There was a time when sci-fi was magical, when a lack of technology for special effects drove people to rely on creativity and innovation. Even in the worst examples of the sci-fi of yesteryear, you have to admire the tenacity of the people behind it. They didn't have computers and Silicon Graphics billion-megahertz processors to spit out animation and CGI, so they had to come up with dangling pie tins and stop motion animated models. It was a glorious time, my friends, a glorious time.
The movies were driven by situations and characters instead of special effects and technical wizardry. There was a real sense of pioneering and adventure. Not only were the films about things we had yet to explore or come to understand, but making the films took everyone into equally unexplored territory. People had to learn and invent. Did I mention how glorious a time it was?
During the late 1970s, of course, it all changed, and we've discussed this a couple times before so I won't reiterate it here -- but neither shall I tell you where else it was we discussed this very topic, partly because it can be lots of fun for you to search our reviews for it, but mostly because I don't really remember just off the top of my head. Suffice it to say that the complexion of science fiction was forever altered at that fateful time, and the focus moved from characters and situation to swashbuckling action and cutting edge special effects.
That in itself wasn't so bad, but these days, the genre has been taken to its illogical extreme, with entire movies being made based solely on look and computer animation effects. Plots and characters are so distant in the rankings that they almost don't exist. They have become little more than props used to set up yet another one of those scenes where a bunch of people jump around, are suddenly frozen in place, and the camera then rotates around them, as we've seen in hits such as The Matrix and some of those really annoying "you must conform" Gap commercials from last year. The ones from this year, with identical looking zombie-like youths droning out some unrelated song in basically the same monotone voice, are even more chilling in their "you must conform" mentality and message, but that scariness is best saved for another time.
I miss the days when sci-fi was more original and daring, when they relied on spit and duct tape to hold things together. Say what you will, but I admire the half-assed artistry that went into creating goofball effects like the massive turkey buzzard thing in The Giant Claw more than I admire the space-age computer stuff in The Matrix and all other current sci-fi films. Even the old Star Wars films, blockbusters that they were, are infinitely more interesting to look at than the polished, totally sterile computer-generated environment of the latest sorry-ass entry into the saga. And it's probably pretty obvious that given the choice between Japanese guys in foam rubber monster suits or high-tech computer generated beasties, I'm going with foam rubber.
Warning from Space (and you thought I'd never get around to the review) is part of a slew of wonderful films from what was really the dawning of the Golden Age of Japanese science fiction. It was the first sci-fi film from Japan produced in color, and while it's not the best of the era, it's a moving, thoughtful piece that focuses on characters and messages far more than the limited special effects. Films of this type always make me happy. They are the films that made me a sci-fi fan, and they are the films that continue to delight and enthrall me.
A race of star-shaped socks (I swear!) with one giant eye in the middle of their bodies have come to Earth to warn us that we are a bunch of bumbling assholes. I think they were more diplomatic that I am, but that's the gist of their message. Seems the cosmic community has taken notice of the fact that Earth is forging blindly ahead in its pursuit of technological advance, often time inventing and creating things we simply cannot control. The discovery that kicks off the alien interest in us is of a new form of energy that, while being very powerful, is also incredibly unstable and dangerous. If you guessed "allegory for atomic power," then give yourself a prize fuel rod.
Initial attempts to contact us Earthlings don't go all that well. You see, we have this tendency to either scream and run away or shoot our guns any time giant space-faring cloth starfish come lumbering up to us. The aliens are discouraged by our cowardice and violent reaction; even the scientists of the world are quick to fear and attack the beings.
Rather than make more trouble, a couple of the aliens assumes human form (they can always do this) and try to wiggle their way into positions working with our top scientists at a time when "the world's top scientists" seemed to be doing a lot more (at least in the movies) than they do these days. I think a lot of why early sci-fi films are so much more fun than the films of today is that science itself, like the movies about it, was advancing in leaps and bounds into often unfamiliar territory. They simply had to wing it. No one knew what the hell it was going to be like flying around in space. Our preparations for space travel were educated guesses at best, and more times than not, little more than wild gambles. With the state of science sort of dull these days (there is no space fever, or any fever for anything but internet porn), it goes without saying that the sci-fi films will reflect the rather uninterested, cynical outlook of the greater population. We've lost the wonder. We need Mr. Wizard.
Despite the mounting evidence, the humans are slow to admit to their own folly. Just as we seem to be coming around, more bad news hits arrives in the form of one of those massive asteroids that is going to plow into the planet. Our unstable new compound seems to be the only way to blow the thing up and save the world. But our leaders and politicians are busy arguing amongst themselves and holding committee meetings. Just like many of the people for whom I worked at First Union, their idea of taking action is having a meeting about taking action rather than actually doing something.
As the asteroid comes closer, the climate of Earth begins to change. Things get hot and desolate, and natural disasters ensue. Humans are forced to take shelter underground, waiting for their elected officials to finally come to an agreement about what to do. Will we listen to our alien saviors? Can we come together in time to prevent global catastrophe? Or will we simply bicker and argue and be smacked upside the head by a giant meteor?
As with most sci-fi of the time, the social message is pretty close to the surface and delivered somewhat heavy-handedly. But with so much soulless, superficial nonsense floating around nowadays, I admire a good heavy-handed sci-fi morality play. Warning from Space is similar to other films in which benevolent aliens are frustrated in their attempts to save humanity from itself. The most famous of these is probably The Day The Earth Stood Still. If we can learn anything from these films, it's that when aliens show up and tell us we're being jackasses, we probably are. Hell, that guy from Plan 9 from Outer Space was just trying to keep us from destroying our own planet, and all we did to repay him was sock him in the jaw.
As in similarly themed films like Gorath, this film is ultimately hopeful that we will learn from our own mistakes, that science and responsibility will save us from our own vices, and that politicians are basically a bunch of useless goons. It's too bad that science is now little more than the plaything of politicians, so I don't guess any heroic scientists will be coming to our aid in the near future. They'll be in the meetings along with everyone else. Still, it's nice to see a movie that has some faith in humanity and in starfish-shaped cloth aliens. While were not really living up to our potential not to be a race of destructive dickheads all the time, I'd still like to think that one day we might get it right. Just not any time soon.
Warning from Space is not an action-packed sci-fi extravaganza full of space dogfights, laser blasts, and explosions. It's a more modest film that focuses on its message more than its look, though some of the scenes of global devastation caused by the asteroid are quite effective. At times, it even reminded me of post-war Japan, with the survivors of the atomic blasts struggling to survive while politicians and military leaders sacrificed thousands in the name of greed and pride. Hopefully, it won't take a race of Star of Davids to show is the error of our way, because I don't think we can depend on them to show up in time. We have ourselves to blame, and ultimately, only ourselves upon which to rely.
If you are looking for a thoughtful, well-made piece of science fiction that will actually get you to fire up the pistons in your brain and start thinking about the people of the world, I highly recommend Warning from Space. It's got charm, style, and a lot to say. I enjoyed it as much today as I did twenty years ago, and I have a feeling I'll still be enjoying it in another twenty years.
Provided we haven't blown up our planet or been hit by one of those big space rocks.