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We have always been afraid of things that go bump in the night, of ghosts and ghoulies and spirits that mirror our fear of the unknown. But since the A-bomb exploded over Hiroshima, America's fears have become less fanciful, and more deeply rooted in reality. Technology, the cold war, nuclear apocalypse; the modern world is rife with potential demons and killers. As the Edmund Gwenn character puts it in Them! (Warner, $59.95): "When man entered the atomic age, he opened the door into a new world. What he will eventually find in that new world, nobody can predict."
Since the early 1950s, sciencefiction filmmakers have reflected, consciously or unconsciously, the public's anxieties, and have created some of the wildest and most thought-provoking movies ever made. Noted science-fiction director Jack Arnold agrees: "I think science-fiction films are a marvelous me~ium for telling a story, creating a mood, and delivering whatever kind of message should be delivered."
Arnold was responsible for one of the earliest films of the "what scares us" genre: 1953's It Came from Outer Space, a subtly disturbing story about aliens who crashland in the American desert and are hunted and nearly killed by terrified humans. "It said that we as a people are afraid of anything that is different from us," the director explained. "If it's different, we hate it, we want to- destroy it. That's our failing as human beings."
Sometimes, though, that "failing" is the only thing that keeps us alive. More typical of the "invaders are coming" school are 1951 's The Thing (RKO, $29.95) and 1954's Them!, which featured menaces that cannot be reasoned with. In The Thing scientists and soldiers uncover a spaceship buried in the arctic ice. Its hulking pilot (James Arness) turns out to be a soulless, living vegetable bent on destruction. A scientist who tries to communicate with the visitor is brutally brushed aside; it's left to a group of resourceful soldiers to engage the alien in a violent battle to the death.
The creature in The Thing could have been a metaphor for the Russians as seen by 1950s America: emotionless, fearless, destructive. Similarly, the giant ants created by atomic radiation in Them! are perhaps another symbol for the "warloving" communists. In both movies there is a subliminal fear of science run amok, a fear of the bomb,which like the giant ants in Them! was rapidly proliferating beyond man's ability to control it. Them! screenwriter Ted Sherdeman noted:"Nobody' trusted the atomic bomb at the time." It was no coincidence that Them! (Warner Brothers' biggest-grossing release of 1954) was released soon after the ,Russians exploded their first hydrogen bomb.
Our fear of Russia also brought' a paranoid fear of brainwashing and foreign subversion. Invaders from Mars (Nostalgia Merchant, $29.95)-William Cameron Menzies' chiller about martians who take over the minds of humans· as a prelude to invasion-is an early (1953) example of Hollywood's preoccupation with this fear. But the definitive expression of such anxiety has to be Don Siegel's Invasion of the Body Snatchers (Republic, $59.95), made in 1956. Based on Jack Finney's short novel The Body Snatchers, the movie is a grim chronicle of the relentless takeover of a small California town by alien pods. Humans are replaced with duplicates, exact in every detail' save one: They have no emotions. "There's no room left for love," explains one of the pod people. "It doesn't last. Life is simpler without it." The move is supremely successful as a thriller, but Invasion works on another level: as a parable about the dehumanization of man.
SCIENCE GONE AWRY
The fear of dehumanization has been expressed often by science fiction authors, from H. G. Wells to Philip K. Dick, and in movies, from Metropolis (Vestron, $79.95) to Brazil (MCA, $79.95). In one especially colorful film, 1953's The War of the Worlds (Paramount, $59.95), inhu-
man machines commandeered by equally inhuman martians nearly destroy the earth, but it was in the sixties and later that our fear of technology came into sharp focus. Films such as 1964's Fail-Safe (RCA/ Columbia, $69.95) and 1983's WarGames (CBS/Fox, $79.95) suggest that our growing dependence on machines may prove to be fatal. In both films, computers malfunction in such a way as to bring the world to the brink of nuclear Armageddon. Fail-Safe, which is loaded with speeches that keep hammering this point home, ends with the unsettling image of New York City destroyed, ironically, by American bombers, in atonement for the accidental destruction of Moscow.
In 1964 director Stanley Kubrick gave us Dr. Strangelove: or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (RCA/Columbia, $69.95), showing a military chain of command run by lunatics. Dr. Strangelove's dark satire says that there is no hope for survival: Machines cannot protect us because they are built by men who are insane with their quest for power. Our only solution is to rid ourselves of the bombs-or else man's fate may reflect the movie's chilling conclusion ... the world's destruction.
