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IT CAME FROM OUTER SPACE

(1953)

Richard Carlson, Barbara Rush, Charles Drake; dir: Jack Arnold

 

Some films really click into place when you understand them as dream logic. In the allegorical world of Cold War sci-fi, whose alien invaders and pod-people stand in for the Commies without and within, this is only a short step away anyway.

Take this film’s major plot points: our protagonist is the sole witness to a strange, unearthly orb buried beneath a newly-formed crater out in the boondocks; members of his small community, whom he knows superficially, are physically injured then reappear lobotomised; he beats up the sheriff (and rival for his girlfriend’s interest), who promptly forgives him; said girlfriend appears atop an arroyo dressed in a flowing black evening dress and heels; still dressed thus, but relocated inside a dark cave he shoots her dead; finally he comes across his own mirror image, with whom debates destroying the world. Wow!!

There’s some heavy Freudian freight here. Relationship-guilt and/or a suicidal impulse? Who knows!? Interior states rather than grotesque aliens are the domain of this and other classics of the alien invasion cycle, like Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Rightly regarded as among the greatest in this sub-genre, It Came From Outer Space is one of only a couple – The Day The Earth Stood Still being the other – to attack xenophobia rather than un-American activities. It does this through some admittedly pretty didactic dialogue of the ‘we’re not evolved enough to receive strange visitors’ variety. (But lest one scoff, compare the 2005 Star Wars instalment, with its equally clear attack on George Bush Jr in its deployment of his ‘you’re either for us… ‘ catchcry.)

Spookily, it is the same George Dubya whom the sheriff here strikingly resembles when, bathed in reflected incandescent light from the ascending spaceship, his vigilante posse can only stare uncomprehendingly at their escaping quarry. In portraying them, It Came From Outer Space cunningly shifts gears to the iconography of the classic Western to reinforce the throwback nature of their simplistic fundamentalism.

This film’s desert settings add to its  cred, being a seemingly essential element in an enduring narrative which has since morphed into the Roswell legend. No need to repeat that story here, except to note how close the similarities between it and this film are: vulnerable aliens in a desert crash landing, lone witness, sceptical authorities and barely-glimpsed bizarre ectomorphs.

Both this and Roswell’s narratives draw on what Michael Rogin, in his Reagan – The Movie, saw as a feature "in American 1950s iconography… the blankness of the desert". Being on an empty canvas the ‘coming’ of the superior (at least technologically) beings resonates with great profundity instead of its impact being diluted by the static of some surrounding society. And the desert’s ‘clean sheet of paper’ status harks back to how Americans once saw the ‘frontier’, underscoring the foundational nature of both national and religious myths, subtly linked here.

(In this desert separateness there is also an echo of Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole when the news media start arriving to take up their vantage point on the rim of a mountainous crater, and the cinema audience looks down on the onlookers arriving below as if they were insects – moths to a media flame.)

On a much less portentous note you gotta love watching all those early fifties highway cruisers like Carlson’s ’53 Ford bouncing around on the desert floor – no effete 4WDs here, thank you very much!

- Roger Westcombe