A myriad of influences and pressures, both external and internal to the American film industry, coalesced in the early 1950’s to create a habitat in which the science-fiction film could thrive. The 1950’s became a golden age for the genre on the cinema screens and the moment at which science-fiction established itself as a major commercial draw. During World War Two and in its aftermath American cinema had expressed cultural fears and anxieties through the paranoid lens of film noir. The horror film by the mid 1940’s (with the exception of the Val Lewton productions for RKO) had degenerated into parody and self mockery. But whilst film noir could explore fears on the ground within the embryonic clutches of suburbia, there was no outlet for American cinema to explore questions of science and technology. The science-fiction film provided this, and it also gave filmmakers an opportunity to take the tropes of the horror genre and reconstitute them within a technological framework.
External pressures on the film industry also aided the ascension of the science-fiction film. The 1950’s saw the emergence of an affluent teenage audience, one which the major Hollywood producers at least, seemed to have difficulty in appealing too. The materialization of enterprising independent production outfits such as AIP, and resourceful directors making films in short periods for ultra low budgets, took advantage of this new demographic, and utilised with alacrity the drive-in circuit. In addition to changing audience demographics the film industry also had to contend with television. This new medium came of age in the 1950’s, but science-fiction had an inbuilt spectacle that offered a significant challenge to the limited means of expression that hampered television. The use of 3D, stop motion animation, special make up effects, and progressions in widescreen ratios all enabled science-fiction to differentiate itself in the market place.
One of the major narrative tools at the disposal of those writing science-fiction was allegory and metaphor. The films could explore socio/political themes, at times even in an outright propagandist manner, but never lose their mass appeal because of the emphasis on spectacle. The potential was there for films to work on several levels, offering a multitude of subtexts which managed to address phobias and fears in a formal presentation that was highly entertaining. Throughout the decade the science-fiction film evolved, often reacting to popular social currents, and adopting the requisite tone to deal with the issues that arose. It was a genre with a remarkable degree of fluidity, one which could use its superficial romantic subplots and gender politics in order, on occasion, to mask a more subversive message. Each sub-genre that came into being developed its own set of characteristics and concerns, proving that the science-fiction film was a durable and malleable form of cultural expression. It should be noted however that the horror film lies in close proximity to many of these films, and a large degree of cross pollination existed between the genres. As noted above the American science-fiction film of the 1950’s took several forms and I will briefly outline the main shapes it took.
SPACE EXPLORATION AND THE CELEBRATION OF TECHNOLOGY
Naturally for the science-fiction boom to begin a major commercial success was required. This came in 1950 with the double success of Destination Moon and Rocketship X-M. Both films placed an emphasis on the science, with the former title rigorous in its attempt to maintain a sense of authenticity. These are films concerned with the minutiae of rocketry and the theory behind space exploration. They are odysseys of discovery, with technology as the prevailing force in reaching new frontiers. Both films are unremittingly positive in their depiction of the science behind spaceflight, but their fetishisation of the technicalities behind such remarkable feats of engineering mean they are very slow and talky too a modern audience. Nevertheless they remain key titles in establishing the commercial viability of science-fiction, even if in just a few short years they would seem incredibly naïve.
It didn’t take long for alien interlopers to penetrate the Earth’s atmosphere. 1951 saw two key examples in The Day the Earth Stood Still, and The Thing from Another World. This is perhaps the most political of the sub-genres, with many of the films exploring the anxieties of the cold war climate. They are rife with paranoia and suspicion, and full of conflicting ideological positions. Depending on the beliefs of the filmmakers the military are either a destructive force or our saviours, and the scientists either experts we can trust, or self-centred egotists out to prove their theories at whatever cost. In several examples the invading forces are clearly representatives of the red menace of soviet communism, but this shouldn’t be taken as read, more often than not the invaders also stand for marginalised minorities, and their intentions are not always aggressive. One can see that invasion narratives could be utilised to maintain the status quo and to upset it with more subversive underlying statements. This type of film was the most pervasive and the site of much ideological struggle - a comparison between the two films mentioned above clearly demonstrate the different ways this form could be utilised.
The films that most directly challenged the uses and misuses of science were those that showed its effects on the animal kingdom. Whereas atomic power was celebrated in films like Destination Moon, in many of the 'Creature Features' it led to mutation. Atomic testing and the resultant radiation came with a heavy price, and the monsters that sprang up in the deserts and cities of 50’s America were the guilty consciences of science run amok. These unfortunate by products of mankind’s rapacious curiosity responded to their circumstances with aggression, and sought to punish mankind for their interference in nature. Whilst the creation of the mutant monsters was a statement of challenge to scientific endeavour these films almost always concluded in a conservative fashion. Nuclear testing also disturbed many a slumbering prehistoric beast, whose wakefulness would prove costly to city skylines.
Although these were the three main narrative forms that science-fiction took in the 1950’s, there were several other that merit mentioning. The disaster and post-apocalyptic imagery of films like On the Beach (1959) offered a more philosophical outlook for the genre, whereas alien monster films like The Giant Claw (1957), The Black Scorpion, and the bizarre alien invaders of the excellent Monolith Monsters (1957) afforded special effects technicians an opportunity to show off their skills, while the films explored themes of otherness and alienation in an unknown landscape. Bert I. Gordon emerged in the 1950’s to thrill audiences with tales of giant creatures and giant people, his low budget amateurish efforts were always fun and often went from the ridiculous (the giant grasshoppers of The Beginning of the End ) to the sublime with The Amazing Colossal Man (1957). A series of films which took as their template the adventure stories of H. G. Wells and Jules Verne presented audiences with fantastic worlds existing parallel to our own. The 1950’s wasn’t entirely dominated by American science-fiction, the success of these films on a global scale naturally led to other countries using the form to interrogate their own national terrors. The most notable was Japan’s Gojira (1954), a deeply pessimistic parable of scientific misuse which led to a plethora of similarly themed giant monster movies, the popularity of which remains undiminished to this day. In the UK British audiences thrilled to the big screen adventures of Prof. Bernard Quatermass as he dealt with an alien parasite in The Quatermass Xperiment (1955) and the politically charged alien machinations of Quatermass 2 (1957).
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of these various cycles is how all these concerns, fears, and phobias found expression in a single genre. Science-fiction not only became one of the most commercially successful genres, and eventually a fundamental component of the summer blockbuster strategy, but also an important ideological tool that could be harnessed too express a variety of positions. Many of the points raised in this introduction will be explored in more detail this month, and it is with great pleasure that I invite you to embark upon what will hopefully be a fantastic journey.