July 22, 2014

Pardon our dust!

And by that I mean, pardon the dust that has metaphorically settled on posts here at Films From Beyond the Time Barrier, as the interval between new ones has gotten longer and longer.

Lately, I've felt more like an extinct ground sloth than the Energizer Bunny.

So, I'm going to try to shake off the dust,

Ghost of Frankenstein (1942)

and take some time off to recharge the old batteries...

Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943)

Check back here in about a month!

July 12, 2014

The Hardest Ticket to Get in the Solar System

In recent weeks I've been reading with bemusement (and a touch of sadness) about the latest entrepreneurial efforts to sell things that heretofore have not been for sale. With the right app and a fat wallet, you can now reserve that precious downtown parking space or cut in line at the hottest restaurant. And of course, if you live in the Cleveland area and have been thinking about Cavaliers season tickets, you can forget about it -- they sold out in a matter of hours after King James' announcement.

It got me thinking about the ultimate hot commodity. What if the world was about to end, and there were just a couple hundred seats on the international space-ark set to take off for the nearest habitable planet? What would you do to get a seat? Would there be an app for that?

So I decided to consult with one of the biggest fans of When Worlds Collide (the book and the movie), who also happens to be a very good friend. Doug Mappin and I have been discussing science fiction (among other things) for over 25 years. Here's his report on how sci-fi visionaries of the 20th century thought this "big ticket" event might go down.

Now Playing: When Worlds Collide (1951)

Pros: Producer George Pal does a creditable job with a modest budget and no-name actors.
Cons: Most of the richness of the original book is inevitably lost; What would Cecil B. DeMille have done with it?

From book to the silver screen: When Worlds Collide

In the southern hemisphere skies Sven Bronson, a South African astronomer, sees something no one has seen before. Something is moving in the darkness where nothing should be moving. After training his telescope into the skies for nights on end, Bronson realizes two wandering worlds have entered our solar system.

Calculations are made and Bronson secretly enlists the aid of others in the scientific community to formulate a plan for how to tell the world’s populace the news that Earth and everyone on it are doomed.

BUT if lucky, not all of humanity need perish. A scant few hundred people may be able to flee Earth for the smaller of the two worlds (named Bronson Beta) that would take Earth’s place in a similar orbit. Bronson Alpha, roughly the size of Uranus, could wipe out the Earth in a glancing blow.

When Worlds Collide (book) - paperback cover
Thus is the premise for the 1932 novel When Worlds Collide by Edwin Balmer and Philip Wylie. Immediately after the publication of the novel, Paramount Pictures optioned the story as a project for famed director Cecil B. DeMille. It might have been intriguing to see what the king of film spectacle would have done with the film, but a script could never be agreed upon and the project sat awaiting someone like producer George Pal to tackle it.

Many a book and film has envisioned the end of the world but none quite so absolute as in this work. Where others concocted a way to kill off humanity, this work went all the way. Not only was mankind wiped out en masse but the world was left as rubble—and presumably our moon too (in the novel that detail is clearly spelled out).

I have long admired the authors of the book for having the courage to do it, to end it all and not wimp out. The phrase “the book was better,” applies to this production. For whatever reasons, film producers and their production teams always want to put their stamp on a cinematic version of a novel. Pal’s production is no exception. Needless to say, When Worlds Collide, and its sequel After Worlds Collide are my two all-time favorite novels.

The movie? Not quite as much. This by no means should be construed as an out-and-out criticism of the movie. Both the book and the movie were products of their time. Both have quaint and widely inaccurate viewpoints of how space travel would take place. Where both succeed, especially the novel, is highlighted in how humanity would face utter annihilation… but the book does it much better.

When Worlds Collide (1951), a Paramount Pictures release, was produced by George Pal, directed by Rudolph Maté and with a script by Sydney Boehm the film took off and in most ways succeeded admirably. But first things first. Pal went on to film two other science fiction classics, H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds (1953) and The Time Machine (1960) -- far more successfully, I might add.

Lobby card - When Worlds Collide (1951)
Comparisons are in order. The book, in my opinion, is very well done. The book’s strength lies in its characters. Tony Drake, Eve Hendron and Dave Ransdell are the three main characters. Tony and Eve have long time been lovers, almost on the verge of marriage. Ransdell’s appearance complicates matters as he is drawn to Eve and she him—and naturally because of this, Tony harbors feelings of jealousy of Ransdell. As a result, an uneasy triangle exists between the three characters.

Cole Hendron, Eve’s father, is the leader of The League of Last Days and responsible for finding the means to save a small number of people from the impending doom. The other characters celebrate intelligence and bravery.

