Ray Bradbury goes to the movies

Jack Arnold's adaptation of It Came From Outer Space is a classic.

A decade prior to his close encounter with Steven Spielberg, veteran new waver François Truffaut flirted with science-fictional celluloid by adapting the late Ray Bradbury’s magnum opus Fahrenheit 451 for the big screen. Along with Jack Clayton’s Something Wicked This Way Comes and an adaptation of Melville’s Moby-Dick directed by John Huston, Truffaut’s film is numbered among the most successful collision the late Bradbury had with the galaxy of moving images.

Lost in the cosmic debris of planet Hollywood is another story Ray Bradbury wrote which Universal turned into its first 3-D creature ever, It Came From Outer Space (1953). Made at the hysterical heights of McCarthyism when the “Red Scare” had found in science fiction the perfect emissary for its paranoia-fuelled struggle for homologation, this tiny b-movie directed by Jack Arnold boasts Bradbury’s trademark humanism and unprejudiced curiosity towards the vast possibilities of imagination.

Set in the familiar suburbs of 1950s America with both material wealth and irrational fears enjoying mass popularity, the film begins with astronomer John Putnam (Richard Carlson) and his wife Ellen Fields (Barbara Rush) having aliens crashing in their backyard. Rejecting the titular assumption, John, a man of science not so much of fiction, blames the newly landed on some unspecified foreign threat. Not even their peculiar appearances, monocular 3-D squids with a soft spot for screaming women, seem to insinuate the slightest doubt into the astronomer’s mind. Audiences don’t have to wait long before the whole town is swept by a high-pitched wave of panic with supremacist undertones. Law-abiding citizens are turned into host bodies by the aliens, which leaves the townsfolk with no other choice but to drive them back to wherever they're from.

By closely following the moral coordinates of Fifties scaremongering science fiction, only to undermine its reactionary morale at the end, Bradbury and his accomplice Arnold managed to smuggle into this candidly crafted flick their progressive views on “The Other”. When measured against its times and similar products of the era (Invasion of the Body Snatchers for instance), the film stands out for its thoughtful and dissenting take on aliens as well as that very human tendency to destroy what is not understood. In fact, once the cleansing is completed one of the characters muses over whether perhaps it was their own inability to befriend the slimy creatures that precluded a peaceful coexistence.

Despite its limited budget and venerable age, It Came From Outer Space retained its magic. Its homemade wonder and gently subversive spirit have inspired the likes of Joe Dante, Tim Burton and John Carpenter as well as a very young Steven Spielberg who later in his life would end up thanking Ray Bradbury for it.

In 2003,  Bradbury confessed that: “Close Encounters is the best film of its kind ever made. It takes too long, but the transfiguration at the end, with the splendid arrival of the mother ship — that makes up for everything. I was so amazed and changed when I saw it that I went over to the studio to tell Spielberg what a genius he was. And he said, ‘You know, I never would have done this film if I hadn’t seen [your] It Came From Outer Space when I was a kid.” All far-out science fiction tales seem to come down to earth in the end- even as their creators part from it.

Ray Bradbury's star on the Hollywood walk of fame (Photo: Getty Images)
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Keir Starmer: “I don’t think anybody should underestimate the risks of getting Brexit wrong”

The former director of public prosecutions is now heading up Labour’s response to Brexit. But can he succeed in holding the Tories’ feet to the fire?

Early in his new role as shadow Brexit secretary, Keir Starmer was accused of being a “second-rate lawyer”. The gibe, in a Commons debate, came from none other than Iain Duncan Smith. Starmer was director of public prosecutions for five years and later stood for parliament in 2015. No novice, then. Within a few days, Duncan Smith stood again in the House, this time to offer his apologies.

A fortnight later, I met Starmer at his quiet office in Westminster. He was sitting at a table piled with papers, in an office that, a discreet family photo aside, was unadorned. He had just got back from a whirlwind trip to Brussels, with many more such visits planned in the weeks ahead.

Starmer returned to the shadow cabinet after Jeremy Corbyn’s second leadership election victory last month. “The series of agreements we will have to reach in the next few years is probably the most important and complex we’ve had to reach since the Second World War,” he told me.

