Warning from Space

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(4/10) Uchujin Tokyo ni arawaru, released by Daiei in early 1956, is Japan’s first science fiction film in colour. Remembered for its wonky star-shaped aliens, the jumbled, illogical movie borrows from earlier sci-fi classics without managing to tie the themes together. Although beautifully filmed and decently acted, it moves along slowly and is way too talky. Occasionally brilliant, sometimes unintentionally hilarious, often numbingly stupid.

The mighty Pairans from outer space. Once seen they can never be unseen.

The mighty Pairans from outer space. Once seen they can never be unseen.

Warning from Space (1956, Japan). Directed by Koji Shima. Written by: Gentaro Nakajima, Hideo Oguni. Starring: Keizo Kawasaki, Toyomi Karita, Shozo Nanbu, Bontaro Miake, Mieko Nagai, Kiyoko Hirai, Isao Yamagata. Produced by Masaichi Nagata for Daiei Studios.
IMDb rating: 4.4/10 Tomatometer: N/A Metascore: N/A 

Poster.

Poster.

While still absolutely unknown in the West in the beginning of 1956, Japanese science fiction was rumbling onto scene. Movie studio Toho had released four sci-fi movies: the flawed masterpiece Gojira (1954, review), the invisible man film Tomei ningen (1954, review), Godzilla Raids Again (1955, review), and the ill-fated snowman movie Ju jin yuki otoko (1955, review), which the studio withdrew from circulation soon after its premiere. While Toho is the one of the Japanese Big Six studios that we (rightly) come to think of first when we talk about Japanese sci-fi, Daiei was not far behind. In fact, Daiei had originally beat Toho to the mark with its low-budget invisible man crime thriller Tomei ningen arawuru (1949, review). Now, however, Daiei decided to outdo Toho and make Japan’s first science fiction film in colour. And while it was probably tempting to enter the monster movie genre, the studio opted to not put all their eggs in one basket and try to beat Toho at their own game. Instead Daiei took on another challenge, and produced Japan’s first alien invasion movie – in fact this is the first Japanese movie to feature space flight, aliens UFO:s. Not content with this, they threw in a planetary collision as well, thinking they might get Japan’s first apocalypse film underway while they were at it. The result was 宇宙人東京に現わる (Uchujin Tokyo ni arawaru), literally translated as Spacemen appear over Tokyo, but anglicised as Warning from Space. The film premiered on January 29, 1946, before Toho’s colour film Rodan. Continue reading

King Dinosaur

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(0/10) Forget Plan 9 from Outer Space, that charmingly childish fantasy from Ed Wood. Bert I. Gordon’s super-cheap directorial (solo) debut King Dinosaur is a much better contender for the title of worst film ever made. This story of four scientists battling a T.Rex on an unknown planet is inept in every single department and doesn’t even have a redeeming amateurish charm to it. The most interesting aspect of the movie is probably the life story of one of its stars, a jazz singer who kickstarted fashion guru Mr. Blackwell’s career and almost caused a diplomatic incident in Argentina.

Douglas Henderson and Patti Gallagher flee a "Tyrannosaurus Rex" in a promo photo. The actual effects of the film never look this good.

Douglas Henderson and Patti Gallagher flee a “Tyrannosaurus Rex” in a promo photo. The actual effects of the film never look this good.

King Dinosaur (1955, USA). Directed by Bert I. Gordon. Written by Tom Gries, Bert I. Gordon, Al Zimbalist. Starring: William Bryant, Wanda Curtis, Douglas Henderson, Patti Gallagher, Marvin Miller. Produced by Bert I. Gordon for Zimgor Productions. Executive producer: Al Zimbalist.
IMDb rating: 1.9/10. Tomatometer: N/A. Metascore: N/A.

Note the dissimilarity between the lizard in the photograph above and the one on the poster.

Note the dissimilarity between the lizard in the photograph above and the one on the poster. The poster also as five people in it. That’s more than the entire cast of the film.

I had just finished my one-star review of The Beast with a Million Eyes (1955), and thought it probably couldn’t get much worse, when King Dinosaur came along and proved me wrong. It seems that 1955 was the turning-point for sci-fi cinema in the sense that filmmakers realised that by running a shrewd marketing campaign promising monsters and babes, they could really film almost anything that had a fleeting resemblance to the poster, create a script that had a beginning and an end, and preferably some padding in the middle, and get the film released. And since the movies probably didn’t cost more than 30 000 dollars, a profit was almost inevitable. Continue reading

Conquest of Space

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(4/10) Back with his fourth science fiction epic, George Pal sets out to explore the mental and theological aspects of a trip to Mars. Good ideas abound, but the movie is scuttled by ham-fisted script. The special effects are very ambitious and impressive when they work. Unfortunately they don’t work most of the time, leaving us with flickering composites and thick matte lines. Pal’s idea of bringing humour into the mix is making one of the astronauts a dim-witted Brooklyn stand-up comedian. Fun to watch, but ultimately disappointing.

