The dropping of the atomic bombs and the subsequent Cold War gave a major boost to science-fiction cinemas worldwide and exerted a strong influence on the horror genre through encouraging such tropes as the mad scientist and the radioactive monster. With this season we present a selection of Cold War science fiction films from both the West and East, illustrating hopes and fears for the present and near future.
Red Planet Mars
Harry Horner | USA | 1952 | 87 minutes
An American scientist contacts Mars by radio and receives information that Mars is a utopia and that Earth’s people can be saved if they return to the worship of God. But there remains doubt about the messages being genuine, as an ex-Nazi claims he was duping the Americans.
Val Guest | UK | 1957 | 85 minutes
Professor Quatermass, trying to gather support for Moon colonisation his project to colonize the Moon, is intrigued by the mysterious traces that have been showing up on his radar – meteorites crashing down?. Following them to the place where they should be landing he finds a destroyed village, a mysterious factory too close to his designs for the Moon colony for comfort, and some strange, aerodynamic objects containing a mysterious, ammonia-based gas that infects one of his assistants. Officially, the factory is producing synthetic food; but despite the veil of secrecy surrounding it Quatermass succeeds in finding out it harbours aliens with deadly designs on the Earth.
Offering a distinctly British take on the Cold War invasion story, Val Guest’s adaptation of Nigel Kneale’s science-fiction TV series benefits from quasi-documentary direction and the ability to use its fantastical subject matter as a way to sneak subversive content past the censors of the day.
The H-Man / Bijo to Ekitainingen
Inoshiro Honda | Japan | 1958 | 87 minutes
When a narcotics deal goes sour and a suspect disappears, leaving only his clothes, Tokyo police question his wife and stake out the nightclub where she works. His disappearance stumps the police – until a young scientist appears who claims that H-Bomb tests in the Pacific, evidenced by a “ghost ship” that has turned up in the harbor, have created radioactive creatures – “H-Men” – who ooze like slime and dissolve anyone they touch.
Directed by the Godfather of Japanese science-fiction, Ishiro ‘Godzilla’ Honda, this unusual film noir / sci-fi horror hybrid plays upon familiar fears of the atom, but with a distinctively Japanese twist.
Colossus: The Forbin Project
Joseph Sargent | USA | 1970 | 100 minutes
Forbin is the designer of an incredibly sophisticated computer that will run all of America’s nuclear defenses, Colossus. Shortly after being turned on, Colossus detects the existence of Guardian, its Soviet counterpart, previously unknown to US Planners. The computers insist that they be linked, and after taking safeguards to preserve confidential material, each side agrees to allow it. Once the link is established the two computers threaten the world with the immediate launch of nuclear weapons if they are detached and begin to give plans for the management of the world under their guidance.
Much like Fail Safe was unfortunately overshadowed by Kubrick’s Dr Strangelove, this computers gone wrong opus had the misfortune to coincide with Kubrick’s 2001. And, much like Sidney Lumet’s film, it is ripe for rediscovery in its own right.
In the Dust of the Stars
Gottfried Kolditz | East Germany | 1976 | 96 minutes
In the distant future, a ship from the planet Cynro, after a six-year journey launched in response to a distress call, arrives on the mysterious planet Tem. The crew includes two men and four women (one of them the captain – Catherine Janeway, eat your heart out!). The Temians are highly technological, decadent, and apparently quite content; in short, not at all in need of rescuing. Soon, however, the visitors discover the ugly truth about Tem: that while the pampered elites indulge in dance orgies and huff aerosol drugs, a slave class labors in cruel mines underground…
Think a psychedelic version of Metropolis in space and you’re part of the way there.
Pilot Pirx’s Inquest / Doznanie Pilota Pirksa
Marek Pestrak | USSR / Estonia / Poland | 1979 | 95 minutes
A corporation develops human-like robots; however, many are opposed. A decision is made to conduct an experiment. An experienced pilot is to fly a spaceship to Saturn and launch two artificial satellites from there. The crew will include androids, and the commander must evaluate the work of his unusual team. Pilot Pirx, known for his honesty and integrity, is chosen. Some, however, remain unconvinced the test will be a fair one and take measures…
This rarely seen Stanislaw Lem adaptation is provocative and intelligent science-fiction at its best and arguably prefigures the better known Blade Runner in its humans vs replicants dynamics.