Monday, July 8, 2019

Jack Arnold's "It Came From Outer Space"

Richard Carlson and Barbara Rush.
On a cool evening outside Sand Rock, Arizona, amateur astronomer John Putnam and his girlfriend Ellen watch a meteor crash into the desert. The pair and a pilot friend are the first to arrive at the newly-formed crater. John ventures into the rubble and--to his astonishment--finds the door to a spaceship. No one believes his story, especially since there is no sign of a spaceship when the authorities later investigate the meteor site.

However, it's not long before some of the townspeople begin to act strangely, speaking in a robotic monotone. John learns that alien lifeforms have taken selected humans hostage and replicated their human form. The aliens claim that they pose no threat to Earth at this time. They landed on it inadvertently and just want to repair their ship and depart. But are they telling the truth?

An example of Arnold's visual flair.
Made in 1953, It Came From Outer Space is a seminal science fiction film from the mind of Ray Bradbury. It was also the first sci fi film directed by Jack Arnold, who would go on to helm other 1950s genre classics: Creature From the Black Lagoon, Revenge of the CreatureThe Incredible Shrinking Man, and Tarantula. It was also one of the most successful 3D films, back when the then-new technology was launched in response to the movie industry's fear of television. (Arnold also shot Creature and its first sequel in 3D).

Like Arnold, star Richard Carlson also became known for his many sci fi films (Creature, The Magnetic Monster, Riders to the Stars, The Maze, and The Power). I never found Carlson to be an exciting actor, but he is well-cast as an everyman in It Came From Outer Space. He projects quiet strength as Putnam, an intelligent writer who has to ignore his detractors because he knows what he saw. (Putnam's path isn't an easy one...even the local newspaper features the headline "Stargazer Sees Martians.")

Is it Russell Johnson or an alien?
Much has been written about who deserves credit for the story and screenplay: Bradbury, who penned the film treatment, or Harry Essex, who was listed as the screenwriter. Bill Warren, who authored the superb sci fi film encyclopedia Keep Watching the Skies, makes a compelling case for Bradbury based on his examination of Ray's own archives. The story's strongest elements are its eerie desert setting (which was mostly created in a studio) and the aliens who, for once, aren't intent on taking over Earth. That doesn't mean that the aliens are friendly; indeed, one of them tries to kill Putnam even though he insists he is not a threat.

Arnold avoids showing the aliens for most of the film. Instead, he employs the now-familiar technique of showing their first-person perspective (whereby the audience sees what the aliens do). However, the studio insisted that the one-eyed Xenamorphs (the aliens were named in the advertising only) ultimately be shown. They aren't very frightening.

A well-dressed alien!
The influence of The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) is evident from the opening sounds of the theramin on the soundtrack. While It Came From Outer Space may be important historically in the sci fi film genre, it lacks the power and timeless quality of that earlier movie. Still, it makes for an entertaining and thought-provoking 81 minutes. 

The 1996 made-for-TV It Came From Outer Space II purports to be a sequel, but is actually an unimpressive, unnecessary remake. A more interesting 1970 TV movie Night Slaves, although based on a novel by Jerry Sohl, boasts a similar plot.


  1. "Don't worry about Frank. He'll be all right."

  2. I have always loved this movie, both stars and the eerie desert. They should NEVER have shown the monsters. Otherwise, very well done, especially the scary shadowy Joshua Trees.

  3. This film has never moved me. I think it falls far behind the classics of the era. To paraphrase Rick, it lacks power (for one thing).

    As counter example, I'll note the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers, where director Don Siegel infuses another simple story with depth, pacing, interesting characters, dread/fear, suspense -- all the things that are missing from ICFOS.

    I hate to pan Bradbury and Carlson, but even the good ones fall short sometimes.

  4. The monsters are a bit of a let-down, but there's still much to appreciate here.