The Space Children (Olive) is one of the most intriguing science fiction films of the cold war, part alien invasion thriller and part anti-nuclear message movie, with the children of Earth essentially conscripted by a throbbing disembodied brain from outer space to sabotage a nuclear test.
Director Jack Arnold and William Alland collaborated on some of the best science fiction films and most distinctive atomic monster movies of the 1950s, among them It Came From Outer Space,Creature From the Black Lagoon, and Tarantula, all made for Universal. The Space Children was made for Paramount, who gave them more freedom but less money. It shows. Arnold is saddled with a script that is both ambitious and confused, a cast that is credible at best, and a tight budget that doesn’t even allow him to match his terrific location shooting (he uses the beaches and rocks of the California coast as well as he does the southwest desert of Tarantula) with the studio-built cave where the kids find the glowing brain creature. For the missile pad itself, the target of the third-act plot, the production forgoes miniatures or trick shots and simply relies on a single matte painting.
Given all that, Arnold creates a cold war movie where the fear of nuclear war is, for many of the civilians of the base, greater than the fear of the enemy. The film is set on a high security missile base on the California coast, where civilian experts have been brought together to work on a top secret project: a missile mounted on an orbiting satellite targeted on the enemy for instant attack. The community of scientists and their families living out of trailer homes on the missile base beach as a microcosm for American society. It’s part campground camaraderie and part working-class deprivation, with entire families crammed into tiny trailers and forced to step out to the communal picnic space for a little elbow room.
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Originally released in 2007 as a pair of exclusive box sets for Best Buy, this collection of Universal sci-fi films and atomic monster movies uses the term “classic” in the generic sense – many of the films here are on the decidedly silly side – but that doesn’t mean they aren’t a lot of fun.
Yet it does feature one masterpiece of the era: Jack Arnold’s 1957 film of Richard Matheson’s The Incredible Shrinking Man (scripted by the author himself). The title is pulp but the story of a man (Grant Williams) who suddenly, inexplicably begins to grow smaller after drifting through a radiation cloud is compassionate and intelligent, a portrait of a man who becomes alienated from his own everyday world as he changes. The special effects are tremendous, of course, transforming once harmless household realities into life-threatening hazards (his battle with a spider, armed only with a sewing needle, is thrilling), but Arnold’s investment goes beyond the handsomely realized spectacle of trick photography to dig into the psyche of Williams’ increasingly diminutive hero as he deals with his sudden helplessness, his freak-show appearance in a world of giants (in one touching moment he connects with an equally petite circus midget), and the mystery of his own future as he devolves to microscopic levels. The marriage of the physical and the metaphysical makes his drama uncommonly affecting. This title has been one of the most requested of its genre.
Arnold was a prolific director of low-budget sci-fi spectacles in the fifties and it would have been nice to see a set devoted to his films. This collection features two others, including his highly entertaining atomic creature feature Tarantula (1955), with Leo G. Carroll as the experimental scientist who turns a desert spider into a menace that stalks the barren hills of the southwest desert. The hungry arachnid graduates from rabbits to cattle to people as it grows and creeps across the barren countryside in search of food, dwarfing the desert hills in simple but unsettling special effects shots. Arnold creates a surprisingly eerie mood with his austere visual style and winds the film up in building tension with his rapid pacing. Arnold’s contributions to the set also include Monster on the Campus (1958), one of his decidedly lesser efforts, and The Monolith Monsters (1957), which he wrote but did not direct.
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