Monsters from the Id (2008)

Rating:

USA. 2008.

Crew

Director – David Gargani, Photography – Pete Konczal, Music – Brian Aumueller. Production Company – Blue Room Productions/Slings & Arrows Films/Core Fresh Reality

Cast

Gary Colville, Dr Leroy Dubeck, Homer Hickam, Dr Patrick Lucanio, Richard Scheib)


I shall admit upfront that I should not be reviewing Monsters from the Id. This is all due to what in legal terms is referred to as Conflict of Interest, which usually means that a lawyer cannot get involved in a case where they have a personal stake or familiarity with the opposition. The problem here is that while Monsters from the Id is genre material and perfect to go on the site, I am one of the interview subjects. For these reasons, I probably should not be writing a review. For one, it is near impossible to criticise oneself objectively – in the same way that some actors don’t like watching their own performances on the screen, there always comes the cringe factor where you get obsessed and think the whole world can perceive minor things – “damn, I should have had a haircut before we started shooting” or “the lighting makes my skin look bad, why couldn’t there have been a makeup artist available?” It even feels weird after having written hundreds of reviews to be sitting here typing my own name into the credits field for the first time. I write a review anyway for twofold reasons – it is a matter of professional pride that there has never been any science-fiction film I have seen that I have not endeavoured to write up, and secondly because after David Gargani was good enough to organise a camera crew to shoot me from halfway around the world, the least I could do in return is give him is a plug on the site. So, bear in mind you have to subtract a certain amount of personal bias from everything that is said here.

Monsters from the Id is a documentary about 1950s science-fiction cinema and the way the era portrayed science. David Gargani’s principal thesis is that 1950s science-fiction cinema offered an incredibly optimistic view of science that inspired a generation of scientists, including those that became part of the US Space Program of the 1960s. Gargani then points to the markedly falling statistics for the number of US science graduates and asks what it would take to inspire today’s youth to go on to want to achieve things in science. To this extent, the film interviews physicist Leroy Dubeck, co-author of Fantastic Voyages: Learning Science Through Science Fiction Films (1994) who uses science-fiction films as a way of inspiring students to think about problems in class; retired NASA scientist Homer Hickam, author of Rocket Boys: A Memoir (1998), which became the basis of the film October Sky (1999), who details how he was inspired to build rockets and eventually become a NASA engineer; Dr Patrick Lucanio, a lecturer in Oregon and author of Them or Us: Archetypal Interpretations of Fifties Alien Invasion Films (1987); Gary Colville, Lucanio’s co-author on Smokin’ Rockets: The Romance of Technology in American Film, Radio and Television 1945-1962 (2002), which examines the portrayal of technology in the era in the same way that Monsters from the Id does.

For my own part in the film, I was contacted through this site in 2006 by David Gargani who was impressed with the insight and analysis I had written on various 1950s science-fiction films and wanted to know if he could set up an interview. I placed Dave in touch with a friend of mine who worked as a cameraman and they set up a shoot, which took place at the New Zealand Film Commission in Wellington. [The Film Commission wanted to get some self-promotion in, which is why I end up surrounded by posters for then-upcoming local films like Black Sheep (2006) and Out of the Blue (2006)]. The entire interview was conducted via an internet connection with Gargani in New York feeding me the questions and directing the shots as he watched a feed that went directly from the camera halfway around the world to his computer screen. So much for the marvels of technology – things did not quite work out like that. Due to an extraordinary number of technical problems setting the connection up, a shoot that was scheduled to begin about 6pm didn’t start until around midnight by which time we were running out of hours that we had the premises for and approximately half the questions had to be ditched. Moreover, this did not allow opportunity for much in the way of retakes so I didn’t feel I quite had the opportunity to wax as eloquently as I otherwise might have.

I had also stated upfront that I never fully agreed with the documentary’s thesis – that the science in science-fiction films of the 1950s inspired kids to become scientists. While there are some fabulous pro-science films in the 1950s – I get to talk about Destination Moon (1950) and its series of engineering blueprints for a rocketship – the predominant tone in the 1950s emerges as one of anti-science and even anti-intellectualism. There was the overwhelming feeling of “what have we wrought?” in the wake of Hiroshima and the atomic bomb. After the boldness of Destination Moon‘s vision, all the journeys out into space in films like Rocketship X-M (1950), This Island Earth (1955), The Angry Red Planet (1959) and especially Forbidden Planet (1956) were tempered by the belief that back home we could destroy ourselves – even when we got out there, as Forbidden Planet says, no matter how advanced technology and civilisation becomes, our baser instincts and the desire to self-destruction will eventually tear them apart. There is also the feeling that runs through many of these films – Fiend Without a Face (1958) being a perfect example, not to mention Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) – that the mind/intellect on its own (and implied with it the capacity for free thought) is a dangerous thing and cannot be allowed to be unleashed untamed by ‘feelings’, that is to say a sense of human decency and responsibility towards society. To me, while the scientist does becomes a hero in the 1950s and is seen as an ordinary family man, the semiotic message of the decade is one that tends toward fear, anxiety and that science cannot be trusted. Even the very title of the documentary Monsters from the Id cannot seem to escape this – it is a title (taken from Forbidden Planet) that places the emphasis on the overwhelming number of anxiety-driven monster movies of the era, as opposed to the positive science idealism that you might get if you were to choose a title like say To the Stars and Beyond or some such.

