Science Fiction

Movie Review: This Island Earth

By | Movies, Ramblings, Reviews, Science Fiction | No Comments

tie_earth

The late Bill Warren (who I interviewed for my film) called This Island Earth “the best and most significant science fiction movie of 1955.”  I will defer to his judgment on that, but I will say that it’s probably the best movie ever to be spoofed by MST3K.  Here, you can see it in all its glory:

But why review this movie?  It’s not a Contactee film at all.

The last time I saw TIE, I took it for what it was probably intended to be: an entertaining sci-fi film capitalizing on the popularity of flying saucers.  Since working on my own film, I’ve noticed a few Contactee-eque elements in TIE that make me suspect the filmmakers had at least a passing familiarity with the stories of Adamski et al.  Or I would think that, were it not for one inconvenient fact: The story predates the Contactees.

Though the movie came out in 1955, well into the Contactee craze, it was based on a novel by Raymond F. Jones that was originally published in serial form in the late 1940s, only a couple years after the modern era of flying saucers began.  There are many differences between the novel and the finished film, so is this an example of life (being the Contactees) imitating art, or were the filmmakers perhaps influenced to adjust things from the source material to make it a little more similar to Contactee tales?

In the film, Dr. Cal Meachum (Rex Reason) is a renowned scientist with a square jaw and clearly overdubbed superhero voice.  He’s also an experienced pilot who casually flies jets like going for a Sunday stroll.  On one of his flights, when his instrumentation goes out, his jet is in the process of crashing, only to be saved by a mysterious green glow which gently sets his plane on the ground.

tie_cal

Dr. Meachum is then given mysterious instructions for creating an “interociter”, which proves to be a fantastically powerful and rather nonspecific machine.  Is it a communications device or weapon or tractor beam or spy machine?  Or all of the above?  With the interociter, he makes contact with Exeter (Jeff Morrow), a friendly-faced and giant-foreheaded fellow who invites him to a scientific retreat called “The Club”.  Once there, Meachum finds himself surrounded by the best and brightest scientists of earth, and grows suspicious of Exeter’s motives.

tie_exeter2

It turns out that — SPOILER — Exeter and his fellows are actually aliens from the planet Metaluna, involved in an interestellar war with the Zahgons.  Their planet is on the brink of destruction, and they need our nuclear technology to save themselves.  Exeter takes Meachum and another scientist named Ruth Adams (Faith Domergue) to Metaluna, where he encounters a Mutant (pronounced “mute ant”), an insect-like being (“larger of course, with a higher degree of intelligence”) that acts as a security guard. Meachum discovers that the Metalunans intend to invade and take over the Earth, and it is only the intercession of Exeter and the timely explosion of the entire planet that stops them.  Meachum and Adams are returned to Earth, and Exeter dies a noble death as his flying saucer runs out of gas, becoming a fireball somewhere over the Pacific.

tie_exeter

While the Metalunans are far from the peace-loving Space Brothers (they do, after all, intend to conquer the Earth), the Space Brother “feeling” is personified in Exeter, who defies orders from his superiors in order to save two human beings.  His actions earlier in the film showed him to be a rather ineffective middle manager, but near the end, he is redeemed when he says “Our universe is vast–full of wonders.  I shall explore, perhaps find another Metaluna, a place inhabited by beings not unlike myself.”

There are a number of further correlations with Contactee lore.  Dr. Meachum wasn’t just some random Joe who got abducted; he was sought out by the aliens and given special access.  “I don’t remember applying for a job,” Meachum says to Exeter.  “You didn’t,” says Exeter, suggesting they’ve been watching him for some time.  “We’d like you to join our…team, you might say, at once.”  Being “chosen” is a core element of Contactee lore; the people chosen by the Space Brothers are chosen because, they’re told, they will be able to carry out a mission effectively.  (One could argue that the Space Brothers really need better sampling practices).

When they come to pick up Dr. Meachum, they do so by sending a self-flying airplane.  He is the only occupant, and it takes him to their secret hideout in the middle of nowhere.  This sequence echoes a scene described by Orfeo Angelucci, in which an egg-shaped craft descended in an empty field and shuttled him up to the mothership in orbit.

Once chosen, the Space Brothers give their contacts a mission; usually this means to spread the word of the Space Brothers, but in some cases, it means to build machines that will change our world.  Much like how the Metalunans gave Dr. Meachum instructions for building the interociter, which would potentially advance human technology immensely.  This is not unlike George Van Tassel constructing the Integratron at the bidding of the Space Brothers, and has the added bonus of having a similarly cool sounding name.

