Posted by Richard Harland Smith on January 17, 2014
Ever since I wrote about THE GREEN SLIME a few weeks back I’ve been thinking of space travel. Not actual space travel (boring!)… and not the sort of premium space travel that we’re shown via movies on the order of 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (1968), STAR WARS (1977), or GRAVITY (2013). No, I mean rather low budget Eisenhower era space travel, the kind of rinky-dink deep space exploration imagined by moviemakers between the end of World War II and man’s first (alleged) landing on the Moon a quarter century later. I’m talking economy class astronautomy. I’m talking big square command modules, as large as a rumpus room, full of nondescript gauges and knobs and big Barcalounger chairs, and attractive men and women in unisex jump suits and way too much smoking and revolvers and “Behind you! Monster!”… I’m talking about Adventures in Cheap Space!
I was a NASA nut as a kid. I kept a scrapbook of newspaper clippings related to every Apollo mission and to this day I have hanging by my desk the laminated front page of the Daily News from July 27, 1969, depicting Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin (allegedly) raising Old Glory on the surface of the moon. I loved everything about space travel as a kid: the big puffy suits, Space Food sticks, um… Well, okay, truth be told, I really just loved the big puffy suits and the Space Food sticks. And zero gravity. It didn’t take me long to figure out that space travel was hard and involved a lot more math than firing laser guns at green slimes. Plus, by age 11, I already weighed more than John Glenn, so actual space flight was out of the question for me. But I always had my Major Matt Mason guys and my imagination … and the movies.
Low budget sci-fi movies of the 1950s are comfort food for me. I love how they reduce complex technical schematics to easy-to-understand visuals. It’s a bit of a paradox that so many of these movies, made at a time when the cinema was struggling to retain primacy over television, made space travel look so much like watching TV. These movies were wonderfully predictive of the lifestyle that was being pushed on Americans from the early 50s through the late 1960s, that easy livin’ mindset that encouraged even full nuclear families to adopt a bachelor pad aesthetic for their homes, with impeccably clean lines, economy in all utilities, and impressive electronics. I’m surprised more Space Race movie cockpits didn’t have turntables.
Atomic age sci-fi movies seemed very concerned with how men and women would relate to one another in a more automated, less labor-intensive future, in which women enjoyed somewhat more equal footing than in decades past…
… (though in IT! THE TERROR FROM BEYOND SPACE, from 1958, they still have to cook for and serve the men) and men had less manly obligations (in space, no one needs you to split wood). Despite penetrating deep space in a phallic-shaped rocket, men in these movies are relegated to ladylike sitting around and waiting, flipping the occasional switch, turning the odd dial. No wonder so many third acts in 50s science fiction movies involve a monster.
And I think we all know how ladies hate the monsters, don’t we? In THE ANGRY RED PLANET (1959), the monster in question looks like a giant mouse; leading lady Naura Hayden all but climbs up on a chair. Of course, ALIEN (1979) would flip the script on this noxious cliche, making lady star voyager Ripley the last man standing. The flow of cheap space movies thinned to a trickle after the Apollo missions but were revived with surprising vigor with the success of ALIEN and, before that, STAR WARS. Both of those movies used the junked up, lived-in aspect of deep space travel: worn out machines, dirty hulls, unreliable instruments. They are representative of a sea change in sci-fi aesthetics but the movies that ripped them off (STARCRASH, GALAXY OF TERROR) were often more evocative of movies made twenty years earlier.
ALIEN drew for inspiration from two earlier movies, Edward Cahn’s aforementioned IT! THE TERROR FROM BEYOND SPACE (in which the monster without became the monster within, the ghost in the machine, the feral Id to futuristic man’s modulated Super-ego) and from Mario Bava’s TERRORE NELLO SPAZIO, or as it was called in the States, PLANET OF THE VAMPIRES). PLANET OF THE VAMPIRES is the end-of-the-line of cheap space adventures — not the last of its kind but its ne plus ultra in the way it abstracted style to an almost hysterical, gibbering degree: the astronauts wear pleather jumpsuits with high Dracula collars (with reason, if you haven’t seen it… with reason) and each chamber of their spacecraft is as big as a Phoenix Costco. As brilliant as ALIEN is (and it remains my favorite entry in that series — just a beautifully realized and executed piece of work), it kind of rained on the cheap space parade by making the whole business seem tenable, possible… realistic. But I suppose that subset had run its course anyway…
… and earned its rest (however often filmmakers tried to resurrect it). I love Eisenhower era space travel movies because they balance, oh so tenuously, sophistication and naivete. They are forward-looking and backward-feeling. They drag some of man’s worst tendencies into the future they hope will be better, dooming that mission to abject failure. We will never again see a science fiction adventure in which astronauts shoot into space with 45 automatics strapped to their hips and beehive-haired lady(scientist)friends on their arms. But that’s the beauty of cinema, which provides us with the technology to activate retrothrusters and voyage fearlessly into the past.
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