Astronauts on a space sled going from a rocket to the space station, "The Wheel".

Astronauts on a space sled going from a rocket to the space station, “The Wheel”.

Conquest of Space (1955, USA). Directed by Byron Haskin. Written by: James O’Hanlon, Philip Yordan, Barré Lyndon, George Worthing Yates. Based on the books Conquest of Space by Chesley Bonestell and Willy Lay and The Mars Project by Hermann Oberth. Starring: Walter Brooke, Eric Fleming, Mickey Shaughnessy, Phil Foster, William Redfield, William Hopper, Benson Fong, Ross Martin. Produced by George Pal for Paramount Pictures.
IMDb rating: 5.8/10. Tomatometer: N/A. Metascore: N/A.

Poster.

Poster.

If someone asks you who was the most important person for the popularisation of science fiction films in the fifties, there can really only be one answer, and that’s producer George Pal. It was Pal’s extremely ambitious and visionary, albeit horribly flawed, independent film Destination Moon (1950, review) that kicked off the whole sci-fi craze. Likewise, it has been claimed that it was his 1955 movie Conquest of Space that killed it. This is a questionable statement, since some of the best sci-fi films of the fifties were still to come after Conquest of Space. And furthermore, even though it has been described as a horrible flop when it came out, it actually didn’t do all that badly. It made a million dollars at the US box office, essentially making back its shooting budget. That is not to deny that it is, at so many levels, a deeply flawed film. Continue reading

The War of the Worlds

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(8/10) In a nutshell: With his third try at a science fiction epic, producer George Pal finally ironed out some of the kinks that made his first two attempts fall below the mark. This adaptation of H.G. Wells’ alien invasion classic is a stunning tour de force of special effects, aided by a fast-paced script and beautiful design. The breezy plot helps to partly cover up that Pal has stripped Wells’ story of all ideology and satire, and reversed the author’s position on key issues, and Pal’s insistence on drowning his movies in schmarmy religious tirades makes for a cringe-worthy ending. Despite this, The War of the Worlds is a brilliantly entertaining nail-biter and visually a true masterpiece.

The War of the Worlds (1953). Directed by Byron Haskin. Written by Barré Lyndon. Based on the novel The War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells. Starring: Gene Barry, Ann Robinson, Les Tremayne, Robert Cornthwaite, Lewis Martin, Paul Frees, William Phipps, Cedric Harwicke, Charles Gemora, Carolyn Jones. Produced by George Pal, Frank Freeman Jr. & Cecil B. DeMille for Paramount Pictures. Tomatometer: 85%. IMDb score: 7.2/10

The iconic war machines of The War of the Worlds, designed by Albert Nozaki.

The iconic war machines of The War of the Worlds, designed by Albert Nozaki. Look closely and you see the wires.

There are a few films that stand towering over science fiction like giants in respect to their influence on the genre. George Méliès’ A Trip to the Moon (1902, review), Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927, review), and Woman in the Moon (1929, review), James Whale’s Frankenstein (1931, review), Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), George Lucas’ Star Wars (1977), Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979), James Cameron’s The Terminator (1984) and the Wachowksi Brothers’ The Matrix (1999) are among these. They are not always the best in their subgenre and some of them are hampered by by serious problems. They are not always first in their field with their ideas, but execute them in ways that make them milestones to which you can pin flags and draw a line: this was science fiction film history before this-and-this film, and this is what it looks like afterwards. George Pal’s The War of the Worlds is one of these films, it is the Magnum Opus of a filmmaker that wasn’t always savvy to what made a good sci-fi script, but without question one of the great visionaries of movie history. Continue reading

Flight to Mars

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(5/10) In a nutshell: Poverty Row studio Monogram jumped the bandwagon on space films in 1951 with this colour movie filmed in five days. The design and effects are not bad for a film of its budget, although much of it is scraped together from found objects, but all suspense evaporates as the space crew settles on Mars and the movie settles into a boring chamber drama with talking heads.

