This year marks the centenary of Orson Welles’ birth, and celebrations are in full swing at New York’s Film Forum through February 3. The influential filmmaker enraptured audiences with his first feature at only 25 years old, 1941’s Citizen Kane — but the movie mogul also achieved tremendous success in theater, television, and radio. In one of his most famous broadcasts, 1938’s The War of the Worlds, Welles simulated an alien invasion on Earth, creating widespread panic, securing his fame one of the finest storytellers of the 20th century. In celebration of Welles’ 100th year, we’re looking to his dramatist roots and have compiled a science fiction movie marathon worthy of his War of the Worlds days. Add these movies to your Netflix and VOD queues.
Warner Brothers created their highest grossing film in 1954, the atomic sci-fi thriller Them!. Set in New Mexico, the nuclear creature feature finds a nest of ants transformed into massive man-eating monsters, culminating in a battle on the streets of Los Angeles. (Look for a cameo from Leonard Nimoy as a soldier.) “When Man entered the atomic age, he opened a door into a new world. What we’ll eventually find in that new world, nobody can predict,” reads the last line of the film, reaffirming the movie’s parallels to real-life nuclear anxiety. The atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki took place less than 10 years prior, and there were still many unknowns about this new kind of warfare.
The Thing from Another World
We’re partial to John Carpenter’s 1982 remake of this Christian Nyby classic sci-fi picture, but the 1951 film has been cited as an influence by countless genre directors — including Ridley Scott and Tobe Hooper. A crashed flying saucer and a cadaver frozen in a block of ice are discovered in the Arctic by a group of scientists and Air Force crew. The humanoid is brought back to their remote research outpost, and all hell breaks loose when it’s accidentally revived. Ignoring the fact that the monster evolved from plant matter and is basically a giant vegetable, The Thing from Another World features tension aplenty as the creature lurks in the shadows stalking its prey. The film also boasts one of the first full-body fire effects done by a stunt man (Tom Steele).
The Day the Earth Stood Still
An alien and an eight-foot-tall robot arrive on Earth to warn the human population that they need to get their act together, put down their atomic weapons, and start living as a peaceful people or be destroyed by the other planets. The Day the Earth Stood Still features designs from architect Frank Lloyd Wright (the spacecraft). The New York Times shares a fascinating anecdote about the movie’s influence:
According to Lou Cannon, one of Ronald Reagan’s biographers, Reagan was so stirred by the notion that extraterrestrial invasion would trump national differences that he floated the scenario upon meeting Mikhail Gorbachev at Geneva in 1985. This departure from script flummoxed Reagan’s staff — not to mention the Soviet general secretary. Mr. Cannon writes that, well acquainted with what he called the president’s interest in “little green men,” Colin L. Powell, at the time the national security adviser, was convinced that the proposal had been inspired by The Day the Earth Stood Still.
The Day of the Triffids
“There’s no sense getting killed by a plant!” utters Kieron Moore in 1962’s The Day of the Triffids. Indeed, not a lot will make sense to you in this B-cinema classic based on one of the best-known science-fiction horror novels by English author John Wyndham. The creatures are tall, carnivorous plants with venomous stingers. Did we mention they can walk? It’s all very ridiculous, but The Day of the Triffids remains an early science fiction favorite.
Invasion of the Body Snatchers
Americans didn’t know a lot about space in the 1950s, and post-war fears about malnourishment and malnutrition must have contributed to the number of plant-inspired aliens in classic sci-fi cinema (along with the obvious anti-communist paranoia). The ‘50s also saw a rise in birth defects — the consequence of widely used drugs like thalidomide and nuclear testing programs. In 1956’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers, the growth process is realized through alien plant spores and seed pods that reproduce copies of human beings, devoid of all emotion. The influential film helped coin the term “pod people,” and its chilling premise was revisited in a 1978 adaptation by Philip Kaufman, starring Donald Sutherland in one of his most famous roles.
The War of the Worlds
This was the first film adaptation of H. G. Wells’ novel about Mars’ invasion of Earth after Orson Welles’ famously panic-inducing 1938 radio broadcast, which spooked a nation, convincing people that extraterrestrial enemies had taken over the planet. The film became a showcase for some of the latest special effects, praised by a critic in a 1953 Variety review: “What starring honors there are go strictly to the special effects, which create an atmosphere of soul-chilling apprehension so effectively audiences will take alarm at the danger posed in that picture.”
A team of scientists that includes Raquel Welch and Donald Pleasence are sent on a bizarre mission inside one man’s body through a miniature vehicle that carries them into his blood stream in order to save his life. “Yessir, for straight science-fiction, this is quite a film — the most colorful and imaginative since Destination Moon,” wrote critic Bosley Crowther in a 1966 New York Times review. “Harry Kleiner’s screenplay and Richard Fleischer’s direction combine to make it amusing and exciting, and the interior decorations have a bubbly, fantastic quality you won’t find this side of Disneyland.” In 2013, DVD Talk added:
Fantastic Voyage shouldn’t be dismissed as an empty visual spectacle either. Its story is simple but perfectly constructed. The film lays out from the beginning the key threats that loom overhead: the ticking clock before the sub begins to return to its normal size, how Benes’ immune system will fight against them, the dangerous currents of the circulatory system, and the threat of sabotage from a possible double agent on the team. Knowing the broad strokes of what’s to come heightens the impact and suspense when those moments inevitably approach. The crew of the Proteus struggles with a new crisis every few minutes, and every part of Benes’ body that they pass through along the way looks like its own, distinct alien world.
This Island Earth
“The technical effects of This Island Earth, Universal’s first science-fiction excursion in color, are so superlatively bizarre and beautiful that some serious shortcomings can be excused, if not overlooked,” said the New York Times of Joseph M. Newman’s 1955 film. Contemporary audiences might recognize references to the space story in Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie. “This Island Earth stands as a rare example of the more high-minded pulp-era themes manifested onscreen. For once it’s Earth humans who are the superior species, for reasons transcending mere technological advancement,” writes DVD Journal. “It almost uniquely depicts human know-how as a worthy contributor to universal good. Then that’s given a somber Cold War subtext in the understanding that no amount of super-science could end an all-consuming war when the combatants are dead set on annihilating one another.”
It Came from Outer Space
Based on Ray Bradbury’s short story “The Meteor,” It Came from Outer Space was the first 3D film from Universal Pictures and ranks as one of the greatest sci-fi films of all time. The Rocky Horror Picture Show even mentions it in the song “Science Fiction/Double Feature” and Siouxsie and the Banshees ” paid homage to the classic in the song “92 Degrees.” The residents of Sand Rock, Arizona start acting strange after an alien spacecraft crashes in the desert. Oddly enough, there’s a sympathetic narrative twist in which a lead character fends off the law so the aliens can make a getaway. Fun fact: one of the movie’s rejected alien designs are reused for the Metaluna Mutant in This Island Earth.
Devil Girl from Mars
Mammas, don’t let your babies grow up to be independent women, says 1954’s Devil Girl from Mars. It’s a true-blue battle of the sexes, sparked by a leather-clad female alien sent to Earth seeking men to breed with and repopulate her planet. The film has 1950’s gender politics written all over it, bringing to life subconscious male fears in the campiest of ways.