It’s a close encounter of the “purred” kind on Sci-Fi Saturdays.
This film deals with expectations. As a Disney film it’s another in a long line of family-friendly adventures, where parents can be sure what they’re getting is wholesome entertainment for their kids. But the expectation also cuts the other way, being that the film doesn’t really break any new ground and only uses the sci-fi aspects as window dressing for a tried and true Disney formula.
Science-fiction movies were suddenly everywhere, and even Walt Disney was not immune to the lucrative draw of outer space adventures. In this film, a literal cat from outer space lands and befriends Ken Berry. Meanwhile the army is trying to capture the feline and its flying saucer. It appears to be a family friendly take on the popular genre, using a large group of top Disney talent from the late 70s.
Presented below is the trailer for the film.
The Fiction of The Film
One evening a UFO lands behind the barn of Charlie and Edna’s farm. They contact the Army, who sends four-star General Stilton (Harry Morgan) and a number of officers to remove the ship to a secret military installation for further inspection. At the Energy Research Laboratory, Stilton shows a number of scientists, including Dr. Heffel (Hans Conried), Link (McLean Stevenson), and Liz (Sandy Duncan) a potential new energy source taken from the alien spacecraft.
Liz thinks that Frank (Ken Berry) would have a good understanding of the device, but Dr. Heffel is not as confident in Frank’s abilities. Frank, meanwhile, has made friends with a cat that he calls Jake, which has entered his basement laboratory–the very same cat that came on the spaceship. While all the top secret meetings are going on, Mr. Stallwood (Roddy McDowall) is trying to find a way into them so he can report back to his true employer “Olympus.”
Jake realizes he can trust Frank so he uses telepathy to communicate with him, as well as demonstrating his mind powers which are amplified by a glowing collar he wears. Frank agrees to help Jake, and together they break into the Army base, where Jake uses his powers to freeze a soldier. Examining his ship, Jake determines that he needs more “org 12” in order to fix his ship before the rendezvous deadline. Frank realizes that Org 12 is gold, but is not sure how they will get the $120,000 to pay for it.
As the duo tries to escape, the soldiers set off the intruder alarms, so Jake must “fly” Frank over the fence on a motorcycle like Steve McQueen in The Great Escape. Jake realizes that they can make the money by gambling on sports, like Link does. He proves to Frank that he can affect the outcome of the event with his mind powers, so he and Frank bring Link into the fold and get him to bet money on three football games. Unfortunately Liz thinks Jake is sick (and a normal cat), so she brings over a Veterinarian (Alan Young) who anesthetizes Jake before he can “fix” the final game.
Realizing they need to cancel the bet, Frank and Link take Jake and Liz to the bookie’s pool hall, but cannot stop the wager as the game has started. Frank decides to convince Liz to play pool with a hustler named Sarasota Slim while he uses the glowing collar to help her win. Frank’s control over the collar is not as good as Jakes and she loses. The trio gathers their last scraps of money to try again just as Jake is waking up. They make an elaborate wager (involving blindfolds) and Liz beats Slim, gaining the $120,000.
Somehow they procure a gold bar and are set to fix the ship when Stilton breaks in on them thinking they are Commie spies. Jake freezes the army men, and they escape. Frank helps Jake get on the ship to take off, even knowing that Liz has been kidnapped by Stallwood and Olympus. Jake allows his ship to leave and helps Frank chase down the helicopter holding Liz using a battered old biplane. They stop the bad guys, and rescue Liz. Jake has been given a pardon by the President and allowed to stay on the planet. He is sworn in as an American citizen.
“Frank, on my planet we have an expression. You rub my fur, I’ll rub yours.” – Jake
History in the Making
The Cat From Outer Space is the third Disney-produced science-fiction comedy Sci-Fi Saturdays has looked at, after The Absent-Minded Professor, and The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes. It was part of the slow increase of science-fiction related Disney films during the 1970s. While The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes and it’s sequel Now You See Him, Now You Don’t were science-related sci-fi films, Disney didn’t really get into the flying saucer genre until the mid 70s. Films like Escape to Witch Mountain (1975) and Return to Witch Mountain (1978), along with this film and the time-travel space-comedy from the following year Unidentified Flying Oddball, embraced the revival of the UFO/flying saucer tropes made popular during the time.
It also followed along in the spirit of a number of other Disney films that dealt with trained animals as a lead or main character. These include The Barefoot Executive (chimpanzee), The Million Dollar Duck (duck), Gus (donkey), and The Shaggy D.A. (sheepdog). It was probably also inspired by the popularity of Benji films, which were not sci-fi films, but extremely popular during this time and utilized trained animals in a number of roles. These in turn would inspire and influence further family-friendly sci-fi animal films like the 1979 C.H.O.M.P.S. which is about a lifelike robotic dog.
