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

Gojira

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(7/10) Inspired by King Kong and The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, Gojira gave birth to the massive Japanese kaiju movie industry, and more or less single-handedly brought science fiction into the country’s mainstream. Eiji Tsuburaya pushed Japan’s severely under-developed special effects industry forward by a mile, but the quality was still a far cry from Hollywood at its best. Despite its clumsy rubber monster and the under-developed characters, Gojira is a tremendously gripping and stark allegory for Japan’s experiences during WWII, and director Ishirô Honda elevates Gojira above its B movie roots with his beautifully grim visuals and his relentlessly intimate focus on the casualties of war.

Gojira/Godzilla (1954, Japan). Directed by Ishirô Honda. Written by Ishirô Honda, Takeo Murata & Shigeru Kayama. Starring: Akira Takarada, Momoko Kôchi, Akihiko Hirata, Takashi Shimura, Kokuten Kôdô, Haruo Nakajima. Produced by Tomoyuki Tanaka for Toho Film.
IMDb rating: 7.5/10. Tomatometer: 93% Fresh. Metascore: 78/100.

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Gojira destroying Tokyo.

In 1954 a horror was unleashed upon the world that resonates to this very day. Few movie monsters have the distinct honour of impacting our culture so that it actually changes our language, and becomes a concept in and of itself, even for people who have never seen the films they appear in. We talk about ”the King Kong of” some product, Frankenfood, the Governator and of course Bridezilla. The list could perhaps be made slightly longer, but you’ll be hard-pressed to find many more monsters, or indeed film concepts, that resonate so strongly throughout the entire world. Godzilla is one of those rare creatures that everybody in the world can conjure up an image of, regardless of age or geography. And like most great movie concepts, the reason for Godzilla’s timeless appeal is a number of happy (or unhappy) coincidences. Continue reading

Gog

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(5/10) Ivan Tors’ third OSI film was hugely influential on sci-fi writers such as Michael Crichton, who basically ripped the film off in his book The Andromeda Strain. Extremely ambitious, the film ticks so many boxes of ”first time ever on film” that I can’t fit them all into this introduction. The script doesn’t live up to its ideas and director Herbert Strock fails to create a claustrophobic suspense drama. The viewer forgets that the protagonists are trapped in an underground lab because of the bright Eastman colours and the seemingly spacious science lab, where a giant computer runs amok and killer robots stalk the corridors. Quintessential cold war drama with communist infiltration, nuclear threat, space race science and casual sexism.

Gog (1954, USA). Directed & edited by Herbert L. Strock. Written by Ivan Tors, Tom Taggart, Richard G. Taylor. Starring: Richard Egan, Herbert Marshall, Constance Dowling, John Wengraf, Philip Van Zandt, Michael Fox, William Schallert, Billy Curtis. Produced by Ivan Tors for Ivan Tors Productions. IMDb rating: 5.5/10. Rotten Tomatoes: N/A. Metacritic: N/A.

Killer robots on the loose: Gog and Magog!

Killer robots on the loose: Gog and Magog!

If science fiction enthusiast bemoan the exclusion of visionary producer George Pal from discussions about pioneers of the film genre, then they should be doubly as wronged over the fate of the now almost forgotten Ivan Tors. If Tors is remembered today, it is mainly as creator of the Flipper franchise and other family-friendly animal shows. But in his own way, Ivan Tors was just as visionary a science fiction producer as Pal in the fifties, albeit working with significantly lower budgets. His main claim to fame within sci-fi is his movie trilogy about the fictional OSI, or Office of Scientific Investigation, a sort of precursor to the X-Files, without the new-age mumbo-jumbo and lacking in aliens. Gog was the final film in the OSI series, and probably the most ambitious one. Continue reading

Serebristaya Pyl

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(5/10) In a nutshell: The first Soviet sci-fi film in 12 years, translated as Silver Dust in English, is set in a fictional US town where a mad scientist conducts deadly experiments on the black population in order to develop a radioactive weapon to sell to capitalists and fascists. The 1953 film’s surprisingly accurate portrayal of racial discimination in the US caused a stir in America, and this was unruly master director Abram Room’s attempt at getting back into the good graces of the Soviet censors. Rather uninteresting as a sci-fi yarn, but decades ahead of its time regarding social issues from a Western perspective.

Serebristaya Pyl (Silver Dust, 1953). Directed by Abram Room & Pavel Armand. Written by Aleksandr Filimonov & August Jakobson. Based on the play Saakali by August Jakobson. Starring: Mikhail Bolduman, Sofiya Pilyavskaya, Valentina Ushakova, Nikolai Timofeyev, Vsevolod Larionov, Zana Zanoni, D. Kolmogorov, Aleksandr Pelevin, Lidiya Smirnova, Robert Ross. Produced for Mosfilm. IMDb rating: 6.6/10

Down in the dungeons of the atomic scientist.

Down in the dungeons of the atomic scientist.

