The Space Children (1958) ***½

Director Jack Arnold’s record is decidedly mixed when it comes to his 1950s sci-fi and horror films. Creature From the Black Lagoon (1953), an inescapable classic is also, stylistically at least, an extremely conservative, even retrograde film. So much so that his monster, the Gill-Man, was welcomed into the pantheon of Universal Studios monsters, the only new addition since the 1940s. Its sequel is less obviously a throwback to yesteryear, but Revenge of the Creature (1955) is also a much shoddier piece of work. Tarantula (1955) is a half-baked rip-off of Them! (1954), and despite my mania for giant bug movies I still cannot think of anything interesting to say about it. On the other hand Arnold also helmed the very intelligent, and technically marvelous The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957) a rare case of an existential sci-fi film that will not put its audience to sleep. He also directed one of the greatest critiques of 1950s society via sci-fi film, It Came From Outer Space (1953). So, when I go into a Jack Arnold film for the first time I have to wonder what strain am I going to get? Will it be the gothic horror Arnold, the second-rate B-movie Arnold, or the discontented auteur Arnold, or another Arnold altogether? Answers will not be forthcoming anytime soon with The Space Children either. This film plays its ideological cards very close to the chest. While an astute viewer will probably realize what’s going on well in advance they won’t be able to conclusively prove anything for quite some time.

Dave Brewster is a figure you don’t often see in 50s sci-fi movies, but one who is vitally important in conducting any real science: That’s right he’s a technician. He knows one piece of the new six-stage rocket called the Thunderer inside and out, but has little idea how it fits together with everything else. As Dave himself puts it: he worked on “One part out of 30,000” so he doesn’t have any answers for his wife when she starts asking more general questions about the project. Normally films of this epoch have lone scientific geniuses (frequently of the mad variety) working alone or perhaps with the assistance of a solitary henchman. It’s nice to see a film give a more realistic depiction of large-scale scientific undertakings, one that gives credit to the little guys, the specialists, and the aides.

What’s less comforting is that the film is realistic politically as well. The Thunderer is not going to depart on a voyage of discovery; instead it’s purpose, like most rockets from the 1950s, is a delivery mechanism for nuclear weapons. The rocket is going to launch an orbiting weapons platform into space that will allow the nation that controls it to rain down atomic fire on any city it passes over. The Thunderer and the weapon it’s going to launch are rooted in the American panic following the launch of Sputnik. The leaders of the project even reflect on sputnik’s launch, “It seems like yesterday the first satellite orbited through space.” In reality sputnik was mostly a publicity stunt on the part of the USSR, a Potemkin Village-esque screen to hide the fundamental flaws of the Soviet system. The American public of course did not realize that; to them Sputnik was proof that the USSR had immediate plans to blast them with missiles and watch them with spy satellites. American leadership knew the situation was not so dire, ICBMs would not replace bombers overnight and that sputnik retroactively sanctioned the high-altitude reconnaissance that the US was already conducting over Russia with the U-2 program. However, the panic among the average citizenry was so bad that even the penny-pinching Ike was forced to shell out more money for ICBM development. Though couched in the language of scientific discovery and for the benefit of all mankind rhetoric, early rocketry was pursued almost exclusively for military aims.

At the start of the film Dave Brewster has just relocated his entire family from their home in San Francisco 500 miles south, putting them somewhere outside of San Diego. The Thunderer is set to launch in the next few days the military commander Lt. Colonel Manly and the project chief Dr. Wahrman having been calling in every technician and specialist on the project to make sure that nothing goes wrong with the launch. Dave’s wife Anne is depressed by the move, hates the new trailer home on the beach that the government has supplied them with, and is faintly concerned about the prospect of nuclear war. Her mix of mundane, almost trivial concerns with existential crisis is itself rather refreshing. We all might feel the pressure from “living so close to the end of the world” as she puts it, but unless we’re suffering from serious depression we are still beset by the daily struggles of keeping the house clean, cooking dinner, and fretting over our children.

Dave’s two sons though, twelve year-old Bud and ten year-old Ken treat the move as an exciting new adventure. As soon as they set foot in their new home they run off to go exploring in the tidal caverns along the coast. There they discover a gang of their peers, led by Eadie Johnson (played by the little girl in Them! (1954) who shrieked out the film’s title in the eponymous moment), the daughter of one of Dave’s colleagues (who is played by a fat middle aged man that the film insists on showing in startlingly small and tight shorts for reasons I cannot even begin to fathom; homo-eroticism is all well and good but for god-sake not with the actor that got famous playing Uncle Fester!). It’s this band of kids that sees a mysterious object falling to earth and goes to recover it.

