It Came From Outer Space

Director: Jack Arnold
Screenplay: Harry Essex (story by Ray Bradbury)
Stars: Richard Carlson (John Putnam), Barbara Rush (Ellen Fields), Charles Drake (Sheriff Matt Warren), Joe Sawyer (Frank Daylon), Russell Johnson (George), Kathleen Hughes (Jane)
MPAA Rating: G
Year of Release: 1953
Country: USA

The "it" in It Came From Outer Space is a meteor-shaped spaceship that crashes in the desert outside a small community in Arizona. Actually, the spaceship crashes twice on-screen, once within the first few seconds of the film to give it its explosive title card, and then again within the narrative proper. Having been shot originally in polarized 3-D, it's no small surprise that the filmmakers tried to get the most out of the largest special effect in the movie, and who could blame them? For the most part, It Came From Outer Space is not a special-effects-laden monster show, but rather a psychological sci-fi drama that, along with Invaders From Mars (1953), predates the paranoia trope made so popular in 1956's Invasion of the Body Snatchers about what is human and what is alien.

Richard Carlson, who starred in dozens of similar films throughout the '50s, stars as John Putnam, an amateur astronomer and writer who, along with his schoolteacher girlfriend, Ellen (Barbara Rush), witnesses the spaceship crash. Despite his seemingly bland appearance, John is something of an outsider and a rebel, a man of thought who lives on the outskirts of town and always has his head in the stars. As one character says about him, "He's more than odd. He's individual and lonely. He's a man who thinks for himself."BEcause John is the only person to see the spaceship itself before it is buried beneath a landslide in the crater it formed, his claims are easily dismissed by others, particularly by Sheriff Matt Warren (Charles Drake), who distrusts John in general and, on top of that, is envious of him because Ellen is his ex-girlfriend.

The crux of the film becomes the question of whether the crash-landed aliens are dangerous or benign. The film gives us numerous point-of-view shots through the aliens' eyes, which suggest a threatening presence. And, once they begin to kidnap local residents and take their form, it seems that they are certainly posing a threat. Are they here to take over?

The film was directed with a competent hand by Jack Arnold, a contract director for Universal-International who made scores of such films throughout the 1950s and '60s, including such B-movie classics as The Creature From the Black Lagoon (1954), This Island Earth (1954), and The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957). He's not a particularly inventive director (not surprisingly, he moved largely into television work later in his career), but he gives the film a solid, steady feel, resisting the temptations to be overly flashy on a minimal budget. In fact, the aliens were never intended to be seen, although they do make several appearances after studio executives decided there was no way they could make a movie with a hyperbolic title like It Came From Outer Space—in 3-D, no less—and not show the aliens. Thankfully, Arnold utilizes the brief glimpses of the horrid one-eyed creatures to good effect, never lingering on them.

Although Harry Essex was given sole screenplay credit, all evidence points to the fact that the original treatment written by science-fiction novelist Ray Bradbury was the film's primary source. There are certainly moments that bear out Bradbury's unique voice, particularly when It Came From Outer Space begins to voice its social concerns, namely the tendency of Americans to feel threatened by anything that is different. At a time in which homegrown racism was coming to a head and political paranoia about the influence of Soviet communists and other malicious "others" was growing with frightening speed, such concerns were not only understandable, but crucial.

Like many sci-fi films of the 1950s, It Came From Outer Space has a clear metaphorical imperative, turning the popular and comforting "us vs. them" dichotomy on its head by questioning the us. As the story goes, the true monster turns out to be within, as too many characters are much more willing to take up shotguns and blast the hell out of something different than they are to trust it, something that is, unfortunately, still true today.

It Came From Outer Space DVD

Aspect Ratio 1.33:1
Audio English Dolby Digital 3.0 Stereo
Subtitles English, Spanish, French
DistributorUniversal Home Video
Release DateMay 21, 2002

1.33:1 (Academy Aspect Ratio)
Although originally shot in polarized 3-D, the image here is presented "flat" in its full-frame aspect ratio. The decision to present the film here in full-frame is understandable, but debatable: Although the film was certainly shot and composed using the full frame, 1953 was the year that widescreen was first gaining widespread popularity, and it is likely that Universal-International requested theaters to matte the film to 1.85:1. Thus, as with many films of this era, the "true" theatrical aspect ratio is somewhat in question, as many theater owners likely did not matte it or matted it at a different aspect ratio. However, judging by the film itself, it is probably best that it was transferred in full-frame, as matting it to 1.85:1 would mostly result in an unnecessarily cramped image.

The black-and-white image is generally sharp, with good detail. Being a film that is close to 50 years in age, it looks like the print could have used some restoration, as there is quite a bit of white speckling in many scenes (although the worst of them appear to be when the film briefly relies on stock footage). There are also the occasional vertical hairlines and just a few large blotches. Overall, the wear on the print isn't terribly distracting, but it is noticeable.

English Dolby Digital 3.0 Stereo
The three-channel stereo mix (discreet right, left, and center channels) sounds quite good. As with widescreen, the early 1950s was a time of innovation and experimentation with sound, and It Came From Outer Space was one of the early "stereophonic" experiences. The soundtrack is generally clean and free of hiss or distortion, although much of the musical score (especially with the reliance on the theremin) is at the high range and can sound slightly piercing if turned up too loud. As all three channels are on the front soundstage, there are no surround effects, although the depth of the soundtrack and its spacing is quite good (although there are moments when you can tell the original mixers were trying a little too hard, such as an early scene in which Ellen's voice comes from off-screen left and it sounds much too distant).

Audio commentary by film historian Tom Weaver
Film historian Tom Weaver, author of the recently published Science Fiction Confidential: Interviews With Monster Stars and Filmmakers, delivers an excellent screen-specific commentary that is truly aimed at the sci-fi buff. Weaver, who contributed to a commentary on Criterion's Fiend Without a Face (1958) DVD, is a deep fountain of knowledge. He uses the commentary to give a detailed production history of the film that employs tons of primary research, including first-hand interviews with those involved, the minutes from meetings of Universal executives, and interoffice memos about the need for secrecy in the production. He seems to know some bit of intriguing minutiae about even the smallest bit player in the film. Weaver is enthusiastic and fun to listen to, sometimes sounding a bit like one of the hyperbolic voice-overs in a '50s movie trailer.

The Universe According to Universal documentary
This 31-minute documentary is a nominal history of science fiction films made at Universal Studios during the 1950s, with a particular focus on It Came From Outer Space and a several of Jack Arnold's other films, including This Island Earth (1954) and The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957). With respect to It Came From Outer Space, the doc focuses primarily on the role of music in the film, its innovative uses of 3-D, and the difficulties in deciding what the alien would look like. Filled with film clips from a dozen or more movies, there are also quite a few talking-head interviews from fans and scholars, including sci-fi illustrator and historian Vincent Di Fate, collector/archivist Bob Burns, film historian Paul M. Jensen, and Bob Furmanek, curator of the 3-D Film Archives, as well as Irving Gertz, one of three composers who worked on the film.

Photograph and Poster Gallery
This is an animated gallery that includes 5 examples of full-color poster art and 45 black-and-white publicity, production, and behind-the-scenes stills.

Theatrical Trailer
Presented in its original full-frame aspect ratio.

Production Notes

Cast and Filmmakers
Includes brief bio sketches and film highlights for actors Richard Carlson, Barbara Rush, Charles Drake, Russell Johnson, Kathleen Hughes, and Joe Sawyer, as well as director Jack Arnold.

Copyright © 2002 James Kendrick

Overall Rating: (3)

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