Thursday, 5 April 2018

The Space Children (1958)

An intelligent underrated low budget science fiction film with a strong message

Directed by Jack Arnold
Produced by William Alland
Screenplay by Bernard C. Schoenfeld
Story by Tom Filer & based on The Egg by Tom Filer
Music by Van Cleave
Cinematography: Ernest Laszlo
Edited by Terry O. Morse
Production company: Paramount Pictures, William Alland Productions
Distributed by Paramount Pictures
Running time: 69 minutes


Michel Ray: Bud Brewster
Adam Williams: Dave Brewster
Peggy Webber: Anne Brewster
Johnny Washbrook: Tim Gamble
Jackie Coogan: Hank Johnson
Richard Shannon: Lieutenant Colonel Alan Manley
Raymond Bailey: Dr. Wahrman
Sandy Descher: Eadie Johnson
Larry Pennell: Major Thomas
Peter Baldwin: Security Officer James
Ty Hardin: Sentry
Russell Johnson: Joe Gamble
David Bair: Saul Wahrman
Johnny Crawford: Ken Brewster
Eilene Janssen: Phyllis Manley


A father takes up new job at a top-secret Air Force base in California.
A family apprehensive about this sudden upheaval in their lives.
What’s this - a strange light in the sky aimed at the beach?
Strange powerful telepathic communications from an unknown source!
An alien presence in the form of a growing brain within the cave near the beach!
A missile project, designed to place a hydrogen bomb in orbit, capable of being used on any target in the event the United States is threatened!
Children being used to persuade parents of the danger posed by the project!

Will the parents be prepared to listen?
What will the alien brain do if the children’s appeals are ignored?

Read on for more.....

Spoilers follow.....

The Space Children opens with background shots of space containing stars and nebulae on which the faces of the “space children” are super-imposed. A connection between the children and an extra-terrestrial element is established with an implied suggestion of a broadening of perceptions beyond the restrictive confines of petty earth-bound concerns. The youngsters are looking upward, beyond and outward.

“Is it much further?”

A station wagon races along a deserted road near the beach along the California coast. Inside the car we have electronics expert Dave Brewster, his wife Anne and their two sons, Bud and Ken. It’s apparent from each family member’s demeanor that they've been driving for hours since leaving San Francisco for the military base where Dave has been transferred to continue his company's work on “The Thunderer” --a six stage intercontinental missile at the Eagle Point Missile Project.

“Hey, Mom, listen” - “Listen to what?”
“Dad, don't you hear it?” - “Hear what, son?”

Anne appears to be apprehensive about the move when she ominously declares, “I feel as if I were in another world.” Suddenly the boys hear a strange sound and then see a peculiar beam of light slashing a luminous path from high in the sky and down to the ground. At that moment the car stalls and then just as suddenly starts back up again. Notice that it is the children who perceive the unusual phenomena while the parents seem to be oblivious with Dave resorting to a reassuring ‘rational’ explanation, “It's just a jet, Bud.” Too blind to see, too deaf to hear.

“Try to make the best of it.”

After checking in at the guard post the Brewster family is directed to their new home, a trailer. It appears that all the contractor families’ residences are trailers. Ah, no expense spared by the government for its employees! Dave and Anne move their belongings into trailer Unit 3 while the kids head off to explore the beach.

Anne is particularly disconcerted and disillusioned about their new abode with the prospect of “living on the beach,” of having sand drifting in and ruining everything and having to leave friends and family in San Francisco. Dave tries to placate his wife by telling her that it’s only temporary and that he’s too tired to discuss it having “driven over 500 miles today.”

“It's much more complicated than just an intercontinental missile.”

The conversation next turns to the project. What Dave doesn’t know about the project is more illuminating than what he does know. He doesn’t know when the first test will be conducted, whether or not it will be accurate, that he “worked on one part out of 35,000 parts,” and that he doesn’t “know any answers.” It seems that expertise and work on this potentially dangerous project has been so fragmented and compartmentalized, that no single person has a complete unified understanding of its performance and capabilities. Knowledge and understanding has become narrowed, focussed and specialized leaving little room for grasping the full implications of the work being undertaken.

Dave is merely a cog keeping the accepted world view wheel turning. For Dave, the missile project has “gotta do a job better than theirs so if they start anything...” Here we have the kind of security-oriented mindset imposed on the world by the Power Elite which has given us concepts such as ‘mutually assured destruction’ and ensured the diversion of valuable human, financial and material resources toward insane military projects of mass destruction.

