Noni Ford writes about how Ray Bradbury finds empathy for the unknown, as exemplified by the 1950s sci-fi flick It Came from Outer Space, whose script is based on the author’s original film treatment “The Meteor.”
My first introduction to the work of Ray Bradbury was the book Martian Chronicles, which was one of the assigned readings of an excellent Introduction to Science Fiction course I took at IU. In this book, I found an anthology of short stories revolving around Mars and the involvement of humans with the planet. I’ve now made it a tradition to consistently read this book every year both for entertainment, which has not dulled despite my many rereads of the material, and for what it always reminds me about how to approach science-fiction writing. I was raised on films like Independence Day and Mars Attacks, so the very concept of aliens causes me to think of a malevolent body intent on human destruction and dominance. In Martian Chronicles, though, you find a more nuanced dynamic at play between the humans and the native people of Mars — there is of course violence, but also confusion, subterfuge, kindness, and sorrow. Bradbury rewrites the story of aliens to not simply be just an ‘us versus them’ narrative, but a clash of cultures. In his writing, he elevates the motivations and feelings of the aliens, and he shows that the human response to them can be more complex than just fear. Bradbury successfully shows how to write science fiction that can change the conventions of the othered monster and give depth to a familiar trope, which is why when I watched It Came from Outer Space, I wasn’t surprised that this wasn’t just a straightforward alien horror story.
Aliens in science fiction writings and films often help define the author’s view of humanity. After all, what better way to make sense of the tenets of humanity than by contrasting it to its opposite? When the alien is cast as a monster and a threat to humanity, our characters must be shown to bond together to not only defeat this force, but also to show that together humanity can accomplish great success. The villainy on display also doesn’t hurt to boost the image of our hero too. While our protagonist in It Came from Outer Space, John Putnam, certainly shows some of the more classic descriptors of a hero (brave, charismatic, intelligent), he also isn’t quite the traditional leading man. For one, he’s an amateur astronomer and fiction writer and for another, while he makes sure to protect himself and his fiancée Ellen when things get dicey, his first inclination is never violence.
When a meteorite crashes near John and Ellen’s town in Arizona, he becomes obsessed with finding out more about it and the next day they race out to see it. John ventures closer to it than anyone else and is surprised to see a spaceship before a landslide of rocks buries it. Hidden from view and with no physical proof of what he’s seen — or suspects is an alien presence — he quickly becomes ridiculed for his outlandish claims. When strange happenings begin affecting those around the town, including personality changes and the disappearance of individuals, John continues to try to make contact in some way with the aliens. His goal isn’t to kill them or even to prove their existence in order to gain some sort of glory, he simply wants to know their plans and intentions. In fact, I would say John’s greatest strength as a character is his communication skills: he never lies and he speaks plainly with everyone he encounters.
In the movie his opposition is Sheriff Matt, who doesn’t believe any of John’s claims and is intent on doing whatever he can to protect Ellen from any of the negative effects of John’s plunging reputation. Sheriff Matt is gruffer and more forceful in his communication style; he represents another side of humanity. A more aggressive nature comes out when danger is detected, and while he’s more of an antagonist we do understand why he responds the way he does when given such little information on the events of these alien visitors. If the aliens are a mirror being held up to humanity, in the reflection Bradbury writes of the ranges of human reaction to the unknown and the ability of humans to be peaceable and understanding but also angry and brutish. Bradbury’s aliens are not perfect beings, either — they make mistakes too and have motivations, and although they may not be exactly like us, they share some of our failings and are therefore not beings to be feared but rather ones that we could do to understand better so we can in turn understand ourselves better.
This story and film may be over 60 years old, but there are timeless lessons in the narrative, such as communication being the greatest skill of all and listening before reacting. Bradbury’s story likely inspired many of the different depictions of aliens we see in science fiction after the 1950s, like E.T., Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and Arrival (which was screened at IU Cinema earlier this summer), and his deft work with changing the cliché of the bloodthirsty alien will continue to inspire science-fiction writers. It Came from Outer Space is a reminder to all of us that there could be much more out there than simply stars and the next time you look to the sky at night, you should keep an eye out for returning visitors.
It Came from Outer Space previously screened in 3D at the IU Cinema in 2015 as part of our Science on Screen programming and the series Ray Bradbury: From Science to the Supernatural. To see another film about humanity’s response to the unknown, come to the Cinema tomorrow, August 25, for Steven Spielberg’s classic Jaws, which will also be presented in 3D!