In these days of seemingly weekly science fiction blockbusters (which are usually SF in name only… they’re actually just big gun actioners that take place in the future) and the hype that surrounds them, it’s easy to forget that once such films were the low man on the totem pole. Stuff fit for kids and juveniles but not serious adult audiences. Thus, in past decades, except for a few A list films like Them and The Day the Earth Stood Still in the 1950s and Planet of the Apes, Soylent Green, and Logan’s Run in the ’60s and ’70s, many SF movies slipped under the radar or were simply shrugged off by the critics.
But in our more enlightened age, as the serious adult film has given way to the tastes of teenagers and young adults, the science fiction film has come to be accepted as just another genre, even worthy of professional criticism. Ironic in that as such films have become more accepted, their intellectual content has shriveled. As a result, SF fans have been forced to search through back catalogs in hopes of finding lost gems that, if nowhere as sharp-looking as 21st century fare, at least offer ideas to think about and to ponder.
We all know the standards that no one questions: 2001, Forbidden Planet, Things to Come. But what about the less well known films? Are there any worthy entries from BCGI (Before CGI) that may not have received their proper share of recognition when they were first released? And if so, how have they fared in the decades since as the magic of VHS and then DVD and now Netflix have placed them at viewers’ fingertips? Have they been rediscovered? Reevaluated? Newly appreciated?
Answer: Many of the best still haven’t.
But how to discern the good but underrated SF films from those deserving oblivion? First, any solid science fiction movie must be driven by one or more science fiction concepts such as a new invention, social novelty, or exploration of other worlds, times, or dimensions. In that regard, some films such as Forbidden Planet or Logan’s Run are chock full of many such concepts while others like Colossus: The Forbin Project or The Andromeda Strain concentrate on only one.
Another thing that’s needed are filmmakers who take the subject matter seriously no matter the size of the budget. If that happens, then a film that cost a few hundred thousand dollars with cheesy FX can still top one of today’s hundred million dollar blockbusters.
With the foregoing in mind, we come to our list of the 10 most underrated classic science fiction films which will be rated not strictly from least underrated to most underrated, but from good to best of the bunch. All of them, in any case, are films that never really took the screen world by storm, nor the SF community for that matter, but that offer elements that deserve the attention of any SF film fan. All are solid little films each with surprising angles that will reward the patient viewer willing to look past production values and embrace the singular worlds they bring to life.
10) The Twonky
Included here because you can never go wrong when you adapt a classic SF story…well, almost never! Loose and whimsical adaptation of the story by Henry Kuttner produced and directed by Arch Oboler, this 1953 film follows a college professor who finds himself in possession of a new TV set that not only displays intelligence but proceeds to control his life apparently for his own good! Much of the entertaining short story is preserved in this film except for the ending. In the story, the Twonky disposes of the college professor while the movie version has the contraption destroyed in an auto accident. Extremely low budget and not very well acted, the film updates the story’s radio/twonky to a television set but is worth viewing due to its unique concept as well as its sheer audacity!
This quirky 1964 film isn’t on our list simply because it involves time travel (it’s said to have been the inspiration for Irwin Allen’s Time Tunnel TV show), but because it’s also a showcase for a number of SF concepts including space travel, mutants, an apocalyptic future, and robots! Admittedly, director Ib Melchior has his moments of humor (particularly those involving Steve Franken’s wide-eyed engineer as he tours the last humans’ future refuge and attempts to pick up the far more sexually sophisticated femmes who live there), but overall, the film presents its subject seriously and even displays a touch of humanity as Merry Anders’ scientist brings a certain amount of sympathy to the wretched mutants whom the normal humans fear and loathe. A fun film of the far distant year of 2071 that deserves at least a little more notice than it has received.
8) Phase IV
An odd film, made the stranger by Saul Bass’ quiet direction coupled with impressive and unsettling close-up photography of real ants. Produced in 1974, just as Star Wars was about to land in theaters like a laser-guided bomb, this quiet, even enigmatic film was destined to be one of the last of the old time concept-driven SF movies as colonies of desert ants develop intelligence that seems to exceed mankind’s own. In an isolated lab, two scientists seek to study the ants but they soon find their positions reversed as they themselves become the object of the ants’ scrutiny. Mysteriously, the ants allow an orphaned girl to pass through to the lab and in a final scene that fell victim to the editing room, the girl and younger of the two scientists merge with the collective ant intelligence to become the progenitors of a new ant/human hybrid destined to take over the Earth from mankind! An oft-neglected little classic.
After doing sterling service for any devotee of ’50s science fiction cinema, director Jack Arnold had just completed his 1957 masterpiece The Incredible Shrinking Man when he lensed this late career entry. Unfortunately, something was lost in translation and due to money, casting, or script difficulties, or even loss of interest in the subject matter, The Space Children lacked the smart, atmospheric tension of earlier Arnold films such as The Monolith Monsters, It Came From Outer Space, and Tarantula. About a group of youngsters under the sway of a strange alien creature intent on preventing man from spreading his warlike ways into space, the film lacks real dramatic tension and strongly defined central characters. The children themselves (including a pre-Rifleman Johnny Crawford and Sandy Descher, who played the little girl who cried “Them!”) are pretty limited in their acting abilities. It’s night-time beach locations do capture some of the old Arnold eeriness though. A rarely seen, hard to find film that nonetheless ends in ’50s fashion quoting from St. Matthew. Overall, still an entertaining, if low key, item on this list.
