***/**** Image B+ Sound B Extras A+
starring Richard Carlson, Barbara Rush, Charles Drake, Russell Johnson
screenplay by Harry Essex, based on the story by Ray Bradbury
directed by Jack Arnold
by Walter Chaw The first Universal International science-fiction release, the first motion picture to be shot in 3-D "Nature Vision," and the first genre film to primarily use the theremin in its score (by an unbilled Henry Mancini, Irving Gertz, and Herman Stein), Jack Arnold's It Came From Outer Space is influential in so many ways that it would take twice and again the space allotted for this review to list them all. (A short list includes Spielberg's Close Encounters of the Third Kind and his statement to (again unbilled) screenwriter Ray Bradbury that it would not exist without this picture (Dreyfuss's profession in that film pays homage to Russell Johnson's profession in this one); The Abyss and its watery fish-eye point-of-view; and countless "desert" sci-fis, including such recent incarnations as Evolution and the opening sequence of Men In Black.) It Came from Outer Space is a prime example of how nuclear terror and the red scare informed the B-horror films of the Fifties, and that genre movies today would do well to take a few lessons from their predecessors.
John Putnam (Richard Carlson) is the quintessential hero-scientist, the first of his kind: intelligent, virile--the brainy man of action. The witness with his girlfriend Ellen (Barbara Rush) to what appears to be a giant meteor smashing into the earth, John begins to believe that they're being visited by aliens who are interested in neither taking over the world as in War of the Worlds (also a 1953 film) nor helping us as in The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), but just fixing their ship and going home. Ellen mainly screams a lot and defies the instruction to "wait here" until she "turns" in one of the creepiest scenes in Fifties sci-fi.
The aliens, it seems, are "xenomorphs" (a term later used to describe the bad guys in Ridley Scott's Alien), extraterrestrial shape-shifters capable of assuming any human form but largely incapable of acting human. One of the best in a film full of good moments features a telephone line repairman, recently gone "pod," faltering mid-sentence and staring at the sun for an unreasonable amount of time. The movie's tension is derived from the basic "why won't anyone believe me?" Cassandra conundrum, although a few false jumps (the worst being a kid in a helmet ringing the doorbell) distract from the building creepiness of the piece.
The strength of It Came From Outer Space, however, is also its weakness. Rod Serling once explained why of all the scripts written specifically for "The Twilight Zone" by author Ray Bradbury (the most lyrical and poetic of science-fiction's literary pioneers), only one was ever filmed ("I Sing the Body Electric"). Serling observed that for as lovely as Bradbury was to read, his prose proved nearly impossible to say. It Came From Outer Space, working from an ambitious screenplay by Bradbury (hijacked by Harry Essex), suffers from the author's occasionally florid prose and awkwardly grandiloquent postures. The author's touch for quiet menace and a deliciously mounting tension remain intact, though, and surprisingly effective to this day.
Presented in a lovingly restored full-frame (1.33:1) presentation all of deep contrast, the black-and-white It Came From Outer Space would only look better if it were projected from two pristine negatives to recreate its allegedly stunning 3-D effect. It is, apparently, one of the two or three most successful 3-D films ever made in terms of story, performance, and subtlety of usage. The accompanying Dolby Digital 3.0 soundmix is unremarkable but for its very fidelity and clarity. Like the image, the soundtrack--given its age--is fabulous.
The real selling point for the DVD is a feature-length commentary by film historian Tom Weaver that stands, from an academic standpoint, among the best yakkers I've ever heard. Whether reading excerpts from Bradbury's original treatment, relating anecdotes from behind the scenes, recalling personal interviews conducted with the filmmakers both positive and negative, or offering his own critique ("I don't know if I'm supposed to be negative on Universal's dime, but here goes!"), Mr. Weaver's insights provide an invaluable service to It Came From Outer Space. It is a truly educational experience--well worth the visit.
A half-hour documentary called "The Universe According to Universal" shows fun clips from a few of director Arnold's other films (Tarantula--which gave me a week's worth of nightmares as a child--and The Incredible Shrinking Man are highlights), as well as exceptionally trenchant commentary on the soundtrack for this film by genre-music expert David Schecter. While not as good as the commentary, the docu serves as a nice companion piece all the same. A five-minute animated image gallery, a trailer, surprisingly short production notes (four pages), brief cast and crew filmographies, and the utterly useless "recommendations" and "DVD newsletter" solicitations round out this otherwise rewarding disc. Originally published: May 20, 2002.