But Dr. Strangelove's humor kept the film from being as harrowing as other nuclear-aftermath movies that have dealt with our fear of the bomb. The best of these films is probably On the Beach, Stanley Kramer's sober 1959 production featuring Gregory Peck, Ava Gardner, Fred Astaire, and Anthony Perkins, as survivors of thermonuclear war. All are in Australia, helplessly waiting for the nuclear fallout to drift south and kill them.
The movie, based on Nevil Shute's novel, is really a soap opera with a message, and it works wonderfully well. The everyday moments of these characters' livesfeeding a baby, riding a horse, going on a date-become tremendously important and moving, because each could be the last. Many scenes in the film are wrenching, and the viewer has to agree with one character, who cries out in anger: "It's unfair! I didn't do anything! Nobody I know did anything!" This outcry gives voice to two realizations: The characters' deaths are unjust, but also unavoidable.
The movie was controversialthe New York Daily News called it "defeatist ... [a] would-be shocker, which plays right up the alley of the Kremlin and the western defeatists and traitors who yelp for the scrapping of the H-bomb." But On the Beach was also a huge popular success and a worldwide money-maker. With its mixture of documentarystyle realism and heart-tugging sentimentality, the film set the standard for such subsequent "aftermath" epics as The Day After (Embassy, $79.95), Testament (Paramount, $59.95), and Threads (World Video, $64.95).
A film that used the postwar theme as a starting-off point is '1968's Planet of the Apes (Playhouse,' $59.98). This thoughtful thriller encapsulates many of the fears of the fifties and sixties and is one of the most underrated sciencefiction films to date.
Charlton Heston is George Taylor, the last survivor of a quartet of U.S. astronauts who have landed on a topsy-turvy world where apes are the rulers, humans the beasts. Heston is perfectly cast; with his streamlined physique, he is the "perfect man" II la Michelangelo, constantly on the run to avoid the ape masters who want to lobotomize, castrate, or kill him. Rod Serling and Michael Wilson's philosophical script is given passion and energy by Franklin J. Shaffner, a director who stages action scenes with remarkable vigor.
The final irony of Planet comes when Taylor discovers that he has landed on the future planet Earth: Man has destroyed himself with the bomb and opened the door for apes to take over the world.
Besides starring in three more Planet of the Apes movies (the entire set is available from, Playhouse for $299.90: Planet of the Apes, Beneath the Planet of the Apes, Escape from the Planet of the Apes, Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, and Battle for the Planet of the Apes), Heston also appeared in two other sciencefiction parables. In 1971 's The Omega Man (Warner; $59.95), he's the last survivor of a civilization destroyed by germ warfare, a rarely expressed cinematic fear. This frequently powerful movie pits Heston against killer mutants who have been created by a blunder of science.
Even more forceful in its message is 1973's Soylent Green (MGM/ UA, $59.95)~ The near-future world is overpopulated (New York City has forty million inhabitants); the world is grossly polluted (a green smog keeps temperatures in the ninetydegree range, day and night); and the world is dehumanized (lovemaking is handled by licensed prostitutes known as "furniture"). As director Richard Fleischer observed: "The idea was to make the people as recognizable to the people of today as possible, because it's a very short extrapolation from what we have presently in our society." In other words, the horrors of the future are right behind us-and gaining fast.
The ultimate mirror of our fears has to be Terry Gilliam's Brazil, one of the most visually stimulating films ever. Essentially a reworking of George Orwell's famous novel 1984, Brazil is the tale of a man swamped by a heartless and faceless bureaucracy. The story suggests that dreams are the only escape from the cold realities of the postmodern life in which the protagonist lives. Only in his dreams do romance, adventure, and pleasure exist-only in his dreams does he truly live.
DON'T LOOK NOW
Prophecy? Warning? Fantasy? The year 1984 has come and gone and 1984's vision has not come to pass. Perhaps cautionary movies like these help to cool things off by giving our fears a release valve they might not otherwise have. But we must not turn our backs on their warnings. Consider 1979's The China Syndrome (RCA/Columbia, $69.95), a story about an accident at a nuclear plant. Twelve days after the movie opened, the Three Mile Island accident was in the news. As one observer commented: "The bull's-eye hits in the picture are remarkable. China's reactor has a defective pump that vibrated itself into destruction; Three Mile Island had two defective pumps that vibrated so badly that they were stopped to prevent destruction. China's nearmeltdown threatened an area the size of Pennsylvania. Three Mile's was in Pennsylvania."
VIDEO TIMES/October 1986