Sunday, August 10, 2014

Cardboard Science: Rock, roll

The Cardboard Science series intends to be a catalog of the science fiction of the past, today.  Science errors will be mocked.  20th century mores will be challenged.  Glories will be recorded.  Films will be, as usual, reviewed.


The writers' lack of access to an encyclopedia, and the abysmal stupidity that issues in its absence, subverts this sci-fi thriller severely.  And yet a no-nonsense running time, some surprisingly suspenseful direction, and a truly unique monster elevate it above the madding crowd.

Directed by John Sherwood
Written by Norman Jolley, Jack Arnold, and Robert M. Fresco
Grant Williams (Dr. Dave Miller), Lola Albright (Cathy Barrett), Les Tremayne (Martin Cochrane), Trevor Bardette (Prof. Arthur Flanders), William Flaherty (Chief Dan Corey), and Phil Harvey (Dr. Ben Gilbert)

Spoiler alert: high

If The Monolith Monsters were worthy of notice for no other reason, it would still have to be mentioned as a footnote, for it emerged from the brain of no less than one of the masters of the form.  Yes, that form is 1950s SF, but Jack Arnold isn't just any old body.  Director of approximately one billion motion pictures and television shows over a nearly 30 year career, Arnold's indelible contribution to the culture remains in the science fiction genre, and while a thorough resume should wait till we do one of his movies, you'll no doubt be most familiar with his name from a little picture called The Creature From the Black Lagoon.

To conceive Monolith, he was joined by Robert Fresco, who had also helped write Arnold's Tarantula two years earlier.  Fresco in turn combined with Norman Jolley, a writer of various things (this description suffices, inasmuch as I doubt they're things you've ever heard of, and if you care, your fingers don't look broken to me).  I think we can blame these two for everything, but let's dig into their most accomplished work anyway.

Like so many SF films, Monolith begins with a zoom-in on our island Earth, demonstrating vividly that our corporate logo technology has advanced precipitously since '57, as we're treated to this scene immediately after the Universal International globe has faded nonchalantly to black, as if a nearly-identical image were not just about to take its place.  (Where is Kevin Costner when he's needed?  Only two years old?  Everybody has an excuse.)

A narrator then commences to more or less accurately describe the concept of meteors to the audience, although the film depicts them in a fashion that supposes Earth's atmosphere is several million miles in diameter.

"Like flaming globes, Sigmund!"

We follow one to its impact, in a scene that fiercely homages Arnold's own It Came From Outer Space, but this time it is not a spaceship that crashes, but something quite different.  How different shall soon be discovered by Ben Gilbert, a geologist out for a drive, who happens upon the strange debris from our extraterrestrial visitor, andlike any good scientistpicks up a small piece to take back to the lab.  Less than twenty-four hours later, he is deadhis body "welded into a solid mass!"and his black rock has multiplied a hundredfold.

Twenty or maybe even ten years later, this would have merited some serious body horror, and for some reason I remembered Monolith as being a prototype in this regard, with a withered, Imhotep-esque look to the rocks' victims.  Unfortunately, this seems to have been my fancy alone: the only visual cue used to indicate their stiffened bodies is some brown makeup.  In fairness, this is not just a budgetary limitationit's unlikely anything really cool, like Ben shattering into a thousand pieces when his fossilized body falls, would have been permitted by the Production Code anyway.

Despite the lack of genuine frights, however, Monolith retains a sort of fantastic Hitchcockian flavor, and is a near-textbook example of "showing the bomb," so to speak.  (Ifas we will come to suspectthis is the closest Fresco and Jolley ever got to a textbook, they did read it, or at least had John Sherwood read it to them.)  We learn immediately that these impossible rocks are alive, and—however this is so—capable of reproduction; we learn in the same moment that it is nothing less common than simple fresh water that induces their uncanny growth.

In fact, we eventually learn far too much, but for the moment what we have is a mysterious foe whose known properties portend a deadly threatan apocalyptic threatand a set of humans who, in their ignorance, keep sealing their own doom.  Take little Ginny, for example, who on a class field trip into the California desert picks up one of the same rocks that killed Ben, andwhen prompted by her mother who refuses to allow a dirty rock into her housewashes it off in a bucket filled to the brim with water.

We meet up with Ginny a little later, a shellshocked survivor of the crystalline menace that has obliterated her house, killed her family, and infected her with the same microscopic particles that turned Ben into a petrified man.

And which everyone continues to handle without the slightest Goddamned bit of concern for their own safety, even once they realize they're the source of the problem.

Enter Dave Miller, Ben's colleague (and our actual protagonist, given Ben's act one demise).  He'll be our primary science hero for the next 70 minutes, though he is expertly assisted by an old professor that he drags out of bed in the middle of the night.

Though Monolith really is a satisfyingly tense experience, much of that tension arises out of the idiocy and ineptitude of its scientists, who insist they've "tried everything," but somehow failed to even consider testing the reaction of the rock to water, the universe's most common compound, its most versatile solvent, and as a result the source of all life that we can realistically imagine.  When they finally do test it with water, by way of coffee, it's by accident.  Finally, even with all the advantages of Sherwood's focused direction, it takes them a frankly hilarious amount of time to realize that, for the entire time they've been experimenting, it has been raining.


