Friday 12 January 2007

The 27th Day (1957)

We open with what must be the politest abductions ever shown on film. Some unseen man, who appears out of nowhere and is apparently bulletproof, asks his victims to come with him. Where we initially don't know, but we do know that they're from diverse locations and backgrounds: an English girl from the seaside, an American journalist, a Chinese peasant girl, a European scientist and a Russian soldier. Soon we discover that we're on a flying saucer and the host has a sense of humour, asking them to call him 'the alien'.

However we soon discover that we're also in a fifties sci-fi B-movie and thus nobody bothered to think about consistency. We watch the Earth slowly disappear but apparently we're travelling at light speed. The alien tells them that his race want to move in because their own planet is dying, but they're all nice guys so they won't invade or kill us or anything like that. Instead he gives each of his five guests an ultimate weapon and expects rather than hopes that they'll use them within the 27 days that they'll be active. If they don't, the aliens will quietly die so as to not cause any inconvenience to anyone; but if they do, the weapons will destroy all human life on the planet without damaging anything else and the aliens' conscience will apparently stay clean.

No, I don't quite buy this logic either, but there it is: it's still an intriguing concept, courtesy of screenwriter John Mantley who adapted it from his own novel. Rather than the standard plot from numerous fifties movies about all powerful aliens invading the Earth and destroying humanity, we have aliens granting us the opportunity to do it for them. Instead of merely regarding us as savages, they give us the chance to prove it. The key factor is a real bitch: the alien ensures that the five can't hide their stories by broadcasting to the entire world their names and home cities, suddenly it's no secret any more.

The stars are Gene Barry from The War of the Worlds (the American), and Valerie French (the Englishwoman), along with George Voskovec, (the European), who made this the same year he played Uncle Vanya and appeared in 12 Angry Men. That's a varied and interesting year in film for one man. All of them are solid decent people in a very fifties vein, obviously chosen for the image they project. Like many fifties scifi movies, it's American propaganda as much as anything, as controlled by the moral arbiters of the country through the confines of the Production Code. For instance, the Americans merely seek their man but the Russians torture theirs.

However it could also be seen as a victory for individualism: mankind is dumb but man is not. That fits a lot of my optimistic/pessimistic beliefs too: that if there's a way for mankind to screw everything up, it'll find it; but if there's a way for an individual to find a fix, he or she will do that too. The film isn't as good as it could be but it's far better than it should be. This concept, as much as I don't buy it, really makes me think and that's a damn fine thing for a movie to do.

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