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It Came From Outer Space
Universal's first '50s science fiction offering is an elaborate tale of alien visitation that stemmed from an original script by Ray Bradbury, whose florid & poetic dialogue still survives in some sequences. Originally shown in 3-D, It Came From Outer Space has dated somewhat, but still impresses with its message of inter-stellar tolerance. It's also the first sci fi film by '50s cult director Jack Arnold.
A couple of years ago, Universal made a big splash with its Horror collection, starting with a splendid restoration of the original Frankenstein. The top titles in the series were accompanied by thorough documentaries from noted author David J. Skal. Finished two years ago, but not released until now, this special edition of Universal's initial space invaders movie is a welcome sight.
Well-meaning and smoothly directed, It Came From Outer Space overcomes its standard studio production values with some very nice visual design and the sincerity of its actors, particularly Richard Carlson. The black and white photography (meant to be projected 1:66 but shown here full frame) doesn't hide the fake studio sets, and the overall style reminds us more of early television than a bigscreen movie. But in his visual choices, Jack Arnold creates some very impressive sights: the initial view of the globular, honeycombed ship under the crumbling rocks; the general loneliness of the open desert, which already seems like the surface of an alien planet; the feeling of a space-age fairy tale as John Putnam follows a trail of glittering dust across his own living room floor.
The aliens in It Came From Outer Space are shape-shifting star travellers who've stopped on Earth only to repair their ship and get on their way. When they need supplies from town, they kidnap and impersonate Earthlings. The huge, formless hulking eye-creatures that they normally are (a detail added in post) can change their appearance to resemble us, and move about freely.
The duplicates look correct, but are without normal human mannerisms, and speak with hollow, haunted voices, a sci-fi combo that quickly became a tired cliche. The result is that It Came From Outer Space no longer seems as fresh as it should. Even though there were similarly themed movies before this one, It Came set the standard. And underrated stylist Jack Arnold manages some strange and affecting Cocteau-like moments unique to the genre, such as Putnam finding two telephone linemen hiding in a storeroom ("Who are you? Why have you come here?"), and the wonderful sight of an alien posing as Ellen standing on a rough desert hill, but wearing an incongruous evening gown and flowing scarf.
For most of its running time, the story is very simple: Putnam knows there are aliens among us, but nobody will listen to him. When Putnam gets down to cases with the aliens, carrying on an argument with their leader (who looks just like him), things get more confused. The extraterrestrials claim that we are the hostile race, but they are the ones doing the kidnapping. They also try to fry John with a ray gun, and threaten the entire planet with destruction. They're probably right to suspect that Arizonans would shoot first and get sociable later, but if they are so civilized, it's illogical for them to threaten the obviously friendly Putnam. When the visitors blast off into the night sky, Putnam is still spouting happy-talk about how wonderful they were. In fact, the whole visit was a miserable fiasco of interstellar diplomacy. The supposedly benign visitors are just as suspicious and trigger-happy as the Earthmen. One of the commercial contradictions of early '50s sci-fi is the constant talk about the higher moral standards of civilizations from space, when what we're shown is mostly more of the totalitarian aggression we're used to on Earth. 2
Dreamer Putnam spends altogether too much time educating the sheriff and others about the possibilities of visitors from space when they already should have been at least semi-aware; in 1953, Americans were in the middle of a flying saucer craze, with credible sightings becoming lost among an avalanche of pop hysteria. It Came From Outer Space still retains some magic, but a general tameness and overfamiliarity with its themes have taken their toll. Luckily, its poetic qualities haven't diminished.
Savant saw It Came From Outer Space in real polaroid 3-D in 1972, when the defunct Star theater on Hollywood boulevard had a short series of 3-D pictures. The illusion was stunning, with the rockslide sequence indeed making us bob our heads reflexively. Most of the scenes had a cut-out diorama look. Isolated planes of action stacked up like paper cards, instead of creating a convincing depth continuum. One setup in the sheriff's office, where a room divider stretches diagonally into the distance, looked like a forced perspective trick, as if the objects and people in the shot were really flat things in a 2-D world. But all of the scenes with mist and smoke, and some of the elaborate special effects looked great ... only the fake soundstage desertscapes were, if anything, less convincing in 3-D. Those, and the never-satisfying shots of the meteor coming across the sky, with the cartoon matte around its trailing sparks that never blends well with the sky. With the exception of Jack Arnold's The Incredible Shrinking Man, Universal never really gave their '50s science fiction films the effects attention they deserved. 1
Other 3-D details: the print I saw projected had only one intermission to change reels, not two as described in this disc's commentary and docu. The 3-D version of the film had different title cards and a special intermission card, with a twinkling star background. The trailer, and the cast run at the end of the movie gave rather ungallant attention to shots of buxom Kathleen Hughes, encouraging the expectation that the 3-D effect would, heh heh, make all kinds of interesting things project from the screen.
Universal's DVD of It Came From Outer Space shows that they've taken a different tack from their first series of horror classics. The cover art is a mishmosh of visuals with cheap green lettering, instead of an impressive poster reproduction like those that graced earlier releases in the series. The menus are also a rush job, with some lettering that's unusually hard to read.
The extras, which have been sitting on the shelf for two years, are a compensation. A very thorough commentary track by author/genre interviewer Tom Weaver tells the story of the production from every conceivable angle, and includes a credible final word on the controversy surrounding who's really responsible for the the script, Ray Bradbury or credited writer Harry Essex. Weaver refers several times to 'this widescreen presentation' of the movie, obviously not knowing that Uni was going to go the cheap route with a flat transfer. The two-channel stereo track, the same from the old Uni Sci Fi Laser box, is an original mix from 1953, when 3-D pictures had depth to their audio, too.
The David J.Skal docu, "The Universe According to Universal" isn't as satisfactory as his earlier pieces, because what there is to tell about the show is stretched too thin. There is also a lack of direct witnesses: I guess Barbara Rush wasn't game to talk about her beginnings in Science Fiction. Unlike the other docus, this one meanders around its topic as if marketing insisted on dragging in references to many other Uni video titles, regardless of their relevance to the outer space theme. For example, Monster on the Campus is discussed for no reason at all. It looks as if It Came From Outer Space came up on the production schedule just as Universal decided to cut back on the frills - to only use existing transfers, to stop indulging the fans with serious, 'real' documentaries, etc. This particular title doesn't suffer much for it, but Uni better do right by the much wider, widescreen This Island Earth and The Incredible Shrinking Man, both of which need and deserve top treatment.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
It Came from Outer Space rates:
Movie: Very Good
Supplements: Commentary, documentary
Packaging: Amaray case
Reviewed: May 16, 2002
1. That of course is not to disparage the great rubber monster suit for The Creature from the Black Lagoon, which of course is not an optical effect. As for the other celebrated features, This Island Earth's space visuals are colorful but not always well-executed, and the impressive mattes in Tarantula! only work in a limited number of shots, with lots of sloppy work showing through. By contrast, Warners did a bang-up job in Them!, and when MGM decided to make a space movie, they really went to town with Forbidden Planet, which of course remained the benchmark for effects all the way until 2001.
2. I'll really get to talk about this if and when Fox releases a DVD of The Day the Earth Stood Still, a film with major self-contradictions.