Thursday, November 27, 2008

Four Good '50s Sci-Fi Movies

Now I've really blown the 'post every day' goal. I never thought I'd have difficulty thinking of things to talk about (most of my friends would probably say the same thing).

I love modern science fiction movies. In fact, it seems like the only movies that appeal to me anymore are sci-fi. Thanks to Mystery Science Theater 3000, I enjoy older science fiction movies as well. Now, to enjoy a '50s sci-fi movie you have to understand a few things about how they made movies back then: the pacing is almost always slower and more deliberate than modern movies, you have to suspend disbelief quite a bit since the quality of special effects that we expect in a movie started more or less with 1977's Star Wars, and the movies' endings seem to be very abrupt since they lack the kind of wrapping-up scenes we see in most modern movies. With those forewarnings, here are four of my favorite 1950s science fiction movies:

The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953)
This movie, based on Ray Bradbury's short story, The Fog Horn, stars a prehistoric monster (the fictional Rhedosaurus) awakened by nuclear tests in the Arctic. The monster, a stop motion creation by the famous Ray Harryhausen, is the first of the atomic-spawned monsters that would so famously populate monster movies of the '50s. The monster's origin, and its attack on New York, would be a major inspiration for Japan's own Godzilla the following year.

Although the monster doesn't seem to spend enough time onscreen (a common occurence given the budget of most '50s sci-fi movies), the Rhedosaurus scenes are great. The human characters are likeable enough, if just a little bit generic.

The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)
In this sci-fi classic, a flying saucer lands in Washington D.C. Its two passengers are Klaatu, a human-looking alien, and Gort, an enormous and heavily armed robot. Klaatu has an important message for earth, but before he can give it he's shot by a twitchy soldier. While in Walter Reed Hospital, the rapidly healed Klaatu asks to speak to Earth's leaders, but is told that world tensions prevent those leaders from getting together. Sneaking out of the hospital, Klaatu disguises himself as an earthling in order to get to know humanity better. He also must figure out a way to give his message to the people of earth in such a way that they'll listen.

A remake of this movie (if you could call it that) is due out later this year. I'll give it the benefit of the doubt, but I can't imagine I'll like Keanu Reeves as Klaatu more than Michael Rennie in the original.

Them! (1954)
One of the movies inspired by The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, this movie presents us with colonies of ants mutated to gigantic size by the Trinity atomic bomb test in New Mexico. This is one of the first of the 'big bug' movies and presents us with what would become a staple of the genre; the dreaded 'exposition by means of a nature film'. That's right, these movies inevitably contain a scene in which the heroes watch a documentary of the menace in question which explains the creature's habits and why said creature is so dangerous.

Although primitive by modern standards, the giant ants look great and are sufficiently threatening. The opening scenes involving the discovery of a newly orphaned little girl wandering through the desert in a state of shock opens the movie on a strong, suspensful note. And the death of a major character at the end of the movie took me by surprise; most '50s sci-fi movies didn't kill off their protagonists.

Gojira/Godzilla, King of the Monsters! (1954/1956)
This is the first movie staring the most famous of the atomic monsters. The prehistoric creature Gojira (anglicized as Godzilla) is awakened by nuclear weapons testing and begins wreaking destruction: first on ships, then on a small island, and later on Tokyo itself. Japan's only hope lies in a reclusive scientist and his latest discovery; a weapon even more horrible than the atomic bomb.

Up until a few years ago, the only version of this movie available in the United States was the Americanized Godzilla, King of the Monsters! This version contains scenes staring Raymond Burr as reporter Steve Martin that were inserted into the original Japanese film. Translation of the movie was done rather creatively. Scenes in which Burr is not inserted are dubbed whereas scenes in which Burr is shown to be an observer (for example, a debate in the Japanese legislature) are roughly translated by Martin's Japanese interpreter. Given the limitations of '50s technology, it is fairly impressive how effectively Raymond Burr was integrated into a movie that had been made two years before.

However, for those purists out there (i.e., people like me), you can finally purchase the original, unedited Gojira in Japanese with English subtitles. Whereas the Americanized version (which is also included in the DVD set) seems more like the typical '50s monster movie, the Japanese version is significantly more somber. The Japanese version's anti-nuclear weapons angle is much more obvious as is Gojira's role as the embodiment of the atomic bomb.

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