Dr. Meachum was taken aboard the Metalunan craft and given a brief tour, much like in many a Contactee tale.  The detail I found interesting is that Meachum and Adams had to enter “conversion tubes” that adjusted their physiology to withstand the Metalunan atmosphere.  In his book From Outer Space to You, Howard Menger describes an incident in which he was first invited into a flying saucer.  His guide fired a beam at him, which caused him to feel a warm tingling sensation over his entire body.

tie_conversion

When Howard asked what this was for, the man said:

“We projected the beam on you to condition and process your body quickly so you could enter the craft.  What actually happened was that the beam changed your body frequency to equal that of the craft.  Thus you felt entirely comfortable inside the craft and suffered no ill effects.”

Then This Island Earth puts a new twist on the typical Contactee tale:  it is the aliens who need help from the Earth, rather than the other way around.  Their planet is dying, not ours.  They are the ones who need nuclear energy to save their world.  The fact that nuclear energy enters into the equation and it is not something to be feared, but rather a savior technology is unique in many ways.   And how would it be a savior technology?  By creating an impenetrable shield that the cold, calculating Zahgons cannot pierce.  Could Metaluna be a symbolic version of peace-loving America, beset upon by monstrous Soviets, forced to use nuclear energy to save the planet?

Also worth mentioning is the Mutant: a lumbering insect-like being with an exposed cerebrum and giant, staring eyes.  It appears to be a brainless automaton slaved to the will of the humanoid Metalunans.  While its presence in the film is jarring, there is a cultural significance to it.  Most Contactees described only human-looking extraterrestrials; but later Experiencer tales feature alien crews composed of both the human-like and the more “alien” aliens, such as Grays, Reptilians, or Insectoids.  The Mutant is a nice blend of all three: the eyes and roboticism of the Grays, the bulk and power of the Reptilians, and the physical appearance of the Insectoids.

Whether the makers of This Island Earth had any familiarity with Contactee tales is unclear, and certainly the Metalunans are not Space Brothers.  The Contactees told of Space Brothers coming to Earth in friendship and with our best interests at heart.  But in the movies, as Bill Warren says in his book Keep Watching the Skies!:

Benign visitors from space are few in the 1950s; the best we can hope for is indifference (It Came from Outer Space) or well-intentioned but stern policemen (The Day the Earth Stood Still).  The choices we are presented with aren’t between invasion and friendship, but between invasion and exploitation, and invasion and indifference.  The wonders of the universe seem to be for those other than human beings.  This Island Earth reverses the message of the novel, which is that we must be admitted to the congress of the planets, and instead seems to be claiming that we should just be left alone.  Everyone out there is fighting, and too much intelligence isn’t good for you.

 

 

 

 

In Memoriam: Bill Warren

By | Filmmaking, Interviews, Movies, Science Fiction | No Comments

billwarren_v01

Early on in the production of They Rode the Flying Saucers, I knew that I wanted to address the idea of science fiction films as it related to popular culture.  I approached legendary film director and 1950s sci fi expert Joe Dante about doing an interview, and he told me that the real expert was a guy named Bill Warren.  So I approached Bill, and he kindly agreed to speak with me.

Joe was right.

Bill literally wrote the book on 1950s science fiction films, pictured here.  Actually, that’s only Volume 1.  Volume 2 is even thicker.  Turns out that Bill Warren was something of science fiction royalty, having apprenticed under the legendary Forrest J Ackerman, the man who created science fiction fandom.  Without Forey, there would be no Trekkies.

dsc_0040

During our interview, I was struck by the sheer depth of Bill’s knowledge.  He told me that when he was a kid, he literally read every sci fi book at the library.  His recall of those books and the movies made from them was tack-sharp.  He organized conventions and festivals, and knew many of the people who’d actually made the movies I wished to discuss in my film, such as The Day the Earth Stood Still.

Bill and his wife Beverly were very kind, and we chatted for quite a while after we turned the cameras off.  I told Bill that I’d had a great time, which I had.  Sometimes, these interviews are things to get through, sometimes you realize that you can’t use most of what the person is saying.  Talking with Bill, however, felt like I was talking to an old friend about our favorite movies.  His enthusiasm was infectious and his insights were impeccable.  We discussed the shift from 1950s sci fi films to modern films, which really boils down to a growing cultural cynicism.  That is changing, he thought, as more and more movies were embracing the honesty of the 1950s.  From the preface to Keep Watching the Skies!:

Alien is similar to a 1950s movie in many ways.  Star Wars reflects certain elements of those films.  Close Encounters of the Third Kind faintly echoes It Came From Outer Space.  Some films have actually been remade, such as Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and remakes of others have been announced.  Maybe the 1950s science fiction movie hadn’t really died; it was just sleeping in the minds of those, like me, who loved them.