Later sequences' tension derives from their head-shaking inability to imagine that sodium chloride might be an important part of the cure they've worked up to fix Ginny's Grimm's Disease; hence they disregard that part of the serum as a meaningless saline solution.  This isn't terribly surprising, though, since these are the same geologists who have no idea that groundwater exists, and will hold up a handful of sand and claim that the alien creatures have eaten all the silica in itwith faces so straight that you wonder if the actors themselves might be this dumb, too.

"I know how to stop it!  The next time it rains we'll dehydrate the water!"

But never mind that, and never mind that the monoliths eat the silica in our bodies (?!), which leaves us turned into rock-like corpses because silica is what keeps our skin flexible (...).  The real danger is that the rocks are very aware of the water just inches beneath the packed sand, and left to their own devices in the badlands outside town while we've been trying to science out their existence from afar, they have grown into soaring ebon tumescences that blot out the sky itself.

Their fear of a black planet now justified, our honkies explode into action, for not only are the crystals growing, when the earth beneath them fails, they tumble forward, smashing into fragments, and the cycle begins again.  A wave of rock is heading quicklyand seemingly implacablytoward the city.  And from there, a nearby lake, and from the lake, the world.

San Angelo's motto: "Our town looks like a fucking space colony."

...Oh, I get it.

As the climax approaches, the geologists' exposition and plans begin to make a great deal more sense, and the sheer spectacle of the encroaching rocks defuses one's intellectual objections to the whole exercise.  Do our scientists succeed?  Well, as much as I'd enjoy a 1950s SF film that ended like a John Carpenter movie, yes; that's such a given I don't think it really counts as a spoiler.

What needs to be praised, above all else, is the ingenuity of the special effects used to render the monoliths, designed, with the help of newcomer Frank Brendel, by one Clifford Stine.  Stine was an old pro whose career as a special effects cinematographer and all-round camera-operating dude spans from King Kong, through The Incredible Shrinking Man, Touch of Evil, and Spartacus, to The Creeping Terror, a film I didn't mean to reference two reviews in a row, but apparently and sadly I had to.  (It doesn't help that it's also the wickedest libel against the man, one I honestly find a little hard to believe.)

In any event, the monoliths are collectively one of the best monsters of the whole eraconvincingly realized, aesthetically beautiful, legitimately threatening, and conceptually innovative.  The Monolith Monsters may well be the very first story ever told about so-called "gray goo"that is, a self-replicating organism that can turn its environment into itself, is rarely subject to any kind of ordinary homeostatic and thermodynamic limitations, and will not stop until it covers an entire planet, usually ours.  (Though let it be known that The Magnetic Monster does in fact feature a prototype gray goo, in its evil, energy-absorbing atoms.)  The monoliths are, in any event, the first complete rendition of the heavily-abused trope, at least on filmand, yes, it prefigures the infinitely more famous iteration of its breed, The Blob, by ten whole months.  The Monolith Monsters is thus an unsung pioneer in science fiction.

Update that Wikipedia page immediately.

Indeed, if only every other line weren't a piece of scientific hogwash that even a schoolchild would see through, and the performances didn't range from competent to curiously unawed by the prospect of plague and disaster, it might even be what you'd describe as "great."  But, when it comes to science fiction of the era, so it goes.  Certainly, it is great enough to unreservedly recommend.

Score:  7/10

That which is indistinguishable from magic:
  • Nearly every word uttered that has anything to do with chemistry is an outrageous lie.  A full list of science errors would look a lot like the script.  The failure to understand that silica is the same thing as silicon dioxide is the same thing as sand is probably the most awful.
  • There is a somewhat amusing bit of comic relief involving a phone call to the Weather Bureau, in which we learn geologists hate meteorologists.  The weatherman spews his own technobabble, and Dave becomes enraged at the possibility that someone in his movie might be saying something remotely scientifically accurate.
  • Before he dies, Ben examines one of the alien rocks, wondering aloud to his friend just what it could be, since it's so geologically implausible.  "Lava maybe?" his friend inquires.  "No, it's a solid," Ben answers, since apparently the gentleman was asking if Ben was holding 4000 degree molten rock in his bare hands.
The morality of the past, in the future!:
  • Certainly no worse than 99% of 1950s fare, the sole major female character is permitted to have very few moments of feminine weakness, though they are present.  On the minus side, she has no narrative function except to be 1)a romantic interest for the hero and 2)a human that gives a crap about Ginny.  Wait, is being pretty a narrative function?  3)Being pretty.
  • She is, however, allowed to wear pants in one scene.
  • Field trips to the incredibly hazardous Californian desert were apparently routine, with little more adult supervision than the warning not to "touch anything you don't recognize."  In fairness it would take a real asshole kid to touch a rattlesnake just because he'd seen one in a book.
  • Smoking is permitted... in a doctor's office.
  • Needing to mobilize an army of messengers, the police chief complains: "Kids nowadays have to get paid for everything!"  Of course, those "kids" were the scourge we have come to know as the Baby Boomers, and he had no idea how right he was.
  • Silicon-based life, you say?  That's a real devil in the dark.
  • The prospect of an endlessly self-replicating organism capable of threatening all we have known was a new one then, but the idea would be exploredin far less ridiculous fashionin literary science fiction in the decades to come, perhaps most notably in Greg Bear's Blood Music, a really really cool book that Iget thisread.  (Also in Michael Crichton's Prey, a book I didn't.)  It was also a real fact of life in the pre-Cambrian, and without it, that atmosphere you think you're so entitled to wouldn't exist.  Don't fret too much about a Drexlerian apocalypse, though: somehow the evil nanites that infest every square micron of this planet haven't killed us all yet.

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