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

Target Earth

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(5/10) Based on a short story by Paul Fairman, Target Earth is one of the first empty world movies of the fifties. Best remembered for its clunky robot and its opening shots of an empty city, the film stumbles on bad dialogue and a low budget. Good actors like Richard Denning and Kathleen Crowley give the film gravitas, but ultimately the film’s ingredients are too thin to elevate it above B movie status.

Target Earth (1954, USA). Directed by Sherman A. Rose. Written by William Raynor, James H. Nicholson, Wyatt Ordung. Based on the story Deadly City by Paul W. Fairman. Starring Richard Denning, Kathleen Crowley, Virginia Grey, Richard Reeves, Robert Roark, Arthur Space, Whit Bissell, Steve Calvert. Produced by Sherman Cohen for Abtcon Pictures and Herman Cohen Productions. IMDB rating: 5.7/10. Tomatometer: N/A. Metascore: N/A.

Kathleen Crowley and Richard Denning fighting the invader robot.

Kathleen Crowley and Richard Denning fighting the invader robot.

1954 was a year in sci-fi that gave us some of the great classics, like Creature from the Black Lagoon (review) and Them! (review), but also movies infamous for their cheap camp, like Killers from Space (review) and Devil Girl from Mars (review). But then there are also the pictures that, justly or unjustly, are more or less forgotten today by most except us aficionados, because they were neither good nor bad enough to become either classics nor cult films. One of those is Target Earth, an independently produced cheapo that one wishes would have had a little more time, a little more budget and a little better screenwriters. In a way it is a film that you would like to like a little more than you actually do, because there is an unfulfilled potential in the movie. 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

Robot Monster

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(5/10) In a nutshell: Often named as one of the worst movies ever made, this 1953 cult gem is actually better than its reputation, despite the super-low budget, the sloppy direction, the non-existent sets, the complete lack of logic and the truly bewildering script. It makes up for this with ambition, imagination and soul, and a huge amount of talent both in front and behind the camera. And an obese robot gorilla in a diving helmet that gets an existential crisis while trying to eliminate the last seven people on Earth with a death ray that shoots soap bubbles.

Robot Monster (1953). Directed by Phil Tucker. Written by Wyatt Ordung (and a shady furniture salesman). Starring: George Nader, Claudia Barrett, Selena Royle, John Mylong, Gregory Moffett, Pamela Paulson, George Barrows, John Brown. Produced by Phil Tucker for Three Dimension Pictures. Tomatometer: 31 %. IMDb score: 2.9

Robot Monster in all his poetic beauty.

Robot Monster in all his poetic beauty.

There are bad movies and then there is Robot Monster – a film nearly as bad and nearly as loved as Ed Wood’s Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959). It is often cited as a ripoff of standard fifties sci-fi films regarding aliens coming to Earth to wreak havoc, but it isn’t all that simple. In 1953 there simply hadn’t been many of these movies made. There was a string of such films released in short succession during the spring and early summer of 1953, but with its release date of June 10, 1953, Robot Monster was definately a forerunner. Continue reading

Invasion U.S.A.

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(1/10) In a nutshell: One of the true bottom-feeders of the cold war propaganda films, this movie depicts five people who oppose the universal draft seeing USA invaded by the Soviet Union. Despite good talent both behind and in front of the camera, this startlingly dumb movie is singularly boring and consists to a large part of military stock footage and five people talking in a bar. Worth watching perhaps only because of Dan O’Herlihy of Robocop fame and the fact that it features two Lois Lanes.

Invasion U.S.A. (1952). Directed by Alfred E. Green. Written by Robert Smith & Franz Shulz. Starring: Gerald Mohr, Peggie Castle, Dan O’Herlihy, Robert Bice, Tom Kennedy, Wade Crosby, Phyllis Coates, William Schallert. Produced by Robert Smith & Albert Zugsmith for American Pictures. IMDb score: 2.5

New York City getting bombed in Invasion U.S.A.

New York City getting bombed in Invasion U.S.A.

