THE GOLDEN AGE OF THE 1950s
Starting with Destination Moon , the 1950s saw an explosion of sci-fi. This increase can be attributed to several factors. In the post-World War II years the American film industry floundered following a legal decision that dismantled its longstanding monopoly on production, distribution, and exhibition. At the same time, suburbanization and the baby boom kept people at home, away from the old downtown movie theaters, and television stole much of the film audience. To lure viewers from the small screen to the big screen, many Hollywood films were produced in wide-screen formats. As well, they were also increasingly shot in color and featured gimmicks such as 3-D. Science fiction films, along with horror films, had stories that were perfect for exploiting color, 3-D, and other attention-grabbing devices. The spectacular nature of science fiction and horror pictures was seen as appealing to "immature" tastes, which meant these films could be marketed to the newly conceptualized teenage market. Universal-International became well known for making some of the more prestigious science fiction films of the era, such as The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957). At the same time, science fiction and horror became the preferred genres of a newly emerging low-budget independent movement, of which Roger Corman (b. 1926) ( Monster from the Ocean Floor ; The Wasp Woman ) was the most important figure.
The popularity of sci-fi films at that time was strongly linked to mounting nuclear anxieties and the Cold War. Movies like Them! (1954) and Tarantula (1955) pictured nature run amuck with giant irradiated insects. In splitting the atom, these films show, humankind has released forces it can neither control nor understand. Though humans are responsible for the advent of giant, murderous bugs and other animals, these films do not posit any means for humans to take responsibility for their actions. Nature takes revenge on the atomic age in the bug movies, even if American military forces usually win a temporary
b. Jack Arnold Waks, New Haven, Connecticut, 14 October 1916, d. 17
Jack Arnold began as a Broadway stage actor and broke into the film industry as a director of short subjects before moving on to feature films in 1953. In science fiction films of the 1950s, alien attacks were often thinly veiled metaphors for Communist invasion. Jack Arnold's films deviated from the formula by combining aesthetic subtlety with ambitious ideas about humanity's place in the universe.
It Came from Outer Space (1953) tells the story of alien replacement of human bodies. The film was shot in 3-D, but Arnold avoided the typical ham-handed approach to the technology, using it more to stage in depth than to make objects fly at the camera. The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954) and Revenge of the Creature (1955), notable for their underwater photography, were also restrained 3-D ventures. Both emphasize that the creature may be murderous, but that this comes from his nature, not from cruel motivations. Humans, conversely, are driven by ignoble impulses. In Revenge , Arnold uses 3-D to great thematic effect when the Gill Man looks directly at the camera, then falls toward the viewer. It turns out this cardboard advertisement for the creature—3-D, a marketing gimmick, is thus employed to critique marketing hype.
In The Space Children (1958) an alien telepathically forces children to sabotage a super-weapon the military is developing. At first this seems like a standard Cold War parable, with the alien standing in for the Russians, but a twist ending reveals that children all over the world have been similarly manipulated, resulting in global disarmament. The film closes not on an anti-Russian note but rather with a strong pacifist message. Tarantula (1955), conversely, is probably the least politically complex of Arnold's films. The film is most remarkable for its avoidance of the evil scientist stereotype, and for its eerie use of the desert as a mysterious primordial landscape.
Arnold is best known for The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957). Exposed to a radioactive cloud, the protagonist begins to slowly shrink, and as his size diminishes so does his manly self-confidence. No longer a breadwinner, and reduced to living in a dollhouse, he is attacked by the family cat and presumed dead, but is actually trapped in the basement. The movie then takes an innovative aesthetic turn: the second half has no dialogue and is narrated by a voice-over monologue. The hero's Robinson Crusoe-style tale of survival culminates in the heroic murder of a spider with a sewing needle. He ultimately makes peace with his diminished stature, realizes he is visible to God, and shrinks away into oblivion. Here, Arnold shows that good science fiction, at its base, is not really about worlds beyond but about worlds within.
The latter part of Arnold's career was spent working in television, directing episodes of such series as Gilligan's Island (1964), Wonder Woman (1976), and The Love Boat (1977), taking his penchant for the stories of the fantastic in a different direction entirely.
It Came from Outer Space (1953), The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954), Revenge of the Creature (1955), Tarantula (1955), The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957), Space Children (1958)
Baxter, John. Science Fiction in the Cinema . New York: Barnes, 1970.
Biskind, Peter. Seeing Is Believing: How Hollywood Taught Us to Stop Worrying and Love the Fifties . New York: Pantheon, 1983.
Jancovich, Mark. Rational Fears: American Horror in the 1950s . Manchester, UK and New York: Manchester University Press, 1996.
Lucas, Blake. "U-I Sci-Fi: Studio Aesthetics and the 1950s Metaphysics." In The Science Fiction Film Reader , edited by Gregg Rickman. New York: Limelight Editions, 2004.