The display of humanity is the book's strongest suit. The novel conveys the many sides, good and bad, of mankind as our world faces its demise. The film focuses more on establishing how we will get the chosen few off of the planet.

One prurient aspect of the novel, a favorite theme of author Philip Wylie’s, is how society views the relationships between men and women. As set up in the novel, more women than men survive earth’s destruction. When the Hendron camp formulates plans to transplant a small number of humans to the new world, the men and women become less individuals and more breeding stock to perpetuate our species.

The movie takes a smattering of the book’s details for foundation and then changes them slightly. Mere hints are what is left, leaving the viewer those thoughts to ponder. Some things are for the better, some not so much.

Space ark - When Worlds Collide
The needle-nosed space ark rests at the bottom of its launch ramp.
One change was an absolute necessity. In the book, Tony Drake was a stockbroker. In the movie, Drake was a doctor. Asking an audience to believe that a stockbroker could be transplanted to the new world was just too much to ask. Changing his professions was a wise choice.

Another aspect that was changed was the science, particularly the portrayal of the space ark. In the book, the spaceship was powered by atomic energy and the ship’s physical shape as described, would with what we know today, be as flightworthy as a brick. Again, the science of the time was so undeveloped that in the years since we can see just how wrong the authors got it.

The movie took a more traditional approach and even then… again, knowing what we know today, the ship is not very flightworthy. The odds a spacecraft would be launched by speeding down a long monorail is impractical… but I must admit, it sure looked pretty darned impressive.

The movie’s emphasis on spectacle, 1950s style, was visually appealing but I still prefer the book. Seeing New York City swamped by a deluge was compelling. Watching the Earth open and belching fire and lava conveyed the doom yet to come. The largest part of the film’s small budget was spent on special effects. And for 1951, they were spectacular (for today’s audience a little less so).

When worlds collide!!
"Hey, I'm not cleaning up that mess!"
When mankind descends into savagery and society self-destructs, the novel clearly shows the dichotomy between civilized men of science versus the rest of society becoming little more than animals ruled by greed, lust and fear. In the movie, this is hinted at and barely shown except for depictions of those who lose out on the lottery and are to be left behind.

The movie inexplicably changed one detail from the book. Personally, I find this change unacceptable. In the book, two planets, Bronson Alpha and Bronson Beta, were the instrument of Earth’s destruction. However, in the movie the smaller planet was named Zyra and the larger planet was now a star named Bellus. How 1950s can you get?

In the book, Earth’s destruction was described as follows:
“Tony shuddered as he watched. A distance, short on the screen--even as solar measurements are contemplated--separated the two planets. In the chamber of the hurtling Space Ship no one moved. Earth and Bronson Alpha were but a few moments apart. It seemed that even at their august distance they could perceive motion on the planet, as if the continents below them were swimming across the seas, as if the seas were hurling themselves upon the land; and presently they saw great cracks, in the abysses of which were fire, spread along the remote dry land. Into the air were lifted mighty whirls of steam. The nebulous atmosphere of Bronson Alpha touched the air of Earth, and then the very Earth bulged. Its shape altered before their eyes. It became plastic. It was drawn out egg-shaped. The cracks girdled the globe. A great section of the Earth itself lifted up and peeled away, leaping toward Bronson Alpha with an inconceivable force.

The two planets struck.

Decillions of tons of mass colliding in cosmic catastrophe.”
This scene, even after reading the book hundreds of times (I am not lying), still leaves me in tears. In the film, 30 seconds are shown as Earth approaches Bellus and flames engulf the Earth. I hate to say it but the film’s destruction of our home was somewhat lacking, if not a bit anti-climactic. But then again, Pal was working with a very limited budget.

Now playing: When Worlds Collide (circa 1951)
When theatre-goers collide!

Let us not forget that science fiction films in the 1940s and 50s were considered by Hollywood as the embarrassing bastard stepchild. The fact that films like War of the Worlds, The Day the Earth Stood Still, Forbidden Planet, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Thing from Another World and a scant few others were able to rise above their meager budgets to challenge the usual Hollywood film fare says a lot about those who believed in science fiction as a legitimate form of filmmaking (and literature). It wasn’t always about green bug eyed monsters and silly robots.

For 1950, the movie’s budget was still inadequate for what Pal was trying to convey. To make up for a lack of a budget, he relied on a cast of no names. The film starred Barbara Rush, Peter Hansen, Richard Derr, Larry Keating and John Hoyt. Each of the actors were virtually unknown at the time. Many went on to bigger things: Peter Hansen, Barbara Rush and John Hoyt each became more well known.

