Sunday, February 22, 2009

Film Review--It Came from Outer Space

It Came from Outer Space
directed by Jack Arnold
written by Harry Essex
based on a story by Ray Bradbury
starring Richard Carlson, Barbara Rush, Charles Drake, Joe Sawyer, Russell Johnson, Kathleen Hughes

In this rather drab and unexceptional film adaptation of a Ray Bradbury story, aliens crash land near a mine field in Arizona causing a bit of a glaring concern. Admittedly, the 3-D effects add to the overall impact of the film but they aren’t enough to make up for a formulaic story utterly lacking substantive necessity.

John Putnam (Carlson) is an astronomer and a writer. He’s hanging out with his frigid girlfriend Ellen Fields (Rush) when a meteor like objects makes impact nearby. Naturally he investigates and learns that there is more to it than meets the eye. He makes several failed attempts he gets Sheriff Matt Warren (Drake) to believe his cockamamie story about the alien’s joy of kidnapping humans, replicating them, and walking around pretending to be their captives. Eventually he succeeds but Warren is more interested in blasting the critters to oblivion than attempting to learn anything from them. The aliens do nothing at all interesting with their amazing ability. They kidnap some transients and others but they could have done so much more. Indeed, there isn’t a whole lot of imagination on display in this film. The set designs are uninspired and mostly very ugly. The aliens themselves are not nearly as hideous as they are made out to be. They are supposed to be too ugly for humans to look at and they aren’t even mildly repulsive. They look like the inside of a refrigerator.

Ellen Fields is a bored teacher who seems to have no other role in this film than to pretty much go along with everything the men determine to be right. There is a scene where she’s standing high on a ledge of a cliff wearing a foxy dress and she actually looks aloof and glamourous. Of course she’s been replicated and what we are seeing is the alien inhabiting her body. She lets loose with a laser straight at the audience and the result is the most thrilling use of 3-D technology in the film. Otherwise she keeps her mouth shut and remains frustratingly in the background.

The absolute best moments in the film involve a very brief scene with a woman named Jane (Hughes). Hughes is only in the film for a couple of minutes but she makes a dramatic impact that is lost on the other actors in the film. She comments on her husband Matt’s hunger and the way she says it makes it clear what she is really talking about. Then when she leaves the room she says goodbye in such a way that it too is clearly suggestive of something quite naughty indeed. Unfortunately, her scene comes and goes and it’s soon back to figuring out what to do with the aliens.

The film is exceedingly claustrophobic but not in an exciting, sickening way where the film feels like it is about to crush the viewer. No, this film is simply limited to a few people who have an encounter with an ingenious race of beings who have a secret mission that is not fully revealed. It would have been thrilling to see them turning on the humans, especially the police force, but they don’t. They are wholly benign save of course their tendency to capture stray humans who get in their way.

All that is left is a 3-D experience that does manage to add a viable element to the production. There is great depth and objects are set apart from their backgrounds in an intriguing way. On occasion something like a rock flies into the audience’s faces but these moments are few and far between. Still, it’s absolutely worth seeing in this format because it is how it was intended to be seen and it’s always important to take advantage of these opportunities for novelty.

The story itself is certainly intriguing. The ideas behind it are fascinating and possess limitless possibilities in terms of application. The idea that an alien race of beings could in fact copy humans and inhabit their bodies for any purpose imaginable definitely has its merits. If only it were attacked here with more enthusiasm; perhaps it would have become something truly vital and terrifying. Aliens are supposed to scare us to death and we demand that they be frightening and capable of searing our minds with terrible images that have a lasting impact. Or, if they don’t fit into this category, they should at least have some sort of erotic appeal that is aesthetically stimulating. These creatures are just a junk heap and it’s a shame.

I wanted to at least watch the replication process. I wanted to witness the terror in the eyes of the captives, particularly Ellen. I wanted to see her when she is unduly scared. Science Fiction films get a lot of traction out of the fear exhibited by their female stars. Of course most of them just gawk and do nothing to save themselves from the imminent catastrophe. In this one Ellen just gets herself caught and is totally at the mercy of the alien forces coupled with the men outside’s ability to solve the dilemma. She is unable to effectively extricate herself from the dire situation and is essentially a victim for much of the film.

Charles Drake gives the Sheriff a rustic tenacity that is a grounding point in the film. Warren is rough and fully capable of at least initiating a mission to protect the population from any further incursions into their way of life. He’s the one solid and true character in the film and his actions make sense throughout. Richard Carlson is not utterly bereft of charm but he masks it in his everyman persona which the film is clearly going for in Putnam’s characterization. Subsequently, he’s bland and neutral which means he’s as boring as sitting around with your fat aunts Helen and Helga watching “The Price is Right” reruns. Barbara Rush has been described as pretty but not too pretty. It actually works in this film because otherwise she’d be a distraction and because the film is so dreadfully blase the male viewer would cast their gaze entirely on her. She’s frigid, certainly, but her buttoned up sexuality isn’t really present. There is nothing here just begging to be released by some cruel lover. Kathleen Hughes sells immediate sex in a few words and one gesture. It is the only sex in the entire film and it stands out for its frankness and immediacy.

Overall, this film enjoys legitimate cult status that most likely grows every year. I’m not certain what people are seeing when they view it but I find it lacking a real sense that the aliens represent some sort of danger that must be averted. They merely appear, do some mighty fine tricks, and are gone again. The humans, save a couple, are spiritless like many characters in sci-fi, unfortunately. One doesn’t quite care what happens to them and would rather they be systematically disposed of in as cruel and heartless a manner as possible. Of course this is not that sort of film and it probably shouldn’t be. It is most likely designed to make the audience uneasy but it doesn’t manage to successfully pull this off. There is no sense of panic. A thoroughly menacing and terrifying film might have come out of these ideas but this isn’t it.

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