I’m nearing the end of 1953 on my science fiction odyssey through the ages, and in retrospect I’ve got to say this was the year when sci-fi really broke into Hollywood mainstream. On a good year in the thirties and forties, five or six sci-fi films were made. I reviewed four from 1952. I have now reviewed 17 films from 1953, and that’s excluding a couple I couldn’t find, as well as one more to come after this one. And the one thing all of these 17 have in common? They were all made in English, and 15 of them were American, which is a fair description of most of the science fiction movies of the early fifties. But now for something completely different: the first Soviet science fiction film since 1941’s pseudo-sci-fi movie The Mysterious Island (review). Continue reading

Cat-Women of the Moon

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2/10 In a nutshell: Surely one of the most inept productions ever to get a theatrical release, this Poverty Row film from bad movie giants Al Zimbalist and Jack Rabin steals its sets and props from other movies and throws science and logic out the window as it presents the first Amazons-in-space film. If you can forgive its ineptitude and fifties sexism, it’s a highly enjoyable so-bad-it’s-good movie. And there’s giant moon spiders.

Cat-Women of the Moon (1953, USA). Directed by Arthur Hilton. Written by Roy Hamilton, Al Zimbalist & Jack Rabin. Starring: Sonny Tufts, Marie Windsor, Victor Jory, William Phipps, Douglas Fowley, Carol Brewster, Susan Morrow. Prodcuced by Al Zimbalist and Jack Rabin for Z-M Productions. IMDb score: 3.6/10

The Cat-Women of the Moon.

The Cat-Women of the Moon.

In the fifties American manhood was threatened. When the men were off fighting WWII, women were called in to factories, retailers and institutions to take their place, and thus keep the wheels of society turning. In the process, many of them found that having a salary of their own greatly improved their freedom and made them independent of a male provider, which had been the norm up until then. As the men returned home, many women refused to let things slip back to the way it was before the war, and were backed up by a growing feminist movement. Suddenly women’s’ liberation was thing again, and companies that could hire women for a lesser salary than men, didn’t necessarily protest. But a lot of men felt threatened by the loosening of their control over women, and a lot of men dominated the media, the entertainment and the advertising industry, and this created a backlash, resulting in what we today loosely refer to as ”fifties values”, where great emphasis was laid on ”traditional” family values, Christianity, which stated that the man was the head of the family, chastity and female obedience. This was one of the driving forces in Hollywood behind an onslaught of ”Amazon Women” films, of which Cat-Women of the Moon is one of the best known examples. 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

Superman and the Mole-Men

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(4/10) In a nutshell: George Reeves parades through this first full-length Superman film in clearly visible shoulder and chest pads, which says just about everything about the production values of the B effort, made as it was as a pilot for the successful TV series Adventures of Superman. The script is confusing and thin, but very sympathetic and sincere, and Reeves saves the day through his innate charm.

Superman and the Mole-Men (1951). Directed by Lee Sholem. Written by Robert Maxwell and Whitney Ellsworth. Based of characters created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster. Starring: George Reeves, Phyllis Coates. Jeff Corey, Walter Reed, J. Farrell MacDonald, John T. Bambury, Billy Curtis, Produced by Barney A. Sarecky for Lippert Pictures. IMDb score: 6.0

Superman and the Mole Men poster.

Superman and the Mole Men poster.

Superman and the Mole-Men (1951) was the first full-length Superman film brought to American audiences. This low-budget production was, in fact, not so much a film that was intended to stand on its own legs, as it was a pilot for a planned Superman TV series. The 58 minutes long movie was produced by Lippert Picturs, the company behind the low-budget surprise hit of 1950, Rocketship X-M (review), the first serious US film to feature a space adventure. The TV series was picked up by ABC, and started airing 1952, and to the surprise of everyone involved, became a major hit show, turning Superman actor George Reeves into a national celebrity. 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

Dick Barton at Bay

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(3/10) In a nutshell: The second of the proto-James Bond films featuring Dick Barton, special agent pitches Dick and sidekick Snowy against a megalomaniac villain with a stolen death ray machine. A weak script, bad acting and clumsy filming are not quite weighed up by some campy humour, moments of cinematographic noir-delight and a thrilling ending scene at a lighthouse. Watch out for The Avengers star Patrick MacNee. 

Dick Barton at Bay (1950). Directed by Godfrey Grayson. Written by: Ambrose Grayson, Jackson Budd, Emma Trechman, Ted Kavanagh. Starring: Don Stannard, George Ford, Tamara Desni, Meinhart Maur, Joyce Linden, Percy Walsh, Patrick MacNee. Produced by Henry Halstead for Hammer Productions. IMDb score: 4.9

Opening title of the film Dick Barton at Bay (1950).

Opening title of the film Dick Barton at Bay (1950).

This was the second Dick Barton film made in Britain, but it was released in 1950 as the third, as the up-and-coming low-budget studio Hammer Films thought the third one was superior and wanted to get it out on the market fast to drum up more interest in the franchise. I reviewed that film, Dick Barton Strikes Back, earlier, so I won’t go into the particulars over Dick Barton and the franchise, but the short-short version is this: 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