I could do a whole film on flying saucer movies of the 1950s, using just that interview.  I’m glad that I get the chance to use portions of it in my film.

Bill passed away after a long illness on October 7.  My condolences go out to Beverly and his family and friends.  I hope that he’s on a flying saucer in the sky somewhere, having drinks with Ray Harryhausen and Forey Ackerman.

 

 

Jack Kirby, comics pioneer and…contactee?

By | Contactees, Mythology, Ramblings, Science Fiction, Uncategorized | 3 Comments

Jack Kirby, for those of you who are not familiar with him, was a pioneering artist and storyteller in comic books.  While Stan Lee gets most of the credit, it’s Jack Kirby who is largely responsible for this:

FantasticFour

Sorry, Jack, I don’t mean it.

Okay, not so much the movie, but he was a guiding force behind the creation of the Fantastic Four, Thor, The Incredible Hulk, the newly cinematic Ant-Man, and even Captain America back in the 1940s, when Marvel Comics was known as Timely.  It was this period of time, after he was drawing Captain America punching Hitler in the face and before he drew The Thing facing down Dr. Doom, that Kirby turned his attentions to more esoteric sci-fi and even philosophical adventure stories.  As observed by Christopher Loring Knowles in this blog post on The Secret Sun, it was during this period that Kirby started exhibiting some remarkably consistent traits in his storytelling that continued for the rest of his career.

In 1959, Kirby “wrote” a story called “The Face on Mars.”

faceonmars

I say “wrote” in quotation marks because Kirby was not credited as a writer, but it was no secret in the industry that he was heavily (and sometimes solely) responsible for the plotting, drawing, and writing of his comics.  What’s interesting about this story is that it involves astronauts landing on Mars and discovering a giant stone face, left behind by an ancient civilization on the red planet.

Mars Face

Sound familiar?

This story was published in 1959, 17 years before the Viking spacecraft took the infamous “Mars Face” photograph.  Ideas of ancient civilizations on Mars made popular by the likes of Richard C. Hoagland and Mike Bara came decades later.  In and of itself, this is an intriguing coincidence.

But the Face in Kirby’s story is only the page 1 grabber.  What’s really interesting happens on later pages, when an astronaut climbing into the caves inside the face discovers an ancient Martian race under attack by another spacefaring species from a mysterious fifth planet between Mars and Jupiter.  The enraged Martians, seeking revenge, then obliterate this planet, creating the asteroid belt.  This whole thing turns out to be a hallucinogenic memory recording that the astronaut experiences as if it were real.

The idea of a destroyed fifth planet is a common idea amongst various proponents of the ancient Martian theories, and has been making the rounds since the 1800s.  Known today as the “disruption theory” or “Exploding Planet Hypothesis”, it’s the idea that the fifth planet was destroyed by Jupiter’s gravity, planetary collisions, or warfare amongst ancient civilizations.  Over the years, this hypothetical planet has been called Phaeton, Tiamat, Astra, Lucifer, and Maldek.

Though this idea makes a certain amount of logical sense, most scientists disagree with this hypothesis, saying that the asteroids are actually remnants of the building blocks of the planets from the early solar system that are still left around in a gravitationally weak spot in the solar system, like cosmic dust bunnies in the corner of the room.

As Knowles points out, Kirby’s idea of an ancient Martian civilization came long before Zechariah Sitchin’s theories of ancient aliens or Erich von Däniken’s Chariots of the Gods.   However, it did not come before the Contactees.  It seems to me, though I have no supporting evidence whatsoever, that Kirby was likely either a fan of the works of many of the mid-century Contactees, or he was a Contactee himself.

Though the Contactee movement got going in 1952 with George Adamski, it was at its peak in 1959.  Joining the crowded field of Contactees were George Hunt Williamson, Orfeo Angelucci, George Van Tassel, and Richard Miller.  All of these men told tales of ancient civilizations  on a destroyed planet, the debris of which became the asteroid belt.  Angelucci wrote a book called The Secret of the Saucers, in which he claimed to have taken over the body of a space brother named Neptune, who lived on an etheric plane on an asteroid in the belt that was once part of a larger planet that had been destroyed in war.  Richard Miller claimed to have channeled a being who discussed the fate of Maldek, as did Hunt Williamson.  Van Tassel also mentioned these ancient aliens in his works, and Maldek is of crucial import to George King’s Aetherius Society, who point out that Maldek’s destruction is a warning that we should be wary of our own destructive tendencies.