After Dave and Anne go outside to find the children, the security officer, Mr. James arrives and asks Dave to accompany him to a briefing on the Project.

“It's the feeling of living so close to the end of the world.”

When Anne arrives back at the trailer she is greeted by her new next-door neighbour, Frieda Johnson. They talk about the area and Frieda empathises with Anne who feels that “everything certainly is strange and different here” and how it feels like “living so close to the end of the world.” An ironic comment considering the nature of her husband’s work and the purpose of the missile project. Frieda then invites Anne to “a weenie roast!” planned for that evening.

“First that thing in the sky and now this place.”

Bud and Ken are seen running along the cliffs playing ball. They then make their way down to the beach where they discover a cave. Bud explores further inside, while Ken remains behind only to have the bejesus scared out him by Eadie Johnson who suddenly pops in from off screen. Other children then appear: Buster, Tim, George and Helen. It turns out that these kids “have secret club meetings here.”

The other children invite Bud and Ken to see “The Thunderer” but are soon shooed away by a guard. The mere existence of the missile is a wonder to the kids:
“It's the biggest one in the world! It's a six-stage rocket. It takes a satellite with a hydrogen warhead and the satellite will be hundreds of miles up in the air, and when it gets above any city you want all you gotta do is press a button and bang!”

Here we have a basic general grasp of what the missile technology can do wrapped up in a child-like "Wow! Gee!” fascination. This follows on from the ever-present adult expression of uncertainty and concentration on the perceived necessity of possessing such technology. Sound familiar? But what of the technology’s nature and its implications? That will require additional information, a different perspective, a change of consciousness and a new world view….

“With pinpoint accuracy...”

Lt. Col. Alan Manley is giving a briefing on the project in which they have all “been charged with a heavy responsibility in this technological race.” He then goes on to explain that they have worked hard on this project but that they can be proud “because of this weapon we're prepared 24 hours a day to retaliate instantly in case of enemy attack.” Manley follows this up with an explanation of what “The Thunderer” can do:

“Send a satellite equipped with a hydrogen warhead into the ocean of space, where for years, if you wish, it can circle on a path known only to us. A satellite containing the means to bring retaliation by the pressing of a button.” 

Yes, well some might say we certainly can be “proud” since over the last sixty years reality has caught up with fiction in terms of nuclear warfare capabilities. Despite treaties and international agreements to the contrary, it is also probably only a matter of time before such capabilities are extended into “the ocean of space” to become another accepted and normalized theatre of war.

While the briefing continues, the kids head back to the beach when suddenly they see the same strange light in the sky as before. This time, however, a strange object can be seen travelling down the light beam and entering the cave.

Meanwhile back at the briefing the lights and power suddenly go off. When it is restored, Col. Manley remarks somewhat ironically, “it's nice to know we're no longer in the dark.” It appears that the strange object is responsible for the power outage and resumption at the briefing.

“The sky looks so innocent”

Later Dr. Wahrman comes across Col. Manley who is surf fishing. They discuss the next day’s scheduled test of the missile in which it suggested that “people will get used to the Thunderer, its implications” and that their hope is that they can preserve life for their children. The implications they talk about involve the potential destruction of life on earth and the life they wish to preserve is one in which mutually assured destruction looms large as an accepted part of that life. As it was then so it remains now……If only more people went fishing instead of dreaming up ways to wipe out their fellow men!

“Plenty more where these came from”

At the weenie roast that evening, we meet Freida’s husband, Hank Johnson. The conversation turns toward the project and the nation’s defense where some interesting questions from the school parent-teacher meeting are raised such as "When is it gonna end? Year after year of racing, racing, trying to find something bigger and better to blow ourselves off the planet." In answer to such questions it is suggested that “You just say to them that down there stands the Thunderer, and what are we waiting for?”

A perfectly reasonable question to ask and all that can be offered by way of answer is the logical conclusion or outcome of such an insane state of affairs – to trust and have faith in such destructive technology (”The Thunderer is to prevent war”) to strike pre-emptively (“And what are we waiting for?”) and risk blowing ourselves off the planet!

These days we often hear the old chestnut offered to us from the Power Elite that the presence of nuclear weapons has prevented the occurrence of another world war for the last 60 or 70 years. Gosh, I feel safer already! Just as safe as when I hear that ‘guns don’t kill people, people kill people!’ More nukes and more guns for a safer world! The lunatics are indeed in charge…..