The space ark is loaded and ready to launch
"This is the captain speaking. Fasten your seatbelts
and please observe the no-smoking signs."
Personally, I think the acting in the film, while competent, was far from compelling—stiff perhaps, compared to their respective characters in the book. As you read this, you might think I do not like the film. Au contraire mon ami, I love the film. But as I stated, the word almost always trounces the film. Where the film condenses the essence of the plot, the book exudes the experience, the drama, the futility, the full meal, so to speak.

If you have not seen the movie and some time to kill some pleasant weekend, please do so.  Incidentally, Steven Spielberg is contractually obligated to Paramount Pictures to remake this film. In 2005, he announced he would be producing the film. Normally, I do not like remakes, but in this case, I wish he would! The book deserves a more competent and modern approach (and the sequel would make an awesome television show).

If you have not read the book, I strongly urge you to do that too, but a word of warning. Both When Worlds Collide and its sequel After Worlds Collide are dated in their characterization of science, women and minorities—there are no blacks and the villains—woo-ee! Remember now, the two books were written during the time of the uprising of fascism and Nazism, communism and socialism in Europe and Russia. Japan was still misunderstood and mistrusted.

After Worlds Collide (book) - cover
The book is available at Barnes & Noble (sorry, sad to say it is not available as an e-book). The book most recently was published by the University of Nebraska Press. The two books were published in one volume.

Thanks to Brian for asking me to write this issue. I am a long-time fan of science fiction. I read When Worlds Collide for the first time when I was 10 years old. In the years since, I have read it more times than I can count. Brian and I have, since 1988 (or so) been friends and compared notes on this and that, music, science fiction, politics, life, NASA, space science, fandom, family, Star Trek…. and more.

I have a fantastic son who shares my love for science fiction and friendship with Brian and Beth (Brian’s lovely wife). In but a few months, I will celebrate my 20th year In the United States Navy Reserve. I am a former high school U.S. History teacher and am avid collector of books, tropical fish, cats, music, DVDs… heck, I admit it, I’m nuts!

And to seal it off and to drive it all home about how much I love When Worlds Collide and After Worlds Collide, I am throwing caution to the wind by attempting to write a prequel to the first novel. Wish me luck, this is hard!

-- Doug Mappin

Where to find the movie:
Available on DVD


"Written in the stars is a message of doom for this, our world!"

June 22, 2014

The Grass is Always Greener on the Other Side of the Universe

For most of my life, I've lived in a succession of small to medium-sized rural university towns. While I wouldn't recommend the quiet college town life to adrenalin junkies, there are much, much worse places to be. The population is better educated than the norm, crime is low, and even a middling university will attract the theaters, events, restaurants, cafes, book stores, artisans and the like that elevate life from merely tolerable to interesting and pleasurable.

On the downside, there is a depressing sameness to the rural college town. My hometowns have been overwhelmingly white and middle class. While professing to be open-minded and tolerant, university people can often be as insular and judgmental as the population at large. And diversity tends to be more about rhetoric than actual achievement.

After 14 years at yet another smallish, relatively remote university town, we made the move to The Big City. While it wasn't much of a move in terms of distance, my old and new homes might as well be on different planets.

San Francisco Peaks
My old home town.
The old home town is flanked by a picturesque mountain range and surrounded by a beautiful national forest. There are more outdoor attractions -- awesome national parks, monuments, hiking trails, ski resorts, rock formations, etc. -- within a day's drive than you can shake a walking stick at. It's a magnet for mountain bikers, hikers, skiers, hippies old and new, cowboys, tourists and outdoorsy people of every description.

My new home is a jarring contrast. On the surface, it's all about the great indoors of hotels, resorts, casinos, bars, clubs, outlet malls, strip malls, and every kind of entertainment imaginable. It's a magnet for hustlers, gamblers, entrepreneurs, show people (real and wannabe), voracious consumers, itinerants and dreamers. It's not a place for "real" people to live.

But underneath the tacky veneer there's a lot to like about the place. For those seeking refuge from coarse materialism, there are beautiful parks and lakes, walking and hiking trails, recreational facilities, nature preserves, museums and countless other options. (Not to mention, a large number of smaller, independently or family-owned shops and restaurants for the discriminating consumer.)

You want diversity? This place walks the walk. Spend any time here, and you'll experience dozens of languages, nationalities, ethnicities and religions. You're definitely not in Kansas anymore. This city over the rainbow is brought to you in glorious technicolor.

