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.