Geek culture is big, but even in the vast, loosely defined ocean of "geek" there are a few universal touchstones. That's not to say that everyone agrees on them — hell, if you can get five geeks together in a room who agree on more than two separate geek-related things, I think a certificate of accomplishment magically appears on your wall. These are just things every geek is familiar with — or should be. Call it a geek canon, if you want to be pretentious, or just consider it the basics of geek culture: the films, books and other media that the vast majority of geeks know and love or hate, or at least have an opinion about. For this third installment of Geekology 101, we're taking a look at the early days of geek film, specifically the still-relevant geek films of the 1950s.
While there are a number of important geek films prior to 1950, that's the first decade that produced a significant body of work that is still at least arguably relevant today. Specifically, I've chosen movies that still have some influence, and are also at least somewhat watchable for those with modern sensibilities. Other than the date, my criteria for the list — as with the film franchise list that kicked off this series — are a pretty simple combination of the impact of the film on both geek culture and the larger, mainstream culture, and the likelihood that any given group of geeks would have a strong opinion about the series. With that explanation, on to the selections.
5. Plan 9 From Outer Space
Let's start with what is inarguably the worst movie on this list, Ed Wood's execrable Plan 9 From Outer Space. You might wonder why such a bad film would be included, but in this case, the film's legend as "the worst movie ever made" earned it a spot — it's here not despite being bad, but because it's bad. As I wrote a while back, despite its reputation, Plan 9 From Outer Space is nowhere near the worst movie ever made, but it's come to represent that kind of perverse love for terrible films that lurks in the corners of geekdom (see Mystery Science Theater 3000, et al). It's worth seeing for that reason alone.
4. Gojira (aka Godzilla)
The original Godzilla film is many things: A parable about the dangers of nuclear weaponry, the birth of an entire subgenre of film and one hell of a good monster movie, all rolled into one. The effects haven't aged all that well, and the film is pretty slow by modern standards, but it's still plenty effective. If nothing else, seeing the grandaddy of all rubber-suit monster movies with your own eyes is worth the runtime.
3. Invasion of the Body Snatchers
If you liked the anti-nuclear sentiment of Godzilla, you're going to love the Cold War paranoia of Invasion of the Body Snatchers! When a doctor notices that his patients are all a little off, it leads him to the horrific discovery that everyone is being replaced by alien simulacrums — and, of course, no one will believe him! You can read it as a warning of the dangers of communism, or dig deeper and take it as a warning against the creeping homogeneity of the 1950s. Or, hell, take it as a genuinely spooky horror movie and ignore the subtext altogether. It's worth the watch, all the same.
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2. Forbidden Planet
One of the first efforts at "serious" science fiction, Forbidden Planet incorporates elements of Shakespeare (it's a very loose adaptation of The Tempest) into a thinking man's space adventure. A crew of square-jawed spacemen — led by Leslie Nielsen! — set out to discover the fate of a space expedition that disappeared twenty years before, only to find its few survivors in possession of some strange alien technology and seemingly at the mercy of a weird, unstoppable creature. The at-the-time revolutionary effects look pretty quaint today, but the story and the message, about humanity's tendency to be its own worst enemy, still work just fine.
1. The Day the Earth Stood Still
It's the oldest movie on this list, coming out in 1951, but it's also the greatest. Aliens come to Earth to warn us to stop being such dicks or face destruction. Of course, this being the start of the Cold War, Earth doesn't take too kindly to that and promptly goes out of its collective way to show how dickish we can be. Smartly plotted, well-acted and with a decent message to boot, The Day the Earth Stood Still is one of those movies that has a reputation so sterling it's hard to imagine the real thing living up to it, but guess what? It totally does. If you only ever watch one '50s-era sci-fi classic, make it this one.