Reemes, Dana M. Directed by Jack Arnold . Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 1988.
victory shortly before the closing credits. In contrast to later, post-Watergate sci-fi films, the giant bug movies often glorify the military and the government.
b. Steven Allan Spielberg, Cincinnati, Ohio, 18 December 1946
Steven Spielberg, one of Hollywood's most prominent filmmakers, has won his highest honors—including two Academy Awards ® for Best Director (1994 and 1999) and one for Best Picture (1990)—for movies not connected with science fiction. However, he is perhaps best known by audiences for his innovative sci-fi films.
By the 1970s, science fiction had developed into one of the most politically progressive genres, and SF films were frequently critical of environmental destruction, government corruption, and commercialism. Steven Spielberg changed that, starting with Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) in which peaceful aliens come to Earth to return previous abductees and take away new volunteers. Whereas many movies before it had combined state-of-the-art special effects with anxieties about technological developments, Close Encounters celebrates technological accomplishment with a childlike awe. The film justifies the hero's abandonment of his family for the sake of the higher goal of communing with aliens.
In E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (1982), a friendly alien stranded on Earth befriends a little boy. The one moment of true menace in this feel-good movie occurs when police draw their guns to search for the alien, but Spielberg digitally eliminated the guns from the twentieth anniversary rerelease in 2002. E.T. is notable for its innovation in product placement; after Spielberg used Reese's Pieces™ as a plot point, sales skyrocketed. With Jurassic Park (1993), which featured sophisticated computer-generated imagery, Spielberg created a lucrative franchise centered on dinosaurs run amuck in an amusement park; like George Lucas, he had found that films could make as much or more money on toys, videogames, and fast-food tie-ins than could be made at the box office. Though not friendly like Spielberg's aliens, the rapacious carnivores of the three Jurassic Park films function as catalysts for mending broken human relationships.
Spielberg's more recent science fiction films have also labored to mend the family. Artificial Intelligence: A.I. (2001) is about a robot boy who wants to become real and be reunited with his upper-class adoptive mother. The environment has been destroyed by global warming and children can be borne only by government license, but these plot points are incidental to the film's focus on the nature of love. Only when robots are cruelly destroyed is there a hint of the dystopian impulse that fueled so much previous science fiction. In Minority Report (2002) Spielberg again nods to this earlier tradition. It is a tightly crafted futuristic thriller in which people are arrested for "pre-crimes," misdeeds that powerful psychics have foreseen. Spielberg adds family melodrama to the mix, ending the bleak film on a false happy note when the protagonist is reunited with his wife, who quickly conceives a child. In Spielberg's version of War of the Worlds (2005) family relationships are again central.
Jaws (1975), Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (1982), Jurassic Park (1993), Schindler's List (1993), Saving Private Ryan (1998), Artificial Intelligence: A.I. (2001), Minority Report (2002), Munich (2005), War of the Worlds (2005)
Brode, Douglas. The Films of Steven Spielberg . Revised and updated. New York: Citadel Press, 2000.
Friedman, Lester D., and Brent Notbohm, eds. Steven Spielberg: Interviews . Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2000.
Kolker, Robert. A Cinema of Loneliness: Penn, Stone, Kubrick, Scorsese, Spielberg, Altman. 3rd ed. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2000. The original edition, published in 1980, does not include Spielberg.
McBride, Joseph. Steven Spielberg . New York: Simon & Schuster, 1997.
Silet, Charles L.P., ed. The Films of Steven Spielberg: Critical Essays . Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2002.
The alien invasion films of the 1950s range in attitude from war-mongering to pacifist. In The War of the Worlds (1953), Earth vs. The Flying Saucers (1956), and Invaders from Mars (1953) the aliens are purely destructive forces. In others, such as The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) and Space Children (1958), humans assume the worst about the aliens, who have actually come not to destroy the
world but to save it. The Day the Earth Stood Still offers a particularly strong peace message: an alien warns that humans must stop developing weapons or the aliens will be forced to destroy Earth, not out of animosity but simply to keep Earthlings from destroying the universe. Cautionary tales crafted in response to Cold War anxieties, alien invasion and monster films clearly state that humans have painted themselves into a corner. Ishirô Honda's (1911–1993) Godzilla (1954) presented a particularly dark picture of nuclear anxiety: the prehistoric dinosaur Godzilla invades not from outer space but from beneath the sea, leaving the ocean to terrorize humans after his habitat is destabilized by nuclear testing.
There are two basic approaches to the use of monsters in science fiction. In the bug movies and many alien invasion films the monster is an exterior force that attacks the world. In the second approach, the monster is among us, as in Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978, 1956), infiltrating society. Taken to the extreme, monsters become indistinguishable from non-monsters. David Cronenberg's (b. 1943) films, which combine elements of horror and sci-fi, take this approach as far as possible by exploring the idea of monstrosity within the "normal," non-alien person, in particular expressing terror of the reproductive female body. In Videodrome (1983), for example, the protagonist retrieves a gun from a vagina-like opening in his own stomach. In these films the monster, a not-so-subtle stand-in for the voracious id, springs from within, not from a distant galaxy. Though this approach is not fully developed before Cronenberg, the roots of it are seen as early as 1956's Forbidden Planet , in which the monster appears to be exterior but is actually powered by the uncontrollable desires of humans.