No one would have believed in the first years of the twenty-first century that these films were being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man’s and yet as mortal as his own; that as people busied themselves staying in their houses doing nothing, they were scrutinised and studied, perhaps almost as narrowly as a man with a microscope might scrutinise the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water (or virus particles). With infinite complacency men went to and fro over this globe about their little affairs, virtually, via YouTube and Netflix, bored to tears, and no longer serene in their assurance of their empire over matter, listening to podcasts to fill in the time.
The genesis of this episode came from a desire to visit some classics of science-fiction, and in fact first produced our 70s Science Fiction episode from August 2019, as that decade in particular seemed to be particularly rich in interesting material (and we encourage you to go back and listen to that episode if you haven’t already done so, or, indeed, to listen again: we won’t even charge you).
This episode will cover a considerably longer period, from the 1920s to the 1960s, and handily also serves as our other topic idea of literary science-fiction (though, to be fair, most science-fiction cinema seems to have been based on written fiction, whether in short or long form), with one exception, though if you squint at that you can, sort-of, maybe, say it’s based on a 400-year-old play, so we’ll take it.
The best science fiction (so not, for example, modern Star Trek TV series) is about stuff (so especially not Star Trek: Discovery), using its imagined worlds, technologies and situations to explore contemporary hopes, fears and societal angst, and to look at the human condition, generally much more so than any other genre of fiction. So, our selection of films, which takes us from pre-World War 2 Europe, through the dawn of the nuclear age and into the era of the Cold War, ought to provide plenty of scope for such reflection and commentary, while hopefully also providing entertainment.
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Voyage to the Moon
We will begin, though, in France, where both cinema and, arguably, science fiction began, by looking at Le voyages dan la lune (or A Trip to the Moon, if you’re going to insist on English translations in this English-language podcast), the seminal short by Georges Méliès, based on, amongst other things, Jules Verne’s 1865 novel, From the Earth to the Moon.
There’s not a lot to say about it, I suppose – it is only about 15 minutes long – but it would be remiss of us not to bring it up in a discussion on classic science fiction films, and it should absolutely be seen, if for nothing other than historical interest. A story of a group of astronomers who travel to the moon, escape from some lunar inhabitants and then return to Earth with a captive, it’s a brilliant example of the inventiveness of the earliest days of cinema, then a brand new artform.
Méliès was a genius, and his special effects and editing techniques were ground-breaking in their time, but it also, in opposition to much of its contemporaries, put an emphasis on narrative, which, coupled with high production value and unusual length (for the time), helped to change the direction of cinema. There’s also a meta-story, with its unauthorised release by other studios, particularly in the US (pirating, I believe that’s called: oh, the irony), from which he saw not a penny, leading to the diminution of his career.
Méliès himself wasn’t forgotten, with the likes of Martin Scorsese’s Hugo and the final episode of From the Earth to the Moon paying tribute to him, and his grave in Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris still being visited by pilgrims (including yours truly: full of the resting places of so many great artists, engineers, writers and politicians, Méliès’s tomb was the thing I desired to see most), and few filmmakers have created any scene quite so iconic as the rocket landing in the eye of the man in the moon.
The Mediator Between the Head and the Hands Must Be the Heart, says Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, so if we learn nothing else from this film, it’s simply do not let Fritz Lang set up any aribration tribunals. His 1927 film is now commonly held up as a masterpiece of the silent age, although was rather less warmly recieved on initial release. And, I suppose we should recognise before getting to far into deciding which viewpoint is correct, we’re not judging the complete work, at least as Lang intended, the film being cut substantially after the intial premier with parts of that still lost to time, even with valiant restoration processes from the odd long buried reel that show up from time to time.
Anyway, looking at what’s available to us, we’re introduced to Gustav Fröhlich as Freder, the indeterminately aged but “young” son of Alfred Abel’s Joh Fredersen, the apparent creator and ruler of a vast Metropolis boom title drop. Here the wealthy live in carefree luxury, with the 0.1%, such as Freder, living an apparently entirely insulated cosseted life in the Eden-esque pleasure gardens while hordes of nameless workers toil and die at the underground edifice of the pitiless machines that run the place. Pitiless and puzzling in function and design, it must be said, but I suppose that’s the expressionism speaking.
He’s shaken back to reality by the sudden intrusion into Paradise by a bunch of child poors, shepherded by Brigitte Helm’s Maria, a saintly figure we’ll later find to be held as a prophet of sorts by the oppressed working classes. They are quickly banished back to the under-depths alongside the rest of her kind, but not before Freder has fallen in love with her, and perhaps also her message that they are all brothers. Even the girls. Maybe that’s also the expressionism speaking.
