Thursday, 21 October 2010

Phantom from Space (1953)

Phantom from Space isn’t going to make anyone’s greatest movies of all time list but it’s an amusing and entertaining slice of 50s American sci-fi.

Radar stations pick up an unidentified craft traveling at very high altitude and at a fantastic speed. The craft is slowly losing altitude and airspeed, and finally disappears. Shortly afterwards unexplained interference starts to play havoc with radio reception. The Communications Commission has its radio trucks out trying to trace the source of the interference.

Then a series of odd murders takes place, involving a mysterious stranger, strangely dressed and wearing what looks like a diver’s helmet. Witnesses aren’t entirely certain but they have the impression there was no face inside the helmet!

The usual team of scientists that you expect in a 1953 sci-fi movie are called in to investigate, along with the police lieutenant in charge of the murder cases and an air force officer. They find the stranger’s clothing, and discover it’s made if an unknown material. And the helmet has an air tank attached, but the mixture of gases it contains would be instantly fatal to a human. Given all this plus the fact that the stranger appears to be invisible it takes an extraordinarily long time to come to the fairly obvious conclusion that they’re not dealing with someone from our planet.

Phantom from Space addresses what was a very popular them in 50s science fiction. It was assumed that of course we would eventually encounter aliens, but would they be friendly or hostile? More importantly, would we be able to tell the difference? Would we be able to communicate on any meaningful level? The movie doesn’t deal with the issue in great depth but it does deal with it reasonably convincingly.

It starts out appearing to be another alien invasion movie but it becomes more and more doubtful that the alien is really an invader. What I like about this movie is that it leaves things open. The mystery is never resolved, and the humans are left wondering if they could have handled things better. They’re also left with both a sense of wonder and of loss.

That’s not to suggest this is a forgotten classic. It’s very much a B-movie, but a B-movie that at least has a few ideas.

It’s also very talky, but that’s more or less par for the course for low-budget movies of this vintage. One of the great attractions of any fun science fiction movie is the technobabble, and this one has some truly classic examples. My favourite piece of pseudoscientific gobblydegook is when the chief scientist theorises that the alien may not be a carbon-based lifeform, but a silicon-based lifeform. Glass is made of silicon. And glass is transparent. Therefore it makes sense that the alien should be invisible!

The acting is standard B-movie acting, the special effects are ultra-cheap, there’s lots of stock footage of interceptors being scrambled to meet the mysterious alien spacecraft. That it does have though is really cool 1950 high-tech radio cars with gigantic radio aerials. They’re a lot of fun.

If you’re a fan of 50 American sci-fi this one is worth seeing. The public domain print I saw was pretty rough but I believe there’s been a quite decent DVD release.

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