Quatermass and the Pit
(UK, Hammer Films, 1967, color, 97 minutes, unrated). Director: Roy Ward Baker. Anchor Bay DVD DV10505
In the hugely popular Independence Day a vast spacecraft, its mass equal to that of a large asteroid, hides right behind the moon without affecting the tides here on earth. More recently The Matrix, another megahit, quickly shoved aside an intriguingly paranoid premise to turn its attention to martial arts and gunplay. And in Armageddon
well, lets spare ourselves that.
There are exceptions - Alex Proyass dreamlike Dark City, for example, and David Cronenbergs films, and Tarkovskys SF-cloaked meditations - but in general you come away from these movies with the impression that their screenwriters and directors have never read a book, that their literary educations came exclusively by way of television and other movies.
But it was not always thus. From the earliest days of movies, the potential of science fiction to express challenging ideas has attracted directors ranging from Meliès to Lang to Menzies to Kubrick. During the 1950s a whole series of big-bug and alien invasion films could easily be decoded into passionate political and social commentary, and even now low-budget, black-and-white pictures from that era - The Day the Earth Stood Still, The Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Them! - feel mature and committed when compared with descendents that take their cues from video games.
The science fiction movie had one of its best years in 1967, when two very different films demonstrated the full potential of the genre. Stanley Kubricks 2001: A Space Odyssey was recognized immediately as a classic and today its ideas and images have since been absorbed into the culture. It would be hard to find anyone interested in movies who, even if he or she hasnt seen it, doesnt at least know its premise. It was also a big-budget film whose revolutionary special effects dazzled audiences.
The other film had no such spectacle to offer. Roy Ward Bakers Quatermass and the Pit was made, like 2001, in the UK, but as a modest Hammer feature based on a popular British science fiction television series of a decade earlier. Since Dr Quatermass, the hero of both the TV series and the movie, was unknown to American audiences, it was released in the USA as Five Million Years to Earth, where prospective viewers were wooed with a hilariously lurid trailer that is included on this DVD release.
But despite its modest budget and - by todays standards - low-grade special effects, Quatermass had something far more important in its favor: Nigel Kneales highly intelligent and suggestive screenplay. Like Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarkes 2001 script, it is concerned with extra-terrestrial participation in the process of human evolution. But while this influence is beneficent in Kubricks film, with beings from Jupiter elevating mankind to successively higher planes of consciousness, in Quatermass the effects of Martian tampering are completely evil.
Construction workers excavating a new line for the London Underground find a cache of fossilized bones that seem to belong to some intermediary species between apes and humans. The skulls have strange protrusions on them that baffle paleontologists who examine them.
Summoned to the scene are the bearded Prof. Bernard Quatermass (Andrew Keir) and his assistant Barbara Judd (Barbara Shelley). While they are there a new discovery is made: a large, streamlined object that, once it is completely unearthed, seems to be a bizarrely-shaped, miniature rocket. When tested, it is found to be much harder than diamond, and no drill or torch can even mark its surface. Carbon dating indicates that it also appears to date from the same era as the bones - about five million years ago.
Quatermass and Judd learn that the area has been considered to be evil and unholy since Roman times, and that rows of abandoned houses nearby were deserted decades earlier by inhabitants who claimed to see demons there. Reading ancient historical records in the British Museum and Westminster Abbey, they learn that particularly violent disturbances took place at times when the ground was disturbed.
When a final attempt is made to penetrate a closed chamber in the object using a high-powered drill, a wall suddenly disintegrates of its own accord to reveal the mummified corpses of large, insect-like creatures that begin to deteriorate as soon as the air reaches them. Quatermass and another scientist investigating the phenomenon quickly note the similarity between the horned heads of the insect-aliens and the representations of devils and demons going all the way back to the cave painters.
Kneales plot unravels intricately through a series of insights and revelations to present an explanation of how human beings, peace-loving in their earliest evolutionary forms, became capable of committing the kinds of mass atrocities that took place at the German extermination camps, in Cambodia, Rwanda, Kosovo, and most recently East Timor. The concept is developed with the kind of focused restraint that makes the best British science fiction films so compelling, before breaking loose at the conclusion into a cataclysm where, as the trailer promises, we see the World in panic! Cities in flames! But even here, and in what is left unsaid at the conclusion, the ingeniousness of the movies premise, and the force with which Kneale and Baker develop it, keep it firmly on track.
The performances of Keir and Shelley as Quatermass and Judd are excellent. Keir is virile and handsome, and Shelley is a knockout, but their commitment to getting to the center of the mystery that drives the movie is so palpable that you somehow never speculate as to whether or not their relationship extends beyond research. James Donald, as the humanist scientist who shares Quatermasss suspicions about the disinterred rocket, also keeps his performance far clear of the caricature that infests so much of the acting seen in science fiction movies.
Quatermass and the Pit isnt without its weak points. There is a subplot involving military and government types who, in the best 1950s B-movie tradition, refuse against all evidence to believe that anything is going on that they wont be able to handle. Some of the special effects during the big finale also call for the kind of willing suspension of disbelief that you dont have to summon up when watching, say, Starship Troopers. But there are ideas here that are intriguing enough to keep you pondering the film long after youve seen it and, perhaps, returning to it and pushing it off on friends. Anchor Bays DVD transfer is exceptionally clear and detailed.
Now what is needed is for someone, alerted to the originality of Nigel Kneales work by this film, to look into his other writings with an eye to republishing them. There are other Quatermass screenplays, but my nomination for the book most urgently in need of republication is his short story collection, Tomato Cain.
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