Thursday, April 29, 2010

#2 of the Top Five Stand Alone Sci-Fi Movies

This blog post is part of a Top Five Stand Alone Sci-Fi Movies countdown that I collaborated on with Shaun Anderson from The Celluloid Highway, if you get a chance, visit his blog and check it out. Dont forget to return tomorrow for our #1 choices in the countdown!

The Celluloid Highways #2 Pick - THEM! (Gordon Douglas, USA, 1954)

In the 1950’s American science-fiction films fell into two distinct camps. The first saw alien creatures (be it blobs, monoliths, or flying saucers) penetrating our airspace and laying siege to the planet (or the country that stood in for the planet - America). The second saw creatures that were residents of the Earth (sometimes primordial throwbacks or dinosaurs) suffering freakish mutations and taking advantage of their new found condition to create chaos. Them! chronicles the attempts of the military and the scientific experts (unusually for a 50’s sci-fi film working in perfect harmony) to destroy an army of giant ants. The film opens in the desert landscape of New Mexico (a desert setting was very common for 50’s sci-fi - see Tarantula (1955), It came from Outer Space (1955) and numerous others) amid the mysterious death of an FBI agent. This just happens to be the inhospitable location the US military has chosen in the past to test Atomic bombs. The hunger of the ants for sugar has led to them being adventurous and pretty soon the experts from Washington (the local community never knows how to deal with the threat in these films) is on hand to reassure the idiot masses. In this film the military defers to the scientific expert Dr. Medford (Edmund Gwenn) as he tries to come up with a way to defeat a rapacious enemy that is soon on the march toward Los Angeles. This is one of the films that is often held up as functioning as a metaphor for the communist threat - the hive instinct of the ants doubling for the conformity of the Soviet Unions brand of socialism. But this is also a superb monster movie with some excellent action set pieces. The finale in the sewers of L.A. is taut and suspenseful, and the black and white cinematography by Sidney Hickox is a delight. The ants of course are unconvincing and daft, but retain a charm that present day CGI lacks. This is a film that both celebrates consensus and community, reinforces the importance of Washington as a reliable institution in the face of an invading force (one that is already present - thus confirming the paranoia around communist infiltrators ) celebrates the knowledge of scientific experts…but also challenges and criticizes atomic testing. Quite simply one of the most important (and fun) sci-fi films of all time.

The Film Connoisseur's #2 pick - CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND (Steven Spielberg, USA, 1977)

This one holds a special place in my heart because it was one of the first films I ever saw in a theater. My parents took me to see it when I was a baby, so I’ve always had this kind of special connection to it. Since then, I’ve watched Close Encounters of the Third Kind on countless occasions and it still remains one of my favorite science fiction films ever. Why? Well, it kind of feels real at times. The way everything unfolds in the story just feels true. The family we meet in the film feels like a real middle class struggling family. Richard Dreyfus plays the goofball dad that we feel pity for, but at the same time, we are rooting for him to discover the awesome truth! And speaking of the truth, this film was actually channeling all those anxieties that people were feeling during the 70's. I like that whole angle in the film where we see how the governments lie to the people about a decease that’s killing the animals, just so they can evacuate a whole area. Spielberg commenting on how the governments manipulate the masses through lies, because believe it or not, there was a whole "swine flu" scare during '79 as well, and people were running like crazy putting on this 'vaccine' that would 'protect' them from this killer virus. Many called bullshit on that one. In the film we  find out that this decease was a lie, the air is fine, and that it was all part of the “story” that they tell the general population just to get them to do what they want them to. The alien encounters are both terrifying and awe inspiring. And Spielberg simply knows how to play with our emotions when directing a film. He knows how to play with peoples fears about aliens, about the unknown. The visual effects still hold up incredibly well, even after all these years. The scenes where we finally see the alien mother ship is one of the most amazing movie moments on any film. After this film came out, UFO sightings were through the roof! Spielberg rooted himself firmly in the minds of his audience, so much so that he got people seeing UFO’s left and right during the 70s! Spielberg captured that feeling of terror of the unknown, but also of amazement and adventure. A true sci-fi classic that will undoubtedly live on through the ages.

Close Encounters of the Third Kind (30th Anniversary Ultimate Edition)Them! (Snap Case)


Unknown said...

I love both of these films as well. THEM! is still, hands down, my fave monster movie from the 1950s. I love how they build the eerie atmosphere and suspense early on with the cops investigating the torn up trailer out in the desert. And then you get the little girl shell-shocked out of her poor little mind until she screams out, "them!" Amazing stuff.

And CLOSE ENCOUNTERS has a soft spot in my heart as well. Like yourself, I saw this as a wee lad and it made a HUGE impression on me. I just love the way its shot, the mood, the atmosphere, esp. the Indiana scenes where Barry and his mom see the UFOs at night. Great stuff.

And the opening intro, where the government dudes find those abandoned WWII planes in the Sonoran Desert, is a great way to hook you in by starting off with a mystery. How did these planes get here? Where are the people who flew them? Amazing stuff.

Great choices, guys!

Franco Macabro said...

Thanks J.D., the way Close Encounter starts does grab me! When they interview that guy and he starts speaking in spanish that he saw the sun come up and sing to him. Its eerie.

Then all those planes and boats in the middle of the dessert.

It has a lot of eerie moments, connected with that fear of the unknown that we all have. Like that sequence where spaceships are hovering above Dreyfuss's pick up and we see the shadow going over him...freaking amazing.

Or that scene where the little aliens are coming to take the little kid away, spooky!

I love that movie, it just has so many amazing moments.

I need to see THEM! I have to hand it to Shaun and his choices, they were very much from the 50s, an era I have to admit I am not familiar with at all! But its great to know whats considered to be the cream of the crop in sci-fi films of that era. I will certainly be doing some watching of these soon!

Shaun Anderson [The Celluloid Highway] said...

Like METROPOLIS earlier in the week Spielberg just missed out on my Top 5. I agonised over including CLOSE ENCOUNTERS or MINORITY REPORT, but in the end Mr. Spielberg had to miss out to Mr. Lynch. A great choice though Franco and I'm glad to see CLOSE ENCOUNTERS in the countdown.

Franco Macabro said...

Thanks Shaun, I just think its a very important movie in terms of sci-fi because it captures the whole UFO experience so vividly.

Another film I considered but didnt put on the list was FIRE IN THE SKY. Its another great alien abduction/UFO movie that I love, but it kind of falls flat in the middle, except for the awesome ending when we get to go inside of the alien spaceship.

I also thought of putting MINORITY REPORT on my list..but A.I. and Close Encounters were more important, to me anyways.


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