Let’s be clear about one thing: Glenn Erickson of DVD Savant is one of the most brilliant film critics on the internet. But sometimes I am completely flabbergasted by his judgement – like when he uses words like ”well-handled”, ”neatly structured”, ”clever” and ”excitingly assembled” about a film that the rest of humanity agrees is a big giant pile of turds. This film is Invasion U.S.A. To Erickson’s defense, he also calls it ”one of the weirdest political films ever made”, writes that it reaches ”the heights of camp hilarity” and that it is hard ”to be sillier than this movie”. 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

Tales of Tomorrow

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(6/10) In a nutshell: Tales of Tomorrow aired on ABC in the US from 1951 to 1953 and was the first exclusive science fiction anthology series. Adult, intelligent and genuinly unsettling scripts are intermingled with more staple mystery and sci-fi fare. The live broadcast sets limits for direction, but genius camera work and editing sometimes surpass these limits. Leslie Nielsen dominates the cast, and watch out for the masterclass in method acting between Rod Steiger and James Dean.

Tales of Tomorrow (1951-1953). Created by Mort Abrahams and Theodore Sturgeon. Directed by Don Medford, Charles Rubin, et. al. Written by Man Rubin, Mel Goldberg, Frank de Felitta, Alvin Sapinsley, David E. Durston, Max Ehrlich, Gail Ingram, Theodore Sturgeon, Fredric Brown, Henry Kuttner, et. al. Starring: Leslie Nielsen, Cameron Prud’Homme, Walter Abel, Edgar Stehli, Theo Goetz, Olive Deering, Edith Fellows, Bruce Cabot, Rod Steiger, Gene Lockhart, Una O’Connor, Boris Karloff, Eva Gabor, Veronica Lake, Joanne Woodward, James Dean, Lon Chaney Jr, James Doohan, Paul Newman, et. al.  Produced by George F. Foley Jr, Mort Abrahams, Richard Gordon for George F. Foley, distributed by ABC. IMDb score: 7.4

Opening credits for Tales of Tomorrow.

Opening credits for Tales of Tomorrow.

I’ve been reviewing a lot of television lately: there was the first televised sci-fi series, Captain Video and His Video Rangers (1949, review), the first anthology series featuring science fiction, Lights Out (1949, review), but now we get to the third one, and the last one I’ll be reviewing in a while: Tales of Tomorrow, which ran on ABC from 1951 to 1953. This has the distinction of being the first television anthology series to feature exclusively science fiction, foreshadowing legendary TV shows like The Twilight Zone (1959-1964) and The Outer Limits (1963-1964). Continue reading

Krakatit

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In a nutshell: The first full length feature film in the world depicting a nuclear holocaust, this 1949 Czech movie directed by ”the father of Czech cinema” Otakar Vávra is based on the novel Krakatit by the influential sci-fi writer Karel Capek. This dark fever dream of a movie follows protagonist Prokop who invents a new explosive, as he torments himself by imagining the evil it could be used for. Reviewers have given moderately good reviews, but feel it stumbles on melodrama and simplifies Capek’s complex book into an anti-war punchline.

Krakatit (1949). Directed by Otakar Vávra. Written by Otakar and Jaroslav Vávra. Based on the novel Krakatit by Karel Capek. Starring: Karel Höger, Florence Marly, Eduard Linkers, Jiri Plachý, Natasa Tanská, Frantisek Smolik. Produced for Ceskoslovenska Filmova Spolecnost. IMDb score: 7.2

A striking image of Prokok (Karel Höger) in the 1949 film Krakatit.

A striking image of Prokok (Karel Höger) in the 1949 film Krakatit.

DVD cover.

DVD cover.