My feeling is that saying “this era presented the scientist as hero and that it inspired a generation of scientists” is an overly naive one. Mindedly, there are two things about this – unlike all the other interview subjects, I am not an American nor was I alive in the 1950s. The other interviewees’ perspective comes from the culture and native era they grew up; mine comes as an outsider who is looking back as a cultural historian. Where Monsters from the Id works the best is when it acts as a homage to the decade’s scientists. Homer Hickam gives a great interview where he recounts the story of seeing Sputnik passing overhead and from that finding the inspiration to build his own rockets and to emulate real-life rocketeers such as Willy Ley and Wernher von Braun. The film gets footage from Disney’s Man in Space specials of the 1950s, even archival footage of von Braun lecturing on spaceflight. When allowing Homer Hickam, and to a lesser extent the other interviewees, free reign to talk about their childhood fervour, the film does a wonderful job of capturing the sense of gee-whiz enthusiasm that the youth of the era had and is a perfect nostalgic homage.

On the other hand, I don’t entirely feel that the film makes its case – while Homer Hickam admits an enthusiasm for Forbidden Planet, the question is whether it was 1950s films more so than any other period of time that inspired kids to become scientists. The film is a little thin on the ground with interview subjects rushing to confess that their success was all due to 1950s science-fiction films (as opposed to films out of any other era). The complaint might be that, while the film makes a perfect case for the inspiration presented by Wernher von Braun and Willy Ley in the 1950s, it never makes a strong case for saying that it was specifically the science-fiction films of the era that created such inspiration. Though Sputnik and the Space Race are covered, we never get any attempt to analyse what drove the Soviets who had near-identical ambitions to get into space as the American space program. In that American science-fiction films were not allowed into the Soviet Union at the time and the Soviets were not making their own science-fiction films until into the 1960s, it would have been interesting to ask what inspired Russian children of the 1950s to want to become the rocket scientists in the Soyuz program.

Nor do I feel that we are totally lacking in inspiration to the sciences today. Certainly, fields of applied science like computer technology have no shortage of graduates. I can also quote examples such as a friend’s daughter who was inspired to study forensics after being a fan of CSI: Crime Scene Investigators (2000-15). My feeling is that the issue of falling science graduate numbers is more one that Leroy Dubeck puts his finger on – that there are less career and moneymaking opportunities for graduates in the sciences than there are in schools like business and law – rather than it being the case of students receiving the necessary inspiration.

What I would say also – and this is more my perspective as a non-American, non-1950s person coming in – is that Monsters from the Id fails to fully grapple with the cultural context of the era. Rather than stepping back to analyse why many of these ideas were presented, the film is merely happy to bask in a warmly nostalgic glow. The film and, it would appear, most of its interview subjects’ perspective was that the Space Race was a wonderful thing – it was about aspiration and scientific achievement. To me, from what I can see, as much as it was the era of the post-War technological and economic boom, the 1950s was also an era of stifling conformity where the individual was under a great deal of pressure to adopt a certain chaste, cleancut church-going way of life. But this was also an era where if you were say African-American, this rosy middle-class life was one that excluded you. It is not an era that I feel I could ever happily live in – even given the chance to see all the science-fiction films of the day in their original theatrical settings!

The film does touch upon some of the other aspects of 1950s science-fiction cinema – atomic bomb fears, alien invasion, the fear of conformity/emotional theft that we saw in Body Snatchers et al. These sections take up the early half of the film and are less satisfying than those dealing with the development of the Space Program. The effect is of randomly skipping from film to film with occasional soundbite commentary about one or other film, but the subjects never getting the opportunity to fully develop their thoughts into a thesis. Key films are named but we are not always given any idea of why they are key. There are times that the film skips off without giving much time to the ideas raised. Leroy Dubeck spends some time on the idea of the power dials in Forbidden Planet, although when it comes to the blackboard diagram where he explains why the ants in Them! (1954) would not work at giant-size, he is abruptly cut off in mid-explanation with the point merely being made that they wouldn’t work but disappointingly not why. I am quoted at one point in saying “the 1950s represent the normalization of the scientist,” but I wish I had had the opportunity to make the rest of my point – which is that this was a marked and direct contrast to the 1930s and 40s where the scientist was depicted as deranged and in imminent danger of causing the downfall of society (normalisation after all implies a comparison to abnormality and as a qualifier on its own is meaningless).

There have been a number of documentaries and tv specials on 1950s science-fiction over the last couple of decades. You have to commend Monsters from the Id for the amazing amount of archival footage that the production has managed to unearth (not to mention home movies, tv interviews, pulp magazines and newspaper articles). This footage is presented with an exquisite crispness on the dvd print. (Indeed, the quality of reproduction of the clips here is far superior to the quality of most of the prints of the films that the original reviews on this site were viewed from). This is all edited together in a fast-paced montage. One excellent choice is the use of Portishead’s Humming (1997) as a title track where the eerie theremin effects on the track have the effect of turning the unearthly sound effects of The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) into a drum and bass track.



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