Tobor the Great

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(4/10) Known for its impressive, if clunky, robot, this 1954 independent film is pure kiddie fare. It was adapted from a more serious draft about using robotic test pilots for space flight, but as the budget went down, it became a juvenile ”boy and his robot” movie with a tacked-on communist spy subplot for enchancing the action. Contrary to popular belief, the robot was not designed by Robert Kinoshita. A mildly entertaining run. William Schallert and Lyle Talbot make brief appearances.

Tobor the Great (1954, USA). Directed by Lee Sholem. Written by Philip MacDonald & Carl Dudley. Starring: Charles Drake, Karin Booth, Billy Chapin, Taylor Holmes, Steven Geray, Franklyn Farnum, William Schallert, Lyle Talbot. Produced by Richard Goldstone for Dudley Pictures Corporation. IMDb rating: 5.2/10. Tomatometer: N/A. Metascore: N/A.

Taylor Holmes as Prof. Nordstrom follows Tobor carrying Billy Chapin.

Taylor Holmes as Prof. Nordstrom follows Tobor carrying Billy Chapin.

In his splendid fifties sci-fi bible Keep Watching the Skies, Bill Warren points out that boys and robots have gone hand in hand since the fifties. We do heartily agree, though we hope that Hollywood would soon realise that there are plenty of girls who like robots as well. But gender issues aside, Tobor the Great is really the starting point for films about boys and their robots, a subgenre that has been getting mauled with steadily declining Transformers movies in the last years. Where robots had primarily been depicted as threats in the few instants they had appeared on previous movies, Tobor the Great was one of the first to be used for good. Continue reading

The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms

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(6/10) In a nutshell: The father of all giant atomic monsters, The Beast inspired Godzilla and numerous other films to have giant dinosaurs or octopi crawl out of the water and wreak havoc on unsuspecting cities. Stop-motion animation legend Ray Harryhausen’s first film in charge of the effects is somewhat hampered by a low budget and a meandering script, but there’s flashes of excellent acting among the blandness, and extremely riveting action sequences of the titular monster bearing down on New York. The cast is filled with sci-fi noteables and Lee Van Cleef. A genuine classic.

The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953). Directed by Eugène Lourié. Written by Lou Morheim, Fred Freiberger, Daniel James, Eugène Lourié, Robert Smith. Suggested by the short story The Fog Horn by Ray Bradbury. Starring: Paul Hubschmid, Paula Raymond, Cecil Kellaway, Kenneth Tobey, Donald Woods, Lee Van Cleef. Visual effects & animation: Ray Harryhausen. Produced by Jack Dietz for Mutual Pictures of California. Tomatometer: 94 % IMDb score: 6.7

Ray Harryhausen's Beast rampaging through New York.

Ray Harryhausen’s Beast rampaging through New York.

A couple of years back I worked as a foreign affairs editor at one of the top newspapers in Finland. One evening as I sat at my desk I saw the newsflash of Ray Harryhausen’s death. Strictly speaking, movies were not my jurisdiction, but I knew that the culture pages were already done and because of the late hour and recent cut-backs we were working on a skeleton crew, so I decided to walk down to the news desk to make sure they hadn’t missed the the flash.

Poster.

Poster.

”So, I suppose someone here is doing a bit on Ray Harryhausen’s death?” I asked.

I was met with blank stares and an unsettling silence.

Ray who?”

I wasn’t surprised that the people my age or younger didn’t know Harryhausen, but I would have expected at least some of the senior editors on deck to recognise the name. But that’s when I realised just how much the world of movies and popular culture had moved on since Harryhausen. Apart from film nerds like me, no-one under 50 watched of cared much about films like The 7th Voyage of Sindbad or Jason and the Argonauts.

I ended up writing the the short obituary myself. Continue reading

Red Planet Mars

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(1/10) In a nutshell: Jesus lives on Mars and solves all the Earth’s problems by reading aloud from the bible. That is the notion that this 1952 trainwreck of a film is trying to turn into a pathos-filled and solemn fable about politics, science and the human condition. Fairly well designed, filmed and acted for a low-budget effort, but boy, you can’t polish a turd. (1/10)

Red Planet Mars (1952). Directed by Harry Horner. Written by John L. Balderston & Anthony Veiller. Based on the play Red Planet by John L. Balderston and John Hoare. Starring: Peter Graves, Andrea King, Herbert Berghof, Walter Sande, Marvin Miller, Morris Ankrum. Produced by Donald Hyde and Anthony Veiller for Melaby Pictures Corp. IMDb score: 4.9

Walter Sande, Andrea King and Peter Graves in Red Planet Mars.

