Friday, May 19, 1972: Kronos (1956)


Synopsis:  Late one night in the California desert, a man drives his pickup truck along a lonely stretch of highway.  Suddenly, his radio is filled with static and his truck stalls.  He gets out and lifts the hood, then notices a strange white sphere racing toward him. When the sphere hits him it vanishes, and he calmly lowers the hood of his vehicle, gets into the truck, and heads back the way he came.


Soon the driver arrives at a scientific research facility called LabCentral.  There he knocks out the security guard and barges into the office of the lab’s director, Dr. Hubbell Elliot (John Emery). In an instant, the white sphere transfers from the truck driver to Dr. Elliot.  The driver collapses, dead; now Dr. Elliot seems not to be himself.  He immediately goes to a locked cabinet and peruses a file that lists the locations and yields of all the world’s atomic power plants.

 

“Plot her orbit? I hardly know her!”

Elsewhere in the building, three other LabCentral employees are working late: Dr. Leslie Gaskell (Jeff Morrow) is tracking the path of an asteroid, with the help of his beautiful assistant / #1 squeeze Vera Hunter (Barbara Lawrence); Dr. Arnold Culver (George O’Hanlon) is using a mammoth computer nicknamed “Susie” to compute the asteroid’s orbit.  But something hinkey is going on: Gaskell is certain the asteroid’s course is changing for no apparent reason.  And before long Susie bears this out: the asteroid is now heading directly for Earth.


When told of this, Dr. Elliot shrugs, suggesting that Susie might have made a mistake; in any case, there is nothing anyone can do about it.  Gaskell finds Elliot’s attitude perplexing.  He implores Elliot to contact the government immediately — missiles loaded with nuclear warheads must be fired at the asteroid while it’s still in space.  If the object isn’t destroyed, Gaskell says, its impact could cause enormous damage.

 

Susie! Speak to me!


Reluctantly, Elliot agrees.  Soon a trio of missiles are launched at the asteroid.  All three strike their target.  At the same moment Dr. Elliot collapses to the floor, unconscious.  But to Gaskell’s astonishment, the asteroid is left completely intact and its course is unchanged.  The object splashes into the sea,  a few miles off the west coast of Mexico.  On a hunch, Gaskell and Culver travel to Mexico to see if they can determine the asteroid’s makeup.  Gaskell is surprised but eventually delighted when Vera shows up as well.


Back in the States, Dr. Elliot, moving in and out of a trance-like state, is being treated by a psychiatrist.  In his lucid moments, he tells the shrink that an alien intelligence has gained control of him, and is forcing him to betray the human race.  The alien race is trying to absorb all the Earth’s energy, and will succeed if given time. 


The following morning, the scientists in Mexico awake to discover that in the same place in the ocean where the object landed, a 300-foot robot now stands….

Pretty sure that wasn’t there when we went to bed last night.


Comments: It Came From Outer Space and War of the Worlds, both released in 1953, were popular films that helped launch the cycle of sci-fi movies that followed over the next decade.  And they were archetypal: embedded in each were tropes that we would see repeated again and again, in countless films such as tonight’s feature from 1957, Kronos.


First of all, we have a hero scientist who isn’t interested in bringing the dead back to life, or otherwise breaking the laws of nature — those obsessions belonged to the gloomy movie scientists of the 1930s and 40s. Both It Came From Outer Space‘s John Putnam (an amateur astronomer) and War of the Worlds‘ Dr. Clayton Forrester (a physicist) are deeply moral men who are only interested in learning the truth about a strange phenomenon, even when the search for truth risks ridicule or even bodily harm.

Dr. Clayton Forrester (Gene Barry) is an early example of the hero-scientist in the movies, looking a bit like Clark Kent the moment before he turns into Superman

Moreover, Putnam and Forrester are carefully presented as more than just eggheads.  Along with their intelligence and curiosity they are quite deliberately shown to be masculine types, successful with women and ready for fisticuffs or more if the need arises (Forrester clobbers a Martian intruder with a metal bar; Putnam keeps a .38 in the glove compartment of his Ford Crestline).

The brooding social misfits of the Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi era are gone. In their place are men who are responsible and well-adjusted members of society.  in War of the Worlds, Forrester gets along easily with the people of the small California town he visits, gamely participating in a Saturday night square dance, and is treated with great respect and deference not only by the local minister (and the minister’s fetching daughter) but by the hard-nosed General Mann as well.  Putnam in It Came From Outer Space is more of an odd duck in Sand Rock, Arizona, but he eventually earns the grudging respect of the local authorities (even though his story is initially discounted by the Sheriff, the astronomy professor and the local newspaperman, the working-class telephone linemen Frank and George are immediately on his side). And even in his lowest moments he has Ellen, the prettiest girl in town, patiently waiting for him to pop the question.


 

The tightly-wound John Putnam (Richard Carlson) was kind of a fish out of water in Sand Rock, Arizona. But he is never without allies, and has the added virtue of always being right.


Kronos borrows a lot from these films, both consciously and unconsciously. Jeff Morrow’s affable manner and athletic build are reminiscent of both It Came From Outer Space‘s Richard Carlson and War of the Worlds’  Gene Barry.  Like the love interests in these two films, Vera is a knockout who spends most of her time trying to get her distracted scientist boyfriend to pay attention to her.

When the giant robot Kronos threatens the Earth, and the armies of the world fail to defeat it, they turn to science for answers. The postwar optimism about scientists — what can’t they do? — lives uneasily alongside the notion that science might yet unleash powers that even our vaunted military can’t handle.

LabCentral may superficially resemble War of the World’s fictional Pacific Tech, but it’s also a stand-in for the entire postwar scientific community. The image of the scientist is no longer Boris Karloff furtively mixing chemicals in a secret lab; now science is an open activity, glamorous and well-funded and busily paving the road to the future. This golden age of scientist-heroes in the movies didn’t last long, as the optimism about both science and scientists faded and Americans’ more reflexive distrust of intellectuals came to the fore once again. But it was an interesting time.

Kurt Neumann had directed countless B-movies through the 30s and 40s, including any number of quota quickies and Tarzan movies. He rushed the Destination Moon ripoff Rocketship XM to theaters in advance of its more expensive rival, while still maintaining a look that belied its meager budget.  Kronos is made in his usual straightforward, workmanlike style. Neumann is probably best known for The Fly (1958) a big hit that he unfortunately never lived to see released; he died in 1958, at the age of 50.

 

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One comment

  1. KRONOS receives a fair amount of respect in regard to its 50s brethren, and Kurt Neumann always does a fine job on all his films. An early title of his was 1933's SECRET OF THE BLUE ROOM, starring Lionel Atwill and Onslow Stevens, later reunited in HOUSE OF DRACULA.

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