Between the 1920s Pulp Era and the New Wave of the 1960s and 1970s lies the Golden Age of science fiction. Although I grew up slap-bang in the middle of the New Wave, most of my early exposure to science fiction is from this era. This is because the relative scarcity of quality content on British television during this time meant an endless re-run of movies from an earlier era. Luckily for me though, some of these movies are wonderful and I never tire of watching them again and again. These films have become permanently etched into my psyche.
The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) is the film I remember most vividly of all. It’s haunting, exciting and moving. Briefly, the plot concerns the arrival of an intergalactic emissary warning us that our current path of war will lead to our termination by robotic peace-keepers should we not change our barbaric ways. The Bowiesque, other-worldly performance of Michael Rennie is particularly suited to the role of an extraterrestrial messenger. The movie shows that perhaps only an alien truly has what it takes to be human. The 2008 remake, despite Keanu Reeves‘ and James Hong‘s good performances and the great SFX, it’s still awful.
This Island Earth (1955) has quite a complicated and paranoid plot concerning alien conspiracy, alien abduction and alien conquest. Hmmm… familiar themes? Without giving away too many spoilers, the method by which the aliens contact us is quite clever and should give the people at SETI something to think about. The most memorable performance is by Jeff Morrow who plays a strangely charismatic macro-cephalic alien called Exeter.
The Day the Earth Caught Fire (1961) is an early big, block-buster environmental disaster movie. The premise here is that atom bomb tests have knocked the Earth towards the Sun. Thus, the planet is on the path to imminent incineration. There’s nothing humanity can do about it, but panic, build space-ships to escape and hope their lucky number comes up in the survival lottery. Nuclear generated apocalypse aside, another note of seriousness in the movie (perhaps unintended) is the need for humans to reach out to the stars before it’s too late. Great performance from the future Rumpole of the Bailey, Leo McKern as a Fleet Street hack.
Forbidden Planet (1956) is the most famous and influential of all Golden Age SciFi cinema and deservedly so. Less portentous and heavy than The Day the Earth Stood Still, it never-the-less, hits all the major tropes that we have come to know, love and expect in all quality science fiction. There’s a vast space-ship of intergalactic explorers, a jutting-jawed hero, a giant robot (the immortal Robby), a mad scientist and his beautiful daughter as the romantic interest. I found out much later that the movie was heavily based on Shakespeare’s play The Tempest. My favourite performance is by Walter Pidgeon who plays the eccentric scientist Dr. Morbius. You can see how much he (as well as other) goateed odd-balls have influenced my own appearance-
Other notable performances include an early, non-comedic role for Leslie Nielsen. Forbidden Planet is currently in the process of being remade.
We only had an old black and white television in the early 1970s, so it’s funny that when we eventually could afford a colour television many years later, I realised that Forbidden Planet was filmed in colour!