10 great American sci-fi films of the 1950s
In the 1950s, Cold War paranoia and the fear of imminent destruction gave rise to an unparalleled wave of alien invasion movies and apocalyptic space adventures.
One of the quintessential titles from 1950s sci-fi, the 1956 version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers sees the population of a small American town replaced overnight by automatons, replicas devoid of human feeling known as ‘pod people’. Of course, no-one believes the suspicious few led by Kevin McCarthy’s local doctor, and public apathy and obliviousness allows the extraterrestrial takeover to spread quickly and quietly.
It wasn’t the first film to allegorise anxieties of enslavement by a superior power – or to attack the rotten core beneath the surface of A-OK, 50s values – but it’s certainly the most effective, having lost none of its power of suggestion that the world might not end with a bang but with a creeping loss of identity and selfhood as a result of blind pack mentality.
With the ‘Hollywood Ten’ in jail after the recent Army-McCarthy hearings, a pod-like pressure to conform (and offer signed proof of said conformity) gave a very real substantiation of the film’s invisibly embedded fears.
Of course, many another 50s sci-fi film chose to exteriorise and inflate its Nuclear Age concerns to colossal proportions, it being easier to deal with or defeat the unimaginable when manifested – however monstrously – in the form of, say a giant tarantula or gelatinous space-blob.
Beyond Invasion of the Body Snatchers, here are 10 of the era’s very finest examples.
Destination Moon 1950
FILMS RELATED TO COLD WAR WITH THE USSR
With the US having lost its monopoly on the atom bomb in 1949, the arms race was in full flow by the time Destination Moon arrived in cinemas in 1950. When a satellite project explodes on launch (“Did it blow up Jimmy, or was it blown up?”), American industry is quick to get behind a project to put one of its citizens on the moon, the technological possibility of such an enterprise made clear to them – and us – by one Woody Woodpecker in an extended, animated presentation. Political anxieties are made clear early on: “The race is on and we’d better win it. There is absolutely no way to stop an attack from outer space. The first country that can use the moon for the launching of missiles … will control the earth!”
While much effort is made to emphasise the science in its science fiction (with plenty of technical mansplaining at the start), there’s more than enough visual beauty after take-off in its moon- and star-scapes and proto-Gravity spacewalks to distract from the patriotic jingoism of its opening. With the human drama of its climax borrowed almost wholesale from Fritz Lang’s early sci-fi film Woman in the Moon (1929), it’s the design and effects work that most impresses, the latter of which earned the film an Oscar.
The Day the Earth Stood Still 1951
At first glance the plea for pacifism central to Robert Wise’s The Day the Earth Stood Still appears to have sprung from the same take-a-look-at-yourself-and-make-a-change font of emotional syrup that would later see the healing properties of Michael Jackson’s tears drizzled over a wounded planet. Yet, for all the barely submerged Christ-allegorising of Michael Rennie’s extraterrestrial delegation, sent to Earth to share a peace pipe, such Christian values prove themselves of a decidedly Bible belt persuasion.
This saviour (codename: Carpenter) arrives with military backup and an olive branch etched with small print: we’d rather you didn’t, but if you must fight among yourselves, make sure you’re only killing each other. Step on our alien toes, and see this big robot with the laser-face behind me? Well, you get the idea. One can imagine George W. Bush being a fan, and totally missing Wise’s point.
The Thing from Another World (1951)
It Came from Outer Space (1953)
Forbidden Planet (1956)
The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957)
The Fly (1958)
This Island Earth (Joseph M. Newman, 1955)
Invaders from Mars (William Cameron Menzies, 1953
The War of the Worlds (Byron Haskin, 1953
Tarantula (Jack Arnold, 1955)
I Married a Monster from Outer Space (Gene Fowler Jr, 1958)
Earth vs. the Flying Saucers (Fred F. Sears)
The Blob (Irvin Yeaworth)
20,000 Leagues under the Sea (Richard Fleischer, 1954)
Creature from the Black Lagoon (Jack Arnold, 1954)
20 Million Miles to Earth Nathan Juran, 1957