But since moving here, we have experienced the "grass is always greener" syndrome up close and personal. It's become a running joke. We chat with a local -- a neighbor, a co-worker, a repairman, a store clerk, etc. -- and tell them that we've recently moved from _____________ . The response is invariably the same. "Oh, I love _____________ ! It's so green, so beautiful! I visited there a few weeks/months/years ago [or] I have a brother/sister/aunt/uncle/cousin/friend who lives there/used to live there. Nice, nice place." Then there's always the awkward pause. Sometimes it's just a look, sometimes they come right out with it: "Why in the world would you want to give up all that and move here?"

Mars landscape, NASA/JPL
The grass is definitely not greener here.
Often we just let it go, but occasionally we feel the need to explain ourselves. The town we came from is indeed great, and we enjoyed our time there. But it is also remote, small and expensive. Need a good medical specialist? You drive 2 1/2 hours to the valley. Need to try on a decent pair of shoes? 2 1/2 hours. Need to fly somewhere? 2 1/2 hours to the airport. Want to see something other than a blockbuster at the theater? At least 2 1/2 hours to the nearest place showing that independent/foreign film.

The disbelieving big city locals have convinced themselves that almost any place is better than here. What's not to like about the slower pace and quiet of a small town surrounded by so much natural beauty, where neighbors are friendly and know each other? (Truth is, neighbors tend not to have much to do with each other in small towns either. It's the curse of our atomized, electronics-and-mobile-device-crazy culture.)

My wife and I particularly appreciate the ready access to the cornucopia of entertainment, dining and culture that the Big City offers. Since we both travel for work and pleasure, it's nice to have a major airport that's twenty minutes away instead of several hours. And to top it off, we're still pretty close to some of the great national parks and scenic places that make the American West such an attraction.

NASA concept art - alien landscape
No green grass here either. Hey, let's plant some!
Yep, the grass is nice and green here, so to speak. We feel very fortunate. So it's hard for us to understand the urgent need felt by some of our new neighbors and co-workers to get out Dodge at the earliest opportunity. But then, we were feeling the same way about our old home town. One person's green grass is another's weeds. Sometimes, you've just gotta make the leap.

The "grass is always greener / happy feet" syndrome can be formless, chaotic, almost a panic-reaction, but it can also give us the kick in the pants we need to improve our lives. Time was, much of humanity didn't just have itchy feet for that better place over the horizon, they looked up to the stars and thought about literal new worlds to explore and colonize.

Long, long ago at the beginning of the space age, there was natural anxiety about nuclear bombs and ballistic missiles, but there was also excitement and hope that the very same technology that could deliver a warhead to a city could also deliver people to other planets. Earth was pretty much used up, at least as far as new frontiers to explore. At his inaugural address, President Kennedy described a nation on the edge of a new frontier,
"the frontier of unknown opportunities and perils, the frontier of unfilled hopes and unfilled threats. ... Beyond that frontier are uncharted areas of science and space, unsolved problems of peace and war, unconquered problems of ignorance and prejudice, unanswered questions of poverty and surplus."
He intuited that societies that don't challenge themselves, that don't keep wondering if the grass could maybe be just a tad bit greener, often fall into stagnation and despair.  Since all the rest of the "frontiers" -- war and peace, ignorance and prejudice and wealth and poverty -- were too amorphous and insoluble, he at least got the nation going on landing a man on the moon.

Explorer I on the launch pad - history.nasa.gov
Have we lost the will to explore?
The New Frontier reached its apogee in pop culture with Star Trek's exhortation to "seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no one has gone before..." The original series debuted at the same time the US was pulling away from the Soviets in the space race, rapidly learning how to dock spacecraft in preparation for sending men and machines beyond earth orbit. During those heady days, it was easy to believe we'd soon be hurling starships at warp speeds across the galaxy.

Today, the will to challenge ourselves in this unique way has collapsed, exploded on the launch pad as it were. I won't go into detail here about why I think it's still vitally important to try -- see my post on Ikarie XB-1 for the arguments. Suffice it to say that with global ecological catastrophe looming, our ability to travel and live beyond the earth may be essential to humanity's survival.

But it seems that we're too self-centered, too self-satisfied, too interested in micromanaging everyone else's affairs around the world to turn our eyes back to the stars. On my optimistic days, I think it's maybe a 50/50 proposition that a human being will ever again travel beyond earth orbit. On my bad days, I imagine that in a couple of generations (if we survive as a species), the history of human space flight will be forgotten, or at best treated as a myth.

