Dr. Helfenbein is an avid film watcher (or, as some would say, cinephile) and will be writing a semi-regular column for the BACC Rag in which he recommends older movies students might be interested in watching.
In the previous column, I mentioned that the large number of science fiction movies produced in the 1950s may in part be due to the atomic zeitgeist: by 1949, both the United States and the Soviet Union had atomic weapons. Many science fiction movies of the era deal with radioactivity in one way or another. In this column, I have written about two of these movies, both of which deal with the (fictional) effects of radiation, but go in opposite directions: one to the little and one to the big.
The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957) directed by Jack Arnold from a screenplay by Richard Matheson (from his novel) is the story of Scott Carey. During a day outing on a boat, an unusual mist passes over the vessel . . . and Carey’s body. Apparently, it is of no concern, but as the weeks go by he notices that his clothes are too big for him. Initially he thinks he may have lost weight. Eventually he goes to the doctor and discovers that not only has he lost weight, but he has also grown shorter. A visit to a research lab determines that the mist that Carey encountered was radioactive. He also remembers that weeks before the boating trip he had been exposed to a chemical insecticide. This combination has caused a change in the molecular structure of his cells. As time goes by, Scott Carey can no longer work, his relationship with his wife deteriorates, as does his relationship with the family cat once he is mouse-sized (and then there is the spider in the basement he must confront when insect-sized). It would seem as though the world has changed, but it has not, only Carey has changed. Nonetheless, it is a strange new world that he now inhabits, one that forces him to find ways to survive and adapt to his situation. Unlike most sf movies of the era, The Incredible Shrinking Man does not offer a resolution to the problem, but rather takes an existential course, leaving our hero Scott Carey to ponder the meaning of being an infinitesimal being in a vast universe.
The era also produced movies of things grown (very) large, many such movies as a matter of fact. Among them though, one movie stands out as the best, one so good I include it on my list of all-time favorite movies.
A police car patrols a desert in New Mexico, the two police officers riding in it in radio contact with the pilot of a patrol plane above. The pilot radios that he sees someone—a little girl walking in a straight line through the desert clutching a broken doll. When the police pick her up they discover she is speechless, in a complete state of shock. So begins Gordon Douglas’s Them! (1954), a story of monsters inadvertently created by humans that will destroy us unless we can destroy them.
The desert setting of the movie is the same desert where the atomic bomb had been tested a decade before. What exactly the radiation from those tests has unleashed is a mystery at first—the police and FBI collect evidence to send back to labs in Washington D. C. One piece of evidence is the plaster cast of a strange footprint found in the desert sand. It is this that brings two scientists out to New Mexico. It is quite a surprise to the officers of the law that entomologists, scientists who study insects, have been sent to help out in an investigation into murder and missing persons. They have an idea what has happened in the wind-blown desert and after a little more investigating they discover their hypothesis is correct: the radiation following nuclear tests has given rise to gigantic mutant ants! After finding that the New Mexican colony (destroyed by the military) had produced new queen ants that had flown away, the stage then shifts from the desert to Los Angeles and the race against time to find a colony of the giant ants before more new queens can be produced.
There are no big stars in Them!, but rather a group of character actors who portray the likes of policemen, scientists, a railway night watchman, a man in the alcoholic ward of a hospital, a woman whose two young sons are missing, a pilot whose plane was forced to land on private property, and other common folk who populate the world of this unfolding catastrophe. Although Them! is a cautionary tale on a grand scale, it becomes a very compelling human drama in the hands of these actors. The era known as the Cold War is over, but nuclear weapons are still here. Watching Them! is a reminder of a forgotten threat, a threat bigger than any other.
Click on the link below to read Dr. Helfenbein’s first piece on Science Fiction of the 1950’s