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.

30 October 2014

By Matthew Thrift

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)

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)

Director: Irving Pichel

Destination Moon (1950)

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)

Director: Robert Wise

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)

Director: Christian Nyby

The Thing from Another World (1951)

With its isolated, dangerous setting and male group dynamic, its strong female character, its loose feel and overlapping dialogue, there’s no doubting that The Thing from Another World is a Howard Hawks picture in all but name (it’s credited to his editor Christian Nyby, with Hawks serving as supervisor). Eschewing the growing trend for overblown SFX spectacle, Hawks and Nyby concentrate on the ideological rifts within the group, the disparate value systems embodied by the soldiers and scientists.

Which doesn’t mean the film is without its scares, not least embodied in a first attempt (captured in a single shot) to destroy the humanoid space-vegetable thawed from the Arctic tundra. But above all – as always with Hawks – there’s a dignity to the human relationships and humanity on display.

The film’s final line serves as a warning in context, but proved as much a crystallisation of intent for future generations of genre fans and filmmakers alike: “Watch the skies.”

When Worlds Collide (1951)

Director: Rudolph Maté

When Worlds Collide (1951)

If The Day the Earth Stood Still took inspiration from the gospels in its quest to save mankind from itself, George Pal’s production of When Worlds Collide was its Old Testament rejoinder. Wiping out humanity is the solution to the mess we’d gotten ourselves into, the fire-and-brimstone title sequence segueing into pages from Genesis to tell us what it thinks of us and set up its retelling of an Atomic Age Noah’s Ark. Warnings rarely come as righteously apocalyptic as this: “The end of all flesh is come before me; for the earth is filled with violence through them; and, behold, I will destroy them with the earth.”

Our protagonists will start life afresh on a cartoon planet far from the destroyed Earth, but there’s no room for penitence here, and little worth saving it seems – aside, of course, from a righteous few, the Bible and a few goats.

It Came from Outer Space (1953)

Director: Jack Arnold

It Came from Outer Space (1953)

With its eerie score occupying the second chapter in ‘Theremin Classics for Beginners,’ straight after The Day the Earth Stood Still, It Came from Outer Space is the first film on our list from the great Jack Arnold. Presenting a more benevolent take on extraterrestrial assimilation-by-replication than Invasion of the Body Snatchers would a few years later, these hirsute, cycloptic jelly-monsters for the most part come in peace.

The 3D effects come thick and fast at the start, from the hurtling meteor of a crash landing to a distractingly enormous telescope swung through the frame. But it’s the alien POV that proves Arnold’s strongest effect, blurring the edges of the screen to present a tunnel-effect straight into the heart of the 1950s American heartland’s fear of the ‘other’.

Them! (1954)

Director: Gordon Douglas

Them! (1954)

From the opening sequence in which a little girl is found wandering through the desert in a state of mute shock, to her bolt upright panic in the back of a police car (and later, screaming exclamation: “Them! Them! THEM!”), one can explicitly sense the formative hold Gordon Douglas’s creature feature must have had on a young Steven Spielberg.

A rare sci-fi venture for Warner Brothers, Them! proves as inventively indebted to procedural as any more obvious genre antecedents. A sharp script by Ted Sherdeman leads the way, and while there’s fun to be had in its city-under-siege and sewer-bound finale, it’s at its strongest amid the barren isolation of the desert dunes.

The mutant ants – a product of atomic testing, natch – can hardly be called the stuff of nightmares (today, at least), but their offscreen presence is imbued with a sinister tension, not least in the electronic chirruping that signals their approach. Throw the gorgeous lensing by Sid Hickox into the mix and it makes for an unmissable proposition.

Forbidden Planet (1956)

Director: Fred M. Wilcox

Forbidden Planet (1956)

With its lush set designs and CinemaScope, Eastman Color images, there could be little mistaking Forbidden Planet for anything but an MGM production. The only film on our list to be set entirely in outer space, its a loose retelling of The Tempest, and in turn served as a clear inspiration for Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek.

With Walter Pidgeon’s God-playing scientist conjuring monsters from his subconscious (“You sent your secret id out to murder them!”) to trouble Leslie Nielson’s crew – the creature design terrifically realised by Disney animator, Joshua Meador – the film’s allusions to Jung and Shakespeare make for some marvellously kitsch operatics. Yet it’s unsurprising that Forbidden Planet’s breakout star proved to be its most expensive prop, the waddling comic-relief of Robby the Robot swiftly becoming one of the defining icons of 50s sci-fi.

