It Came From Outer Space looks to check all the boxes when we consider prototypical 1950s Sci-Fi. Based on a treatment by Ray Bradbury, it was shot by director Jack Arnold in black and white to utilize 3D. These are only some of the trappings it offers up in line with much of what you would expect from the era.
Rather than be presumptuous, let’s take a brief moment to set the scene. It’s a basic premise. John Putnam (Richard Carlson) is an amateur astronomer with a telescope set up outside his house, and he’s soon-to-be-wed to the lovely local schoolteacher (the always alluring Barbara Rush).
He’s intrigued by a meteorite they watch dive toward the earth’s surface nearby. The next morning they’re at the crash site ready to explore the giant crater. Except, as he soon finds out, the impact wasn’t caused by a rock but by a spaceship. He catches a glimpse of it before it sinks back into the avalanche.
However, with modern man, eyewitnesses are important as is maintaining the status quo. So when Putnam sounds the alarm and sends shockwaves through the small local community, there’s a lot of skepticism and shaking of heads. After all, it’s one man trying to get people to believe him with the help of his girlfriend. There’s the publicity angle with the press looking for some juicy tidbits and even a man of science lets him down, finding his assertions highly improbable.
And yet they do exist. The alien lifeforms start taking on the likenesses of people around town but not as parasites. Their friends are kept alive, albeit hidden away, to keep hysteria from setting in. Because this is an infiltration that initially feels akin to the Invasion of The Body-Snatchers.
The local sheriff (Charles Drake) is initially cynical about their existence, and when he’s finally forced to accept the facts, he’s not going to take it lying down. He cannot trust that these creatures are harmless, simply trying to get back to their home planet without mishap or international incident.
To be fair, it’s a difficult pill to swallow given our own diet of Sci-Fi and monster movies. Surely this isn’t how they are supposed to work? Because to its credit, producer William Alland and Jack Arnold’s picture suggests so many of these long-held tropes of 50s Sci-Fi movies only to give us a surprisingly lucid alternative.
With the very roots of his story, Bradbury has struck out on a rather groundbreaking path. It’s not about hostile space invaders simply vaporizing and terrorizing Middle America, though this does appear to happen. Nor is it a straightforward paranoia tale made as an echo chamber to put a voice to the latent anxieties of the McCarthy Era.
What becomes evident is a more universal message about humanity. When we fear, when we cannot comprehend something, we have a tendency to lash out. We use science or conspiracy, jokes, and gossip to discredit and then insulate ourselves — maintaining a certain level of comfortability. Because if we really knew what was going on — the sinking feeling in the pit of our stomachs telling us all is not right — we would react in kind.
In some sense, the move posits, with all the obligatory space thrills included — we need not fear extra-terrestrials from outer space. What we should be wary of is the evil and violence inside ourselves — it’s these tendencies to see the worst in others and to suspect they are out to harm us. It settles for a worldview of enmity and malevolence over benevolence. When, in fact, the man from another planet is far more likely to be our neighbor than our foe.
Are these words too high-minded for such a tiny Sci-Fi flick? Perhaps. Is it easy to scoff at the special effects and liberal amounts of theremin music? Certainly. Is it strange seeing “The Professor,” Gilligan’s Island’s Russell Johnson, inhabited by an alien life form? Without a doubt.
But do yourself a favor and enjoy what it has to offer, then take a brief moment to consider what the film manages in its meager allotment of time. It’s not going to change the world; it’s not some great piece of cinema, but somewhere along the spectrum, it’s a classic in its own right.