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Jack Arnold
Richard Carlson, Barbara Rush, Charles Drake, Joe Sawyer, Russell Johnson, Kathleen Hughes
Ray Bradbury, Harry Essex

Amazing! Exciting! Spectacular!
Not Rated.

Standard 1.33:1
English Dolby Stereo 3.0
English, French, Spanish

Runtime: 81 min.
Price: $19.98
Release Date: 5/21/2002

• Audio Commentary From Film Historian Tom Weaver
• “The Universe According to Universal” Documentary
• Poster and Photo Gallery
• Theatrical Trailer
• Production Notes
• Cast and Filmmakers
• Weblinks


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It Came From Outer Space (1953)

Reviewed by Colin Jacobson

Considering their dependence on special effects, it seems logical that more modern horror or science fiction films would work better. After all, if you can’t suspend disbelief and accept what you see on screen as reality, it appears difficult to get involved in the story.

However, this isn’t always the case. At least in the realm of horror, some of the genre’s oldest efforts remain its best. Despite dated effects, flicks like Bride of Frankenstein and The Invisible Man continue to provide a lot of entertainment and deliver some satisfying material. Honestly, horror movies started strong in the Thirties and slowly declined through the Forties and Fifties until they finally started to rebound in the Sixties and Seventies via films like Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist.

During the Fifties, the genre got silly, with post-nuclear creatures and space monsters abundant. The former represented the fear of nuclear annihilation and the scary new world that emerged after Hiroshima, while the latter showed concerns over the apparent encroachment of communism. Both clearly seemed a part of their era, and they often don’t translate well to modern standards.

Frankly, I’m not sure whether one should classify 1953’s It Came From Outer Space as a horror movie or a science fiction flick. It straddled both genres and never firmly landed in one or the other, though I’d claim it fell closer to the sci-fi camp. In any case, it provides a pretty silly and ineffectual effort that left me cold.

The movie takes place in the western desert, where local egghead John Putnam (Richard Carlson) and his girlfriend Ellen Fields (Barbara Rush) see a fireball shoot across the sky and crash into the barren realm. Everyone seems to think it’s just a meteor, but Putnam quickly starts to suspect something else is at work. He feels that this was no rock. Instead, Putnam becomes convinced that it was a ship with alien critters aboard.

Basically, the rest of the film depicts Putnam as he attempts to convince the townsfolk of his theory. While this happens, the aliens slowly kidnap many of the residents and adopt their forms so they can roam undetected through the realm. They do this not for nefarious means ala Invasion of the Body Snatchers; they possess no ambitions to conquer the planet. Instead, they work in this manner simply because they need to repair their ship, and this method will grant them the easiest access to the necessary materials. However, once the locals finally figure out that space monkeys reside in their midst, they regard them with fear and mistrust, which threatens the aliens’ attempts to get away peacefully.

It Came From Outer Space offers a mess of contradictions. On one hand, Putnam spends most of the film trying to convince his neighbors that the aliens are no threat and that they should be left alone to leave the planet. However, were it not for his persistent insistence that the space creatures existed in the area, I doubt anyone would have bothered them, and no confrontations would have existed.

In addition, the aliens often declaim that they’re peaceful and mean no harm to the earthlings; just like E.T., they’re innocuous visitors who just want to head home. But as Tom Weaver points out in his excellent audio commentary, the space folk often adopt a belligerent tone due to the most minor indiscretions, and they also kidnap and threaten far more locals than necessary.

Weaver also notes something that surprised me. When I watched Space, I thought that it offered a unique take on space visitors as benign critters with no desire to threaten the Earth. However, Weaver mentions that quite a few predecessors in the genre featured similarly innocuous aliens; in fact, according to Weaver, the aggressive creatures bent on domination were rare at the time, though they became more prevalent with the following year.

So much for the only thing about Space that initially impressed me. I gave it some points for what I perceived as its benign aliens, but apparently it didn’t merit that credit. Well, it probably didn’t deserve it anyway, for the creatures come across as so haughty and pushy that I’m not sure they’re as gentle as the story posits.

