What the Golden Age of Science Fiction Film Might Have Looked Like

by Walton Simons

     The 1950s, particularly in the US, were the decade when Hollywood discovered the science fiction film. There had been several sf movies prior to that time, mostly presented as horror films like The Invisible Man and Island of Lost Souls, or Wells’ Things to Come. I’m curious as to how the Wild Card virus might have altered this cycle of films, and I’ll be doing some theorizing about that notion. 

Understand, none of my ideas are in any way canon in the Wild Card universe. At least, not unless they show up in a book with “edited by George R.R. Martin” under the title. The 50s were a time of prosperity and paranoia in the US, and the Wild Card would certainly have amplified the latter with regard to sf films.

    George Pal’s Destination Moon is considered by most to be the first important sf film of the 1950s. It’s a somewhat low key, semi-documentary tale about man’s first trip to the moon. Although technically well done, it relies on a Woody Woodpecker cartoon and a crewman from Brooklyn to keep things interesting. It would have been intriguing if the crew had found an abandoned Takisian base near their landing site, but that aside, I can’t think of other major changes to the film because of the Wild Card.

    Likewise for Pal’s When Worlds Collide, based on the book by Philip Wylie and Edwin Balmer. The drama is exactly what one would expect from the title. Two planets are hurtling toward the Earth. The passing of the first will cause natural disaster on a massive scale. The second will crush Earth, destroying all life. A space ark is constructed to fly to the first (conveniently Earth-like) planet. There’s not really any room in the narrative for Wild Card related issues, unless one of the vital scientists became a joker or drew the black queen.

    The Thing From Another World is perfect for the paranoid, and undoubtedly anti-alien, post-Wild Card mentality that gripped the US. A monstrous blood-consuming alien comes to our planet to conquer it. Mayhem and drama ensue, courtesy of the alien and a lead scientist bent on preserving the Thing in hopes of gaining knowledge. The final warning of “Keep Watching the Skies,” would certainly have resonated with audiences who had seen the chaos caused by an alien virus.

    The Day the Earth Stood Still is a problem in the Wild Card universe. Assuming it would even be greenlit in the first place, the script would have to have been altered significantly. It’s hard to imagine the warm, lovable Klaatu playing very well with audiences. More likely he would be cold and calculating. In addition, Gort would be far more destructive. Maybe the indestructible robot would sink the Rock of Gibraltar, as was casually mentioned in the film. Klaatu probably wouldn’t be killed or resurrected by Gort. The Christ metaphor just wouldn’t work for a threatening alien. His last speech to the assembled scientific community would emphasize the “reducing Earth to a burned-out cinder” line of thinking. All in all, not a feel-good movie.

    War of the Worlds is a perfect post-virus depiction of aliens and their technology. George Pal updated Wells story, but kept the Martians’ malevolence and desire for conquest. Ditto Earth vs. the Flying Saucers a few years later. Monstrous unfeeling aliens were certain to sell tickets. Invaders From Mars, with a child trying to convince the adults around him that a saucer had landed in a nearby sand pit simply wouldn’t play. Everyone knew that there were in fact aliens.

    Also from 1953, The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms kicked off the giant-monster-on-the-loose cycle. As with many of these pictures that followed, the prehistoric beast was awakened by an atomic explosion. The beast then found its way south from the Arctic to New York City, where it could unleash maximum destruction, courtesy of Ray Harryhausen’s special effects. An alternate plot device at the beginning might have the US military shooting down a Takisian ship (hey, our movies, our rules) with that event causing the beast to rouse from its slumber.

    The next major giant monster film, and one of the most highly-respected, is Them! The titular giant ants were insets genetically altered by radiation. It wouldn’t be necessary to shoehorn anything about aliens into this taut horror-thriller. Not all 50’s giant monster fare relied on radiation to create their monsters, but many did.  Nuclear energy was a better plot device for creating oversized animals and insects, since the Wild Card had no known effect on animals. So it’s likely most movies would still have used that explanation, from the very best of the sub-genre to the occasionally appealing shlock from Bert I. Gordon and AIP. Godzilla would have certainly remained a radioactive menace. The Japanese collective suffering due to the atomic bomb was certainly more devastating the Wild Card.


    The Creature From the Black Lagoon offered a potential Wild Card-related monster. Instead of a genetic dead-end between man and fish, it could easily have been an amphibian joker. Certainly, the Creature’s attraction to Julie Adams would have made more sense under those circumstances.

    One of the most colorful and entertaining, if somewhat illogical, entries into the field was This Island Earth. In it, alien visitors from the planet Metaluna kidnap Earth scientists with the hope of developing an energy source to protect their home planet, which is under constant bombardment from its enemy Zahgon. Of the Metalunans, only Exeter is sympathetic. It would have been an interesting plot point if the Metalunans had approached the Takisians for assistance before coming to Earth (off-screen, of course) and been denied help by the creator of the virus.

    The following year, 1956, what is considered by most to be the glossiest, best realized sf film of the decade: Forbidden Planet. Based very loosely on The Tempest, Forbidden Planet offered the history of a supremely intelligent group of aliens, the Krell, as told through the eyes of a human scientist Morbius, who had undergone a brain-boost, his daughter, and a group of new arrivals, Terran military types with admittedly cool uniforms. Things get ugly when a planetary force starts wiping out the red-blooded military types. The upshot is that the Krell had invented technology that allowed its people to tap into the machine with the power of their minds and do anything. Unfortunately, their rampant ids wiped the Krell out. It would have been interesting if the screenplay had indicated the Takisians had visited the Krell planet and destroyed themselves, too. Hard to imagine Hollywood could go wrong with dead Takisians.

    Invasion of the Body Snatchers is paranoid 50s sf at its very best. I can’t imagine it being any different that it was. I suppose the Takinians could have sent the pods to earth to replace humans, but why? The focus of the movie would have been lost and to no real purpose.

    One of my favorites from the 50s is The Incredible Shrinking Man, which could easily have made Scott Carey, the shrinking man, into a victim of the Wild Card instead of a radioactive mist. It’s a minor change, and wouldn’t in any way blunt the effectiveness or Richard Matheson’s story. Still, blaming Scott’s hardship, suffering, and eventual nothingness of the creators of the Wild Card could be a real possibility.

    There are dozens more films I could have discussed here, and I avoided altogether movies that might have been made. The 50s were an incredibly fertile time for sf cinema, but I picked some of the movies I thought were most significant and enjoyable. There’s plenty more to watch from that time period, if you haven’t already. You might consider checking some of them out.