Originally published July 18th, 2012
We’re moving from Madrid (if you read yesterday’s review) to outer space…or at least outer space by way of Arizona. Today’s film is the 1953 Ray Bradbury-penned sci-fi classic It Came From Outer Space. Hopefully you found it as impossible to read that sentence without using Crow T. Robot‘s voice as I did….and if you didn’t get that reference I have no pity for you. Anyway, sci-fi from the 1950s is pretty cut and dry; alien invaders usually representative of Cold War fears, conformity, etc and for the most part there’s nothing new in It Came From Outer Space. In fact when I wasn’t laughing at the acting I was bored. There are a few fascinating theories included but having seen so many of these films, and parodies of them, it’s hard to go in cold to this film. It’s okay if you’re just attempting to get into 1950s science fiction and its camp sensibilities, but if you’ve already hit the high points you’re not missing much.
Amateur astronomer John Putnam (Richard Carlson) discovers an alien spacecraft has crashed into the Arizona desert. Unfortunately no one believes him until an alien being starts appearing and abducting people. When the abducted start returning not quite the same it’s up to John and his girlfriend Ellen (Barbara Rush) to stop whatever the beings have planned.
It Came From Outer Space is a drive-in movie; a film to be watched by young horny teenagers light on plot and heavy on making 1950s girls cling to you. At least that’s the knowledge I’ve discovered from watching movies like Grease. Again, having seen my fair share of science fiction from this decade I found this to be a lighter take on Invasion of the Body Snatcher, a film which wouldn’t see release till 1956. The typical narrative devices of a sci-fi film are present though in It Came From Outer Space. We open with a typical alien synthesizer score and from there we have the narrator presenting the frightening events about to happen, alluding to this as a cautionary tale. Before I go any further I’ve included the entire movie above thanks to YouTube.
From there I just kept finding comparisons to other (better films) leading me to believe this is the subpar inspiration by which all other science fiction films strived to be better or screenwriter Ray Bradbury had access to everybody’s scripts. In a weird connection I kept having déjà vu about Edward D. Wood Jr.‘s Plan 9 From Outer Space while watching this. At first I thought maybe Wood borrowed footage because the opening introduction to John and Ellen watching the ship crash from their telescope seemed to mirror a similar scene in the Wood film. Plan 9 though didn’t come out for another six years after this. Another film It Came From Outer Space borrows heavily from is the 1951 film The Day the Earth Stood Still. The ending of the film focuses on humans are not ready to receive the message of the aliens (which is….I’m not too sure myself considering they accidentally crashed here due to a malfunction and they were planning on leaving after). That ending score though is lovely!
The film does capitalize on an element we all know and love: 3D! Yes this was one of the first in the 3D craze of the 1950s. I mean just look at that seizure inducing title above (that I hope doesn’t actually give you a seizure so I apologize to anyone in advance). Honestly I didn’t notice the 3D elements on my television, even when the majority of the gimmick was throwing things at the screen. The only time I figured maybe there was 3D was in the ship crash and’/or the alien eye effect.
Let’s talk about those aliens for a minute! You never get a really good look at their design which made me wonder if I was looking at an eye, a weird sexual object and/or if it was Mount Doom and they were supposed to throw a ring at it? The only truly intriguing idea inserted into the plot is that said aliens don’t have any set agenda (poor planners in my opinion). They’re neither benevolent or malevolent…they’re apparently just here to kidnap people, inhabit their bodies and warn of “bad things.” Seriously, that’s all they do until they start blowing crap up and even then there’s little rhyme or reason, just that the humans pissed them off. I did enjoy that point more than the typical “aliens here to teach us” and/or “aliens here to kill us” bent of later films but taking into account how bland the rest of the film is, neutral aliens just appeared to be lazy. I did find a favorite scene when the Sherriff (Charles Drake) tells John that the aliens won’t be able to get their ship because it’s buried in a rock slide. Dude, these aliens navigated light years in 1953…I’m pretty sure some packed dirt isn’t going to stop them…although running out of gas seemed to.
The actors are all community theater level, particularly Carlson and Rush as our young lovers. Carlson is frazzled and a poor man’s Kevin McCarthy whereas Rush isn’t given much of anything aside from being the girl everyone fights over and/or is in trouble. There’s a scene where she’s abducted and entices John to follow her through cliffs and hills in a full black evening gown. How did Ellen get into said evening gown, did the alien inhabiting her take a detour to her house think “Hey I should look snazzy running through jagged cliffs” and put one on (or even stranger buy one)? The character who gets the most from their character appears to be Drake as Sheriff Matt Warren. Oddly enough he’s given the majority of the character development like his interest in Ellen that I assumed was a love triangle but apparently he’s keeping a promise to her father to watch out for her. Trust me, when you watch the film that makes it even creepier because in the opening scenes he plays it like a scorned lover. Another moment has John try to enlist the Sheriff in destroying the alien and when Matt doesn’t seem interest John calls him out for not acting human, especially when the Sheriff is considering killing the alien regardless of Ellen’s safety.
I think it’s safe to say I’m not a fan of It Came From Outer Space, there’s far better sci-fi films and for that matter better camp sci-fi films. It possibly inspired other directors but the story is non-existent, the acting is shoddy, and there’s never any grand dénouement. The aliens leave, humans are chastised for being bad hosts and that’s it. There’s never a looming threat as opposed to Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Ultimately, I’ll watch one of the other sci-fi films in the canon as opposed to this although if you like cheese, this will suffice.
A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.