Adventures in Cheap Space!


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 (STARCRASHGALAXY 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.

13 Responses Adventures in Cheap Space!
Posted By Jenni : January 17, 2014 6:24 pm

I was 4 when the moon landing happened so my memories are more shaped by reruns of Star Trek and Lost in Space, seen on syndication. I do recall my grandma buying my brother and I those “snack sticks” that supposdedly were what the astronauts munched on when in Outer Space on Nasa Missions, and Tang! You forgot to mention Tang! Enjoyed your post, RHS.

Posted By Bob Gutowski : January 17, 2014 7:02 pm

I’ve come to realize that I’d rather watch any of these cheap-ass space movies rather than FORBIDDEN PLANET (even if it was based on THE TEMPEST). At least the ones you’re talking about are never boring!

Posted By Arthur : January 17, 2014 8:07 pm

I liked those movies too. And there was a popular TV show about a Space Trooper, Rocky Jones.

Posted By george : January 17, 2014 9:05 pm

PLANET OF THE VAMPIRES is visually gorgeous, especially in its use of color (a Bava trademark). Well worth seeing.

Posted By gregferrara : January 19, 2014 11:59 pm

Well you know how I feel. Fifties and sixties space movies are like Movie Manna from Heaven for me. They’re just incredibly cozy to watch. I love imagining being there, inside those great clunky spaces.

Posted By swac44 : January 20, 2014 6:11 pm

I was more of a Billy Blast-Off guy than Major Matt Mason, but I understand the pre-teen NASA obsession. I had the first volume in a multi-book encyclopaedia about outer space that probably came from a supermarket (the first volume’s only $0.99!), but of course it included a lengthy segment about the Apollo program that I read over and over. And born in 1967, I was able to watch the moon landings as they aired, although my memories of the first one are understandably a little dim.

The first film that pops into mind reading this is Robinson Crusoe on Mars (1964), which attempted to make space travel a little more realistic than its forerunners, although it still missed the mark, but it looks great. So glad that Criterion rescued this handsome Paramount production from obscurity, although I suppose Olive Films would have gotten around to it eventually, but not with the wealth of detail about its production that we can now enjoy on the Crit. release.

Posted By Doug : January 20, 2014 6:27 pm

Please forgive a short off topic link-
Just found a collection of interesting photos of DeForest Kelley and Gail Russell (The Uninvited) posted to commemorate Kelley’s birthday:

Posted By robbushblog : January 20, 2014 7:00 pm

I love Forbidden Planet. I have never found it boring.

Posted By robbushblog : January 20, 2014 7:01 pm

And Robinson Crusoe On Mars was surprisingly pretty great. I got it from Netflix just to see how really cheesy it was, and it was actually really good. I love how a film can often surprise you.

Posted By Heidi : January 21, 2014 5:19 pm

50′s and 60′s space or just sci-fi movies are all the rage in my house. We are both raging NASA fans, and watch the capsule launches to the ISS and the return landings with glee. Forbidden Planet is a fixture in our house, and we have yet to feel bored by it. one of my favorites, though not really a space travel theme, so for give me, is The Claw. It is a terrific movie with great acting and a surprisingly good plot, but it got short changed on the actual creature attacking from another world. Instead of Harryhausen they got a sock puppet. a deplorable thing to happen to a good movie. I champion it whenever given an opening. I would love to off into the depths of space with a 45 strapped to my side and barcolounger just waiting for me to sit back and relax, while turning the odd dial now and then.

Posted By Heidi : January 21, 2014 5:20 pm

Go off into the depths of space…sorry.

Posted By DBenson : January 25, 2014 7:34 pm

Then there was the depressing noir subset, where expeditions would finally reach a dying or dead civilization. A few creatures in the caverns below the magnificent cities we never actually see; maybe a few icy babes who figure some male genes are all they need; or low-budget ruins that cause one of crew to act crazy.

“This Island Earth” ultimately felt like one of these. Yes, it had some production values. But once they reached the planet, it was “Game over, you guys might as well go home.”

Posted By george : January 25, 2014 8:38 pm

High definition has been especially hard on old sci-fi movies. Now you can see the space ships’ control panels are painted wood, not metal.

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