First off there’s a short film called “Century 21 Calling”, which follows a couple of over exuberant teens to the worlds fair in 1962, where they learn all about amazing telephone technology thanks to Bell Labs. The feature film, “Space Children” presents us with the Brewster family heading out to a new home on a military base near the sea. When Bud (Michel Ray) and his brother spot a bizarre light from the ski, the parents think they’re just playing around. But it soon becomes very clear that a visitor from beyond has arrived in a cave near the sea. All the local kids come to it’s call (which grown ups can’t hear, of course) and concoct a plan to sabotage the rocket project that their dads are working on! Will the combined forces of Uncle Fester (Jackie Coogan) and The Professor from “Giligan’s Island” (Russell Johnson) be enough to stop, “The Space Children”?
“Century 21 Calling” is an odd little film. The first few minutes are devoid of any dialogue, with the two lead kids running around the ’62 world faire and interacting with others and each other. I think it’s meant to show the excitement of the faire, but it comes across like an early 60’s music video. When the pair reaches the Bell Labs exhibit, we get actual dialogue. Mostly it turns into a movie about how cool Bell Labs is and all the neat phone technology they have. It’s interesting to see pagers, call waiting and “brand new” push button dialing back in the day. Mostly the odd tone of the film, with the teens acting so over-excited about phone technology and the pre-rock and roll soundtrack make the short seem quaint and amusing all at the same time.
“The Space Children” will disappoint anyone hoping to see something like a 50’s version of “Space Camp”. Instead of kids journeying into space, they are visited by an alien that looks like something out of the original Star Trek series (the Horta to be specific, if you know your classic episodes).
All in all, this 1958 movie isn’t a bad little film. It’s a bit on the talky side, but there is nothing truly horrible about it. Mostly it features kids running around the beach, using mental powers to talk with the alien and sneak into highly secure military bases, and of course killing off The Professor from “Gilligan’s Isle”.
It’s the grown ups that make the movie. First there’s Mr. Brewster, played by the wooden Adam Williams. His lack of emotion, especially when confronting AN ALIEN FROM OUTER SPACE is pretty funny, but it seems to be the man’s MO. Peggy Webber as Mrs. Brewster comes off a bit abrasive at times. MST3K fans will remember from “The Screaming Skull” where she comes off as just plain whiney.
It’s Jackie Coogan and Russell Johnson who bring the most to the party. Coogan wears tiny little shorts, a rather feminine robe and keeps wanting to swim with “the kids”. To our cynical minds today it just conjures all kinds of remarks, but I’m sure it was innocent back then. Russell Johnson plays a man so different from The Professor that I was agog. He’s drunk. He’s angry. He tries to beat his stepson with a bit of driftwood. His drunken rage is something to behold, and you’re actually pleased to see him get taken out by alien powers.
With that said, the movie suffers from some pacing issues, really taking it’s time to do anything. The last quarter of the film leading up the climax is the best part. The movie is fairly short. There just isn’t enough of a story to fill all 69 minutes of the movie. This would have been a fun “Twilight Zone” or “Outer Limits” episode, but as a feature film, it just doesn’t quite pull it off.
And so shorts return to Mystery Science Theater 3000. Short films were a staple of the Comedy Central years and they’ve provided a huge number of laughs over the years. But, for some reason, the Sci-Fi channel didn’t want the crew tackling shorts in Season 8. So, it is in this Season 9 episode that we get the triumphant return.
It’s a good one. There’s lots of stuff that just lends itself to instant riffing, including the “Triumph of the Will” photography of the first portion of the film. I love how the young man wants to go into a peepshow in one scene, and Mike and bots just roll with it, introducing the peepshow into the rest of the short when you least expect it. The telephone technology itself isn’t as fanciful as the stuff in 50’s Motorama film “Design for Dreaming”, but the presentation is very goofy. My favorite moment is the demonstration of using your phone to turn off your oven or activating your sprinklers. The ascent into heaven via the Space Needle is the icing on the cake. It makes the whole short very funny and sets us up for a good time with the feature.
Its kind of a shame that feature just doesn’t give the team enough juice to work with. Again it seems to come down to movie structure. The first quarter works pretty well with the kids running around, meeting all the characters and discovering the space blob. Coogan and Johnson appear quite a bit in this part and they really provide the crew with a lot of jokes (including references to “The Adams Family” and “Giligan’s Island”, naturally).
But the middle portion of the movie really slows down, and there isn’t too much for our boys to work with. I know the pickings are getting slim when they resort to eight bald jokes in five minutes. Talky scenes can be tough and this movie has quite a few. But once the sabotage sequence kicks in, the riffing falls back into place. And how can it not, with the kids wandering around the base putting the old “Jedi Mind Trick” on the guards and Jackie Coogan getting the whammie placed on him by the alien blob. The climax with, as Tom puts it, “The Magnificent Seven… year olds” is filled with riffing. A solid end to a so-so feature.
The host segments mostly fall flat for me on this episode. Tom Servo has a kissing booth and swindles Mike. Pearl decides to install a phone system on the Satellite and ends up in a conference call nightmare. After the short, Mike decides to imitate the over excited kid. The bots hate him for it and take drastic action. Then there’s fun with model rockets and Bobo in a centrifuge. Crow is disturbed by Jackie Coogan’s short shorts and comes up with a vomit inducing fashion line for the man (shudder). After the film ends, the space blob arrives on the satellite and Pearl tries to launch her own rocket, and loses control of it… ooops.
Add it all together and you get an average episode of the show. Not a bad watch on a weekend, but not one I’ll pick up often. I give the whole episode 3 Space Blobs out of five, but for me the short is solid four Space Needles out of five.
The episode is available on DAP. "Century 21 Calling" is available as a bonus feature on "The Killer Shrew's" disc of The Mystery Science Theater 3000 Collection, Vol 7.
MST3K Introduction can be found here.