Off screen and on, the 1950s was a spectacular era for science fiction. In literature, Ray Bradbury kicked off the decade with his masterpiece, The Martian Chronicles, while digest magazines like Galaxy were publishing the works of such sci-fi luminaries as Arthur C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov and Robert Heinlein.
In the cinema, every year brought forth a fresh wave of genre pictures, some brilliant in their awfulness (Plan 9 From Outer Space, Robot Monster), others simply brilliant. This article is devoted to the movies in the latter category.
Here, then, is my rundown of my ten favourite science fiction movies of the 50s:
Destination Moon (1950)
The 50s era equivalent of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Destination Moon was the brave attempt of producer George Pal to bring a convincing account of a maiden voyage to the moon, 19 years before the actual lunar landing took place.
There are many aspects of Destination Moon that are now peculiarly quaint – the V2-like rocket, the stilted dialogue, and flag-waving jingoism – but the movie is notable for its concentration on scientific fact rather than bug-eyed monsters, and its attempt to imagine what a lunar mission might look like is, in places, surprisingly accurate.
The Day The Earth Stood Still (1951)
I owe my enduring devotion to sci-fi to BBC2. In the 1980s, the channel aired a series of 50s genre movies at around teatime every week. I remember rushing home from school one winter’s evening to watch The Day The Earth Stood Still, and sitting wide-eyed before the television as the rail-thin figure of Michael Rennie emerged from his sleek flying saucer. I was absolutely spellbound.
Rennie may have been a mere man in a silver suit, but his performance, as an extraterrestrial with a grave message to deliver, is utterly convincing. Along with Jeff Bridges in Starman and David Bowie in The Man Who Fell To Earth, Rennie makes for one of the screen’s most engaging humanoid aliens, bringing an ethereal, detached grace to the role.
Then there’s Gort, the robot of few words, whose deadly eye can melt tanks, and who can only be pacified with the now immortal phrase, “Klaatu barada nikto!” A classic.
Invaders From Mars (1953)
Treading the boundary between science fiction and dreamlike fairytale, William Cameron Menzies’ classic Invaders From Mars captured the 50s fear of communism with mesmerising style.
The film’s opening, in which a little boy watches from his bedroom window as a flying saucer descends into a field during a thunderstorm, is an unforgettable sequence, paving the way for almost an hour of unrelenting paranoia.
Making the most of a meagre budget, Menzies created a series of remarkable, impressionistic sets that looked like something out of a febrile nightmare, from the weird angles of a police station to the field in which the aliens lurk. And while this lack of cash becomes painfully obvious in the final reel, with the running time padded out with endless flashbacks and extensive use of stock footage, Invaders From Mars is nevertheless a chilling, effective sci-fi gem.
It Came From Outer Space (1953)
As a youth, the ultimate revelation that It Came From Outer Space‘s aliens were, in fact, harmless travellers with engine trouble rather than merciless invaders came as a terrible disappointment. Viewed as an adult, the film’s premise, the work of the incomparable Ray Bradbury, is an unusual one, particularly for sci-fi of the time. As was the case in The Day The Earth Stood Still, it’s the ignorant humans who are the real menace.
There’s still a hint of Bradbury’s gentle poetry in certain patches of Harry Essex’s screenplay, while director Jack Arnold punctuates the film with some occasionally startling images. There’s a great moment near the opening, where law enforcers open fire on a speeding pickup truck, and the view cuts to inside the cabin as it catches fire. Then there’s the alien craft itself, an eerie polyhedron of light that convinces, despite the film’s tiny budget.
The War Of The Worlds (1953)
HG Wells’ classic alien invasion novel got its first big screen adaptation in Byron Haskin’s colourful, brisk updating, which shifts location from the UK’s home counties to the sunnier climes of Southern California, while leaving its story of mass destruction largely intact.
The tripods imagined by Wells now have invisible legs (too tricky for the effects team of the time to animate), but are slickly designed and as havoc inducing as ever, obliterating soldiers and entire towns with their deadly heat rays.
