Friday, 5 February 2010
Turner Classic Movies - Sci-Fi Adventures
By Alan Bacchus
It was the '50s, the height of the cold war, nuclear testing is at its peak and Joseph McCarthy is running wild. Out of this fervour and paranoia came a rash of topical sci-fi flicks playing against these post-war fears. Warner and Turner Classic Movies have packaged four of these not-so-classics — 'Them!', 'Beast From 20,000 Fathoms', 'World Without End' and 'Satellite in the Sky' — to form this DVD collection.
'Beast from 20,000 Fathoms' works as a structural template for modern-day creature/disaster movies. A nuclear detonation in the Arctic unleashes a prehistoric dinosaur frozen in the ice, which runs amok in New York City. Ray Harryhausen's stop motion effects make for some stunning scenes of sci-fi spectacle, with the creature toppling a lighthouse, destroying skyscrapers in NYC and its fiery death at the Coney Island roller coaster. Unfortunately, whenever the beast is not on screen it's a slog to watch. A love story between the hero scientist and a female palaeontologist slows the picture down to a crawl in between scenes of mass destruction.
The two lesser pictures are a couple of colour cinemascope b-movies: 'World Without End' and 'Satellite in the Sky'. World Without End features a 'Planet of the Apes' scenario where a team of astronauts on a space mission get transported 600 years into the future to a violent version of Earth where they have to convince the cowardly group of shut-ins to use violence and aggression to stave off an army of beast mutates. Production values and creature effects are especially poor, even within its b-movie context.
'Satellite in the Sky' is actually an interesting movie. In fact, it's the most science-oriented film of the bunch. A fictionalized story of the birth of American space exploration, starting with the breaking of the sound barrier by test pilots, and then the first manned mission into space. A technical glitch in the mission results in a harrowing fight to rescue the men from the clutches of deep space. 'The Right Stuff' or 'Apollo 13' this is not, as the production values are no better than Ed Wood's cardboard models and fishing wire.
The movie to cherish and celebrate, however, is 'Them!', which is atomic age genre filmmaking at its best — giant ants, mutated from nuclear fallout, fighting the U.S. military, with American civilization at stake. Unlike the other films in this set, the production values, from special effects to production design, are surprisingly top notch. In fact, 'Them!' was Warner's top grossing film of 1954.
Back in the day, Hollywood studios didn't waste too much time with their B-movies. Not only do their highly literal titles tell us exactly what to expect, the average running time for these films is a scant 83 minutes. It's a trend I wish Hollywood today would adhere to ('2012' clocked in at 150 minutes). So have fun with these pictures.