Freder resolves to ask his father about what the deal is with all this mass oppression and all, and before long is heading off there himself to find Maria and fully see the horrors of the underground underclass, shadowed by his father’s spy, Fritz Rasp’s The Thin Man. Seeing that things could be coming off the rails, Papa Frederson enlists the help of his long term frenemy and inventor, Rudolf Klein-Rogge as Rotwang. He has been working on a secret project, the iconic man-machine, as the intertitles would have it, although I see Rotwang’s given him tits. Expressionism, probably.
This machine can take the form of anyone, so Frederson wants to create a robotic doppelganger of Maria with the intent of ruining her reputation and dampening down talk of working class revolution, but turns out Rotwang is holding on to more of a grudge than he lets on, and seeks instead to tear it all down and watch the world burn. Young Freder therefore finds himself slap bang in the middle of these machinations and must find a way to save Maria, and the city, from destruction.
Now, there’s been a lot of analysis done over the years on Metropolis, and if you are the sort of person who gets off on that sort of thing, more power to you. Myself, I think I’m on Team H.G. Welles, who I’m led to believe knows a thing or two about science fiction, in thinking that this is silly. Perhaps the crucial moments of meaning are those that have been lost, but I cannot find a particularly coherent message in Metropolis that’s evident in the text in front of me. For example, I’m surprised to see here that it was criticised for having a communist message, and let me just run this through my Marx-alyser…. results coming in now… Ah, it just says “This ain’t it, chief”.
Likewise, in common with a few of these films, actually, there’s a feint at a more religious message in there, except it kind of doesn’t really say anything much about that, other than that religion exists in this context. Which kind of seems like a preemtive attempt to avoid being cancelled by zealots, Copernicus style, rather than having a point as such. Although Cancelled by Zealots is a good name for an indie album.
So, to cut my witterings short, I am not on board with this as a masterpiece of messaging, but there’s more than enough to appreciate in the other aspects of the film. In particular, the imagination and execution of the worldbuilding and the visuals is really rather impressive, now, let alone for the time, and is more than worth the price of admission by itself. The performances, well, there’s always a fair amount of playing to the back seats with this era, so I ‘ll go along with it, even when it’s unarguably gone into waaaaay too silly territory (Evil Maria and the dance club seduction scene, I am looking directly at you).
At least, unlike some other landmark films we’ve covered that make me feel like I’m on crazy pills because they’re obviously awful, there’s at least a lot in here that I can see why people would latch on to and want to talk about, even if I disagree that the messaging or the metaphors are clear enough to support it, alongside stuff that I did appreciate. So I’m glad I’ve watched it and certainly recommend anyone with a passing interest in the history of cinema, not just science fiction should watch. But I’ll probably never come back to this. And maybe that’s the most expressionist thing of all. It’s not, that makes no sense, I just didn’t have a good way to wrap this review up. And I still don’t.
Things to Come
While, beyond Le voyage dans la lune, we’re not covering any adaptations of the works of Jules Verne in this episode (you best believe I will be forcing 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea into our inevitable submarine episode, though, where it will sit extremely comfortably alongside Das Boot), we are by chance covering two adaptations of the works of that other great Victorian science-fiction writer, H.G. Wells, who has also been bestowed with the title of “The father of science-fiction”.
The first is 1936’s Things to Come, based on Wells’ 1933 novel, The Shape of Things to Come. Directed by William Cameron Menzies and starring Raymond Massey, Edward Chapman, Ralph Richardson and Margaretta Scott, Things to Come begins in 1940 in Everytown, a city in southern England (London. Clearly London. Imagination was preserved for other things), where a population lives in fear of an imminent war in Europe (you recall I mentioned the whole “contemporary angst and fear” thing?). The war inevitably comes, lasting through until the 1960s, where the origins of the war have been forgotten, and it is now fought because it’s the war, and that’s what you do with a war: fight it.
The war is finally ended by the enemy deploying a biological weapon which propagates a disease called the “Wandering Sickness”, which more or less turns people into what we would call today zombies. The result of this is that entirely half of the world population dies, and government vanishes. All that is left are little fiefdoms, including Everytown, now ruled by Ralph Richardson’s “Boss”, who took power by proposing the shooting of the infected humans to save the rest.