FaceOnMars_3

In this frame from the story, our main character describes something else that Contactees (and later, Experiencers) have come to call “downloads”, in which large volumes of information are fed directly to their brains.  Was Kirby getting this idea from the Contactees, or was he describing this from personal experience?

It’s easy to dismiss all of this as fiction, because Jack Kirby was a master storyteller, after all.  But it’s the fact that he kept coming back to these ideas again and again that I find intriguing.  (I won’t discuss them here, I’ll send you over to Christopher Knowles to read about them.)  Why couldn’t he let the idea of ancient aliens go?  It seems like he was dealing with something intensely personal.  But what made it so personal?

This idea that Kirby was perhaps in contact with something outside himself is suggested in another post on that same blog, The Secret Sun:

Starting in the late 50s, Kirby began receiving transmissions that seem to transcend the boundaries of time and space. He buried it all in allegory (read: “wacked-out sci fi”), or rather, translated whatever he was picking up.

Indeed, Kirby’s penchant for prophecy was pretty staggering.  Is it possible that he was a Contactee?  What was going on in the mid-50s that was giving people all these similar ideas?  Some might suggest the early days of LSD and various hallucinogens, or the resurgence of the Theosophical Society and its ideas.  But one never knows…maybe the Contactees were really making contact.

Comic Book Contactees

By | Contactees, Movies, Science Fiction | No Comments

Comic books have been, typically, something like the Contactees of literature: mocked, belittled, and generally sneered at.  But if Hollywood box office is any indication, those “nerds” that read comics are vindicated.  Superman, Spider-Man, Batman, the Avengers…the list of successful comic book superhero movies is long and is getting longer all the time.

With some exceptions, the superheroes we see today came about during what is referred to as the Silver Age of comics, from the mid-50s to the early 70s.  It’s worth noting that this is almost the identical time frame as the classical Contactee era (shifted about five years later).  Is this a coincidence or is there a common cause?

In Supergods: What Masked Vigilantes, Miraculous Mutants, and a Sun God from Smallville Can Teach Us About Being Human, comic book writer Grant Morrison describes the mid 1950s thusly:

Fifties America was a land of edginess and prowling paranoia hovering as it did on the verge of thermonuclear annihilation.  Alone at night, in the midst of unprecedented luxury after a successfully won world war, Americans were more frightened than ever before; there was fear of the Bomb, the Communist, the Homo, the Negro, the Teenager, the Id, the Flying Saucers, the Existential Void.

The fifties, despite the sunny sheen we get from the TV shows and movies of the era, were a time when Americans were dealing with a whole host of new fears that simply didn’t exist before.  In light of the fact that they were just coming off the high of being the greatest superpower in the world, these fears were particularly unsettling.  What they did in reaction was telling.  Morrison continues:

And as America turned its gaze inward in search of solutions to its sunlit terrors, it found the Shadow, and the multiheaded thing in the cellar emerged blinking in the light: Survival cultists, split personalities, UFO contactees like George Adamski were all admitted to the discourse, and people were willing to listen.

I think he hits the nail on the head there.  People of 1950s America were casting about for a solution to the fears that consumed them.  Though there are still people calling themselves Contactees today, most notably Billy Meier, who carries the torch of 1950s style Contacteeism.  But modern Contactees are generally less well-known than their alien abduction counterparts like Travis Walton or Whitley Strieber.  The fact is, Contactees likely wouldn’t get the traction today that they did in the 1950s, for all the reasons that Morrison outlines.

It stands to reason that with a common causal environment, comic books and Contactees would intersect.  Morrison ironically doesn’t mention this, but this article does, in discussing the Silver Age reboot of Green Lantern for DC Comics.  

During the Golden Age of comics (30s and 40s), Green Lantern was a modern retelling of Aladdin and the Lamp.  But in the Silver Age, flying saucers were all the rage, Aladdin less so.  The writers logically capitalized on that, and wrote a new origin story in which test pilot Hal Jordan comes upon a crashed spaceship and meets the friendly (but dying) alien being inside, who bestows upon him the power of the Green Lantern.  Jordan is thrust into a world of intergalactic intrigue, dealing with beings from all colors, shapes, and sizes, from worlds flung around the universe.

The similarities with typical Contactees end there, of course, and Hal’s contact wasn’t a beautiful blond being, but a bemuscled, purple humanoid.  Adamski et al didn’t go around in tights punching people, but the basic idea is very similar.  The important takeaway from this is the idea of beings from outer space making contact with humans as a way to spread a message and to maintain peace in Earth’s greater “neighborhood” of the universe.  Jordan is chosen for this because of some quality of his inner self; he is brave and has a good heart, and is somehow greater than other humans.  In being chosen, he is singled out and given this very important task.