Without that groundbreaking quality, Space becomes little more than another space thriller, albeit one with a better-than-usual pedigree; it came from a treatment written by Ray Bradbury. According to Weaver, Space also deeply influenced a young Steven Spielberg, who later used it as partial inspiration for a true sci-fi classic, 1977’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

Despite those associations, I saw little in Space to stand out from the crowd. The film featured fairly good special effects for its day, and the cast all seem adequate if not special; check out Russell Johnson in a small role years before he gained semi-fame as the Professor on Gilligan’s Island. In the end, I can’t state that It Came From Outer Space offered a bad film, but it seemed goofy and dated almost 50 years after its creation.

Note that the version of It Came From Outer Space found on this DVD does not represent its most popular theatrical edition. Actually, I have no clue if this presentation ever appeared theatrically. From what I can gather, the original exhibition of the film showed it in 1.85:1 ratio and was 3-D, but this disc shows neither of those elements. Universal has always claimed that the 3-D processes won’t translate to TV, and I don’t know enough about the subject to argue.

However, the aspect ratio issue seems more confusing. Back when Space hit theaters, widescreen films were in their infancy, so some flicks were shot to accommodate the 1.33:1 screens as well. I really don’t know whether Space fell into that camp or not, so I have little idea how true this DVD is an original version of the film, but I thought I should mention the issues nonetheless. (No, I couldn’t be more vague!)

The DVD Grades: Picture C / Audio C+ / Bonus B+

It Came From Outer Space appears in an aspect ratio of 1.33:1 on this single-sided, double-layered DVD; due to those dimensions, the image has not been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. While not a bad effort, the picture largely seemed mediocre, even when I took the age of the material into account.

Sharpness generally appeared acceptable but not terrific. The movie usually looked reasonably accurate and well defined, but some softness periodically interfered, especially during wider shots. Still, most of the time the movie seemed fairly detailed. Jagged edges and moiré effects caused no concerns, and I also witnessed no signs of edge enhancement.

The black and white film showed pretty solid blacks most of the time. On occasion they looked slightly gray, but generally they came across as fairly deep and rich, and contrast seemed positive. Shadow detail also was appropriately heavy but not overly dense most of the time, despite the presence of a few “day for night” shots; those often caused excessively opaque images.

Usually when I critique older films, print flaws cause the greatest level of concerns, and that was definitely the case for Space. I noticed some light grain as well as a few nicks, marks, and small hairs. In addition, the image showed a noticeable flickering at times. However, those issues appeared fairly minor; the main issue related to white specks, which showed up quite frequently throughout the movie. They forced me to lower my grade more than I otherwise might, for the rest of It Came From Outer Space actually looked reasonably good.

The Dolby Digital 3.0 soundtrack of It Came From Outer Space seemed erratic as well, but it succeeded somewhat more fully. The mix used only the front three speakers; it differed from a standard stereo presentation due to the presence of a discrete center channel. Anyone who expects a lively and well-realized stereo image will feel disappointed, but given the primitive state of audio in this era, the results seemed good.

Much of the track remained bound to the middle, but the music displayed reasonably solid breadth and spread across the front. In addition, I heard some decent localization and movement of effects. At times, their placement appeared moderately awkward, and they also moved a bit stiffly across the channels, but they usually seemed to work acceptably well in both regards. Speech showed the most problems in regard to placement. Usually they showed up in correct locations, but on occasion, I’d note virtually reversed situating; a character on the left’s voice would emanate from the right. Despite these periodic missteps, Space usually presented a good soundfield for its era.

Audio quality came across with its own mix of highs and lows. Speech continued to offer some of the track’s weakest aspects, as dialogue occasionally seemed somewhat muffled and flat. The lines remained intelligible, however, and caused no extreme concerns. Music showed decent fidelity and range for its age, but I also found the score to appear moderately tinny and brittle at times. Effects displayed modest distortion in their high-end response but otherwise appered reasonably clean and distinct. I also noticed some hiss and background noise at times, thought these remained minor. In the end, the soundtrack’s sound quality seemed flawed but acceptable for its vintage, while the occasionally problematic but nicely ambitious soundfield helped boost my grade into the slightly above average territory of a “B-“.

