Project Moon Base

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(3/10) In a nutshell: This rather inventive and surprisingly scientifically ambitious film was a TV pilot halfway through filming. Unfortunately the TV budget shows. A Communist saboteur infiltrates a 1970 reccie flight for the first American moon base, and the two pilots are more interested in settling the fifties war of the sexes than actually doing their jobs. A thin and silly script with a mixed but ultimately stuffy gender message. Crude but fun special effects save the film.

Project Moon Base (1953). Directed by Richard Talmadge. Written by Robert A. Heinlein and Jack Seaman. Starring: Donna Martell, Ross Ford, Hayden Rorke, Larry Johns, Herb Jacobs. Produced by Jack Seaman for Galaxy Pictures. IMDb score: 2.8

Modelwork by Jacques Fresco on Project Moon Base.

Modelwork by Jacques Fresco on Project Moon Base.

I have just finished my review of Cat-Women of the Moon (1953), in which I bemoaned the turgid sexism of that particular fifties turkey, only to be thrown into a film that is, if possible, even worse in that department, although it tackles it from a slightly different perspective. Continue reading

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It Came from Outer Space

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(7/10) In a nutshell: Sci-fi stalwart Jack Arnold directed this his first science fiction film as Universal’s 3-D splash for the summer of 1953. Prominent sci-fi leading man Richard Carlson plays a proto-Fox Mulder who tries to convince a small town in Arizona that he saw a UFO crash in the desert, while aliens kidnap and and assume the guises of the townspeople. Co-written by Ray Bradbury, this well-directed fable of xenophobia and cold war paranoia manages to both appeal to the pulpier parts of our brains and the intellectual grains of the mind.

It Came from Outer Space. Directed by Jack Arnold. Written by Ray Bradbury & Harry Essex. Starring: Richard Carlson, Barbara Rush, Charles Drake, Joe Sawyer, Russell Johnson, Kathleen Hughes, Virginia Mullen. Produced by William Alland for Universal-International. Tomatometer: 81 %. IMDb score: 6.6

Barbara Rush as Ellen in the xenomorph's view.

Barbara Rush as Ellen in the xenomorph’s view.

Acclaimed A movie directors like Howard Hawks, Robert Wise and Don Siegel, along with visionary producer-director George Pal, all did their best to coax the science fiction genre out of the B movie quagmire that refused to loosen its grip on it in the fifties. But equally important – if not even more so – for the genre was Jack Arnold, director of films like Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954, review), Tarantula (1955, review) and The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957), among others. Arnold acknowledged the genre’s pulpy roots, and instead of trying to transcend them, he embraced them, but brought a level of intelligence and refinement to his work, and made some of the most influential sci-fi films of the decade. It all started with a film that is often dropped from his resumé when counting his best films, and it is always a mistake: It Came from Outer Space. Continue reading

Phantom from Space

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(1/10) In a nutshell: For a no-budget effort, this 1951 invisible alien film by Billy Wilder’s elder brother Willie has impressive visual effects. But that’s also pretty much all that is good about this talky, illogical and slow-moving exploitation flick. Noreen Nash as the female heroine stands out, and there’s Harry Landers of Ben Casey fame.

Phantom from Space (1953). Directed by W. Lee Wilder. Written by William Raynor & Myles Wilder. Starring: Ted Cooper, Tom Daly, Noreen Nash, Dick Sands, Harry Landers, James Seay, Rudolph Anders, Steven Clark, Jim Bannon. Produced by W. Lee Wilder for Planet Filmways. IMDb score: 4.0

A colourised image of Dick Sands in the spacesuit of the alien in Phantom from Space.

A colourised image of Dick Sands in the spacesuit of the alien in Phantom from Space.

The problem with a genre that gets big is that apart from the great films, there’s always a trail of bad exploitation films that follow in their wake. Some of them can rise up to become classics in their own right, like Invaders from Mars (1953, review), released just a month before this movie. Others defy their minuscule budgets with staggeringly weird solutions, relentless visions and more heart than a hundred Hollywood blockbusters put together, like Robot Monster (1953, review) and the works of Ed Wood, Jr. Then there’s the ilk of Phantom from Space, that just don’t cut the mustard, in any way or fashion, except for being a so-bad-it’s-good film. 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

Rocketship X-M

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(6/10) In a nutshell: First serious American motion picture to go where no man has gone before. This 1950 Poverty Row movie was rushed into production to beat the lavish Destination Moon to cinemas and take advantage of the media buzz surrounding it. However, in some regards the cheap ripoff actually surpasses the ”original”, thanks to an Oscar-winning screenwriter, one of Hollywood’s greatest cinematographers, good acting and a movie with a good deal of heart and soul.

Rocketship X-M (1950). Directed by Kurt Neumann. Written by Dalton Trumbo, Kurt Neumann, Orville H. Hampton. Starring: Lloyd Bridges, Osa Massen, John Emery, Noah Beery Jr, Hugh O’Brian, Morris Ankrum, Judd Holdren, Barry Norton. Produced by Kurt Neumann, Murray Lerner for Lippert Pictures. IMDb score: 4.9

Osa Massen, John Emery, Hugh O'Brian and Lloyd Bridges in Rocketship X-M.

Osa Massen, John Emery, Hugh O’Brian and Lloyd Bridges in Rocketship X-M.

Poster.

Poster.

After the abysmal sci-fi decade that was the forties, fans of the genre finally got to look forward to well-made, original, lavish, high-quality – actual – science fiction films. The spark that ignited the explosion of A-list science fiction films about space travel in the early eighties was a costly gamble of 600 000 dollars, in lavish colour, co-written by author Robert A. Heinlein, that won an Oscar for special effects and was nominated for another for art direction – the first American moon landing film that strived for scientific accuracy. Except that was not this movie. That movie was George Pal’s Destination Moon (review). This film is the low-budget, black-and-white quickie produced by Poverty Row studio Lippert Pictures about a rocketship that accidentally end up on Mars instead of the moon and meet the family from The Hills Have Eyes. Continue reading