A while back I wrote about an important year for the film genre that we call “Science-Fiction.” It was 1951 and two very different films were competing for box-office glory. “Destination Moon” was a serious look at how a manned mission to the moon might be planned and completed. “The Thing from Another World” was a pulse-quickening adventure tale of military and scientific personnel at an Arctic research station battling an alien life form closer to a vegetable than flesh-and-bone but living on human blood. Guess which film triumphed.
Because science-fiction is a film genre, it needs to thrive on action. Lectures and discussions, no matter how well-intended, are a kiss-of-death. A few attempts were made to sneak actual science in through the back door–“The Magnetic Monster,” “The Conquest of Space,” “Riders to the Stars,” “Gog”–but for the most part science-fiction became a form of action-movie. It was “us VS them,” sometimes in Technicolor. Actual science became the genre’s mac guffin. A favorite was radiation. It could blow up ordinary insects to man-killing size (“Them!,” “Tarantula”), revive long-dormant prehistoric beasts (“The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms,” “The Deadly Mantis”) or just plain put large creatures off their feed (“It Came from Beneath the Sea,” “Godzilla”). Of course if radiation could do any of those things none of us would be around to contemplate its effects. But radiation did frighten people, and that was enough to re-cast it as “the sleep of reason that produces monsters.” It’s worth noting that before Trinity, radiation also scared some of our best atomic scientists who feared that the detonation of an A-bomb might cause the atmosphere to ignite, so Hollywood can’t entirely be blamed for seizing upon it as a dandy plot device.
Beside enlarging and reviving things, radiation could also cause mutations. No one explored that premise to more gaudy effect than Roger Corman and monster-designer Paul Blaisdell in “The Day the World Ended,” still a dandy little B-movie. When not deforming people (“the sleep or reason produces monsters”) or giving them unusual, sometimes unwonted, new powers–Grant Williams becoming “The Incredible Shrinking Man,” Boris Karloff receiving “the touch of death” via Radium-X in “The Invisible Ray”–it could just cause people to sicken and die, nowhere no effectively than in the very serious, adult sci-fi drama “On the Beach.”
Usually the “science” in science-fiction strove for a bit of plausibility, but sometimes it just threw caution the winds. “The Fly” was a very successful science-fiction film based upon a ludicrous premise. Scrambled atoms create a man with a human-sized fly’s head–which can still reason after a fashion and use a typewriter–and a fly with a tiny human head that squeaks out pleas for help. Theatrically effective perhaps, but definitely not to be found in any text-book. It remained for David Cronenberg, several decades later, to tell of a disastrous experiment in which the genes of a house fly become intermingled with those a man, and in telling the tale create a gruesome but heart-rending metaphor concerning the havoc ordinary diseases can wreck on the human body. Science-fiction has grown up from the wild-west, anything goes days of the 1950s, but in the end it’s science-fiction. As the ads used to proclaim, “Keep telling yourself–it’s only a movie!”