For the DVD release of It Came From Outer Space, Universal provide a nice roster of supplements. In fact, the extras allow it to sit nicely beside its brethren in their Classic Monsters collection. Actually, we find some of the same participants here, as the supplements launch with a fine audio commentary from film historian Tom Weaver. Anyone who heard his tracks for dsjl should expect a treat, and Weaver doesn’t disappoint. He rarely comes up for air as he runs through a wide variety of interesting topics. Weaver goes over the origins of the project, Ray Bradbury’s involvement, various production issues, notes about the cast, critical and audience reactions - including comments from screening cards - and plenty of other subjects. He does so with his usual sense of candor and wit, as he provides lots of funny and insightful remarks; half the joy of a Weaver commentary comes from his lovingly snide complaints about the flick. Call me crazy, but I’d pick up any DVD with a Weaver track on it; they’re almost always more entertaining than the movie, and they consistently provide a terrific experience.

One oddity: it looks like Universal took their own sweet time when it came to the release of this DVD. At one point, Weaver mentions that we’re on the eve of a new millennium! Even if he’s one of those people who refused to acknowledge the start of the 21st century until 2001, that still means he recorded this track at least a year and a half before it saw the light of day. Weird!

Next we get a new documentary. Called The Universe According to Universal, this program lasts 31 minutes and 40 seconds and offers narration from film historian Rudy Behlmer; like Weaver, he’s a veteran of many Universal Classic Monsters DVDs. We also see lots of film clips from both Space and many others from the genre along with interview comments from science-fiction illustrator/historian Vincent Di Fate, collector/archivist Bob Burns, producer of Monstrous Movie Music David Schecter, film historian Paul Jensen, curator of the 3-D Archives Bob Furmanek, and composer Irving Gertz.

The documentary definitely resembled those found on the Classic Monsters DVDs, though I thought it wasn’t quite up to the same level. The program started with a brief overview of early science-fiction offerings - primarily those from Universal, natch - and then offered some details about Space itself. After that, we heard a little about director Jack Arnold’s subsequent films such as The Creature From the Black Lagoon. The best aspects of this piece concentrated on the film’s music and its use of 3-D photography, though the participants were so enthusiastic for the latter that they made the 2-D version seem almost useless! It was also fun to get a look at alternate concepts for the xenomorph. However, as a whole I thought this was a decent but unspectacular program that seemed a little superfluous after Weaver’s excellent commentary.

A few other extras round out the DVD. The Photo and Poster Gallery presents a five minute and five second running program that shows a mix of ads and stills. It’s a decent piece that includes some interesting shots.

In addition to the film’s theatrical trailer, we discover a couple of text supplements. The Production Notes offer very basic comments about the movie; we’ve already heard this information elsewhere, and the section seems too rudimentary to merit much attention. The Cast and Filmmakers area offers listings for director Jack Arnold plus actors Richard Carlson, Barbara Rush, Charles Drake, Russell Johnson, Kathleen Hughes and Joe Sawyer. These provide short but interesting details about the participants.

Finally, we get a few Weblinks for DVD-ROM users. The disc gives us connections to Universal Home Video, Universal Pictures, Universal Theme Parks, and Universal Studios. You can also sign up for Universal’s DVD Newsletter. No other DVD-ROM features appear.

Back in 1953, It Came From Outer Space may have shocked and dazzled audiences. In 2002, it seemed silly and dull. To be sure, the movie appeared competent for its era, but I found it never did anything particularly noteworthy to merit continued attention. The DVD provided flawed but generally acceptable picture quality plus sound that appeared somewhat above average for its era. In addition, the DVD featured a nice roster of extras highlighted by an absolutely excellent audio commentary. The latter offered easily the strongest aspect of the package; Tom Weaver’s discussion is so witty, informative and compelling that serious film fans may want to get the disc just to hear it. Otherwise, if you don’t already know you like Space, you’ll probably want to skip this disc. Established fans should enjoy it, however.

Viewer Film Ratings: 3.8888 Stars Number of Votes: 27
3 3:
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