Sci-fi movie posters from the 1950s was a new and outrageously hyperbolic art form. Sci-Fi has been a staple part of cinema-going for decades but the 50s are usually considered to be the Golden Age of the genre. Nowadays everyone has their favorites, from the psychedelic spectacle of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 (1968) to the replicants-on-the-rampage action of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982).
For some however, the 1950s is where science fiction on the big screen became established and conquered all. As the Chester County Library put it, “It wasn’t until ‘the Bomb’ of 1945 and ensuing atomic age that the cinematic genre of science fiction came into its own.”
A fevered political and social climate was key to this development, says the site. “Atomic and hydrogen bombs and radioactivity, mutations, jet planes, rockets, UFOs, medical breakthroughs—in short, science—became a hot topic. Still, it wasn’t until 1950 that Hollywood ran with the ball.”
Destination Moon, released in 1950, was seen as a landmark in serious American sci-fi. A couple of decades before Neil Armstrong and co made it happen, the movie gave an in-depth look at a rocket trip to the Lunar surface.
Not only did it have author Robert A. Heinlein (Starship Troopers) on the scriptwriting team, it was also produced by George Pal. He’d go on to make The War of the Worlds 3 years later. Appropriately for a film focusing on the talents of private spaceship builders, he got the project off the ground as an indie. Directed by Irving Pichel, starring John Archer and with matte paintings by space art pioneer Chesley Bonestell rendered in glorious Technicolor, the result was a hit.
Its legacy is still felt today, despite the dated presentation. When tech giant Elon Musk unveiled a rocket prototype at the start of the year, New Scientist wrote “The design of the rocket resembles classic spacecraft from 1950’s-era science-fiction, such as the film Destination Moon.”
The Day The Earth Stood Still landed in 1951. Based on a story by Harry Bates, it depicted the arrival of Klaatu (Michael Rennie), a powerful alien who attempts to warn humanity about the dangers of atomic warfare. The atmosphere of paranoia rising from conflicts such as the Cold War was a driving force behind the production.
The high-minded Klaatu was memorably accompanied by Gort (Lock Martin), a giant robot with devastating firepower. The character also appeared in the derided 2008 remake starring Keanu Reeves. While there wasn’t a deadly mechanical man in the Bible, many have compared the narrative to Jesus’s story, though censors weren’t keen to embrace the parallels.
Scientific American commented that the tale covers “timeless mythic themes: destruction and redemption, death and resurrection, mortality and immortality, individual liberty and group unity, national sovereignty and global community, and, of course, scientists playing God and technology run amok.” It was preserved in the US National Film Registry in 1995.
Directed by Robert Wise (The Andromeda Strain, Star Trek: The Motion Picture) and scored by the legendary Bernard Herrmann, The Day The Earth Stood Still took audiences on a thought-provoking journey.
Thrills of a more monstrous kind were evident in The Thing From Another World, released the same year Klaatu set foot on American soil. Howard Hawks’ claustrophobic horror trapped some unlucky individuals in the depths of the Arctic with a blood-drinking humanoid alien (James Arness).
Based on Who Goes There? by John W. Campbell Jr, the screenplay tapped into the theme of scientists messing with things – so to speak – they don’t understand. The AV Club wrote that the film “has a title and premise straight out of the big book of ’50s monster mega-cheese” but is ultimately “a smart, scary, funny, and even philosophical fright film into the gaudy shell of drive-in movie schlock. The title may be hyperbolic and campy, but everything else about the film is refreshingly sophisticated.”
One famous fan was director John Carpenter, who delivered his own eye-popping take on the Thing in 1982. It used elaborate special effects to enhance the original’s sense of paranoia. That feeling played a major role in sci-fi cinema of the Fifties, most notably in Don Siegel’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956). Seen as one of the definitive films about social conformity, with a strong theme of invasion by mysterious powers, it presented a terrifying scenario of everyday folk becoming “pod people”.
Using Jack Finney’s novel as a source, it shocked audiences out of their comfort zones. Empire wrote it is “informed by the paranoia of the McCarthy Era, with the pod people representing either commie infiltrators or right-wing witch-hunters.” The narrative has been updated for remakes in 1978 (starring Donald Sutherland), 1993 and a Nicole Kidman/Daniel Craig flop in 2007. The first and best entered the Film Registry in 1994.
The Fifties had its fair share of laughs among the scientific rigor and extraterrestrial intrigue. They were unintentional, but strong evidence can be seen in 1958’s It! and 1954’s Them! Playing into fears of atomic experimentation, the stars of the movie were arguably its giant ant antagonists. The testing site of the New Mexico desert was where they scurried from to wreak mayhem on America.
Featuring The Thing’s James Arness, starring James Whitmore and directed by Gordon Douglas, the result spawned similar films about irradiated threats. Website Snakes ‘n Scales wrote about the genuine concerns behind the sensational subject matter, saying “it was only in March of 1954, just 3 months prior to the film’s release in June, when the first hydrogen bomb was exploded.
It’s destructive power was 1000 times that of each of the two bombs used on Japan and it scared and surprised everyone, including it’s creators! So creating giant ants based on exposure to radiation wasn’t really as lunatic an idea as it sounds 70 years after the first detonation.”
Other classics from the period include Creature From The Black Lagoon (1954), Forbidden Planet (1956), The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957).
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Sci-fi movie posters continuously reflects the times of its production. The sci-fi movies and movie posters of the 1950s did what other decades had done, yet it was the first to take the genre seriously in Hollywood. Movies made during that time have proved highly influential. Their effects may date. Their ideas on the other hand live on in the minds of future generations.