But there is another comic book/Contactee connection, one that neither Morrison nor the article above mention:  Superman.  He is not a Contactee, of course, as he is the alien himself.  But consider: he is beautiful and human-looking, a perfect specimen of humanity taken to its highest point.  As such, he is possessed of powers that the rest of us lack…he can’t read minds like Orthon, but he’s exceptionally strong and can fly.  He tries to save humanity from its destructive tendencies, in order to save his foster planet from the fate of his home, Krypton. (Which exploded, not unlike the planet Maldek in Contactee lore.)  Consider the film version of Superman as well, with Superman IV: The Quest for Peace.  In that film, Superman destroys the world’s reserves of nuclear weapons.

Sounds kind of familiar.  Superheroes are men and women and aliens of action, while Contactees are merely activists.  But tell me you can’t see George Van Tassel suited up in a cape and throwing nukes into the sun if he could have.

This gives me an idea for a comic book.

Flying Saucers and Pop Culture

By | Contactees, Movies, Science Fiction, UFO | No Comments

Imagine if you will, a world without science fiction.  A world that doesn’t re-create or re-imagine the events in front of them in a far-fetched, entertaining manner.  Would that world still have flying saucers?

A while back, I interviewed Bill Warren, the author of Keep Watching the Skies! American Science Fiction Movies of the Fifties . He observed that film (and pop culture in general) not only can influence culture at large, but in fact cannot help but do so.  Which is to say, there is a healthy back-and-forth that occurs from real world to pop culture back to real world, and on and on and on.

Which makes me wonder about the nature of flying saucers.  Back in the ’40s, no one saw UFOs.  The term wasn’t invented yet.  They saw “flying saucers.”  Though there was variation, they were typically saucer-shaped flying objects.

Prior to this phrase being used, the mainstream idea of a spaceship (though, granted, the idea of spaceships was still relatively rare in the ’40s) was a rocket.  And even more strangely, the sighting that triggered the modern era of UFO sightings, the famous Kenneth Arnold incident of 1947, did not feature saucer-shaped objects at all.  They were crescent-moon shaped, but flew “as a saucer would” (i.e. like skipping stones on a pond).  The media stamped the term “flying saucers” on it, and suddenly, “so-called” flying saucers were seen everywhere. (They almost always prefaced it by saying “so-called”.)

Why the sudden shift?  Was it this term that suddenly made UFO sightings go saucer-shaped?

Santa arrived on a flying saucer.  There was even a pin-up of Miss Flying Saucer.

What were they?  Where did they come from?  Who was in them?  Clearly, aliens! Well, actually, that didn’t come until later, either.  In 1950, a movie called The Flying Saucer was released.  But this saucer was a top-secret military experiment, not an alien spacecraft.

But somewhere along the line, the extraterrestrial hypothesis became popular, and Hollywood jumped at the chance for a new villain.  We had Earth vs. the Flying Saucers, The Day the Earth Stood Still, and others.  In the public’s mind, saucers became spaceships.

But beyond the craft themselves, what of the occupants?  Was it George Adamski’s best-selling story of the beautiful blond haired Venusian named Orthon the incident that made sincere, credible people report similar, if not nearly identical encounters?  The idea of beautiful blond-haired aliens persisted for a long time, until it was ultimately overcome by more monstrous, less human creatures, like the Grays.

As the Grays became more popular in pop culture, so too did the stories of experiences with them.

And so on, and so on.

My point is, as these concepts enter the popular consciousness, do we have a role in creating them in reality?  Perhaps as some kind of mass hallucination.  Maybe we create them as physical “thought-forms”, which have an external reality that is derived from our collective consciousness.  Or, maybe there is a real intelligence out there that is able to tune into our popular ideas and use them for their own benefit.  These aren’t satisfying answers, because they’re just as mysterious as the common idea that they’re just aliens.

But neither are the more conventional answers given by skeptics that UFOs and contact experiences are the result of misidentification, drunkenness, craziness, or outright lies.

I’m not in the camp that we will someday come to the answer; that the government knows more than it’s saying and will eventually disclose everything to the public; that the beings will land on the White House lawn and explain themselves.  In fact, I don’t think the answer is the important part.  Rather, it’s the questions that these phenomena raise about ourselves.

Why do we care about these things in the sky?  Why do we persecute and ridicule those who claim to have seen them?  Why do we turn our eyes skyward in hopes of salvation, when we could save ourselves here on the ground?

The stories of the Contactees are fascinating nuggets of humanity at its most entertaining, though we shouldn’t let that entertainment obscure the fact that there is something of value being discussed in them.

Just like in science fiction and popular culture, in fact.