As he tries to have his small fleet of antiquated aircraft made airworthy again, so that he can defeat the neighbouring hill people and steal their colliery, a new, modern aircraft lands in the city, containing a former inhabitant of Everytown, Raymond Massey’s John Cabal, now a representative of a brotherhood of airmen calling themselves “Wings Over the World”. Despairing of the attitudes of the Boss and those like him, Everytown is picked as the place to deploy the new “Peace Gas”, after which human progress proceeds apace for the next century, resulting in the species living peaceably in underground cities with artificial suns.
While the inhabitants of future Everytown prepare to launch a manned probe to the moon (by means of a giant supergun, something particularly amusing given the headquarters of Wings Over the World having been given as Basra in Iraq – now we know where Saddam got the idea), several among the population begin to rebel, considering it unnecessary, progress for progress’ sake, and wishing to rest from it.
As with many other British films from the first half of the twentieth century, Things to Come is rendered somewhat difficult to enjoy by the almost comically absurd overabundance of received pronunciation throughout (US films of the time have a similar issue with the Mid-Atlantic accent, though I tend to find that less grating), with the occasional “working class” accent typically being some toff saying, “cor blimey, guvnor!” in a 100% convincing manner.
Get past that, though, and there’s some interesting stuff in here about individualism vs species, the potential fragility of our societies and institutions and, for me, anyway, as its raised but not addressed by the film, the morality of forcibly-applied peacefulness. All of that is in an unevenly-paced vehicle, however, which suffers from a lack of clarity in what anyone is doing or why, something exacerbated by a dearth of interesting characters. It is however interesting to see the idea of civilisation collapsing into barbarism in a film of this time, something I find all too believable (unlike Graham Greene, who reviewed it at the time), and a pre-Star Trek ideal future, that I share Greene’s opinion of as being rather naïve, though, as with Gene Roddenberry’s creation, I appreciate the optimism of.
The Day the Earth Stood Still
And a Klaatu barada nikto to you too. So, here the Earth is, right, post WW2, swaggering around going “ooh, look at us, we’re harnessed the power of the atom to melt people, aren’t we the King Poops of Excrement Mountain”, and just generally settling in for a good old fashioned Cold War, when out of nowhere, well, out of space I suppose, a flying saucer lands in a park in Washington DC. The alien flying the thing gets out, saying he comes in peace and goodwill, and because it’s America, he gets shot for it.
Said alien, Michael Rennie’s Klaatu, does manage to call off his robot, Gort’s rampage of melting down every puny earthling weapon around, and is taken off to hospital. Healing quickly, thanks to his own advanced medicine, he wants to be taken to the Earth’s leaders in order to deliver an urgent, highly important message. However, politicians being politicians, neither a guest list nor location can be agreed for this, and Klaatu insists this message must be delivered to all simultaneously.
Deciding, somewhat out of nowhere, that he must live amongst these hoo-mans to better understand them, he slips his guards and takes up residence in a boarding house, befriending Patricia Neal’s Helen Benson and her son, Billy Gray’s Bobby. He makes contact with Sam Jaffe’s Professor Jacob Barnhard in an attempt to reach the great scientists of the world to deliver his message, and is prompted to make a demonstration of his power.
This takes the form of stopping all but essential power in the world, bringing the Earth to a stand still. So it’s not just a clever title. This is certainly head-turning, but not completely unreasonably is seen as a touch too threatening for the authorities who turn their manhunt into more of a “preferrably dead than alive” sort of thing.
But, as it turns out, that message is very much “stop killing each other or our intergalactic robot peacekeeping corps will bring you the peace of the grave”, so good job on that one, Earthlings.
It’s hard, at least for me apparently, to recap this film without it coming over a bit trite, but I should point out that I quite enjoyed The Day the Earth Stood Still. It’s not perfect – I don’t know how an alien should react, exactly, but it’s probably not like an impatient army officer or a kindly uncle, which seem to be the two poles Michael Rennie bounces between, and it’s perhaps best not to speculate on the finer details of what little is revealed about the aliens as it’s not all that coherent.
It’s more interesting as a cultural by-product of the dawning of the atomic age, and while the likes of Godzilla and Them! (more on which soon) were, arguably, trying to process the practical effects of the power of the atom bomb, The Day the Earth Stood Still stands more as a intergalactic extension of the nightmare of the mundanely phrased mutually assured destruction. But with cool robots, which makes it better.
It’s dated, naturally, although I’d argue that like Things to Come this is a little less reliant on then-whizzy special effects than some other films of the era (or indeed of this episode), and by spending most of its time holding up a mirror to humanity does retain some relevance to this day. Shorn of a contemporary Cold War setting it’s perhaps a little harder to understand quite the context for it, but perhaps the unwanted refresher course from Trump’s sabre-rattling brings it back to some relevance. Thanks for that.
