Growing up with trite and mindless 1950s-style science fiction
Star Trek, Terminator, X-Men… and today’s youth think they have it rough. Ha! They should try growing up with trite and mindless 1950s-style science fiction. Then they’d know what rough is…
I’m sitting with 300 other popcorn junkies when the house lights dim. We shriek ecstatically, expelling popped corns across the theatre at terrifying speeds. I recall my mother’s warning (“Don’t stick popcorn in your nose or ears,” something I’d never thought of before, but now thought of constantly), as several corns strike my baseball cap, the projector lets out its familiar whirr, and the screen jumps into life.
Darkness, pricked with tiny points of light: Outer Space. Suddenly a small object appears, moving jerkily against the starry background. It looks like popcorn, but no, as the camera zooms in we realize it’s not flying snack food but a Space Ship… But Not of Human Origin! (We know this since it lacks the red, white and blue “U.S.A.” which to Hollywood in 1950s science fiction signified Human Origin.)
Now Earth enters, stage left, spinning majestically on its axis (and hanging by a visible North Polar wire, which was responsible for the bizarre cosmology I believed until high school physics.) As the ship descends, landing near Los Angeles, the title materializes before our eyes:
THE CREATURES FROM SARAN RAPP IV
Credits follow, naming science fiction actors and actresses never heard of before and never to be seen again (except in 1970s detergent and deodorant commercials). A deep masculine voice explains that these aliens are about to crash land on earth because their hyperspace, time-warping, atomic drive ran out of power steering fluid. He then warns us of the Dire Peril facing Earth, the form and substance of which we’ve seen dozens of time before, to wit:
Scene 1. The camera enters the ship, wanders around, then zooms in on the two Saran Rapp IVians who, surprise of surprises, have huge octopus-like heads, a bevy of arms and one eye (which they share). The male (identified by his blue ascot) says in a metallic voice (in English, the intergalactic language), “This would be a perfect planet for colonization.”
“Yes,” his female companion Bevy replies (we can tell she’s female by the apron), “Especially Los Angeles, with its ideal atmosphere and abundant food supply.” Apparently IVians are smog-breathers who like cioppino.
Scene 2. The camera now moves outside the ship. Wisps of smoke rise from its gleaming hull as it nestles amidst the hills and dales of a deserted… park? Oh no, as we feared, it’s a Lover’s Lane! Suddenly a car approaches and its teenage passengers, Hill and Dale, jump out. Dale wears pedal pushers with white anklets. Hill speaks in 50s cinematic teenage lingo: “Kowabanga, boy and girls, what’s THAT?” He gestures at the ship.
Dale is about to answer when a mechanical arm periscopes from the ship and a robotic voice barks, “Earthlings, we come to conquer your planet.” The periscope fires a beam of light at Dale. Seconds later nothing remains except a pile of ashes and two white anklets. Hill rushes off to warn mankind of the Dire Peril facing Earth.
Scenes 3, 4 and 5. The IVians unleash a Rash of Horrors. Vintage footage (used in all 1950s disaster flicks) shows volcanoes erupting and the earth splitting, with forests that look strikingly like broccoli tumbling into the abyss. Giant mechanized dinosaurs demolish Tokyo. And people everywhere break out in the Rash of Horrors, which makes them itch where they can’t reach. Damnable aliens!
Humanity unites to face this Dire Peril. To prove this we’re shown yellowing clips of Allied canon pounding the hell out of Normandy. The IVians are unharmed (but the Nazis are in retreat).
Suddenly, out of nowhere an adorable baby appears, crawling directly in the path of the advancing aliens. A brave soldier rushes out, grabs her, and is incinerated by X-rays while tossing her back to her terrified parents. Wow, didn’t see THAT coming.
Scene 6. Meanwhile, the best scientists in the world gather to find a defense. We know immediately they’re scientists because they’re the homeliest men so far (women scientists in the 1950s? No way!) and because they all wear horn-rimmed glasses and smoke pipes – all except the Absentminded Genius, whose glasses dangle from his lips as he tries to attach his meerschaum to his ear.
“I’ve got it,” says one scientist. “Let’s lull the aliens into a state of mesmerized torpor by showing them home movies.”
“No,” responds another. “Let’s teach them the jitterbug. They’ll love it, dance too much, die.”
“No, no,” shouts the Genius. “We know they have a primitive immunological system. Therefore, we should infect them with the Common Cold. If it doesn’t kill them, at least mankind can make a bundle selling antihistamines.” All nod their heads in approval.
Scene 7. We arrive at the Deus ex Machina Finale with Moral. All the human characters we’ve met, except poor Dale and the brave soldier, are standing together on a hilltop watching the IVian space ship leave Earth. The sounds of birds, loud and artificial, blare in the background.
Our Genius speaks: “Fortunately for mankind, the Saran Rapp IVians had to return to their home planet in order to pick up their slippers. But if they return” – here fear creeps into his destined-for-infomercial-voice – “as they surely will in the soon-to-be-released SONS OF THE CREATURES FROM SARAN RAPP IV and the likely sequel, BRIDES OF THE SONS OF THE CREATURES FROM SARAN RAPP IV, there will be another Dire Peril facing Earth… and then We May Not Be So Lucky.”
Three hundred children brimming with excitement and popcorn file out of the theater. We’re laughing joyously, recalling our favorite scenes and parroting our favorite lines. That night we’ll all dream of creatures with baggy heads and swear to our mothers that we’ll never see another scary film. But we’ll be back next Saturday to see I WAS A TEENAGE ARTHROPOD, ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET THE GOLEM OF PRAGUE, THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING HEMORROID, or whatever adrenalin-rush movie Hollywood offers up next.
It was a struggle. We had to suspend belief, stifle guffaws and strain our imaginations to make those science fiction movies work. But we did, and they did.
Hmm. Maybe today’s youth don’t have it so good.