which I love. In one of the lectures for the class on film history, I speak to the earliest examples of cinema.

One of the first movies is also a science-fiction film: A Trip to the Moon (La Voyage Dans La Lune). Georges Méliès, one of the innovators of cinema, was the director, and he based the film, at least loosely, on Jules Verne’s novel From The Earth To The Moon (1865).

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This movie is revolutionary not only in its being an early example of cinema but also in the treatment of science-fiction. Human beings have been explorers for the entirety of our existence, and this movie suggests that it was possible to move our journeys from the Earth to other worlds, a concept that informs our science-fiction cinema from the beginnings to our current films.

The plot shows scientists explaining how to get to the moon, the trip there, including a spaceship being shot out of a cannon, landing on the moon, being chased by inhabitants of the moon, and finally escaping back to Earth. This film explores adventure, imagination, advances in technology, and human potential.

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This movie is usually considered by critics to be one of the most important in film history. It can be seen at https://archive.org/details/ATripToTheMoon1902 . If you are interested in the history of film and science-fiction, you should see this important historic and artistic film artifact.

The film runs, depending on the print from about 10-15 minutes.

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Favorite Science-Fiction Films of the 1920s: Metropolis

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Metropolis is a brilliant science-fiction film (1927) directed by Fritz Lang. This movie, recently restored to its entirety, is a disturbing look at the world of the future through  the eyes of visionaries in the 1920s. It is based on the novel of the same name by Thea von Harbou (1925). The book deals with a city created on the backs of exploited workers and run by the capitalist upper-class. It is also a love story, and it is set in the year 2026.

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Metropolis offers a powerful and damning social commentary on the effects of the ruling class, the capitalist industrialists who rule the world by using and crushing the ordinary people who build and fuel their wonderland. While the workers live underground in squalor and destitution, the upper-class live literally in palaces high above the ground. There they explore and indulge in numerous amusements including those sexual and athletic. This film is not a simple polemic but drives its message through a compelling story that shows the love between the Master of Metropolis’ son Freder and Maria, who lives in the underworld and serves as a kind of saint to the oppressed.

Frankenstein, 1931, owes a cinematic debt to the mad scientist in Metropolis, Rotwang, and his equipment. There he creates a robot woman, using the life force of Maria. Clearly the novelist, Mary Shelley and her book, Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus, first influenced this movie.

Lang’s cinematic vision is exquisite and deeply influential to filmmakers who followed him in exploring the idea of future cites. His soaring towers and buildings, high bridges with fast cars, and aircraft flying near the buildings are based on the designs of the modernists and futurists, and this concept is a clear model for Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner. Certainly an argument can be made that Metropolis is a foundation for many other science-fiction movies.

This film is extraordinary, and the full version is now available on DVD. It is an important piece of cinematic history, and I give it my highest recommendation.

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Science Fiction Films of the 1950s: Them

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One of the main themes that ran through many science fiction films of the 1950s was the combined fear of nuclear war, nuclear explosions, and fallout. This atomic fear is one large terror that haunted the Cold War world and was developed in many ways in science fiction films.

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One such expression was in the advent of the giant bug movies, which addressed the question of what might happen to  the world after radiation had somehow been released either through detonation of weapons or by accident. In Japan, the consequences of having been the only nation to have suffered the devastation of nuclear bombs, saw the emergence of giant monsters like Godzilla, often seen destroying Japanese cities–a very direct metaphor for nuclear explosions. In America, a similar motif was seen in the proliferation of Giant Bug movies.  This might be considered an early example of ecological concern in cinema.

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Them, a 1954 production by Warner Bros, starred James Arness and James Whitmore. In the beginning of the movie, a little girl was found alone and traumatized, saying only “them, them.” The girl was rescued, but during the investigation, other people were found who have been killed, and the perpetrators were discovered to be giant ants.  The monsters were created when normal ants came upon sugar that had been irradiated by atomic weapons testing.  They reached the height and size of small military tanks and were ferocious killers and hunters.  This film made Americans think about the potential risks from insects that would normally have been viewed, at the worst, as mere pests at picnics.  Radiation had the capacity to distort they way we  interacted with the world.

Eventually, the creatures were hunted down and destroyed by the use of flame-throwers.  As would be the motif in most of the giant bug movies, the world was saved by using technology against technologically-created creatures.  At the conclusion of the movie, a warning was given in solemn tones that we have entered a new world in the atomic age, and we have to be aware of its dangers. These are themes that would be repeated frequently in other giant bug movies.

If you have not seen this one, it is worth a look.  It may not be the best film of all time, but it does introduce important Cold War themes into science fiction cinema. These are themes which frightened many people.

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