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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Listening to recordings from the Antarctic, I felt I could hear the earth groan

The Science Hour on the BBC World Service.

A weekend of listening to the radio news ­revealed nothing but sounds of the sucker-punched going through their pockets in a panic and repeating, “I thought you had the keys.” So, never was talk of “a perfectly flat area of just whiteness” more alluring. The oldest Antarctic ice yet recorded was recently found. “For millions of years,” the presenter Roland Pease assured listeners  (25 June, 9am), “snow has been falling, snow on snow, all the while trapping bubbles of air and other chemical traces of climate . . . insights into the ice ages and warm periods of the past.” How was this ice located? “The finding part is pretty easy – you just go there and start shovelling, and ice comes up,” the lead geologist, Jaakko Putkonen, said.

There it was, buried under a layer of dirt “in barren wastelands” high in the middle of Antarctica. An “incredibly mountainous and remote and . . . quite hideous region, really”, Pease said, though it was sounding pretty good to me. The world dissolved into a single, depthless tone. Then Pease mentioned the surprising fizzing of this ancient ice – trapped air bubbles whooshing as they melt. Which is perhaps the thing you least expect about ice regions and ice caps and glaciers: the cacophony. Thuds and moans. Air that folds and refolds like the waving of gigantic flags. Iced water sleeping-dragonishly slurping and turning.

On Friday Greenpeace posted a video of the pianist Ludovico Einaudi giving a haunting performance on a floating platform to mark an imminent meeting of the OSPAR Commission, as it decided on a proposal to safeguard 10 per cent of the Arctic Ocean. Einaudi looked occasionally stunned by the groaning around him. A passing glacier popped and boomed like the armies of Mordor, ice calving from its side, causing mini-tsunamis. When last year I spent some time at the remote Eqi Glacier in Greenland, close to the ice cap, local people certainly spoke of the ice as if it were living: “It’s quiet today,” delivered as though gazing at the fractious contents of a Moses basket.

“This huge cake of ice, basically flat”, Putkonen said, perhaps longing for a moment of deep-space silence, for peaceful detachment. He wasn’t the only one being forced to reappraise a landscape very differently.

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 30 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit lies