The object is a brain-like alien that steadily grows in size and power from the moment that it is recovered. It immediately dominates the children who discover it, making Bud Brewster its special avatar. The oldest child in the retinue, Tim, is frightened of the creature and tries to smash it with a rock, but as soon as he raises the rock above the brain-monster he freezes up, incapable of doing anything until Bud releases him from the spell. The children now acting as the brain-monster’s thralls it has Bud transport it back to his family’s trailer. From there it can plot its ultimate objective: sabotaging the Thunderer rocket’s launch.

The movie is, at least until the very end of its proceedings, completely ambiguous as to whether this is a good thing or not. On one hand the Thunderer is obviously dangerous, and a threat to global stability. As Anne Brewster puts it: “When is it gonna end? Year after year, racing trying to find something bigger to blow ourselves up with.” The arms race never makes us more secure; it only ensures that when war finally comes it will eradicate everyone more completely. On the other hand, as Dave Brewster points out: The United States “has never started a war” (well, unless you count the conquest of North America’s indigenous people). In 1958 this was still true, a rationally patriotic American had no reason to believe that it would be different. Nor could America allow itself to fall behind the Soviet Union or China in the arms race. The USSR was an oppressive, secretive empire whose intentions were intentionally opaque to outsiders. We know now that the Soviet leadership had no interest in escalating tensions to a shooting war, but the average citizen (American or Soviet) really had no idea what was going on inside the presidium at any given time. The situation with China, the other antagonistic nuclear power was even worse: at this point Mao had already gone on record saying that he wouldn’t “make a fuss about a world war. At most, people die… Half the population wiped out – this happened quite a few times in Chinese history.” In such an atmosphere one can be forgiven for wanting his nation to have every weapon, no matter how unimaginably terrible they may be, at its disposal.

Indeed, The even-handedness of The Space Children is perhaps the most remarkable thing about it. It would be easy to depict the scientists and soldiers working on the Thunderer project as buffoons like General Buck Turgidson or lunatics like General Jack Ripper in Dr. Strangelove (1964). However, what we see in Arnold’s film is a much more sympathetic treatment of the men in the military-scientific complex. Dave Brewster isn’t wrong when he points out that they need to build the orbital weapons platform if the Russians have one because “It’s gotta do a job better than theirs so if they start anything…” Colonel Manly and Dr. Wahrman are both only interested in launching the Thunderer as a defensive measure. In a rather touching moment the colonel remarks: “Life is a wonderful thing” to which the doctor replies “Let’s hope we can preserve it for a while.” Far from shortsighted warmongers they come across as rational men doing the best they can under unfortunate circumstances. We as the audience are free to argue against their logic, but we cannot fault their intentions. Indeed, though Arnold’s film ultimately disagrees strenuously with the logic of mutually assured destruction, history has vindicated Manly and Wahrman. Since the creation of the atom bomb the major powers have been at peace (more or less) with one another. God willing this peace will continue, for there are no benevolent aliens coming to take away our most dangerous weapons.

The film also quietly comments on the destructive rigidity of 1950s gender roles for those that fail to conform. Tim, one of the children who hangs around with Bud and the others, has a drunken lout of a step-father, named Joe, who beats him regularly. That Tim’s mother presumably divorced and re-married is already a minor transgression against the standards of the day, particularly in a movie that was aimed at the Saturday mourning matinee set. Even more unusual for the time (on screen at least) is that Joe is not the family breadwinner, in fact he’s unemployed and completely dependent on his wife Jean. The film does not dwell on his plight in any detail, but it is obvious that Joe’s emasculated position is responsible for his heavy drinking, and that his tyranny over Tim is just an attempt to reassert himself as a man. There is no non-cultural reason why Tim’s single-income family should be any less harmonious than Bud or Eadie’s. Thus it is the 1950s attitudes about what makes a man a man and a woman a woman that are the cause for this minor tragedy. It’s a small, relatively quiet bit of commentary, but that makes it all the more effective. Besides, in the age of Father Knows best it’s refreshing to see a family that is so completely different from the stagnantly harmonious Cleavers, Andersons, and Nelsons.

The lofty aspirations of the film are unfortunately, far beyond the ability of the cast to deliver on. The fact that so many of the central roles have to be played by children did not do Arnold any favors. The kids certainly aren’t the worst that I’ve ever seen, but keep in mind that I imbibe the impossibly shitty on a regular basis. The adults fair better, but the fact that two supporting roles are filmed by actors who would later find fame in TV sit-coms should give you a good idea of the caliber of performances we’re working with here. A standard, man-in-rubber suit sci-fi film can better survive wooden, forgettable acting, but one that is aspiring to greater heights invariably demands more nuanced performances. The fact that The Space Children cannot deliver that is a serious black mark against it. It is not enough to spoil the movie’s effect entirely, but it’s sufficient to make one wonder at what might have been.

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