10 classic sci-fi films of the 1950s

1950s sci-fi
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Space exploration, invasions, charismatic robots – here’s our pick of 10 classic sci-fi films from the 1950s.

When it came to science fiction films, the 1950s was an extraordinary decade for the genre. From monster movies to tales of space exploration to invading aliens, the 50s saw an explosion of sci-fi filmmaking, with even major Hollywood studios investing large sums of money in making their own entries in the genre.

This is, at any rate, our means of getting our excuses in early. There are so many classic 1950s genre films to choose from that some works of brilliance had to be left out. Ishiro Honda’s Godzilla (or Gojira, 1954) could be considered a glaring omission, but we’ll keep that back for a separate list of monster movies (which would also include the likes of Them! and The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms). We also agonised over whether to include The Quatermass Xperiment on the list, or When Worlds Collide, or Creature From The Black Lagoon, or The Fly, or It! The Terror From Beyond Space, and numerous others. Making lists is hard.

At any rate, here’s our pick of 1950s classics, beginning with an ill-fated trip to Mars…

Rocketship X-M (1950)

Movies about space travel proliferated throughout the 50s and 60s, and Rocketship X-M was both the first in the subgenre and one of the most engrossing. In fact, Rocketship X-M was the cheeky underdog when compared to Destination Moon, producer George Pal’s bigger-budget space film released the same year. Made for approximately a fifth of that film’s budget, Rocketship X-M sneaked into cinemas a month earlier than its rival in May 1950, and despite its meagre resources, is arguably the better film of the two.

Lloyd Bridges is among the crew aboard the titular spaceship, which is headed for a pioneering Moon landing when a freak incident causes the craft to hurtle off towards Mars instead. The blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo penned the sequences that light up Rocketship X-M’s third act, and at a time when movies about space exploration were all about bravery in the face of the unknown, director Kurt Neumann’s film is unusually downbeat.

The Thing From Another World (1951)

The first adaptation of John W Campbell Jr’s novella Who Goes There dropped the story’s shapeshifting alien and instead turned it into a shambling giant embodied by the imposing James Arness. At a chilly outpost in the North Pole, a group of researchers find a flying saucer trapped beneath the ice; not far from it, a similarly entombed humanoid body. Once thawed out, the alien proceeds to wreak havoc.

Director Christian Nyby keeps things moving at an irresistible pace, the script has a likeable spark (“An intellectual carrot – the mind boggles!”) and there are some impressive set-pieces, including a full-body burn stunt that still looks unnervingly dangerous today. Among the film’s admirers were Steven Spielberg and, of course, John Carpenter, who both inserted a clip of it into his 1978 smash Halloween, and later made his own, more faithful version of Campbell’s book – with blood-curdling results.

The Day The Earth Stood Still (1951)

Michael Rennie’s gentle performance as a benign alien visitor is the beating heart at the centre of The Day The Earth Stood Still, directed by Robert Wise. In the midst of the Cold War, Rennie’s Klaatu lands his pristine flying saucer in Washington DC and emerges with a stark warning: other planets have noticed Earth’s growing stockpile of nuclear weapons, and they’re concerned that our appetite for destruction will eventually be turned outwards to other worlds. One of the most grounded sci-fi films of its decade, The Day The Earth Stood Still is also one of the most sharply-designed. Gort, the hulking robot that serves as Klaatu’s bodyguard, is a masterpiece of minimalism, and with its single laser eye, makes for an imposing presence whenever it appears.

The War Of The Worlds (1953)

Beyond moving its location from the UK’s Home Counties to the US, producer George Pal’s adaptation of HG Wells’ seminal novel takes a number of liberties with the text, not least a quasi-religious conclusion that the author would have likely detested. Still, The War Of The Worlds was and is a visual feast – shot in glorious Technicolor, its scenes of Martian war machines laying waste to California still pack a punch (that the film had an unusually generous budget, reportedly $2 million, certainly helped). Those war machines, with their curvaceous bodies and scorpion tail-like heat rays, are iconic by now; designer Albert Nozaki originally wanted to give them three legs, like the ones described in Wells’ novel. When they proved too tricky to animate, he decided to make them ‘invisible’ – their outline can just about be seen in one or two effects shots.

It Came From Outer Space (1953)

The first in a string of science fiction films directed by Jack Arnold, and It Came From Outer Space was his first. Originally presented in 3D – which explains the scenes where ships and aliens loom up at the screen – Arnold’s film initially presents itself as a typical small-town invasion movie, before it morphs into something rather different. The story, originally by Ray Bradbury, is a slight one: an alien craft crash lands near a remote Arizona town, and husband and wife John and Ellen (Richard Carlson and Barbara Rush) gradually notice strange personality changes among their fellow townsfolk. Arnold’s suspenseful direction underlines the Cold War-era paranoia, anticipating the similarly-themed Invasion Of The Body Snatchers (see later), albeit with a third-act swerve towards a more benign, humanistic tone that’s pure Bradbury.

There’s also more than a hint of Bradbury’s poetic voice in the dialogue, like this line uttered by an unusually philosophical telephone repairman (played by Joe Sawyer): “After you’ve been working out in the desert fifteen years like I have, you hear a lot of things. See a lot of things, too. Sun in the sky. The heat. All that sand out there, with the rivers, the lakes that aren’t real at all. And sometimes you think that the wind gets in the wires, and hums, and listens and talks. Just like what we’re hearing now.” Beautiful.