Maybe not quite essential viewing after 60 years, but it’s a pop-culture milestone that’s held up surprisingly well and, again, a worthwhile watch for anyone interested in the history of the genre.
The War of the Worlds
We return to H.G. Wells again, and an adaptation of perhaps the most famous science-fiction novel of all time, The War of the Worlds, with a screenplay written by the pseudonymous, but presumably Thackeray-loving, Barré Lyndon, produced by George Pal (who directed another Wells adaptation, The Time Machine in 1960) and directed by Byron Haskin.
Chances are you’re familiar with the broad strokes of this: Martians have been watching Earth for a while, and decide to drop by and take over the place, by means of meteorite-like capsules fired across the solar system. Human weapons are useless against them, they devastate the planet until… tiny, unconsidered bacteria defeat them where we, with our huge brains and technological might, were unable to. Microscopic organisms bringing a technologically-advanced civilisation to a grinding halt… it’s really pushing the bounds of credibility, that one…
As opposed to the Victorian Britain of the novel, the film updates the principal action to mid-20th-century California, and the books’ narrator is replaced as protagonist by Gene Barry’s Dr Clayton Forrester, an atomic scientist, and, naturally, nuclear weapons are used against the invaders, albeit fruitlessly. The narrative arc is otherwise similar, just with everything absolutely rubbish in comparison.
Whereas the book dealt from the beginning with the horrific destructive power of the Martians and, particularly, the death of humans, this film version is oddly bloodless, with only a handful of deaths seen, and the bulk of destruction being at the expense of property as Los Angeles is destroyed, a particularly surprising thing given that this film carried an X certificate in the UK (meaning at the time viewers must be 16 or older). While not an intention of the filmmakers, I am very much considering this focus on property rather life an indictment of US capitalism and what it holds dear, another reason I find that I really don’t care for this adaptation.
Gone entirely is the harvesting of humans as fodder for the Martians, or the threatened death of the planet by the red weed, and likewise conspicuous by its absence is the novel’s disdain for religion and, particularly, the clergy, with the film instead promoting one priest to the role of a martyr, and, in a seeming effort to stick two fingers up to Wells, ending in a church. It really is a terrible adaptation, with “there are some Martians” and “bacteria win in the end” being most of what remains of the source. Even the opening deviates unnecessarily from the book, while beginning with its famous opening passage, adding in some nonsense about the gas giant Jupiter having with a rocky, inhospitable surface and some other unnecessary explanations of why Earth was targeted, when it boils down to “Mars is dying, Earth is closest”.
A compressed time frame also does the film no favours – it seems that the events must take place over months, but it’s actually three days – nor does a leading man with all of the charisma of a tree.
If there’s any interest in the film it’s in the special effects which, while quaint now, were impressive at the time (though I wonder if the Martians’ shields, quite clearly bell jars over the miniatures, were equally obvious then as now) and for the presence of the clichéd line, “how long was I out?”, delivered by Forrester as he returns to consciousness. I’ve long disliked that as a ridiculous thing for any human being to say, and only said either in films or by someone repeatedly exposed to it by its use therein, and I was very surprised to hear it here, having assumed it a much more modern plague.
That really is it for interest though, as it’s a simply really bad, very boring film with the added kicker of being produced with the visually repugnant, super-saturated 1950s Technicolor process that I am an avowed anti-fan of. It has, however, given me a desire to revisit Steven Spielberg’s 2005 adaptation, which I feel I may have been too harsh on at the time.
If you’re wondering what Forbidden Planet is about, well there’s this planet that is – yes – FORBIDDEN to you. Namely Altair IV, where an expedition force was sent some 20 years prior and promptly vanished. Leslie Nielsen’s Commander John J. Adams and his crew have been sent to investigate.
They find only one survivor of that outing, Walter Pidgeon’s Dr. Edward Morbius. And I don’t want to be all judgey here, but with that name, that voice, and that beard, there may just be something more sinister to his story. Just a guess. He tells them that some vague planetary force killed all of the crew, one by one, leaving only Morbius, his wife, later dying of natural causes, and his young daughter, Anne Francis’s Alta, whom many of the crew take a liking to.
However if they had any untoward thoughts, they have to get past Robby the Robot, an amazingly advanced automatron that outclasses anything seen on Earth and that Morbius seemingly knocked out in his spare time, despite him being a linguist, not a robotics expert. Turns out he’s been plugging himself into the remnant technology of a long lost race called the Krell, which has had the side effect of increasing his intellect. The still perfectly functioning technology is ridiculouly advanced, but Morbius rejects the Commander’s suggestion that other scientists should be studying this. Earth, he says, isn’t ready for this jelly.