“I think I had too many hot dogs, Daddy.”

Like many people, Frieda prefers not to discuss controversial subjects. When Hank and Dave invite the kids to go swimming, they initially appear to be excited at the prospect. However, the voice that only the kids can hear tells them to decline the offer of a swim. They quickly make their excuses and head off for the beach.

“If I were that kid's real father”

When Dave and Hank head off for a swim Peg Gamble enters the scene accompanied by her grumbling alcoholic second husband, Joe Gamble. Not exactly a good role model for his stepson, Tim.

Meanwhile the children discover a pulsating blob (son of The Blob?) in the sand of the cave. It appears to communicate directly with Bud and selects him as the leader. Tim panics and attempts to destroy the blob with a rock but is paralyzed by the alien entity which causes the rock he holds overhead to explode into small fragments. Bud then instructs the others, “from now on when I ask you to do something, we'll do it together.” The children all agree to follow Bud's directives.

“Dad, you've gotta believe me!”
“Believe what? Some crazy story you made up for an excuse!”

Back in the trailer Bud and Ken finally arrive back to the trailer to be confronted by their worried parents. The boys try to explain their encounter in the cave on the beach, (“We found something that fell out of the sky this afternoon”) but their parents don't believe them (“How long did it take you to dream up that yarn?”) When Dave grabs hold of Bud's arm, his own arm becomes paralysed. Not exactly Village of the Damned creepiness but creepy enough nonetheless.

At this point we could assume that the film will follow the old Cold War line of young minds being brainwashed and influenced by evil Commie bastards with their alien notions and desire to take over the world. If only people would listen and believe the truth that’s in front of them!!! But wait – maybe there’s more to it!

Notice that Anne is worried about the kids being out till 9 o’clock! Noticed too how much the kids are allowed to roam around freely. It was a different world back then when kids could go off and play by themselves and explore without being tracked by apps or ferried off to organized activities by helicopter parents. On holidays my own mum would tell me to go off and play after breakfast when I would disappear all day with some neighbourhood friends and magically re-appear for dinner followed by time in front of the only screen in the house– the TV screen.

“I'll break your neck!
Come back here, you!
 Come back here!
I'll teach you to run away from me!”

The boys lead Dave back to the beach, accompanied by young Eadie. Tim spots them and tries to sneak out of the trailer to join them but an inebriated Joe catches him in the act. Tim manages to escape, but Joe pursues him and eventually nabs the young absconder. Before Joe can lay a finger on Tim he is prevented by the power of the alien blob. When Joe recovers he has no option but to return to the trailer with his tail between his legs. Dave picks up the alien blob and conceals it inside his jacket before returning to the trailer park.

When Tim arrives back at the trailer he discovers Joe, sitting upright in a chair - dead. Peg then enters and sees Joe and eventually the fact of Joe’s death reaches Hank who has been demanding to know what had been going on.

At the Brewsters’ trailer Anne expresses her horror toward the presence of the blob creature: “I don't want this thing here. Take it back. Get rid of it, do you understand? Get rid of it this minute!”

“Why did it come here?”

The next morning, Anne and Dave demand answers from the boys about the alien blob: “What is this thing that's come into our lives? ….. What does it intend to do? What have you kids got to do with it?.....” All they get in reply to their answers is the response that they would not understand. This is the kind of response one might expect coming from an adult when confronted with a tricky question from a child!

The phone rings and Dave is informed by the major that the The Thunderer will launch that night. He then follows the boys who are carrying the alien creature over the embankment and back to the cave. Dave informs the boys about the missile launch but quickly realizes they knew all along (“You knew before I did, didn't you?”) and that it was the creature that told them.

“A matter for security.”

At a meeting between Dr. Wahrman and Col. Manley a discussion is taking place concerning the launch of The Thunderer at which it is declared, “Tonight, we push this button. The most powerful sky horse of all joins the celestial merry-go-round. Let's hope we get that brass ring.” Suddenly they are informed that Dave Brewster insists on speaking to them about something urgent.

Dave’s meeting with Manley is interrupted by the colonel’s information session with the representatives of the media, “Wicks from the News, and Lloyd of the Sentinel.” Of course, they are on first name terms as if often the case with members of the Power Elite across various fields who like to rub shoulders with one another in some kind of symbiotic co-dependent relationship. Will the colonel’s mates in the media, Dan and Richard simply be conduits for the dissemination of a particular world view complete with authorized and official information and opinion?

