Remember those Saturday afternoon science fiction movie shows? I sure do. Used to camp out in the living room and just forget all about the world of grades and bullies and not being chosen for the team and being mocked by girls…and imagine myself dealing with world-shattering events. Most of those movies are long forgotten. But a few stay with me.
Its fun to think of which, and wonder why.
Sometimes it’s easy, and sometimes hard. Take 1958’s IT! THE TERROR FROM BEYOND SPACE! A childhood favorite.
This movie, written by Jerome (“It’s a Good Life” from “Twilight Zone”) Bixby, plays out a familiar scenario: a spaceship accidentally takes aboard a hostile alien life form, killing off the crew one at a time while they thrash around taking ineffective actions until the exciting, climactic sequence.
Clearly a blueprint for Ridley Scott’s 1979 ALIEN (the other being THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE) I do have to wonder why I loved it so much. Well, the monster was great (the last, rather sad appearance of Ray “Crash” Corrigan, an athletic Golden Boy of the serial era), and far tougher than the Ridley’s “Alien”: they tried hand-to hand, gas, grenades, bullets, a blowtorch, electrocution…hell, they unshielded a nuclear reactor on the damned thing and couldn’t kill it. In comparison, “The Alien” was a marshmallow. The problem wasn’t that they couldn’t hurt it, the problem was that it bled acid, so hurting it hurt THEM. Very very cool, of course. But “It” was just a badass.
95% of the movie takes place in the tiny confines of the ship, and that compression also helps: there is something about claustrophobia that increases intensity. The train fight in FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE is a perfect example of this. And Jerome Bixby’s tight writing crackles, even on a bargain-basement production like this.
Doesn’t hurt that the acting is pretty decent for a movie of its kind. Even the retro gender roles are amusing (the two women are like astrophysicists, but are still making coffee for the guys) in context. But while all of those things add flavor, there is one thing that I was thinking about that stands out.
In “Alien” screenwriter Dan O’Bannon knew that an animal, even an alien animal, shouldn’t stand much of a chance against a crew of experienced, intelligent, armed humans. So he made them very blue-collar (basically Teamsters in Space: “we got to talk about the bonus situation”) with no idea what they were up against. But he also did something smart: their Science Officer, the very person who should have guided their survival efforts and damned well known better than to let an infected crewman onto the ship…the very person who should have realized the best bet was to freeze the guy, was actually a spy sent by the nefarious “Company” to retrieve an alien lifeform, even at the cost of the crew. Beautiful. Now we understand why their defenses were so clumsy and haphazard. Better still, the Science Officer is also a robot (!) and therefore unconcerned with survival. Perfect! What plays out now is intelligent but ignorant people overmatched but doing all they can to survive a dreadful circumstance.
This is really intelligent writing, which turns a typical “idiot plot” into a stomach-sinking “oh, my God” revelation that these people we’ve come to love are in DEEP shit.
IT THE TERROR FROM BEYOND SPACE isn’t that clever. But it knows it also has to slow these humans down, keep them from organizing and really dealing with the problem properly. And they use a clever tactic: it is a murder mystery. The spaceship was sent to Mars to retrieve Col. Corruthers, the lone survivor of a crashed expedition, and the evidence suggests that murdered his crew to preserve his supplies.
All attention is on the presumably guilty man. They assume that they know what killed the others, so their security is pretty much non-existent, allowing the creature to creep unobserved aboard their ship. It isn’t until almost half-way through the movie that they finally realize that Corruthers was telling the truth, that there WAS something deadly on that planet, and that their focus on him had doomed them all.
Very nice. It makes sense from the point of view of the crew, and Marshall Thompson (“Corruthers”) nicely plays the desperate man who has been rescued just to be taken to Earth and executed, then exonerated, and then leading a fight for all their lives against something he is absolutely terrified of.
Nah…it isn’t as good as I just made it sound…but it was damned good for a ten year old kid to watch on Saturday Night’s “Strange Tales of Science Fiction” theater on channel nine. Or was it “Chiller” theater on channel 11 in the afternoon? I forget. They were both great.
At any rate, my little ten year old head saw something in that movie. An actual life lesson: “when you think you already know the answer, you stop asking questions.”
Whoa. That is great. When you think you have the map, you stop noticing the territory. And worse, like the “Incel” guys, when the map and territory don’t match, you’ll blame the territory. In “It” that error costs the captain his command, much of his crew, his girl, and his life.
For me, experiencing the terror (and fun!) of a life-and-death struggle caused by that simple error, I SWORE that I’d never, ever make that mistake, the lethal error of assuming I knew the answer, especially if that answer made me look good…especially if that answer put me above someone else.
Too easy to do that. Seems to be the most natural tendency of healthy human beings: “we rule, you drool.” The natural tendency of unhealthy people is to assume others are BETTER than them.
Of course, there are REALLY unhealthy variations where you let this natural ego thingie turn into something toxic and destructive. And of course there are more advanced and even spiritual positions that see the unity of humanity, such that we don’t see ourselves above others…while simultaneously acknowledging that there are paths and actions that are more in alignment with morality and universal truth.
Truth. Musashi’s first principle: “Do Not Think Dishonestly” might as well be phrased “seek an accurate map of reality” with the rest of those principles helping to define the method of map-making.
What is true? When this becomes frozen, when we assume we know, we stop looking. Worse, we’ll actually get ANGRY when something challenges our narrative. We are in denial, like a driver taking the wrong road as his family pleads with him to ask for directions. And while few life paths lead to man-eating Martian vampires, they to lead to dysfunction, ill health, loneliness and failure.
Then again, on second thought…maybe it was just the cool monster. And the last line of the movie: stating that Mankind might be forced to bypass the Red planet on our journey to the stars because “Another name for Mars…is Death.”
Always gave me chills. Still does.