Starfish aliens, a planet hurtling towards Earth, and mankind divided on what to do; this is 1956’s Warning from Space. This poignant sci-fi spectacular delivers on striking images and engaging ideas. While its characters are thin, the film’s vast scope negates this as a problem.
Flying saucers have been spotted all over the world; and strange creatures have startled crowds. These are the envoys of the Pairans, beings from a world beyond the reach of Earth’s observatories. They’ve arrived with a warning for humanity: the mysterious Planet R is hurtling towards the Earth on a collision course. To get their warning heard, the Pairans take the form of a famous performer and alert the world that something must be done.
This is a good film on many levels. It satisfies the desire for sensationalism with its high-concept sci-fi story, but it also provokes deeper thought on questions of trust, science, and choice. Warning from Space (or, Spacemen Appear in Tokyo as its title more literally translates) fits into a small group of ‘50s science fiction films that present their aliens as wise helpers instead of belligerent invaders. Certainly, narratives that present a positive connection with an alien Other, coming out in the ‘50s in a cultural environment tainted by McCarthysm (both domestically and especially in the international arena), are very profound.
As a disclaimer, one might question the importance of McCarthysm in this reading because of the film’s Japanese origins. It’s fair question, though it misunderstands the impact the United States had in shaping post-war Japan. Despite an initial liberalisation in certain areas under the American occupation (which surprisingly saw the Japanese Communist Party legalised and labour organisation actively encouraged), the so-called ‘reverse course’ was enacted in 1947. This shift in policy, designed to help cement Japan as America’s foothold in Asia against communism, saw a ‘red purge’ of socialists and communists from political and public life in 1950; a new edict stripped public sector labour unions of their right to strike; and several anti-trust rulings were dropped against the zeibatsu (corporate conglomerates which had profiteered off of the war). Perhaps worst of all, several purged war-time leaders (many of whom were accused war criminals) were rehabilitated into government positions. I bring this context up because it’s important to remember that anti-communism was not bound to U.S. soil – even if it was the U.S. who ensured it didn’t stay there.*
So, for Warning from Space to assert such a trusting relationship with its aliens is significant; not just in how the film’s characters relate to them, but in how we, the audience, do so as well. Unlike films such as The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), This Island Earth (1955), and, to a lesser extent, It Came from Outer Space (1953), whose aliens are human in appearance and so are easier to connect with, Warning from Space asks us to connect with the Other in a much more drastic way. The Pairans look like starfish, with a large eye in the centre of their bodies; a far-cry from Michael Rennie as Klaatu.
Part of why the film succeeds in connecting us with the Pairans is because it draws attention to the very thing which would otherwise prevent us – our own standards of beauty. When reporting back to their ship after their first appearances on Earth, the Pairans are surprised that their visage seems to frighten earthlings. Moreover, when the Pairans look at a photo of performer Hikari Aozora (Toyomi Karita), they react in equal surprise at what passes for beauty on Earth. It’s a humorous moment, but in the Pairans’ incredulity we begin to consider their point of view; just what is actually beautiful? Though it might seem simple, the film is an honest expression of the old adage: don’t judge a book by its cover. It asks us to connect with these otherworldly beings, and it succeeds.
In questioning supposed status-quo thinking, the film also asserts a fascinating look at choice. The Pairans say that they, much as humanity, also nearly destroyed themselves with nuclear weapons. However, they renounced theirs. The Pairans suggest that humanity dispenses with its nuclear arsenal by pointing its warheads at the approaching Planet R. It might be tempting to read this as a pro-nuclear angle, but there’s arguably much more going on here. The Pairans’ suggestion brings to mind a quote from physicist Richard Feynman. Feynman likened discoveries in science to keys. Every discovery made is a key that can open the gates of heaven; but the same key can also open the gates of hell. What we do with our knowledge is a choice that is up to us. The Pairans’ suggestion challenges dominant Cold War thinking. It assumes a use for nuclear devices that is not bound in apocalypse, but in salvation. As the film goes on, whether or not this plan works is irrelevant, for the Pairans have already prompted thoughts of what else might be.
A word must be mentioned to the film’s beautiful production design. The Pairans and their spacecraft are sublime; existing as if pages of Astounding Stories or Amazing Stories had come to life. That connection to vintage sci-fi magazines also realises another way in which Warning from Space dazzles – its aesthetics are so beautifully of their time. By no means is this a bad thing, for it makes Warning from Space timelessly gorgeous – paradoxically because its aesthetics are so easily identified and historically situated.
While Warning from Space may not feature characters whose lives are explored in depth, the lofty implications of its aliens and the enormous scope of its narrative alleviate these frustrations. The world in which Warning from Space takes place is not free from conflict or disaster, but it is one in which trust can be fomented between the most unlikely of peoples. For that reason, it is ultimately a very hopeful picture. Recommended.
*For more information on the U.S. occupation and post-war Japan, a read of Nick Kapur’s book, Japan at the Crossroads: Conflict and Compromise after Anpo (2018), is recommended.