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DVD Review: Jack Arnold’s It Came From Outer Space on Universal Home Video

This is an essential purchase for fans and novices of Arnold’s films and ‘50s sci-fi flicks.


It Came From Outer Space

Inspired by an outline by Ray Bradbury and modified for the screen by Harry Essex, It Came From Outer Space remains the granddaddy of the ‘50s atomic-scare pictures. It’s relatively easy to pinpoint the metaphors at work yet It Came From Outer Space remains especially evocative thanks to Jack Arnold’s 3-D savvy direction and the poetic tonality of the film’s dialogue. Astronomer John Putnam (Richard Carlson, perhaps an early prototype for David Duchovny’s Fox Mulder) spends a comfortable night at home with his girlfriend Ellen Fields (Barbara Rush). His opening voiceover suggests a man both wary of the future and convinced that truth lies somewhere in the stars. A meteor crashes into a secluded desert area just outside his home. At the crash site, Jack discovers an alien spacecraft and is convinced of a foreign threat when the film’s gelatinous eye creatures begin to turn the townsfolk into host bodies. Though the sheriff is respectfully mindful of John’s individual mantra (“He’s an individual and lonely, he thinks for himself”), he still sees the “young astronomer” as a crackpot. When schoolteacher Ellen skips class to go alien-hunting, the sheriff’s assistant questions her “responsibility to the community” when he’s clearly oblivious to John’s own concerns for the well-being of the town. Beyond the poetry of its words, It Came from Outer Space evokes an American landscape unprepared for friendly alien contact. Alien perspective is rendered via an oil-filled dish placed directly over the camera but Universal would later insist on the addition of 3-D compliable scenes of the actual aliens (here, a glitter-dropping eyeball with bad hair extensions). The hokey “xenomorphs” would egregiously emphasize the film’s subtle indictment of human prejudice: that we seek to destroy what we don’t understand.


Edge enhancement is virtually nil on Universal’s It Came From Outer Space DVD though noticeable in a scene where Frank (Joe Sawyer) and George (Russell Johnson, the Professor from “Gilligan’s Island”) are attacked by the aliens. Some dirt and scratching is frequently visible yet the overall transfer is incredibly handsome and penetrating on this digital transfer of Jack Arnold’s oft-ignored classic. The English 3.0 stereo is serviceable and while some dialogue is difficult to hear, the soundtrack is particularly engaging when the composite score and the sounds of the theremin take center stage.


First up is the truly incisive, 30-minute featurette “The Universe According to Universal.” Though the piece may initially play out like a shameless self-promotional montage of Universal sci-fi productions (from the Flash Gordon pictures of the ‘30s to This Island Earth and E.T. The Extra Terrestrial), this may be the most accessible learning tool for those unfamiliar with Jack Arnold and his brand of ‘50s post-atomic creature features. Discussed here is the paranoia of the atomic age, the fear of new technology as prompted by the 1945 invention of the atomic weapon, the poetry of Ray Bradbury’s language, the use of alien perspective (in this film and in later films like Tarantuala) and the archetypical use of the theremin. The featurette serves as an evocative tour through Jack Arnold’s work, from It Came From Outer Space and Creature From the Black Lagoon to his masterpiece The Incredible Shrinking Man. Though film scholar Tom Weaver’s commentary track may sound scripted and hurried, it could be one of the more engaging commentaries you’re likely to come across. For eighty non-stop minutes, Weaver exposes incredible secrets and lies: Universal only seeing the obvious (they asked that Jack Arnold construct the audience-friendly xenomorphs after production was completed); screenwriter Harry Essex claiming that the film had little to do with Ray Bradbury’s exhaustive treatment (purported to be some 100-plus pages long); and how the film left an indelible impression on directors like Joe Dante and Steven Spielberg. Weaver’s casual acknowledgement of goofs and trivia is particularly funny (“Why is Richard Carlson’s pipe upside down?” or “Is that Francis the Talking Mule?”). Also included here is the film’s original theatrical trailer, a five-minute photograph and poster gallery accompanied by pieces from the film’s composite score and production notes.


Kudos to Universal for giving It Came From Outer Space the DVD red carpet treatment. This is an essential purchase for fans and novices of Jack Arnold’s films and ‘50s sci-fi flicks.

Cast: Richard Carlson, Barbara Rush, Charles Drake, Joe Sawyer, Russell Johnson, Kathleen Hughes Director: Jack Arnold Screenwriter: Harry Essex Distributor: Universal Studios Home Video Running Time: 81 min Rating: G Year: 1953 Release Date: May 21, 2002 Buy: Video, Soundtrack

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