Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Change of Pace: Memory Jogging At The Movies. "Kronos" (1957)

Kronos, ready to stomp Los Angeles to smithereens while sucking up all the energy in creation

While tooling around the YouTubes over the weekend, I stumbled on this little SciFi effort from 1957, and after some Other Important Matters were tended to, I was able to watch it, mostly without interruption.

It was quite a trip. Deja vu all over again. I'd seen the picture before, and I was pretty sure I knew where and when: At the Saturday kiddie matinee at the Covina Theater in the summer of 1957. I went every Saturday from about 1954 to 1959, and that's where I saw most of the SciFi pictures released during the era. Also lots of Warner Brothers and Walter Lantz cartoons.

I was pretty sure I had not seen "Kronos: Ravager of Planets" since then, either. It's a very, very strange sensation to watch a movie that you haven't seen for more than 50 years and to recognize the scenes, and to even be able to anticipate the dialogue and what would come next.

It's hard to describe the effect this movie had on my young self, but I seem to carry a body-memory of it. It was frightening and energizing and intriguing all at the same time. Many of the sensations I must have felt while watching the movie all those years ago, the feeling of being in the theater, even the smells of the place (let alone the noise of the children who were there every Saturday like I was) all came back, almost as if no time had passed. It was very strange.

The theater was in downtown Covina, California, out in the far eastern part of the San Gabriel Valley; it was in an old building, but the theater had been fairly recently remodeled and brought up to MidCentury Modern Movie House standards. I paid a quarter at the box office to get in, bought a popcorn, a small Coke, and a box of Jujubes at the counter (maybe another 35 cents) and went in to what seemed to me to be a very large auditorium, but I doubt it was really that large. It had a stage, though, and a balcony. And I think it had a red velvet or possibly damask curtain. I should remember, but I can't be sure. I went to movies at many different theaters all my young life, and I can't recall for certain the details of the decor of any of them.

Science fiction was by far my favorite genre after I got over my cowboy phase -- which was at about the age of four or five.

I saw many turgid melodramas and thrillers at the movies when I went with my mother to see the regular programs in the evenings, but on Saturday afternoons, I was on my own. I would be dropped off at the theater a few minutes before the start of the kiddie matinee and would be picked up a few minutes after the program ended. Typically there would be several cartoons, an episode of a serial, a game or contest or prize promotion from the stage, then the feature presentation, and sometimes there would be another cartoon after the feature. Usually my head would be reeling from so much stimulation. Now and then, I won a prize offered by one of the sponsors of the matinee. I looked forward to the science fiction pictures. "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" was a favorite.

"Kronos" wasn't far behind, and because I was older when I saw it, I understood it better and identified with the characters somewhat more. I could enjoy "Invasion" for the scare. It was very much a character piece, but "Kronos" was an accessible story for young people and a feast of visuals that I really got into.

I noticed right off when the YouTube version began that I had seen it before -- when I was a child -- because I recognized the very distinctive and unique flying saucer that would be seen repeatedly in the early sequences. "Labcentral" was a familiar destination, too:

Labcentral, whereat SUSIE computated
Of course the special effects were primitive even by the standards of the time, but that didn't matter so much. The story was gripping, especially after the appearance of the Kronos Machine on the beach in Mexico.

The Machine I saw on YouTube was very familiar, and I recalled how intrigued and horrified I was with it when I saw it stomping its way up the coast toward Los Angeles and the area of my home at the time. Science fiction set in or near Los Angeles naturally had an immediate appeal that stories set far away did not. And the more plausible the story was -- at least to a kid-mind -- the better the picture. And this story, for whatever reason was highly plausible to my kid mind, so much so that this movie became the basis for a fantasy-game that my friends and I played in the schoolyard at recess and after school.

We were playing with notions of "what could be" if the aliens landed one day and took over one of our bodies (this was a popular theme in the SciFi genre of the time.) And we were trying to imagine what the Future -- or what advanced alien civilizations -- would look like. The helicopter and B-47 seen in the picture were the latest things. The B-47 is, to my way of looking at it, the most elegant bomber ever built. The Kronos Machine, too, was extraordinarily spare and sleek, and it was visually striking because it completely eschewed both streamlining and the "googie" look of the era.  We knew from "googie." It was everywhere anything new was, and out in the far eastern suburbs of Los Angeles in the 1950's most things were new, and a lot of it was quite fanciful.

The idea of aliens coming to Earth to extract energy -- including the energy of the hydrogen bomb -- was really an interesting notion in that it carried an underlying assumption that Earthlings were producing and using a shit-ton of energy via electric power and nuclear weapons that some other civilization "out there" noted -- and wanted. We didn't have much of a conception in those days of how very tiny the Earth is compared to almost anything else in space, and how practically unnoticeable (and probably uninteresting) the Earth would be to actual aliens searching for energy resources. No, we saw the Earth as large and important and central to our lives -- and therefore of primary and central interest to the aliens, too.

"War of the Worlds" was perhaps the most thematically similar movie of the genre, but it was a blockbuster compared to the modesty of "Kronos" -- and frightening as hell to my young self (I wouldn't have been much more than five or six when I first saw it). Of course watching a model of Los Angeles get destroyed in the movie was deeply disturbing to me. The scenes of destruction of Los Angeles in "Kronos" were not so scary -- because they didn't look anything like Los Angeles. As far as I could tell from the YouTube version, they looked like they were from the 1935 movie of "The Last Days of Pompeii." But maybe it was some other movie that featured the destruction of Pompeii. There were a lot of them.

In order to save what was left of Los Angeles and the lives of those who survived, the science team at Labcentral has to figure out how to reverse the insight that brought forth the atom and hydrogen bombs. It's pointed out that while "we" know how to make energy from matter, the aliens use energy to make matter. By reversing the polarity of the Machine, they will be able to turn it into energy and thus destroy it. It will "eat itself alive." This is perhaps the most intriguing notion in the film.

What would happen if E=MC2 were reversed thus: M=E/C2? Would matter spontaneously appear from the background energy if the velocity of energy were somehow reduced?

In the film, "omega particles" -- whatever they are -- are sprinkled (by a bomb, of course) between the electrodes of the Machine, and behold, the polarity is reversed and the thing commences to consume itself until there is nothing left but a heap of smouldering rubble. Yay! Close call, but we survived.

There's much to like and to ponder in this somewhat silly low-budget SciFi picture, and I was delighted to see it again after so many years. I wonder what else I'll stumble across I haven't seen in all these many years.

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