1950s Science Fiction films
by Cynthia C. Scott
The 1950s was a time of contradiction. Americans were
alternately optimistic in the post-war economic boom and paranoid in the shadow of the Cold War and the
Hollywood released an output of films during this period that reflected Cold War paranoia
and apocalyptic fears. But these films used the science fiction genre to dig deeper into these fears
without frightening audiences off from their political messages.
One of the first films to address these concerns was the 1953 classic War of the
Worlds. Based on the H.G. Wells novel, War of the Worlds was updated for
contemporary audiences, taking place not in Wells' native England, but 1950s Los Angeles. In this modern
retelling, Martians revealed a superhuman strength and technology that no man made weaponry could
Even the atomic bomb proved to be a weak opponent to these aliens. In the end, biology would
do them in, offering a potent message to 1950s audiences that, like the germs and viruses that populated the planet
and that which the human race has become immune, Communism was unnatural.
The 1956 film Invasion of the Body Snatchers was more aggressive in its anti-Communism
message. In the film, alien invasion occurs in the most invasive way imaginable: the very body itself is invaded as
citizens of a small southern California town are replaced by their emotionless alien pods. Group think
and the masses take the place of individuality and the individual; individual pleasures and experiences are
replaced by the communal good.
The metaphor for this pod transformation–sleep–is another potent message to
American audiences: as long as they are blind to the Communist terror then they too will be, as the film's
tagline suggest, next. More horror story than science fiction, Invasion of the Body Snatchers is a
1950s cautionary tale.
Not all films during this period were analogies for the Communist terror, but for the terror of the
Atomic bomb. Though many Americans would come close to that terror in the 1960s during the
Cuban Missile Crisis, that threat was still very much real in the '50s, a
decade after the dropping of the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
The Japanese, who had suffered the most from the atomic fallout, were foremost in delivering
this terror on the large screen. Godzilla (1954) was the monstrous result of American atomic
prowess, wrecking havoc on Tokyo and Japanese citizens. Godzilla was a metaphor for the
horrors with which the Japanese people were still coming to grips and that
became a way to approach their worst fears within the safety of a movie theater.
American filmmakers were likewise concerned about the consequences of nuclear technology and created their
own beasts on the rampage pictures, such as The Beast of 20,000 Fathoms (1953) and Them (1954).
These films revealed the horrors that atomic technology could wrack on the environment and on the very creatures
with whom we share space on this planet. Their warnings were forceful: screw with the environment and
you screw with the natural balance that holds life together.
But one 1950s science-fiction film that had the most astute Cold War message was 1951's
The Day the Earth Stood Still. A forerunner of Cold War films, The Day
the Earth Stood Still didn't give in to the paranoid fantasies of other such films but offered a warning to
American audiences about what would happen if they gave in to them.
The movie was about an alien and his robot who came to Earth with a message: if Earthlings
didn't restrain their destructive habits, they were going to be liquidated. Following the horror and
destruction of the Nazi regime nearly a decade before and the ongoing conflict in Korea, The Day
the Earth Stood Still resonated with audiences weary of war.
While the 1950s is known as a decade of endless optimism, these films pull the shade back
from that facade and reveal a decade filled with paranoia, uncertainty, fear, and existential dread
over what science and technology has brought to humanity.