I keep getting surprised by the fact that the science fictions films in the United States were always desperately late to pick up at science fiction themes in feature films in which I previously thought they were pioneers. By 1949 Hollywood hadn’t yet made a serious film about space travel. Germany, the Soviet Union, Great Britain and even Denmark had beaten them to the mark. Aliens hadn’t landed on American soil, either – for some reason they seemed to be very fond of Germany, though. American mad scientists were also very slow to get into the robot business, whereas USSR, Great Britain, Germany and Italy already had top notch robot scientists. Both the Hungarians and the Brits had invented time machines, but the Americans were stuck in 1949. Sure, these themes were abundant in American serials and had even enterered American TV, but still not the full lentgh feature films. The world hadn’t even ended on the American big screen, whereas both Denmark and France had been wiped off the map. Great Britain had experienced WWIII, a zombie apocalypse and a moon flight all in one film. And now the Czechs even beat the United States to the nuclear holocaust with Otakar Vávra’s Krakatit. Continue reading

Things to Come

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(6/10) In a nutshell: Screenwriter H.G. Wells, producer Alexander Korda and director William Cameron Menzies take us on an epic journey through the future in this pompous 1936 social prophesy. The most expensive film ever made in Britain in 1936, Things to Come boasts incredible sets and miniatures, great effects, high quality filming and a team of great actors. But ultimately the movie trips on its clay feet, which is the impossibly stiff script, lacking in emotion and real dialogue. Wells is using his biggest sledgehammer to pound in his message, and prevents the audience from doing any thinking for themselves.

Things to Come. 1936, UK. Directed by William Cameron Menzies. Written H.G. Wells, based on his own novel The Shape of Things to Come. Starring: Raymond Massey, Edward Chapman, Ralph Richardson, Margaretta Scott, Cedric Hardwicke. Music: Arthur Bliss. Produced by Alexander Korda for London Film Productions. Tomatometer: 92 %. IMDb score: 6.8

In the future the world will be ruled by stiff philosophers decked out in gowns and big shoulder pads.

In the future the world will be ruled by stiff philosophers decked out in gowns and big shoulder pads.

Things to Come was Great Britain’s most impressively epic science fiction film to date – without even a close rival – when it came out in 1936. It had a budget of about 350 000 pounds, equal to about 21 millions today; an absolutely astounding amount of money to put on a film back in that day. And thus it would remain all the way to 1968 when Stanley Kubrick made 2001: A Space Odyssey in London. Penned by the 70-year old sci-fi master H.G. Wells from his own 1933 novel The Shape of Things to Come, it was however more an ideological treatise and a futuristic prophesy than a dramatic film. Although time has conjured up a good deal of latter-day apologetics who hail Wells’ vision and – rightly so – praise the production design, the simple truth of the matter stands: Wells was an awful screenwriter. Continue reading

End of the World

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(3/10) In a nutshell: This 1931 apocalypse film from French experimental mastermind of the silent era, Abel Gance, is a turkey of epic proportions. A heavy-handed religious moral tale from a director who fails to cope with the restrictions of sound films, and an all too obvious script that fails to surprise or engage the viewer.

End of the World (La Fin de Monde). 1931, France. Directed by Abel Gance. Written by Abel Gance, Jean Boyer, André Lang. Based on the novel by Camille Flammarion. Starring: Abel Gance, Victor Francen, Colette Darfeuil, Jeanne Brindau, Samson Fainsilber. Cinematography: Roger Hubert, Nicolas Rudakov, Jule Kruger. Produced by K. Ivanoff for L’Ecran d’Art. IMDb score: 6.1

Poster for La Fin du Monde.

Poster for La Fin du Monde.

French director Abel Gance lamented that the world never got to see the full scope of his epic vision. At over three hours in length, backers thought the film was waaaay too long, so they took control and edited out almost half of the film, landing it at a much less demanding length of 1 hour and 45 minutes. The American distributor was even less caring about the auteur’s vision, and truncated the already truncated film into a standard exploitation length of 54 minutes, and replaced almost all dialogue with title cards. After seeing the pretentious moralist turkey that is La Fin du Monde in an 89 minute version, one is left with two possibilities.

1. A grand vision from one of France´s most lauded directors of the silent era has been slaughtered in the name of easy viewing.

2. 54 minutes would really have been quite sufficient for this badly produced and naive religious parable. Continue reading