Starmer, who is 54, took his time entering politics. Born in 1962, he grew up in a Labour-supporting household in Surrey – his father was a toolmaker and his mother a nurse – and was named after Keir Hardie. After studying law at Leeds University, he practised as a human rights barrister and became a QC in 2002. In 2008, after varied legal work that included defending environmental campaigners in the McLibel case, he became the head of the Crown Prosecution Service for England and Wales as well as director of public prosecutions, positions he held until 2013.

When in 2015 Starmer ran for a seat in parliament to represent Holborn and St Pancras in London, it was assumed he would soon be putting his expertise to use in government. Instead, after Labour’s election defeat under Ed Miliband, he served as one of Corbyn’s junior shadow ministers, but resigned after the EU referendum in June.

Now, he is back on the opposition front bench and his forensic scrutiny of government policy is already unsettling the Conservatives. Philippe Sands, the law professor who worked with him on Croatia’s genocide lawsuit against Serbia, says he couldn’t think of anyone better to take on the Brexiteers in parliament. “It’s apparent that the government is rather scared of him,” Sands said. This is because Starmer is much more capable of teasing out the legal consequences of Brexit than the average Brexit-supporting Tory MP. Sands added: “It would be fun to watch if the stakes weren’t so very high.”

Starmer is a serious man and refused to be drawn on the character of his opponents. Instead, speaking slowly, as if weighing every word, he spelled out to me the damage they could cause. “The worst scenario is the government being unable to reach any meaningful agreement with the EU and [the UK] crashing out in March 2019 on no terms, with no transitional arrangement.” The result could be an economic downturn and job losses: “I don’t think anybody should underestimate the risks of getting this wrong.”

If Starmer seems pessimistic, it is because he believes time is short and progress has been slow. Since the referendum, disgruntled MPs have focused their attention on the final Brexit settlement. Yet if, as he argues, the starting position for our negotiations with the EU is wrong, the damage will have been done. MPs faced with a bad deal must either approve it or “risk the UK exiting the EU without a deal at all”.

It is this conviction that is driving his frantic schedule now. Starmer’s first month in the job is packed with meetings - with the representatives of the devolved nations, business leaders and his European counterparts.

He has also become a familiar face at the dispatch box. Having secured a commitment from David Davis, the minister for Brexit, that there will be transparent debate – “the words matter” – he is now demanding that plans to be published in January 2017 at the earliest, and that MPs will have a vote at this stage.

In his eyes, it will be hard for the Prime Minister, Theresa May, to resist, because devolved parliaments and the European parliament will almost certainly be having a say: “The idea there will be a vote in the devolved administrations but not in Westminster only needs to be stated to see it’s unacceptable.”

In Europe, Starmer said, the view is already that Britain is heading for the cliff edge. It was May’s pledge, that after Brexit the UK would not “return to the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice”, which raised alarm. And among voters, there is “increasing anxiety” about the direction in which the UK is moving, he said. Even Tory voters are writing to him.

In the Labour Party, which is putting itself back together again after the summer’s failed coup, immigration remains the most vexed issue. Starmer told me that Labour had “earned a reputation for not listening” on the issue. Speaking on The Andrew Marr Show shortly after becoming shadow Brexit secretary, he said immigration was too high and ought to be reduced. But later that same day, Diane Abbott, a shadow cabinet colleague, contradicted him, publicly criticising immigration targets.

Starmer believes there is a bigger picture to consider when it comes to Britain’s Brexit negotiations. Take national security, where he warns that there are “significant risks” if communications break down between the UK and the EU. “Part of the negotiations must be ensuring we have the same level of co-operation on criminal justice, counterterrorism, data-sharing,” he said.

Crucially, in a Labour Party where many experienced politicians are backbench dissenters, he wants to reach out to MPs outside the shadow cabinet. “We have to work as Team Labour,” he stressed.

It’s a convincing rallying cry. But for some MPs, he represents more than that: a lone moderate in what can be seen as a far-left leadership cabal. Does he have any ambitions to lead Labour? “Having had two leadership elections in the space of 12 months, the last thing we need at the moment is discussion of the leadership of the Labour Party.” He has agreed to serve in the shadow cabinet, and is determined to stay there.

Starmer has found his purpose in opposition. “If we think things aren’t going right, we’ve got to call it out early and loudly. The worst situation is that we arrive at March 2019 with the wrong outcome. By then, it will be too late.”

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

This article first appeared in the 27 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, American Rage