Few remember movies like The Blob or Plan 9 from Outer Space for their narrative sophistication. Rather, the era of sci-fi movies from the 1950s is remembered perhaps as one of cinematic spectaculars produced on a shoestring budget, crafted as throwaway entertainment designed to capitalise on the growing popularity of science fiction in the cinemas and at home on the television.
However, as Steffen Hantke’s exhaustive account of that era demonstrates, there was much more going on beneath the surface. Throughout Monster in the Machine, Hantke presents numerous intriguing and well-researched perspectives on just how exactly post-World War II paranoia in the United States shaped the themes and content of the multitude of low-budget science fiction movies it would soon come to produce by the dozen.
Perhaps the biggest surprise of Monsters in the Machine is how Hantke presents fresh ideas on well-worn concepts. Reviewers, academics and fans alike have found much to say about how these films link with themes such as nuclear catastrophes and Cold War ideologies. Hantke contextualises these movies with great effect. He delivers a tightly-woven narrative of how these ideas, prevalent in American society during and after the Second World War, came to influence and define the cinematic output of these movies.
Hantke leaves no stone unturned in his breezy, well-constructed encapsulations of the era, examining the ins and outs of the impact these films had on American culture and society of the 1950s. His eloquent writing compacts a multitude of sci-fi romps of yesteryear, whilst also bringing in more modern cinematic endeavours such as Transformers, The Golden Compass and The Lord of the Rings for comparison and contrast’s sake. It’s as if to display the continuing legacy of the tense mentality that produced the likes of The Twilight Zone and Quatermass still has on contemporary media.
Hantke rarely forgets the importance of the audience throughout the book. Although many ideas are played with, he cements these ideas by presenting them through the lens of the audiences who would go to watch these films. Hantke routinely brings his arguments back to the idea of how these films would have been perceived by audiences at that time, and how knowingly or unknowingly these people would have allowed these films to influence society.
Monsters in the Machine shines a long overdue light on how the violent side of these seemingly camp, harmless B-movies interlinked itself with a post-war America. Hantke writes with an engrossing authority that’s welcoming and without pomposity. The best of these academic books are the sorts that send you scurrying to your DVD collection to dig out the films they discuss and see their theories come to life. Monsters in the Machine does just that.
MONSTERS IN THE MACHINE / AUTHOR: STEFFEN HANTKE / PUBLISHER: UNIVERSITY PRESS OF MISSISSIPPI / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW