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What on Earth: Science fiction satire at its funniest

Films

I have a confession to make. I love old science-fiction films from the 1950s. I love the space exploration films. I love the mad-scientist-creates-a-monster films, but most of all I love the alien invasion ones. The cheesier, the better.

It is no surprise then that when I first saw the 1966 film What on Earth! I got excited. It is a satirical look at life on earth as seen from a Martian perspective. Yes, you read that correctly: from a Martian perspective.

This quirky 10-minute film tells the story of what the Martians discover when they come to earth: a planet populated with intelligent earthlings. Earthlings that eat, sleep and play together. Earthlings that have “dispensed with sex to reproduce.” Earthlings that… wait a minute here. Back this thing up. Just what kind of earthling did the Martians discover?

The film is a biting satire of our car culture, where everything is geared to the ubiquitous car. Man is relegated to the status of parasite in this world. It is in the style of the science films that we were all forced to sit through in school. You know the type: lots of pseudo-science and a voice-of-God narration.

The film is the brainchild of Kaj Pindal, who first proposed it in December 1963 with the working title Automation. His original proposal was to show that “in spite of appearances, man is the master in the automated world.” Eventually the working title became Martians and then, finally, What on Earth!

For some reason Les Drew was brought in to work on the film in 1965 and ’66. I could not find an explanation for this in our archives, but it is clear that the film resembles Drew’s work more than it does Pindal’s (check out Drew’s The Underground Movie to see what I mean). Donald Brittain was brought in to write the hilarious narration, but he didn’t narrate the film. I don’t think Pindal’s original message of man being the master holds true in the film. Man is definitely not the master of this universe. I think Brittain is responsible for this change.

What on Earth! was completed in late 1966 and shown to several distributors. Columbia Pictures loved the film and bought world theatrical rights (minus a dozen countries) in January 1967. It was also submitted to several festivals, winning, notably, at the International Festival of Science Fiction in Trieste, Italy. It also won awards at festivals in Salerno and New York, and captured an Oscar nomination in the short subjects animation category.

After its immensely successful theatrical run, the film was sold to some 30 networks around the world starting in 1969. The TV sales included a run on the CBC in Canada and a sale to the ABC network in the US. The ABC sale was for seven animated shorts (including Walking, Cosmic Zoom and Hot Stuff) and marked the first time NFB films had been sold to a major American television network. The films were aired in the fall of 1971 as part of a children’s television show entitled Curiosity Shop. The executive producer of the show was none other than animation legend Chuck Jones (creator of Wile E. Coyote and the Road Runner, among other famous cartoon characters).

One thing that strikes me when I watch the film again is the number of in-jokes and winks at the audience. Firstly, the film begins with the title “The National Film Board of Mars presents” which immediately sets the tongue-in-cheek tone found throughout. The reference to the mind not being neglected and the large audiovisual centres is a poke at the type of films the NFB has made throughout its existence, destined for the educational market. There is also an in-joke that I don’t understand. The headlights of the dancing cars sport the words “salted beans” which must be some kind of reference to a trend or event from that era. (I’ve been told it is a word play on “Sealed Beams” but I’m not sure)

An absolutely brilliant moment involves the aforementioned “dispensing with sex to reproduce” sequence. The filmmakers have let their imaginations run wild here. They have conceived (no pun intended) a Rube Goldbergesque assembly line machine to explain how the “earthlings” reproduce.

So if Earth vs. The Flying Saucers or I Married a Monster From Outer Space aren’t on TV tonight, I invite you to check out this quirky film instead. Enjoy!