Monsters from the Id

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 03/15/09 02:15:18

"Not nearly as educational as it wants to be."
3 stars (Average)

SCREENED AT THE 2009 SXSW FILM FESTIVAL: 1950s science fiction is known for being paranoid and downbeat, tinged with fear of atomic doom and the potential for infiltrators to be anywhere. Filmmaker Dave Gargani argues that this should not, necessarily, be the case, or at least not the whole story. As much as those themes are present, he argues, there is great optimism to be found in them.

He sets out to prove his point in Monsters From the Id, which takes is name from Forbidden Planet, one of the films offered up as evidence. Also featured are Invaders from Mars, War of the Worlds, The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, Them!, and the "Tomorrowland" segments of the Disneyland television series. These films are discussed by five experts, Professors Leroy Dubeck and Patrick Luciano, Luciano's co-author Gary Coville, film critic Richard Scheib, and retired NASA engineer Homer Hickam. The film ends by pondering what changed between then and now and what that means for the future.

In general, the films roughly match with a theme - 20,000 Fathoms is used for atomic fears, Invaders from Mars and The Day the Earth Stood Still to show how children had a large role in these stories, War of the Worlds to demonstrate the level of trust accorded to scientists and the military at the time. It is, thankfully, not a rigid correspondence; movies will pop up in multiple segments to demonstrate that this is, in fact, a pattern, rather than Gargani trying to build a case via widely separated data points. The ideas involved aren't especially complicated, but the voiced articulate them fairly well, although they do have a habit of making the same points, rather than attacking the question from different directions.

The most recognizable voice is that of Homer Hickam, author of Rocket Boys (later made into the film October Sky). He is also different than the others in that he's a case study, a boy who grew up in the fifties and went on to do science and get involved in space exploration, rather than writing about science fiction films. As a result, even though he sometimes comes off as sounding less forceful or authoritative than the others, his very presence means that there's something to what the talking heads are saying. October Sky also means that he's the one that the largest chunk of the audience will find familiar; the other four are not even household names on his level.

Gargani tends to take a lot at face value, and that's a bigger problem than non-headliner experts. He points out how trustworthy the military tends to be portrayed as in these films, but stays well away from the complexities of whether or not that is a wholly good thing. There are comments on how the assassination of JFK led to Vietnam, which seems speculative at best. Toward the end, the film shifts from talking about the films of the 1950s to a discussion of how a relatively low percentage of American college students graduate with degrees in science and engineering to how the future of space exploration will likely come from private industry, with specific attention paid to Burt Rutan's SpaceShipOne and Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic. They're interesting subjects, but which deserve a much more complete treatment than they are given here, and Gargani's enthusiasm makes the end seem a bit like an ad for Virgin.

"Monsters From the Id" is lightweight; it often feels like a DVD special feature, the sort which a studio might include to fill out a box-set of 50s sci-fi films if the clips weren't so spread out. It's got good ideas - and a very nice soundtrack from Brian Aumueller - but could use a little more focus.

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