“Will the new type of warhead be inside the satellite when it's launched?
“Yes. You see without such a specialized kind of warhead, we'd be merely launching one more satellite in space. There are already a dozen, as you know.”

“How high will the orbit be?”
“Approximately 1000 miles.”

“Can you tell us how many stages the rocket will have?”
“Yeah. Six. As it nears the orbit, the last stage will be the dropping off the nose cone.”

“Dr. Wahrman, do you believe that another country has already launched a satellite containing a warhead?”
“Well, we don't know. You see, in this race, we may be only a few hours ahead of another country.”

“What if the test is a dud?”
“Heh, we're not planning on it.”

"What if any enemy launches its own satellite with a warhead and it isn't a test?”
“Well, let us hope no country in the world would be paranoid enough to do what you suggest.”

“There are constant rumours. Not a newspaper in the country this week that hasn't had dozens of telephone calls. After all, you can understand, Colonel, years and years of cold war nerves.”
“Of course, I understand. But isn't it your job, gentlemen, to quiet rumours of that kind? “

“It isn't easy. Not when every hour is a zero hour.”
“Let us hope that the Thunderer will be launched in time to discourage anyone from attacking our country or our allies.”

It is amazing that a level of technology can be achieved to construct a multi-staged rocket (quite a concept for that time!) and have it launched into orbit at the height of 1000 miles and yet have as its purpose the potential destruction of the species that created it.

The development of such technology as “The Thunderer” is seen as being part of a race – a race toward possible destruction with an enemy who may or may not but likely has developed an equivalent method of mass destruction. As the line of thinking goes, the possession of such a weapon is supposed to deter a potential enemy from launching a first strike.

Has the world view of the Power Elites in relation to such matters and our seeming acceptance of it really progressed all that much over the course of sixty years? Is it the media’s role just to quiet rumours and speculation, or should it strive to investigate, reveal, inform and encourage critical debate?

In 1962 with the Cuban Missile Crisis we came awfully close to the snapping of “Cold War nerves” and “zero hour.” Even now we can hear the clock ticking and feel the tension as opposing forces strain on the already taut elastic band that holds our world in place.

With the press conference over, Dave tells Dr. Wahrman and Col. Manley that the project is in danger. He declares his belief that “the Thunderer will never get off the ground” and that whatever they are thinking “it's beyond understanding.” Just as he is about to elaborate, Bud appears and Dave suddenly finds himself unable to speak. He is also unable to write out his warning as his hand is paralysed and then he collapses. By the time he recovers in the infirmary, Anne and the boys have come to see him.

“What's the matter?”
 “There's something wrong with the steering wheel!”

The “space children” begin to carry out acts of sabotage against the missile project. Bud causes a fuel delivery truck’s steering rod to split wide open after it loses control and almost crashes due to malfunctioning brakes. Meanwhile young Buster and Helen happily enjoy their ice creams while interfering with communications at a guard post.

“What were you doing in there
all alone?”
“Just playing, Daddy.”

Hank makes his way to the beach in search of his daughter, Eadie. He locates her jacket and a towel outside the cave. Eadie then comes out of the cave and Hank tells her, “You had me scared, honey. I didn't know where you were.” Eadie insists that they go for a swim but keeps nervously looking back toward the cave. Hank questions her as to what she was doing there all alone. Eadie pleads with her father for them to leave immediately but he responds to her entreaties with “I will, honey. As soon as I find out what this is all about.”

As Hank enters the cave, Eadie screams out, “Don't Daddy! Please! Please! Daddy!” Inside the cave he sees the alien blob which fires him a beam of light at him. Hank exits the cave and collapses on the sand. The blob’s mass has now increased while Hank, zombie-like, his vitality seeming to have been stripped from him, heads back to his trailer.

That evening the children head down to the beach to see the by now enormous alien blob who will issue the final instructions to them.

“As you say, this may all be coincidence.”

Wahrman and Manley discuss the day’s strange events. Wahrman concedes that there “seems to be no connection between any of these events.” However, “there's one brightly-coloured thread that runs throughout the day, tying all these events together…….A child or children was present at each of these events today……..That's all here in black and white: Children! Children! Children!”

“Like pebbles dropping one by one, ruffling the surface.”