Things take a perhaps expected turn into disaster when the Commander’s ship is attacked by a powerful unseen entity, just as happened all those years ago. So, they have to work out what’s going on and stop it before they are all killed, and also uncover the full extent of what happened to Morbius and his crewmates all those years ago.
Right, let’s get this out of the way – the standard issue early career Leslie Nielsen disclaimer, in that it’s always quite difficult to take him seriously in straight roles given his innate Niels-icity and comedic roles post Airplane!. He and the rest of the cast do well enough with all the dramatic reading that’s required, and it’s not thier fault that I kept waiting for a punchline that never came. That’s the Zucker brother’s fault. Or mine. Maybe.
What Forbidden Planet delivers, like a lot of the best sci-fi, isn’t necessarily action – there’s a nice animated laserfight later on, but that’s pretty much all the thrills and spills you get, but instead sets up a mystery, sets up some interesting characters, has them bounce off each other for a while until the kinda-sorta twist of the ending that’s maybe not standing up to a great deal of scientific scrutiny, but does say something meaningful about the human condition.
I’m not sure it quite qualifies for the same historical importance recommendation as the others we’ve spoken about, but for what it’s worth it’s one of the most easily enjoyable and digestible courses on today’s menu.
Ikarie XB 1
We return to the work of Stanisław Lem, the writer of Solaris, which we talked about on our 1970s science fiction episode, for our final film, in the form of Jindřich Polák’s Ikarie XB 1 (Ee-kary-ay Ecks Bay Yedna), based on Lem’s novel _The Magellanic Cloud, a 1963 Czech film starring Zdeněk Štěpánek as Commander Abayev, Radovan Lukavský as the (unexpectedly named) second-in-command MacDonald, Dana Medřická (Dana Mejeetska) as sociologist Nina and František Smolík as the mathematician Anthony Hopkins (no, really).
It’s 2163, and the spaceship Ikarie XB 1 is leaving Earth on a mission to Alpha Centuari, in the hopes of finding intelligent life on one of its orbiting planets. While travelling, the crew faces the stresses of prolonged confinement (gee, I wonder what that would be like), separation from home and the knowledge that, due to time dilation, their loved ones will have aged fifteen years by the time they return, while for them only 28 months will have passed, and a number of other stressors, including for one member the prospect of giving birth for the first time in deep space.
After discovering a derelict 20th century spacecraft, and pouring withering scorn on the people of the 20th century and their immoral weapons, the Ikarie approaches Alpha Centauri and the crew identify a target, dubbed “The White Planet”, as being the likeliest candidate for life. Soon thereafter, though, the crew suddenly begin to experience strange and inexplicable symptoms of fatigue and tiredness.
This is eventually traced back to a “dark star”, a body detectable only by its effect on other things, which is emitting a radiation that will be fatal if the Ikarie doesn’t get out of its range. Help from an unexpected source aids in this regard, but the secondary effects of the radiation on two crew members is more extreme, causing one of them to break and put the ship, and the lives of the crew, at risk.
I find that I’m struggling to say much about Ikarie XB 1: in the most reductive terms it’s “passengers on a long trip have some conversations, one of them goes a bit doolally and threatens to kill them all, he doesn’t, oh and there’s a robot called Patrick”, but I really enjoyed it.
While it’s in some ways spartan and sombre, it’s a thoughtful and contemplative film, with interesting and believable characters (and terrible, terrible dancing), and is far more sophisticated than most science-fiction fare of its time. It’s also visually striking, with its stark black and white photography looking simply beautiful.
In the beginning it’s simply enjoyable to spend time with the crew, from the eager young man looking to press his luck with the new female crew member, to the slightly sulky older man who has dragged along his pet robot and who won’t do as he’s told, dammit, and take his vitamin supplement, instead feeding it to the dog, and the frustrated MacDonald, whose daughter will be fifteen by the time he meets her. That leads to being much more invested when danger approaches, and there’s a feel to the piece not a million miles away from Star Trek (the good Star Trek, particularly The Next Generation: no place for Michael Fucking Burnham here), not least the Ikarie’s Enterprise D-like resemblance to a luxury cruise liner. (Oh, and also its utopianism, a Greek-derived word meaning “a state where bloody Star Trek: Discovery never existed”).
It’s an intelligent and engaging drama that I do not hesitate to recommend.
Thanks to everyone who has got in touch with us on this, or said kind words about the show – it’s all very much appreciated.
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