Don’t be fooled by the title! This modest but entertaining film from 1958 features attractive Gloria Talbott as the hapless newlywed whose husband is snatched virtually at the altar and replaced by a shape-shifting alien… talk about sexual frustration! After a year of marriage and no sign of an impending pregnancy, Talbott finally decides that there’s something not quite right with her husband. Following him one night, she discovers his true nature along with an alien spacecraft hidden in the woods. The film deals in a subject matter that, in a later era, could have been handled in a far more serious (and likely explicit) manner but manages nonetheless through suggestive dialogue and moody cinematography to convey the fearful strangeness of Talbott’s situation as events slowly close in on her. For example, an unusually effective scene for 1950s SF includes aliens in the shape of police officers killing an unconscious man in cold blood and another disintegrating a prostitute for no good reason. Add to that some basic but effective FX and you have a recipe for a cool little thriller.
At first glance, a viewer might be justified in dismissing this 1953 entry by director Richard Talmadge as Buck Rogers-type hokum (secret plots by unnamed enemy powers, hot pants-sporting astronettes, etc.), but on closer inspection they would find something a little more intriguing. That’s because the script was written by science fiction writer Robert A. Heinlein who, within the film’s restrictive budget, attempted to depict what life in space and a trip to the Moon might really be like. Thus, we’re treated to characters as they walk and sit on ceilings and walls in an orbiting space station (complete with signs with writing both upside down and rightside up!); comfortable dress for shipboard life including shorts, short-sleeved jerseys, and even skullcaps designed to keep hair in place in a zero g environment; and how a ship would actually travel to the Moon and communicate with the Earth while stranded on the dark side. And while the film is bold enough to feature a female president, it also observes the conventions by having the female captain be forced to wed her co-pilot to preserve the proprieties, as both will be trapped on the Moon for some months! For these attempts at looking forward alone, Project Moonbase is worthy to be among the underrated.
4) Target Earth
An interesting premise involving an army of Venusian robots attacking an unnamed American city is actually a fairly faithful adaptation of a daring SF novelette by Paul W. Fairman. Genre regular Richard Denning heads a small cast of characters left behind after the city has been evacuated who are forced to hole up in an abandoned hotel as death-dealing robots roam the streets. Directed by Sherman A. Rose, this 1954 effort, whose grasp well exceeds its reach, nevertheless does a decent job with limited resources by concentrating on interpersonal relationships rather than special effects. When one of the robots finally appears, it’s all too obvious why it was kept under wraps so long: a good shove is all it would take to knock it over! The film does have an interesting opening as heroine Kathleen Crowley wakes from a failed suicide attempt to find herself alone in the city.
The surprisingly good low-budget entry directed by Kurt Neumann was intended at the time to beat more expensive Destination Moon into theaters. Irony is that despite lower cost, rushed production schedule, and questionable science, this 1950 entry is the superior film. The black and white photography is moody and effective, giving the film a hard-edged, realistic flavor especially in scenes featuring the cramped quarters of the spaceship and a shot of the crew as they make their way down a darkened corridor prior to blast off. Rocket ship sets are well done and special effects work within their limits. A night shot of the rocket sitting on its launch pad is really good and matte shots on Mars are very cool. Also cute is the red tint given the Martian settings. The Mars scenes are so effective in fact that it’s a distinct letdown when they’re spoiled by the needless appearance of a gang of primitive Martians. Warning to Earth about the perils of nuclear war is to be expected but not the unhappy ending where our hero Lloyd Bridges and attractive chemist Osa Massen are killed when the rocket runs out of fuel and crashes to Earth!
Low budget but well done 1957 film that takes a good idea and runs with it. Astronomer Jeff Morrow discovers a mysterious object over the Earth that turns out to be an alien spacecraft on a mission to deposit a giant machine designed to drain all of Earth’s energy and beam it back to its home planet. (Was it the inspiration for Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s Galactus over in the Fantastic Four? You be the judge!) Good direction by Kurt Neumann of a story by Irving Block (who also worked on the special effects) delivers in style and atmosphere what it lacks in budget. Knowing their limitations, the producers manage to restrain themselves and through judicious use of miniatures, mattes, stock footage, and composites manage to create one of the best of the lesser known SF films of the era. The whole thing is topped off with some classy opening credits and music by Paul Sawtell and Bert Shefter.
1) The Power
Brought to you in 1968 by producer George Pal and director Byron Haskin, the same team that gave you The War of the Worlds, this exciting, fast-moving film presents a faithful adaptation of the classic novel by Frank M. Robinson. Underscored with a haunting theme by Miklos Rozsa, the story tells of a powerful mutant whose ESP faculties give him virtually the power of a god as he kills off anyone who might suspect his existence. Is he the first of a new race of men destined to replace mere homo sapiens or simply an anomaly corrupted by his vast abilities? You be the judge as you follow George Hamilton and Suzanne Pleshette (not to mention such genre faves as Richard Carlson, Earl Holliman, Michael Rennie, and Gary Merrill) as they frantically search like mice in a maze for the truth and the identity of the man with… the power!