The children by-pass a guard and enter the base by opening a locked gate. Dr. Wahrman spots them and confronts the guard about his inattentiveness. Wahrman then meets with Dave and informs him of his suspicions. For him being, “a man of science is like a deep-sea diver. He mustn't be afraid to walk down where it's dark and frightening, in the hopes of scooping up a handful of truth.” Wahrman is aware of the truth about the children and their strange powers: “But what I saw a group of children do a few minutes ago is something for which there is no name.”

In order to test a hypothesis he asks Dave, “Now, I wonder what would happen if I would try to tell someone else?” When Wahrman attempts to call someone, the phone malfunctions.

Wahrman demands to know where the alien creature is and what it looks like. Dave tells him that the creature is in the cave but that he can’t describe it. All that they can be sure of is that “it's making the children obey its every command, “that “the children are completely in its power” and that they themselves are “in the power of the children.”

“Is there no man on this Earth, who has the wisdom and innocence of a child?”

Wahrman and Dave go to the cave to confront the enormous alien blob. Wahrman tells it that he has “spent a lifetime in the search for truth and knowledge, trying to make this world a better place. A world where the very children you're controlling can live in peace instead of fear.” There is no response from the creature. Could it be that it has the same aims as those expressed by Wahrman and that Wahrman has merely given voice to the alien’s ultimate intention.
“Number 1 stage. 
Primary fuel valve is locked. 
Number 2 stage. 
Primary fuel valve is locked. 
Number 3 stage. 
Primary fuel valve, locked.” 

As preparations for the launch continue, the children exit the base and return to the cave. Dave and Wahrman arrive back at the base just in time for the launch.

“Sixty seconds to firing. 
Standby to fire. Standby. 
Ten, nine, eight, seven. 
Six, five. 
Four, three, two, one. 

When the missile is launched, the warhead on the top suddenly and dramatically explodes on the pad as the children watch on from the beach.

Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew, Ch.18, v.3)

It is very much apparent that “the children have won.” After the launch failure, the military heads for the cave with the aim of destroying the alien blob. Close behind are the children's parents. The children block the cave entrance while their parents plead for them to come away from the cave and the creature inside. The alien blob then exits the cave and ascends into the sky on the beam of light.

The children explain to the adults that “the children all over the world…did what we did in every country” as directed by the alien blob “because the world wasn't ready to do it.” Because of their actions, the world is having a second chance.

Points of Interest

The Space Children was producer William Alland's first picture with Paramount. The film was based on The Egg, an unpublished story by Tom Filer.

Daughter of a wildcat oil driller, Peggy Webber is the founder and executive director/producer of the California Artists Radio Theatre, She has worked with the likes of Basil Rathbone, Orson Welles, Alfred Hitchcock, Henry Fonda, Lionel Barrymore, Kirk Douglas, Vincent Price, John Garfield, Mickey Rooney, Raymond Massey, Charles Laughton, Joseph Cotten, and Glen Ford.

We have seen Sandy Descher as the little girl who wanders out of the desert screaming in the film Them!  We also know Jackie Coogan as Uncle Fester in The Adam’s Family series. And of course there’s Russell Johnson who played the Professor in the TV series, Gilligan’s Island as well as roles in It Came from Outer Space (1953) and This Island Earth (1955) and

The interior of the Brewster trailer - Unit #3 - is the set that had been built for the MGM movie The Long, Long Trailer (1954).

The alien brain was created by special effects artist Ivyl Burks using $3,300 of neon lights to create the glowing effect.

Along with The Space Children, Jack Arnold’s other classic sci-fi films include, It Came From Outer Space, Creature From The Black Lagoon, Tarantula, and The Incredible Shrinking Man, all of which are featured in this blog.

Although the film contains a strong anti-nuclear proliferation message which is still very relevant today, it also has relevance for us in terms of how generational change can come about should the current order of things show no signs of improvement. For instance, see how recent events have transpired in which many young people no longer feel safe in a society saturated with guns and violence. If they feel that the adult world isn’t ready to do it - to change the current state of affairs, then they may feel it is in their power to act by taking to the streets to voice their concerns and apply political pressure to achieve change, however that may seem to be a dangerously alien concept in the Power Elite’s world view. Perhaps there is cause for optimism if young people feel motivated enough to try and “make this world a better place. A world where…. Children…. can live in peace instead of fear.”

©Chris Christopoulos 2018