Image from 'Quatermass and the Pit'
Sometimes the most celebrated scifi films are the silliest, S. T. Karnick writes.

Mike Gray’s analysis of four scifi films, three of which were highly celebrated in their time, brings up an important point: sometimes the films that garner the most critical respect are the silliest.

Mike points out that the "groundbreaking" themes in Stanley Kubrick’s widely admired 2001: A Space Odyssey were "old hat in 1945" but were new to ’60s hippies and their youthful sympathizers who were quite ignorant of classic scifi books. I saw 2001 on a big screen in a theater, and I was blown away . . . by its intellectual triteness and the amateur quality of the production on every level except the visuals.

I think what audiences of the time really appreciated was the crazy, psychedelic visuals at the climax, Kubrick’s wonderful image of a planet with a human fetus in it, and the overall atmosphere of intellectuality the film gave off. It made people think the movie was deep without Kubrick actually going to the trouble of affording any intellectual insights.

Kubrick is vastly overrated for most of his work because of his pretensions to intellectuality, which most film critics, being utterly ignorant about everything but movies and knowing little about the latter either, cannot see as mere pretensions and not the real thing.

Charly is one gloomy and depressing film, but given the point it’s making, I suppose that’s appropriate. However, I suspect it would have been more effective as a comedy. Can you imagine Howard Hawks directing it, a la Monkey Business? Now that would be a superb movie. Of course, Cary Grant and Ginger Rogers are far better than Cliff Robertson and Claire Bloom any day.

I thought that the novel on which the film was based, Flowers for Algernon, was more successful. In part I think it was so because it was so much more succinct within its form, but also important is that the literary technique the author used made for an interesting look into the protagonist’s mind. Recommended.

Planet of the Apes is, as Mike suggests, a fun bit of hippie nonsense. Anything more than that it is not, which may be why Mike concludes that it didn’t rate sequels and TV series.

Here, too, the pretensions toward intellectuality grabbed the imagination of the fashionable people of the time. Like the Coen brothers films of recent decades, Planet of the Apes keeps seeming as if it is about to tell us something important, but never does.

This is exemplified by the ending, seen as quite shocking at the time but really just another fashionable political cliche, the notion that the Mutual Assured Destruction doctrine of internatinal nuclear gamesmanship would lead to catastrophe. It didn’t, and strictly because we as a society ultimately refused to listen to the fools who would have unilaterally disarmed the United States and left us to the good graces of an emeny who had sworn to destroy us. Thus even the film’s biggest moment is quite false.

Everybody knows the story of Planet of the Apes. Charlton Heston plays the protagonist, a human trapped on a planet populated by intelligent apes who treat humans as an inferior species (which in fact they are, according to the conceit of the film) and use them as slaves. This makes for a good deal of lefty superiority, as the film enables sympathetic audience members to look down on their presumably prejudiced neighbors, affording them much pleasure in contemplating their personal superiority over those who voted for Nixon in the last election (and in fact those who voted at all instead of working to bring down the evil, oppressive system that the United States had become).

The irony, of course, is that the very superiority the audience felt in watching the film was being overtly criticized in the movie. Ah, well, scifi movies of the time were meant to make you feel good about yourself, not think clearly or consistently.

What really makes Planet of the Apes work better as a film than it should is the performances. Heston in particular is superb as the protagonist, lending the character a powerful dignity that appropriately highlights the prejudices of the apes of the title planet. Also very effective are Roddy McDowell and Kim Hunter as sympathetic liberal apes and Maurice Evans as the powerful and rather enigmatic Dr. Zaius.

Although the intellectual pretensions behind the film are quite comical and its fashionable political stances downright embarrassing, the actors and director Franklin Shaffner (Patton, Papillon) make it an enjoyable lark.

Quatermass and the Pit (aka Five Million Years to Earth, based on a highly regarded BBC TV series) is the best of the films Mike mentions in his roundup, in my view. It also has the cheapest production values, which ought to remind us that a strong story and coherent ideas are ultimately much more important than money.

Like Mike, I enjoyed the way this film brought out intimations of the demonic and the occult. To my recollection it appeared to be using a scifi story to explore those concepts, not to dismiss them as having a strictly natural (though outlandish) explanation. On the contrary, I thought Quatermass and the Pit used the alien attack scenario to make the idea of demonic possession vivid and real to secular audiences.

That’s a very positive accomplishment, in my view. Recommended.

–S. T. Karnick