Some of you may recall the thrills and scares we showed you in our previous piece. We introduced you to the weird and wonderful world of classic cinema monsters.
If you are indeed the curious kind, look skyward tonight, cause there is more than dazzling comets in the night sky. Up among the darkness between the stars, beings are watching us, waiting for the right time to come down here.
And here on our little blue planet, we also have monsters of our own making. Because as you will see, playing God does not sit well with Mother Nature.
Who goes there? America’s fear of the alien
1950s America was a melting pot of change. Having emerged victorious from the Second World War, the post-war years brought about huge financial growth and far reaching social and cultural transformations. The Civil Rights Movement began its unstoppable rise, for instance, heralding a new era for social tolerance.
Disneyland opened its doors to the public in July 1955, kickstarting a franchise that has generated billions of dollars in revenue since. In the science world, NASA was founded, putting America on the start line for the space race. And Playboy’s first issue was published in 1953, something that did not sit well with many traditionalists in a deeply conservative era.
Crucially, American society as a whole became familiar with a little appliance that would soon become a perennial staple across all households: The TV set. Pre-1950s, very few Americans would have owned a TV, due to their high price. Up to this point, most people would have relied on a radio set for entertainment. But this was to change radically in this decade. Sales and popularity of television skyrocketed. An estimated 77% of households purchased their first TV set during the roaring 50s.
But this decade also heralded a darker trend. The US entered into an implicit conflict with the Soviet Union, giving rise to the Cold War.
The Soviets gained the upper hand on the space race when they shocked America and the world at large with the launch of Sputnik 1 in 1957, the first man-made satellite put into orbit. This surprise event fired the first shot in the space race, with the Soviets clearly in the lead, much to America’s chagrin.
The Soviet Union were to become Public Enemy Number 1 of the American people. Communism became synonymous with ultimate evil, to be fought and prevented from spreading at all costs. This policy would have far-reaching consequences, and the Vietnam War in the 1960s-70s, among other events, would be a tragic result.
A state-sponsored campaign of fear of the Soviet Union and the communist way of life as a whole induced deep paranoia among American society. This social climate of fear, paranoia, and invasion was soon to find its way into American cinema.
They’re here already! You’re next! You’re next!
The social and cultural climate during the 1950s gave rise to a perfect sci-fi and horror movie storm. The space race, the Cold War, and crucially, the diehard fight against the spread of Communism around a buoyant, capitalist, and ‘free’ America.
The Day the Earth Stood (1951) is a fine and classic example of American sci-fi with a message. Critics have seen a multitude of themes running through its footage, from loss of individualism (the alien humanoid Klaatu makes it clear that if Earth persists in its attempt to spread violence beyond its own borders, the planet will be swiftly destroyed by a superior race), to an allegory against the pervasive McCarthyism throughout 1950s America.
The themes of atavistic fear of invasion, and the loss of one’s identity were to be explored again in Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956). Based upon a book by American author Jack Finney, Invasion of the Body Snatchers documents the onset of a silent invasion by extra-terrestrial lifeforms through pod-like plants. Once again, critics perceived the story to be a subliminal allegory of the spread of communism, and the loss one’s identity to a faceless leader. This was been hotly contested by the film’s producers, who insisted they simply set out to make a sci-fi/horror thriller using the material provided by the book, without any intention of political allegiance or social commentary.
Whichever the case may be, Body Snatchers must be watched in the context of the socio-political climate when it was made. For many, it is one of the clearest insights into the American psyche and mindset at the time. The onset of the space race instilled the younger generations of this decade with a newly found fascination with outer space. Landing on the Moon was still a few years away, but all of a sudden all the things in the Universe seemed closer and more real.
This new trend, coupled with a steady decline in cinema ticket sales due to the booming popularity of television, compelled movie makers to devise new techniques and create more spectacular films to lure people away from their living rooms.
Risen from the ashes of the nuclear fire
Them (1954) is of particular importance, because it is the first in a long list of ‘nuclear monster’ or ‘big bug’ films. The origin of this sub genre can be traced to 1945. The Second World War had already ended in Europe, but the Pacific theater had not yet seen the end of hostilities. Japan, though isolated, held out against American forces. The US had just completed the Manhattan Project, a research and development program led by Robert Oppenheimer with one specific goal: to create a nuclear weapon. The program’s outcome yielded Fat Man and Little Boy.
These seemingly innocent names would open up a grim chapter in mankind’s history. The destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki heralded the atomic era. These historic events would have a profound and lasting effect on all strata of Japanese society, and such heightened emotions would soon find its way into filmmaking.
Themes of total destruction, mutation, radiation sickness, and the dramatic and unintended consequences of nuclear warfare, so deeply embedded into the psyche of the Japanese population, would permeate literature and cinema for years to come.
The ‘giant monster’ genre is a direct result of the nuclear destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Known as kaiju film (‘strange beast’), this sci-fi subgenre features gigantic monsters mutated by radiation, usually battling other monsters in hand-to-hand combat, and flattening entire cities in the process.
Godzilla (1954) is the first and best known early example of a big monster running amok. It features a giant lizard, whose mutation was caused by radiation. In the movie, Godzilla unleashes stomping mayhem on Tokyo before succumbing to an experimental weapon. Nevertheless, the movie makes it clear that as long as nuclear testing continues, another godzilla may rise.
The big monster movie soon turn into big money, so countless sequels and imitations would follow. The genre continues during present day, with movies like Cloverfield (2008) and The Host (2006) featuring giant creatures bent on total destruction.
Until the next and final instalment goodnight, and keep watching the skies…
Article by: Fernando Sanchez
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