review for The Space Children on AllMovie

The Space Children (1958)
by Bruce Eder review

The Space Children is, in many ways, a semi-follow up (but not a sequel, by any means) to Jack Arnold's It Came From Outer Space (1953). On that basis alone, it would bear a serious look from science fiction fans as well as devotees of Arnold's work. The fact that it's also a politically very daring brand of science fiction -- and doubly so, to have been made and released when it was -- only adds to its allure. And those aspects of its production, along with some very offbeat casting (offering certain actors some of the best scenes of their big-screen careers), allow it to overcome its obviously low budget. The movie is a threadbare production, to be sure, with much of it taking place in a trailer-park setting and some cavern sets that all must've cost all of $1.98 to decorate and build. But Arnold was an expert at making something -- and sometimes something very substantial -- out of very little (if not nothing), and he shows off that expertise here about as finely as in any movie he ever made. For starters, in terms of sheer oddness, we get Adam Williams, an actor who spent most of his career exclusively playing bad guys, as a harried if loving family man; and Peggy Webber, one of those acting secret weapons that Jack Webb always had up his sleeve on Dragnet, in one of her very few starring roles, superb as a mother who doesn't know what to do to save her children, her marriage, or -- ultimately -- her planet. And scattered among the rest of the players are Jackie Coogan as a gung-ho cold warrior; Russell Johnson (working against type) as an angry, drunken, abusive husband and stepfather; and Raymond Bailey, in his biggest movie role, as a scientist who discovers that he has to re-think his entire way of looking at the universe. All of these actors obviously saw their opportunity to do something different and ran with it; and one scene, involving the aftermath of Johnson's attempt to beat his son, is startling in its low-key horror which, at once, recalls moments of It Came From Outer Space and also the Arnold-spawned (but not directed) The Monolith Monsters.

Arnold weaves their work together with some guileless performances by a brace of child actors (including a young Johnny Crawford, from The Rifleman), into a distinctly against-the-grain pacifist science fiction tale. The Space Children was made during the year following the Soviet launch of Sputnik, which caused an ensuing political panic in the United States and set the stage for what could have been a run-up to a war footing in real-life. The reality around Arnold, as he prepared and shot this film, was that some otherwise thoughtful Democrats, including Lyndon Johnson and Hubert Humphrey, were stoking the political fires under the Eisenhower administration, trying to gain political advantage by pushing for sending weapons into space -- the movie's fictionalized orbital nuclear weapon The Thunderer is the cinematic fantasy answer to what they wanted. And Arnold had the temerity to make a movie that stated an emphatic "no!" to all of those sentiments. Just as It Came From Outer Space ended on a hopeful note, as the aliens were allowed to leave in peace -- though just barely -- so The Space Children, in a more uncertain way, presents a story that called for caution in our way of thinking. In many ways, the movie also anticipates Wolf Rilla's Village of the Damned (1960), with its images of children acting in concert with forces extraterrestrial, but offers a more benign vision than the one derived from John Wyndham's The Midwich Cuckoos. If there is any serious flaw in the movie, it's the obvious haste with which the movie was made, and the low budget that Arnold had to work with -- but one strongly suspects that the only way that Paramount would agree to do the movie was if Arnold went in agreeing to those terms -- luckily, his story was bold enough and his cast good and sincere enough to pull it off, well enough so that the cheesiest effects, most under-decorated (and populated) sets, and most cavalier camera set-ups slide by, not affecting one's appreciation of the results.