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Thursday, April 7, 2011

Five Million Years to Earth

Nigel Kneale's original story (Quatermass and the Pit) ran as a serialized TV drama in 1959. Hammer Films produced a feature film version of the same story (and the same title) in the UK in 1967. 20th Century Fox marketed the movie in America a year later with the title Five Million Years to Earth (FMYE). This is the third in the Quatermass series. Even though it is a sort of sequel, FMYE is an altogether different story, drawing nothing (beyond Professor Quatermass) from the prior two.

Quick Plot Synopsis
Workers expanding a London subway station at Hobb's End unearth skulls and bones of odd large-headed ape men. Dr. Roney dates them at 5 million years old. Workers then uncover a strange object. Professor Quatermass, saddled with the smarmy Colonel Breen, investigate. The military think it is an unexploded Nazi bomb. Locals and newspaper archives tell of strange goings on in that neighborhood dating back to medieval times, whenever the soil was disturbed. Soldiers and workers around the hull report visions of goblins. A hole appears in the ship, revealing decaying insect creatures. Roney and Quatermass are convinced they are dead Martians. Their theory is that 5 million years ago, the Martians could see that their planet would no longer be habitable. They couldn't live on earth. So, they took ape creatures from earth and genetically altered them to have high intelligence and other martian qualities. The Martians would live on (genetically, at least) in a proxy colony. The British government and military scoff at this theory. They claim the ship, insect things and bones were all a Nazi propaganda ploy. Work at the station will resume. Television crews setting up to cover the resumption, inadvertently supply the ship with high voltage. It starts to glow and hum and control people. Supplied with vast electrical power, the ship projects its "race memory," beams. It triggers genes grafted into the human DNA -- though not everyone has the genes. Riots break out. Killings. The earth rumbles. Buildings break. Quatermass himself is affected. He tries to kill Roney, who is immune to the ship's projections. Part of the martian genome was to instinctively kill anyone who was "different," to keep the colony pure. Only by concentrating on his "human" identity, can he keep the urges in check. A huge glowing projection of an insect martian appears over London, as if to spread its control over a wider area. Roney thinks it can be neutralized if grounded, because of legends that the devil didn't like iron. (?) He maneuvers a construction crane to touch the apparition. In the fiery discharge, Roney succeeds, but dies doing so. London is badly damaged, but saved. The End.

Why is this movie fun?
FMYE is a great bit of story telling. The topic fresh and there is plenty of action. Yet, there is much to mull over with Kneale's notions of the roots of human evil. For 50s sci-fi fans, it's fun to dabble in another martian invasion (even if by proxy).

Cold War Angle
The primary theme is an exploration of racial issues, particularly the intolerance of difference. The Cold War is more of a background hum than clear theme. All three of Kneale's Quatermass tales were built around fear (of some outsiders) and paranoia (who could you trust?). In this case, smug and pompous bureaucrats and military leaders, ignore the danger signs of big trouble brew right at their feet. It is more of an "enemy within" tale.

As Seen on TV -- This story originally aired on BBC television in December 1958 and January 1959 in six half-hour episodes. Kneale himself adapted his teleplay into the screenplay, so it's little wonder the movie follows the TV series very closely. Some lines exactly the same. Sometimes they're delivered by other (peripheral) characters. Some scenes remained (such as the knocking-out of Barbara), though not in quite the exact same place in the story line. The movie's special effects are, naturally, better than the teleplay. The original title made more sense for the TV series, in that the ship was found while excavating for a building's foundation -- a pit. The movie's setting of a subway station doesn't fit "a pit" as well. Perhaps that's why the title change for American distribution.

Space Roots -- Where the Stargate television series imagined that ancient earth "gods" were really encounters with egotistical aliens, Kneale imagines, in FMYE, that legends of demons and the devil, and psychic powers all had a common extraterrestrial source -- the Martians!

Undermining Darwin -- Despite the typical overtones of evolutionary theories ("apemen", etc.), Kneale cuts the legs off the popular notion of steady-state evolution. Human intelligence was not the result of slow and steady mutations and darwinian survival of the fittest. Instead, he posits that earth apes got a serious genetic upgrade from the Martians. Humans didn't evolve from apes, we're martian halfbreeds! At one point, Barbara even says, "We ARE the Martians."

Inherited Evil -- The Martian genetic "gift" had it's benefits and drawbacks. Earth apes got the intelligence boost, but also inherited the martian urge to destroy anything different. In this, Kneale aimed at social commentary -- intolerance of other races -- opens a much larger can of worms. He suggests that most (if not all) of humanity's dark side, stems from ancient "race memory". That, in itself, is a controversial notion base on racist theories. Via this plot device, Kneale seems to be absolving humanity of direct responsibility for its evils. The human genes were basically "innocent" animal. It was the goblin-like horned "devil" martians that introduced the bad genes. This has a coincident parallel to the Biblical account, in which it was the devil which introduced sin to innocent Adam and Eve.

Good Old Mars -- Firmly in the 50s idiom, Kneale pictures Mars as a planet which was once more comfortably habitable and hosted a flourishing civilization. In this, he is good company with H.G. Wells and others. Mars is also still the "Bringer of War" in that martian genes cause human belligerence. Note the nod to H.G.Wells in that the martian bug creatures walked on three legs. This was more apparent in the TV series, but is still in the movie's screenplay.

Bottom line? FMYE is a well-done, well paced sci-fi with 50s roots (a '59 TV series). It also has many thoughtful twists, turns and nuggets to muse on. By modern CGI standards, the special effects can seem dowdy, but FMYE was not a movie to show off special effects. For fans of old sci-fi, it's a must-see.


Cal said...

I love this film so much- your review did it great justice

Anonymous said...

Great review of a great movie!

Anonymous said...

I loved watching this film back when I was a kid in the early 70's. The climactic scenes at the end of the movie when the devilish martian psychic power was taking over everyone was really creepy and original. I've never forgotten this film and it remains one of my favorite classic sci-fi flicks.