Invaders From Mars (1953)

Where most science fiction films of the era were told from the perspective of confident, square-jawed men, Invaders From Mars is seen from the perspective of a vivacious yet ordinary boy, David (Jimmy Hunt). Peering out of his bedroom window one stormy night, David observes a flying saucer descend into the sand dunes that lie in the field beyond his garden. Not long after, his once loving mother and father become cold and borderline violent – tiny, jewel-like devices sitting behind their ears hinting at some form of advanced mind control…

Upstanding Americans being turned into listless drones was a common theme in 1950s sci-fi, but the strength of William Cameron Menzies’ direction makes Invaders From Mars stand out. There are visible signs of a low budget – it’s brief at 77 minutes, and several of those are taken up by cash-saving stock footage – but the cinematography and production design is top-notch. Menzies was previously a production designer on such Hollywood films as Cleopatra, Gone With The Wind, and Hitchcock’s Spellbound, and he underlines Invaders From Mars’ paranoia with low camera angles and hints of surrealism in his staging. A sequence where a panic-stricken David charges into a police station, only to realise that its inhabitants have also been turned into drones, is like something out of a Kafka novel.

Forbidden Planet (1956)

If The Day The Earth Stood Still was 20th Century Fox’s foray into big-budget sci-fi, then Forbidden Planet was MGM’s. The studio, previously known for its musicals, lavished some $2 million on it. The result is one of the most sumptuous-looking sci-fi adventures of the decade – a widescreen, vibrant space adventure that looked unlike pretty much anything else in cinemas at the time. A young Leslie Nielsen leads a class of explorers who touch down on the planet Altair IV and meet the mysterious, wizard-like Dr Morbius (Walter Pidgeon) and his wide-eyed daughter, Altaira (Anne Francis). What happened to everyone else on the planet? The film takes its time providing the answer, but the payoff is worth waiting for. 

There are so many brilliant things packed into Forbidden Planet, it’s difficult to squeeze them in a brief entry like this: there’s obviously Robby the Robot, designed by Robert Konishita, who became a celebrity after the film’s release. There’s Bebe and Louis Barron’s pioneering electronic score. A stunning Id monster, brought to life by animators on loan from Disney. Then there’s its set design and use of matte paintings, used to create the illusion of an advanced, long-gone civilisation, which clearly had an influence on Star Wars – right down to the glaring absence of railings.

Invasion Of The Body Snatchers (1956)

The brilliance of Invasion Of The Body Snatchers lies in director Don Siegel’s handling of the subject. Although the plot details another stealthy kind of alien invasion like other films on this list, Siegel stages it like a noir thriller – a genre he was more closely associated with at the time. Invasion Of The Body Snatchers is also more character-led than other sci-fi films of the 50s, with Kevin McCarthy perfectly cast as the unassuming small-town doctor who begins to notice some increasingly odd behaviour among his patients.

Siegel brilliantly ratchets up the suspense, largely eschewing special effects until later in the film, where the exact nature of the invaders is eerily laid bare. The tension builds to a startling crescendo that even a studio-mandated happy ending can’t quite deflate. Whether the film is anti-communist or anti-McCarthyist is still debated today – a sign, perhaps, of how subtle and well-made Invasion Of The Body Snatchers is. For this writer, it’s by far the best genre film of the 1950s.

The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957)

Jack Arnold returns with another genre film, and this one’s a masterpiece. A faithful adaptation of Richard Matheson’s The Shrinking Man, it’s about a comfortably-off chap, Scott (Grant Williams) who – you guessed it – gradually shrinks after coming into contact with a mysterious cloud. From there, the story explores Scott’s changing place in the social pecking order, as his increasingly diminutive stature distances him from his wife, and eventually makes him the target of predators – both human and otherwise. The special effects are quite mind-blowing given the budget and time they were made – check out the fight with a ‘giant’ spider – but its real real brilliance lies in its modulation of tone. Often suspenseful, at times thrilling, Shrinking Man builds to a bravely philosophical climax. The film’s studio and test audiences demanded the film be given a sunnier ending; Arnold, to his credit, flatly refused, thus giving genre cinema one of its bravest, most transcendent sign-offs.

The Heavens Call (Nebo Zovyot, 1959)

The Heavens Call is one of several films about space exploration that emerged from the USSR in the 1950s and 60s. An air of cool, scientific rigour hangs over the film, making it more demanding than some other genre movies of the era, but the intricately-designed sets and visual effects are a real standout – so much so that they would be used as a touchstone by Stanley Kubrick when he started making 2001: A Space Odyssey almost a decade later. Initially about a mission to Mars – with American astronauts hoping to reach the red planet before their Soviet rivals – the story then becomes about bravery and self-sacrifice when things go awry (much like Rocketship X-M). As a piece of filmmaking and a time capsule of the early space race, The Heavens Call is a rewarding watch – even if the acting is rather austere.

Much of the film’s high-minded tone was lost, however, when producer Roger Corman brought it to the US. Released as Battle Beyond The Sun, the American version featured added, infamously suggestive space monsters. The director of those added sequences? A young Francis Ford Coppola. We wonder what happened to him.

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