Flight to Mars (1951). Directed by Lesley Selander. Written bu Arthur Strawn. Starring: Marguerite Chapman, Cameron Mitchell, Arthur Franz, Virginia Huston, John Litel, Morris Ankrum, Richard Gaines, Lucille Barkley, Robert Barrat, Trevor Bardette, Tristam Coffin, Music: Marlin Skiles. Cinematography: Harry Neumann. Editing: Richard V. Heermance. Production design: Ted Haworth. Art direction: Dave Milton. Production management: Allen K. Wood. Sound recordist: John K. Kean. Visual effects: Jack Cosgrove, Jack Rabin, Irving Block. Produced by Walter Mirisch for Monogram Pictures. IMDb score: 5.2

Production still and PR poster from Flight to Mars.

Production still and PR poster from Flight to Mars.

1951 was a tremendous year for science fiction films in Hollywood, especially for films concerning space travel and aliens, subgenres that had only found their way into full-length cinema the previous year. In 1950 producer George Pal had tried to depict a scientifically accurate flight to the moon in Destination Moon (review), and Lippert Pictures had jumped on the wagon with a voyage to Mars in Rocketship X-M (review). In the first two thirds of 1951 spacemen came to Earth, first in The Man from Planet X (review), then in The Thing from Another World (review) and later in The Day the Earth Stood Still (review). Continue reading

The Day the Earth Stood Still

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(9/10) In a nutshell: Perhaps the best sci-fi film of the fifties, this 1951 movie directed by Oscar winner Robert Wise took a risky move by presenting a leftist peace statement just when the McCarthyist blacklistings were clamping down on Hollywood. Hugely influential on sci-fi tropes, it is remembered for its sleekly designed flying saucer and the menacing robot Gort, as well as for its realistic direction and impressive special effects, and for cementing the theremin as the sci-fi composer’s instrument of choice.

The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951). Directed by Robert Wise. Written by Edmund H. North. Based on novella Farewell to the Master by Harry Bates. Starring: Michael Rennie, Patricia Neal, Hugh Marlowe, Sam Jaffe, Billy Gray, Lock Martin, Richard Carlson, David McMahon. Tomatometer: 94 %. IMDb score: 7.8

Michael Rennie in The Day the Earth Stood Still.

Michael Rennie in The Day the Earth Stood Still.

Along with George Pal’s Destination Moon (1950, review) and Howard Hawks’ The Thing from Another World (1951, review), Robert Wise’s The Day the Earth Stood Still would set the template for science fiction films for a decade to come. Two years in the making, this was the second bone fide A-list sci-fi film in Hollywood, after The Thing (Destination Moon’s budget of 600 000 dollars could be described as an unusually big B movie budget). The money shows, both in the fact that the filmmakers have had time for generous pre-production, and in the talent, the sets and the special effects. Continue reading

When Worlds Collide

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(6/10) In a nutshell: Producer George Pal returns with his second sci-fi epic in 1951, still worried about nuclear war. A crack team of scientists and entrepreneurs are mocked by the world as they prepare for doomsday as an approaching rogue sun threatens to turn the world into dust. A modern retelling of Noah’s Ark by way of rocketship, this early Hollywood space travel film stumbles on an illogical and stilted script, weak characterisations and a failure to bring the movie to a satisfying philosophical or moral conclusion. Heavy on religious imagery, but since the source novel is a retelling of a biblical story, this can be excused. A fun apocalyptic adventure, but don’t expect much depth.

When Worlds Collide. Directed by Rupolph Maté. Written Sydney Boehm. Based on a novel by Philip Wylie and Edwin Balmer. Starring: Richard Derr, Barbara Rush, Peter Hansen, John Hoyt. Produced by George Pal for Paramount Pictures. Tomatometer: 77 %. IMDb score: 6.7

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Noah’s Ark anno 1951, heavily influenced by the rocketship i George Pal’s previous film Destination Moon.

1951 was a special year for science fiction: it produced three of the major classics of the fifties’ sci-fi films. The Thing from Another World came out in May, The Day the Earth Stood Still (review)was released in September and When Worlds Collide got its premiere in November. The first two dealt with aliens, one hostile, the other benign. But producer George Pal wouldn’t touch that subject until 1953. Instead he continued where he left off in 1950 with the first American moon landing film. In When Worlds Collide he takes us to a different planet. And if you think the title is a witty metaphor for two different world views or social classes colliding in the movie, you should’t expect such subtlety from the Michael Bay of the fifties. No, when George Pal says two worlds are going to collide, he is being literal. Continue reading