The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957)

Director: Jack Arnold

The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957)

We never really find out what causes Grant Williams to begin his diminution in Jack Arnold’s taut sci-fi masterpiece The Incredible Shrinking Man, beyond our glimpse of the cloud that envelops his boat on vacation. Yet its potency is soon keenly felt. What begins with some comedy business revolving around ill-fitting clothes, soon takes a turn into a savage emasculation satire of the 1950s male.

It’s telling that the decade would allegorise the deficiencies of its value systems by shrinking its men and enlarging its women (to gigantic proportions in 1958’s Attack of the 50 Foot Woman). Williams, being unable to rely on the comforts and accoutrements of the world he’s made for himself, depends for survival on starting from scratch. Civilisation as he knew it no longer exists, and his world is now a jungle ruled by giant cats and spiders. It’s an existential nightmare in which progress and domestic complacency get what’s coming to them.

The Fly (1958)

Director: Kurt Neumann

The Fly (1958) poster

A deliciously surreal, Kafkaesque tale of domestic disorder and nature biting back, The Fly remains as strange a beast today as it must have appeared in 1958. Shot by the great Karl Struss (who shared the first cinematography Oscar in 1928 for his work on Murnau’s Sunrise), it’s a film of creepy dualities: the sun-kissed family home masking a subterranean laboratory; and the Promethean scientist who ends up with the head of a fly for his meddling ways – his transplanted head finding its comeuppance in a spider’s web.

Comedy tempers its gruesomeness (it opens with the offending head and appendage squished in a machine press), care of Vincent Price as the murderer’s sceptical brother-in-law and the money shots prove indelible – the two hybrid reveals; the wife’s endlessly refracted, fly-vision scream. But it’s the woozy lines drawn between normality and monstrosity that make for a uniquely unsettling and darkly funny oddity.

Journey to the Center of the Earth (1959)

Director: Henry Levin

Journey to the Center of the Earth (1959)

I’ll admit to a certain amount of nostalgia earning this childhood favourite a spot on the list, even if its charms still hold up today. Eagerly displaying a pride in its widescreen images, the effects work may sometimes appear laughably dated – an iguana is an iguana, no matter what you attach to its back – but the spirit of boy’s own adventure survives intact.

Quite how such a straight-faced tone is maintained with all the random musical asides in place is anybody’s guess, but James Mason and Pat Boone serve as game leads, even as a ubiquitous duck threatens to upstage them both. Written and produced by Charles Brackett (partner in crime on some of Billy Wilder’s best) for Fox, it may look like the poorer cousin to Disney’s early Jules Verne adaptation, 20,000 Leagues under the Sea (1954), but its verve and plentiful bizarre interludes all go a long way in adding to the appeal.

Your suggestions

This Island Earth (1955) poster
  1. This Island Earth (Joseph M. Newman, 1955)
  2. Invaders from Mars (William Cameron Menzies, (1953)
  3. The War of the Worlds (Byron Haskin, 1953)
  4. Tarantula (Jack Arnold, 1955)
  5. I Married a Monster from Outer Space (Gene Fowler Jr, 1958)
  6. Earth vs. the Flying Saucers (Fred F. Sears)
  7. The Blob (Irvin Yeaworth)
  8. 20,000 Leagues under the Sea (Richard Fleischer, 1954)
  9. Creature from the Black Lagoon (Jack Arnold, 1954)
  10. 20 Million Miles to Earth (Nathan Juran, 1957)

Director Jack Arnold was clearly the don of 50s Hollywood sci-fi. Not only did two of his films make it onto our top 10 (It Came from Outer Space; The Incredible Shrinking Man), but when we asked you on Twitter and Facebook what you thought we’d missed from the list two more of his films proved popular: his giant spider attack movie Tarantula, and his classic creature feature Creature from the Black Lagoon.

He even had an uncredited hand in co-directing your number one choice, the splendid aliens-come-to-Earth-to-seek-its-help movie This Island Earth. It seems when it came to sci-fi in the 50s, Arnold could do no wrong … though there was no love for his wonderful sounding 1958 film Monster on the Campus.

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