Very little sci-fi these days involves space flight or discovery. The eternal optimism of Star Trek has been supplanted by earth-bound, apocalyptic stories of small surviving bands of humans fighting against zombies or alien invaders or themselves. It's as if we realize as a society that the age of challenging ourselves and exploring is over for good, and all that's left is hunkering down and trying to survive a hardscrabble existence. Even if the grass is greener somewhere else, we don't have the will or the means to check it out.

So perhaps I can be excused for being nostalgic about a time when we still had the will as a society to explore the unknown, and every kid who went to the movies just knew that someday soon we'd be landing people on Mars, and then looking for the next planet to explore. The following very selective list is a salute to the men and women of the movies who were inspired by the dawn of the space age, and who in turn fired the imaginations of kids like me with their creations. (And of course, the people who gave so much of themselves to develop real-world space programs.)

Poster - It! The Terror from Beyond Space (1958)
Pioneering space missions that bring back really bad stuff

The Quatermass Xperiment (1955)
"It's coming for YOU from Space to wipe all living things from the face of the Earth! CAN IT BE STOPPED?"

20 Million Miles to Earth (1957)
"Out-Of-Space Creature Invades the Earth!"

The Flame Barrier (1958)
"The First Satellite That Returned To Earth...And The Hell It Brought With It"

It! The Terror from Beyond Space (1958)
"IT! ... Reaches through space! ... Scoops up men and women! ... Gorges on blood!"

Night of the Blood Beast (1958)
"No girl was safe as long as this head-hunting thing roamed the land!"

Space Master X-7 (1958)
"Satellite Terror Strikes The Earth!"

First Man into Space (1959)
"First motion picture to lift the veil, forsee the future in a spectacular drama of the first man in history to be rocketed into the terrifying unknown of outer space!"

Queen of Blood (1966)

Poster - Destination Moon (1950)
Arrogant, irritating aliens trying to prevent us from exploring space

War of the Satellites (1958)
"LIFE magazine says, 'The ultimate in scientific monsters!'"

The Cape Canaveral Monsters (1960)
"Aliens attempt to sabotage the U.S. space program."

Pioneering Missions to the Moon

Woman in the Moon (Frau im Mond; 1929)
"'Never' does not exist for the human mind... only 'Not yet.'"

Destination Moon (1950)
"I want to do this job because it's never been done. Because I don't know. It's research, it's pioneering." - Jim Barnes

Victorian missions to the Moon

Poster - First Men in the Moon (1964)
From the Earth to the Moon (1958)
"The Amazing Story of the Boldest Adventure Dared by Man!"

First Men in the Moon (1964)
"H.G. Wells' Astounding Adventure in Dynamation!"

Missions to the Moon to discover space babes, giant spiders and other assorted space wonders

Cat-Women of the Moon (1953)
"Love-starved moon maidens on the prowl!"

Missile to the Moon (1958)
"Lunar She-Devils Lure Earthmen Into Their Lair of Doom!"

12 to the Moon (1960)
"Ride the Excitement Orbit to the Moon with the First Space Explorers!"

Missions to Mars to discover space babes, giant spiders, etc.

Rocketship X-M (1950)
"The Most Astounding SPACE ADVENTURE of All Time!"

Poster - The Angry Red Planet (1959)
Flight to Mars (1951)
"The Most Fantastic Expedition Ever Conceived by Man!"

The Angry Red Planet (1959)
"Spectacular Adventure Beyond Time and Space"

Missions to Venus to discover space babes, giant spiders, etc., etc.

Queen of Outer Space (1958)
"Mankind's first fantastic flight to Venus - the female planet!"

First Spaceship on Venus (1960)
"You are there... on man's most incredible journey!"

Voyage to the Prehistoric Planet (1965)
"The next space goal is about to be reached - the first landing on the planet Venus."

Missions to other planets with space babes, bug-eyed monsters, etc., etc., etc.

Journey to the Seventh Planet (1962)
"You're in Space beyond Space."

Poster - The Phantom Planet (1961)
Fire Maidens of Outer Space (1956)
"Out of This World SHOCK SENSATION!"

Missions that go seriously off-course

World Without End (1956)
"CinemaScope's First Science-Fiction Thriller Hurls You into the Year 2508!"

The Phantom Planet (1961)
"Captives of a power far, far out!"

Missions to the stars

This Island Earth (1955)
"Two mortals trapped in outer space... challenging the unearthly furies of an outlaw planet gone mad!"

Forbidden Planet (1956)
"Earthmen on a fabulous, peril-journey into outer space!"

Ikarie XB-1 (Voyage to the End of the Universe; 1963)
"SEE: The Unbelievable secret at the end of the Universe!"

"We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills..." - John F. Kennedy