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Sunday, January 4, 2009

The Space Children

This is another production by Paramount's B wing. The major studios had lost interest in big production A-grade movies by the mid-to-late 50s. The Space Children (SC) is clearly a B-grade movie, but owing to it's parentage, it's in the upper Bs. SC was directed by Jack Arnold, famous for Creature From The Black Lagoon, and other sci-fi movies. Some find SC's blatant anti-arms-race message overpowering and preachy. Subtle it isn't. Yet, it manages to assign the blame for the Cold War. Adults and leaders who are too mired in their conventional thinking, are blind to the simple answer. Double billed with Paramount's other B-movie released in June 1957, Colossus of New York, and you have a solid one-two punch of anti-war messages.

Quick Plot Synopsis
The Brewster family is moving to live on a research base in southern California. The 2 boys hear a hum and see a beam of light, but their parents do no. At the base, they meet other children frolicking at the shore. Dave Brewster is a scientist working on The Thunderer Project -- an orbital nuclear weapons platform. The children see a shaft of light beam onto the base of the coastal cliff. A small spot of light descends on the beam. They investigate to find a small glowing brain in the sand. Bud, the older Brewster boy, receives telepathic messages from the brain. The other children understand. Bud and Ken return to bring their skeptical father. Bud says they must do what the brain says. Dave tries to warn his superiors that The Thunderer won't succeed, but Bud comes in and silences him. A rocket fuel truck goes out of control. A guard shack telephone goes haywire, all in the presence of one of the children. Dr. Wahrman suspects there's a link. He even sees the children walk past an oblivious guard and through a locked gate. They accomplish some sabotage inside, then leave. At zero-hour, The Thunderer's warhead simply blows up without the rocket launching. Everyone rushes to the cave where they find the brain, grown to the size of a golf cart. There is some pontificating about the world not being ready to make peace. The soldiers cannot shoot. The beam of light comes, the brain ascends with the rapt crowd watching. A quote from Matthew 18:3 comes on screen. The End.

Why is this movie fun?
The children, as protagonists, do rather well. This is a refreshing switch from the scientist-hero model. Arnold does a good job of keeping up a somewhat spooky mood, despite the low budget.

Cold War Angle
SC is a flagrant Cold War cautionary tale. The adults are obsessed with escalating the nuclear arms race into space. The wise alien brain enlists the aide of innocent earth children to break the chain. How obvious is it, that the lead scientist is named Dr. Wahrman?

Deus ex Machina -- In the now-traditional pattern, the alien brain comes in -- as did the last minute god on a rope in ancient Greek plays -- to invoke a change. This is a more active intervention than Klaatu's warning. By the later 50s, the Cold War was not settling down. A more assertive alien was needed.

Zombies or Zealots? -- Debate rages over whether the children were mind-controlled zombie puppets of the alien or whether they were willing accomplices. Keep in mind the end of the movie and the biblical quote "Verily, I say unto you...except ye become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven." In the biblical context, it is the unjaded innocence of children, to which Jesus is referring. This, in contrast to the beliefs of the adults, contaminated by worldly preoccupations. The alien brain is able to communicate with the children easily. While it appears to order them to do things, ("We have to do what it says," said Bud) the children do not resist it. They're between zombie and zealot -- given orders, but unquestioning and compliant.

Projected Threat -- When released, SC was in theaters less than a year after Sputnik. The Thunderer, as an orbiting nuclear weapons platform is exactly what had so many Americans spooked about Sputnik. Yes, it was just a metal ball that beeped, but Cold War fears imagined the terrible possibilities. The adult characters intone the usual rationale, "The Thunderer is to prevent war." Other adults muse about protecting their way of life, etc. etc. This is what people feared the Soviets were about to threaten.

Youthful Idealism -- Cold War fears were almost paralyzing. Anti-nuke sentiment swung far in the other direction. The (too) simple solution was "obviously" to just get rid of the nukes and all would be well. This is the moral of SC. Eliminate the nukes all over the globe and peace must surely break out. This didn't work in the early 1900s when a naval arms race threatened war. Nations agreed to limits, but WWI broke out anyway. After WWI, airplanes were deemed the danger. Hundreds were burned in great heaps. Yet, only a couple decades later, even more deadly aircraft took their places. WWII followed. War hasn't been thwarted for lack of a weapon, but the desperate hope that it might be, is stuff of the Cold War mind-set.

Star Watch -- Look for "Uncle Fester" (Jackie Googan) as Hank Johnson, Eadie's father. It's a small role, but he's unmistakable. Look for Russell Johnson, "The Professor", as the drunken and abusive Joe Gamble. He acts the part rather well, but Johnson watchers will note that his character dies, once again.

Bottom line? SC is a typical alien interference cautionary tale about nuclear arms, but it has more depth. Arnold does a good job of keeping the alien's intentions ambiguous, and the mood somewhat creepy. The moral is blatant, but the mood is pure 50s.


Mike Scott said...

I think SC was the first sci-fi movie I saw in a theater? It was a kiddie matinee, around 1963, doubled with Bert Gordon's "The Boy and the Pirates".

Another sitcom star in the cast (besides Coogan and Johnson), was Ray Bailey from "The Beverly Hillbillies". And Sandy Descher from "Them!" was one of the girls.

Nightowl said...

Hey Mike,
Thanks for the additional notes on the stars. I thought Ray Bailey looked familiar, but didn't chase his credit out.

So, when you saw the movie as a kid, did you think the kids were tools or collaborators?

Mike Scott said...

Quote: I thought Ray Bailey looked familiar . .

He always wore the rug as Mr. Drysdale on "Hillbillies" and played the character very broadly, in contrast to his more low key performances in movies like SC and "Tarantula".

Another series star was Johnny Crawford, from "The Rifleman", as the youngest Brewster boy.

Quote: . . did you think the kids were tools or collaborators?

I always felt that the brain was guiding them, but not forcing them to do anything against their will. There was no "We're free of the evil brain's control!" moment at the end of the movie.