If I had to name one movie that was especially influential in making me a science fiction fan, this is the one.
I was ten years old when I went to a drive-in with my family to see a double feature – The Colossus of New York and The Space Children. Both movies rocked my world.
The Colossus of New York was dark and disturbing. During the drive-in intermission I remember telling my parents how moved I was by the tragic ending.
The moment the second feature started I was completely mesmerized. This movie portrays the experience every ten year old dreams of having – a strange, powerful, benevolent alien secretly ask for help in performing a task that will save mankind.
And the grown-ups aren’t invited.
Michel Ray stars as the leader of seven magnificent kids who gleefully assist the glowing, lumpy alien life form (I refuse to call it a brain, because it isn’t). The alien converses telepathically with it’s young disciples as they sneak around confounding the clueless adults and sabotaging the preparations being made to launch an orbiting nuclear weapon from a seaside missile base.
Ignore the countless idiots who have claimed for decades that the kids are controlled by the alien. Nothing could be further from the truth. The kids are chosen to assist the alien in its vital mission because they intuitively understand that what they’re doing is right.
The film makes this clear with a scene in which the oldest boy in the group demonstrates that he’s almost-but-not-quite beyond the age of innocence required to be one of the alien’s trusting and devoted assistants.
And yet the alien defends this same boy when he’s attacked by his alcoholic, abusive stepfather.
Despite the movie’s limited budget, director Jack Arnold cut no corners on the production. The strange beam that brings the alien down out of the sky is brilliantly done by Paramount’s special effects department under the leadership of John P. Fulton.
The unique alien is a triumph of what’s now called “practical effects”, but there’s no silly man-in-a-suit or wiggly puppets used to portray the extraterrestrial. At least four versions of the indescribable creature were created to show that its size increases throughout the story for reasons that remain a mystery.
The oddly shaped life form pulsates with light and undulates in disturbing ways. The result is something that is convincingly alive and clearly not terrestrial.
The audience learns early in the story that the children are being guided and assisted in their efforts to prevent the launch of a missile called the Thunderer, whose payload is a satellite which includes a nuclear weapon which can destroy an enemy city with the press of a button.. The alien aids them by causing locked gates to snap open and military guards to become motionless while the kids sneak past.
And the children demonstrate a youthful enthusiasm for the task, sneaking around in places they aren’t supposed to be, doing things they aren’t supposed to do, and knowing exactly what’s really going on while the adults grow increasingly frightened by all the odd incidents they can’t explain.
After seeing this movie in 1958, I had to wait twenty-eight years to see it a second time, because absolutely nobody showed it on television and nobody offered a VHS tape of it. But that changed in 1986 when the USA network finally aired it. I made a tape of it (without watching it) and then arranged for a special gathering of my friends to share it with me – the guys who has listened to me talk about this movie for many years.
When the big night arrived, we watched a tape of The Colossus of New York first, the opening feature I’d seen at the drive-in in 1958. Then we treated ourselves to the movie which – more than any other – had inspired me to be a science fiction fan for the rest of my life.
The DVD and Blu-ray of The Space Children finally came out just a few years ago, and it was a dream come true after waiting over fifty years. If you’ve never seen it, you should – but don’t expect it to have the same effect on you that it did on me. The world is a half-century older, and you’re not a wide-eyed ten year old boy who can fully appreciate the special message this film was meant to convey to a generation born to World World II veterans, children who thought the future would be filled with the wonders shown in movies and TV shows from that era.
To be blunt – sorry, you missed your chance.