Walter Sande, Andrea King and Peter Graves in Red Planet Mars.

Red Planet Mars is – just like another film I recently reviewed, Invasion U.S.A. from the same year – a perfect time capsule of the hysterical atmosphere of the cold war. It has all the trappings of the most obnoxious, xenophobic, conservative, bible-thumping propaganda movies at the time – and then turns it up to eleven. It’s difficult to know where to start with this one, so I’ll begin with the plot. 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

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

The Man from Planet X

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(6/10) In a nutshell: Director Edgar G. Ulmer turns this low-budget movie about an alien visitor to a small village into a visually atmospheric, retro-tinged, intelligent expressionist moral tale. Hollywood brings the first alien invasion film to the big screen with a borrowed castle set and lots of mist and obvious matte paintings. Good acting from sci-fi stalwarts Robert Clarke and William Schallert, but unfortunately the low budget, six-day shooting schedule, a mediocre script and expositional dialogue hamper the end product.

The Man from Planet X (1951). Directed by Edgar G. Ulmer, Written by Audrey Wisberg and Jack Pollexfen. Starring: Robert Clarke, Margaret Field, Raymond Bond, William Schallert, Roy Engel, Pat Goldin, Tom Daly, Harold Gould. Produced by Audrey Wisberg and Jack Pollexfen for Mid Century Films. Tomatometer: 100 %. IMDb score: 5.7

Margaret Field and Pat Goldin meet up by the space pod.

Margaret Field and Pat Goldin meet up by the space pod.

The Man from Planet X is to 1951 what Rocketship X-M (review) was to 1950 – the low-budget quickie that beat the big budget innovators to the finish line. In 1950 George Pal’s costly space adventure Destination Moon (review) was supposed to be the first serious American space film, but Kurt Neumann took advantage of the film’s lengthy production period and massive marketing, and slapped together the surprisingly good Rocketship X-M in 18 days and beat the bigger brother to cinemas by a month. At the end of 1950 The Day the Earth Stood Still (review) was in pre-production, and the producers of The Thing from Another World were all ready to start filming, but were waiting for the much needed snow to fall. Sensing that alien invasions were going to be all the rage in 1951, the producer/writer duo of Jack Pollexfen and Audrey Wisberg quickly cobbled together the production company Mid Century Productions, whipped up a script and hired cult director Edgar G. Ulmer, who shot The Man from Planet X in six days, which was released in late April 1951, a month before The Thing from Another World and nearly half a year prior to The Day the Earth Stood Still. Continue reading

Destination Moon

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(6/10) In a nutshell: The first real serious big-budget science fiction film made in the United States by the father of the fifties’ sci-fi craze, George Pal, was released in 1950. Not only sci-fi fans, but NASA, can thank this movie for boosting a national interest in outer space and for convincing many that a moon flight might actually be possible. Audiences were wowed by the vivid Technicolor photography of the moon and outer space and, disregarding blunders like the nuclear powered rocket, the science is solid. Unfortunately as a drama this is just about as exciting as reading the phone book.

Destination Moon (1950). Directed by Irving Pichel. Written by Alford Van Ronkel, Robert A. Heinlein, James O’Hanlon. Starring: John Archer, Warner Anderson, Tom Powers, Dick Wesson. Produced by George Pal for George Pal Productions. Tomatometer: 60 %. IMDb score: 6.4

Taking a space walk on Destination Moon.

Taking a space walk on Destination Moon.

This is one of those films where you sort of have to tread a bit carefully when reviewing: it is considered by many to be one of the most important films in science fiction, however it influenced the industry and the audience more than it did the actual films that followed in its wake. Key players in the foundation of NASA cite the film as an inspiration, and it opened the door for science fiction, which had up until then been assigned to cheap kiddie serials and B horror movies, into the big league in Hollywood. But although it is admired by many, it is loved by few. Continue reading