The timing of the new Turner Classic Movies documentary Watch the Skies!, a survey of American science fiction films of the 1950s, directed by Time magazine film critic Richard Schickel, is perfect—a little too perfect. After all, the release of the doc (which premieres tonight at 8 p.m. ET on TCM, with encore presentations at 10:30 p.m. tonight and on July 17 at 5 p.m.) coincides with the publicity rollouts for both Steven Spielberg’s War of the Worlds and George Lucas’ Revenge of the Sith, and darned if the Schickel doc doesn’t open on talking-head interview footage with Spielberg and Lucas as they recall their earliest exposure to the atomic-age sci-fi thrillers of their youth. The documentary opens and closes with multiple excerpts from the new War of the Worlds, as if to suggest that the Spielberg remake is the alpha and omega of all science-fiction filmmaking to date. There’s even a catty comment from George Lucas about the original 1953 War of the Worlds that seems intended to help promote his buddy’s new venture: “You look at it now, and it’s not as good as the book.”
Spielberg and Lucas, along with fellow sci-fi filmmakers Ridley Scott and James Cameron, are the sole commentators in this one-hour film (in another nod to Star Wars, the voice-over narration, written by Schickel, is read by a still boyish-sounding Mark Hamill). This intensive focus on the mind of the auteur is part of Schickel’s M.O.: His previous films as a writer and director have included Eastwood on Eastwood, Scorsese on Scorsese, and the interview-heavy Men Who Made the Movies series, featuring chats with classic directors like Alfred Hitchcock, George Cukor and Howard Hawks. Some of the directors’ recollections in Watch the Skies! are helpful in understanding their work, as, for example, when Spielberg recounts his childhood terror watching the Cuban missile crisis come to a head on live television while his parents were out at a party (a scene that seems ready-made for a future Spielberg blockbuster; I’m seeing Rory Culkin as a young Tom Hanks). But in what’s supposed to be a documentary about an entire genre, this autobiographical, director-centric approach leaves out too many points of view that could have been just as illuminating. Where are the film scholars? The special-effects wizards? The NASA scientists and astronauts?
For all its narrowness of focus, Watch the Skies!, like most of TCM’s original documentaries, is still well worth watching for armchair scholars of film history. It’s replete with wonderful scenes from sci-fi classics like Forbidden Planet and Invaders from Mars, as well as less artistically successful, but still fascinating artifacts like Destination Moon (which imagined a realistic moon landing back in 1950) and its low-budget ripoff, Rocketship X-M, which was thrown together at the last minute to beat the much-hyped Destination Moon into theaters. One high point is the spectacular fight sequence in The Incredible Shrinking Man, in which the ever-more-minuscule hero (Grant Williams) takes on a common house spider using a sewing needle as his sword. Even in our era of computer animation and electronically enhanced monsters, the simple visual effect of experimenting with scale (real but tiny man vs. real but enormous spider) works terrifyingly well.
The documentary coasts a little too far on the by-now-familiar point that it was anxiety about mutual assured destruction that fueled 1950s fantasies of hostile body snatchers and gigantic mutant insects, but the clips themselves are so beautifully chosen that they transcend the sometimes banal narration. Schickel’s greatest strengths are as a film archivist and historian; he finds just the right image to illustrate each point, which makes it even more annoying when the provenance of some of the images goes unidentified. But if you can grit your teeth through the blatant War of the Worlds product placement (which does make the new Spielberg flick look compellingly scary), Watch the Skies! is a smart and entertaining, if limited, tour of the richly paranoid psyche of mid-20th-century America.