Sunday, April 11, 2004

Skiffy Flix 

I tend to avoid most current SF/fantasy films, but I have a weakness for *old* sci-fi movies, meaning '50s era, preferably in black & white. Before my time, even retrospectively while growing up; except for the occasional Day the Earth Stood Still or War of the Worlds, I'd never seen any of them until the past 5 years or so. First I discovered a well-stocked video rental shop in Studio City, a few miles from me, called Video West, and more recently I've subscribed to Netflix, where I've discovered that an improbable number of obscure skiffy films from the '50s and '60s have become available on DVD. This weekend, in between posting awards news and catching up on my reading (I'm trying to read all the Nebula nominees before attending the awards ceremony next weekend), I watched two of them.

First was Target Earth, a 1954 b&w film in which a small group of people find themselves alone in the middle of an anonymous city being ravaged by invading robots. It has a classic opening of sorts--a woman wakes, discovers her neighbors are absent, and wanders the mysteriously empty streets. The robots are amateurishly constructed, and their purpose is never explained--but they're defeated by certain radio wave frequencies (just as in one of those episodes of Star Trek). My favorite moment is when a military officer makes this assessment.

The consensus of theories points to the planet Venus--assuming of course the invaders are human beings like ourselves.

This mind-boggling non-sequitur is expanded upon a bit later by another character, who's learned in college that Venus is shrouded by clouds, which implies an oxygen atmosphere [right?], and apparently assumes that any invading force must be human in some sense. The film stars Richard Denning, whom I recognized as featured, in the late '60s, as the governor in the TV series Hawaii Five-O, and the anonymous scientist who figures out how to defeat the robots is the inestimable Whit Bissell.

The second DVD I watched was The Angry Red Planet, a 1959 color flick that apparently, according to one of the SF movie reference books on my shelves, has something of a cult following. It concerns the return of the first rocket ship expedition to the planet Mars, crewed by 3 men and 1 woman, where they encountered menacing vegetation, a giant amoeba that engulfs their rocketship, and an ominous warning from the modernist Martian city in the distance that since humans are still emotionally primitive, they should stay away from Mars and not return. The film is notable principally for the weird FX used whenever the astronauts are outside their ship on the Martian surface: overexposed and pink-orange filtered, it makes the vegetation and distant mountain peaks look like animation. (Not to mention the one crewmember who keeps kissing his sonic rifle, and the other Casanova-type crewman who manages to leave his shirt unbuttoned through half the film to expose his hairy chest.)

I think my fascination with these old movies is that they reveal something about the biases of unsophisticated imagineers about what the future, or other worlds, should be like. And I fear that even our most sophisticated visionaries--our best writers--can't entirely escape such biases. I wonder if an academic study might be done, if it hasn't already, on this subject. We can't truly know what alien intelligences are like, or even alien planets, and all our speculation on such topics says more about ourselves than about what's really out there. Even our best speculation.
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Mark R. Kelly

The opinions expressed in this blog are solely those of Mark R. Kelly, and do not reflect the editorial position of Locus Magazine.
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