The movie also dispenses with Wells’ anti-imperialist subtext, replacing it instead with some ill-advised religious mumbo-jumbo about divine providence, an inclusion that would have, no doubt, infuriated its staunchly scientific author. Some cool creature designs and model effects more than compensate.
If you were to take 50s movie science as literal fact, the advent of the nuclear age would see the Earth now overrun by colossal, mutated animals of every kind. 1954’s Them! was among the first and best of the legion of giant monster movies that proliferated in the decade and beyond, and certainly the most well made.
When a series of mysterious deaths in New Mexico turn out to be the work of a race of colossal ants, it’s up to a local policeman (James Whitmore) and a pair of entomologists (Edmund Gwenn and Joan Weldon) to put a stop to the threat.
The massive stuffed ants seldom convince, but the quality of the film’s cinematography and sound design is first class. Its early scenes, where the ants are seen rather than heard, are filled with suspense, and Gwenn is great value as the scientist with all the best lines, including: “We haven’t seen the end of them. We’ve only had a close view of the beginning of what may be the end of us!”
This Island Earth (1955)
Like a mid-50s Avatar, This Island Earth has always been more memorable for its special effects sequences than its thin plot, which sees its scientist couple (played by Faith Domergue and the brilliantly named Rex Reason) whisked off on an exotic journey to a dying alien world, where they meet its race of big-brained aliens and a giant mutant with pincers for hands.
While not the greatest sci-fi movie of the 50s, it’s nevertheless a lot of fun. Its special effects shots, which include a neat flight through an asteroid field and lingering, expansive views of a battered, stricken extraterrestrial world, are filled with style and colour, while Jeff Morrow makes for an engagingly pompous alien, and delivers his goofy dialogue with an admirably straight face.
Forbidden Planet (1956)
No list of great 50s sci-fi movies would be complete without a mention of Forbidden Planet, one of the decade’s most lavish and ambitious genre entries.
A rescue team headed up by Commander John Adams (a young, dashing Leslie Nielsen) arrives on the planet Altair to discover a sinister Doctor (Walter Pidgeon), his nubile daughter (Anne Francis) and their robot butler are the only inhabitants on an otherwise deserted planet. It’s not long, however, before Adams’ crew is set upon by a huge, invisible monster of unexpected origin.
Forbidden Planet‘s sumptuous cinematography and beautiful matte paintings, which suggest an expansive, alien subterranean world, are still impressive even today, and its id monster, animated by Disney’s Joshua Meador, is a beast of palpable menace.
Invasion Of The Body Snatchers (1956)
Unquestionably the greatest film to emerge from the 50s ‘reds under the bed’ era of communist paranoia, Invasion Of The Body Snatchers is one of the very best movies of the decade, irrespective of genre.
Kevin McCarthy is excellent as the physician who begins to notice an eerie absence of emotion in his patients, and realises too late that the entire planet is under threat from a race of plant-like aliens that seek to replace all of humanity with unthinking facsimiles.
With a miniscule budget and a mere handful of special effects, director Don Siegel created a palpable sense of dread that relentlessly builds to a conclusion that is both gloomy and gratifyingly bold.
The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957)
Jack Arnold, one of the hardest working men in cinema sci-fi (he directed three movies in 1955 alone), directed this excellent adaptation of Richard Matheson’s novel, perhaps one of the most poignant sci-fi movies of the 50s.
When strapping businessman Scott Carey (brilliantly played by Grant Williams) encounters a cloud of hydrogen while holidaying on his yacht, little does he know that the gas will have a terrible and irreversible effect on his body. Almost imperceptibly at first, Carey begins to dwindle in stature.
While Arnold explores the more sensational possibilities of this premise with relish (there are great fight sequences between Carey and a cat, then a spider), it’s the psychological aspects of the protagonist’s change that give the film its real punch. Carey’s relationship with his wife decays along with his height, and he’s forced to reconcile himself with his increasing vulnerability and, ultimately, his own mortality.
Carey’s closing monologue, as he gradually shrinks out of existence, is both poetic and moving, the film unforgettable.
The Thing From Another World, Earth Vs The Flying Saucer, 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea, It! The Terror From Beyond Space