It Came From Outer Space


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In 1953 Universal Studios decided to take advantage of a then emergent technology, 3D photography, for It Came From Outer Space, a black-and-white science-fiction film directed by Jack Arnold (Creature From the Black Lagoon, The Incredible Shrinking Man) based on a short story by Ray Bradbury. It Came From Outer Space, however, differed markedly from other genre entries in its representation both of the aliens (and their intentions) and in the central conflict between an individualist hero and the larger community, whose response to the aliens ranges from distrust to pre-emptive violence. It Came From Outer Space is also notable for another reason: in interviews, Steven Spielberg has claimed that It Came From Outer Space was the inspiration for his first foray into science fiction, Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

It Came From Outer Space opens with the protagonist, John Putnam (genre stalwart Richard Carlson) and his girlfriend, Ellen Fields (Barbara Rush) enjoying a quiet evening at his isolated ranch house in Arizona. As their interaction dances around the usual gender issues (i.e., commitment, marriage, etc.) typical of the decade, their quiet evening together is interrupted by a spectacular nighttime show, an enormous meteor that crash lands nearby. Putnam, a freelance magazine writer and amateur astronomer rushes to investigate the crash site. Leaving Ellen at the edge of the crater, Putnam descends to find what appears to be a spacecraft, partially buried in the ground. An inopportune landslide, however, erases all evidence of the spacecraft (and any inhabitants that might have survived the crash). Faced with a disbelieving girlfriend (who eventually changes her mind, once she encounters a spectral presence on a nighttime road), and the local sheriff, Matt Warren (Charles Drake), a sometime rival for Ellenís affections.

Putnamís attempts to convince the sheriff, other journalists, and a scientist friend are all rebuffed, but as odd occurrences begin to mount, including the disappearance and reappearance of two telephone repairmen, Frank (Joe Sawyer) and George (Russell Johnson, another science-fiction film veteran, best known for his role as the ďProfessorĒ on Gilliganís Island). The men exhibit all the classic symptoms of either being mind controlled by an alien intelligence (i.e., as in Invaders From Mars) or having been replaced by look-alikes (i.e., as in Invasion of the Body Snatchers or I Married a Monster From Outer Space). But the odd changes undergone by Frank and George begin to spread among the other townspeople, eventually creating a panic, orchestrated by the sheriff into a vigilante-style confrontation with the aliens, who have hidden themselves inside a mine shaft. The aliens themselves repeatedly claim to have only peaceful intentions, biding their time while they complete repairs on their ship, leaving Putnam to decide whether to believe the aliens, and risk injury or death (with the townspeople equally affected by his decision), or join the sheriff in a pre-emptive attack.

Besides the now familiar storyline (albeit with an unexpected plot turn or two), the special effects, dated but still credible (partly because they're kept to a minimum), the suitably exotic alien design, the music, featuring the ubiquitous theremin to underscore the aliensí eerie, mostly unseen presence, It Came From Outer Space remains of interest as a modestly subversive cultural artifact of the 1950s with an underlying subtext that runs counter to the anti-communist, McCarthyite subtext prevalent in better known science fiction films of the decade, including Invaders From Mars, released the same year as It Came From Outer Space and Invasion of the Body Snatchers, which followed three years later. To be fair, the subtext in Invasion of the Body Snatchers is far more ambiguous, and therefore open to intepretation. Critics have read that film as either an anti-communist tract, or as an anti-conformity narrative. That kind of ambiguity is absent here. In It Came From Outer Space, xenophobic human beings and not aliens ultimately prove to be the real danger. The filmmakers also clearly side with the lone dissenting voice in the film, a voice opposed by the weight of conformity and a distrustful community.

© Mel Valentin, 2nd January, 2005

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