It would take a couple years for Disney to turn away from the silly family comedies and embrace more serious sci-fi films. But it eventually would with the 1979 sci-fi adventure film The Black Hole and the 1982 computer based TRON, both of which will be covered on future Sci-Fi Saturdays. It was a sudden and dramatic shift toward more adult fare at the end of the 70s, into tales more fit to teenagers and adults and away from the juvenile fare.
As a genre film, let’s face it: The Cat From Outer Space is not setting any new ground. It’s a film made up of common tropes, gags, and plot elements made famous by other stories. And while the actions of the characters might be humorous in their overly broad style of acting, it’s a film that relies on the viewers knowledge of these sci-fi tropes to get the deeper jokes. Mentions of “little green men,” or “tentacled aliens” by General Stilton or the fact that the military takes the ship to a secret base are just some of these connections.
Mostly the film is juvenile humor, pandering to the primary demographic, such as Jake using his telekinesis to spray beer all over Link, the use of silly code names for everything (like Stallwood being called “Jellyfish”), or the ongoing joke of the General giving orders to his Colonel, who in turn passes it along to a Captain, and then onto the Sergeant. It’s all goofy fun, and it’s not done in a pandering way. It’s wholesome and earnest in it’s banality.
Nothing upsets the status quo of the 1978 world. The Cat from Outer Space is not setting any new ground in social commentary either. It’s a product of the late 1970s containing only one female character, Liz, who is a scientist, but really in name only. Much like Dr. Patricia Medford in the 1958 giant-ant film Them!, she is there to lend female representation, and to be put in jeopardy, but nothing else. She is easily shushed by the men around her and has no effect on the outcome of the film, except to create situations that need fixing (drugging Jake at the least opportune moment) or as a prop for Frank to use to win the pool game.
What about using the aliens to teach something about human nature? Jake’s home planet appears to be an analog for Earth where everything is cat related and having everything we have but with different names. The quote above illustrates one of the aliens’ phrases, where “back” is replaced with fur. A common phrase about helping each other, but nothing deeper. The alien ship looks like a cat head, complete with glowing eyes. They use gold to power their spaceships, except that they call it “org 12.” But they don’t have everything like on Earth. Their ecosystem must not be the same as ours, as they don’t have tuna or liver, which Jake realizes he loves to eat. Much like a live-action cartoon, everything human related is swapped with cat-related elements, which was probably the easiest writing assignment for the screenwriters. And of course, even though Jake looks and behaves like a cat, he’s granted citizenship at the end of the film. No one wants to dissect him or worry that the planet may get invaded by his fellow cat-aliens. It all works out OK, because this is a Disney film.
The Science in The Fiction
The 70s is a time when many people started looking into alternate forms of energy and other “new age” powers. Things like the healing powers of crystals, or the power of the pyramids, or maybe that UFOs are angels – strange things like that. The Cat From Outer Space embraces this wholeheartedly with the idea of the Primal Mainstream, which seems like the equivalent of string theory for the crystalline age of the 70s. It’s the reason (well the film’s reason) that Jake is able to fly people around, and manipulate the results of football games, or the pool match. The quote from the film explains that the primal mainstream is everywhere, “only on different frequencies. The whole electro-magnetic spectrum.” The film put just enough technobabble together to make it seem like there’s a good explanation, but like many movies from the 50s and 60s, everything falls apart the closer it gets looked at. It just is.
The Final Frontier
The Cat From Outer Space is a veritable Who’s Who of 70s character actors, many who had appeared in other Disney films as well. Both McLane Stevenson and Harry Morgan had appeared on the successful TV series M*A*S*H as the commanding officers of the 4077. Ken Berry was best known for another military show F Troop, as well as Mayberry RFD and Mama’s Family. Alan Young (the vet) had been in Mr. Ed as well as doing voices for Disney cartoons, while the judge that grants Jake his citizenship is none other than Boss Hogg himself, Sorrell Booke. And again we see Roddy McDowall in another sci-fi film, which is much better than Laserblast reviewed last week.
This will be the last comedy for a while as the late 70s and 80s featured more serious explorations of science-fiction themes and ideas. The notion of what science-fiction is and is not was changing. The Cat From Outer Space is one of the last films at the end of a long line of expected filmmaking. There would be other sci-fi films that come back to this safe space later, but from this point forward, the gloves were off and it was full speed ahead!
Having grown up on comics, television and film, “Jovial” Jay feels destined to host podcasts and write blogs related to the union of these nerdy pursuits. Among his other pursuits he administrates and edits stories at the two largest Star Wars fan sites on the ‘net (Rebelscum.com, TheForce.net), and co-hosts the Jedi Journals podcast over at the ForceCast network.