Part of a continuing series looking at maligned, misunderstood, and forgotten works of genre fiction and making the case for their reevaluation. If you can think of something that you believe to be badly in need of this treatment, send us a message– it may get featured!
Chances are, you haven’t heard of The 27th Day. That figures. After all, this is easily the most obscure work yet featured in this series. We’re talking about a black-and-white SF B-movie released in 1957 to an indifferent reception and lukewarm box office. At first glance, it looks like nothing more than a cheapie rushed out by Columbia to cash in on the rampant UFO craze at the time, no deeper than the average boneheaded exploitation flick from the period. So why am I talking about this at all when so many other great works are begging for rediscovery? That’d be because The 27th Day accomplishes something countless bigger, more distinguished SF films fail at…
It gets you thinking.
About humanity’s tendency toward self-destruction. About the morality of taking life. About the possibility of world peace. In short, all the big questions. And it does it all in a clever and engaging paranoid thriller package.
The setup: five random people from around the world are kidnapped by a mysterious man—The Alien—who has a flying saucer and claims to hail from “a nearby universe.” His planet’s star is about to go nova and his people are in need of a new home. Earth would do just fine, but they’re prevented from invading by their avowed pacifism. However, their vow apparently permits them to furnish the five humans with three capsules each, superweapons far greater than the H-bomb. The Alien puts it bluntly; they’re counting on humanity using these new tools to finally eradicate themselves, leaving the planet vacant for them to move in.
Even by the jaded standards of fifties SF, this is a remarkably cynical premise. It gets worse, too, as the Soviet and American governments prove themselves equally eager to seize this opportunity to annihilate the other, hunting down our poor heroes down and trying to force them to open the capsules’ containers. This, the Alien assures them, is only possible through a psychic command from the one the container belongs to, so the film rapidly becomes an agonizing wait to see which of the five will cave first and allow the weapons to be used, with inevitable consequences.
Anyone familiar with 20th century history will immediately recognize the allegory at play here. At various points during the Cold War (and to this day), it seemed like human beings really would doom themselves and their world to nuclear holocaust over geopolitical squabbling. With the invention of the atomic bomb, it was no longer a question of ‘is it possible’ but rather ‘are we better than this?’ Many feared we weren’t. But that leads us to a conclusion almost too terrifying to contemplate: if we do this to ourselves, we deserve to be extinct. Wouldn’t it be right, then, for another species to benefit from our end?
Such questions are not easily answered, and the film is not interested in pandering to our prejudices with sentimental solutions. Instead, it makes us face these moral quandaries squarely, casting doubt on our preconceived notions about our species’ right to the planet we inhabit. What’s more, it does so in a way that only SF can. Even such tired genre staples as a dying planet, miraculous alien technology, and human abduction are used effectively to present the allegory in the starkest possible terms. After all, in reality there are no other intelligent species we know of who could benefit from our world—but considering such a scenario can provide some very real insight into humanity’s place in the universe.
And what is our place in the universe, according to The 27th Day? Without spoiling anything, I can say it’s not quite such a pitch-dark judgment as I may have just made it sound. In the end, after showing our race’s worst, the film resolves to show us at our best, as well. It’s not a negation of all the probing, necessary questions that have been brought into play—more like some further evidence in our favor. Just when things seem bleakest, The 27th Day reminds us that humans can be brilliant, selfless, and—crucially—trusting.
Whether that’s enough to balance out our persistent self-destructiveness is left up to the viewer. Unlike so many moralistic SF scribes that take pains to spoon-feed us the intended message, John Mantley—author of this film’s screenplay and its source novel—respects his audience enough to let them come to their own conclusions. I personally feel that the film’s ending, which some may read as a copout due to an unexpected and radically game-changing twist, ultimately says that humanity can actually be redeemed. The 27th Day shows us that our ingenuity and extreme adaptability will always keep us from our own worst impulses. And even in the face of a zero-sum situation like the one the film depicts, we can always find a third option.
Perhaps I’m just seeing my own hopeless idealism reflected here. But that’s precisely the beauty of the film’s understated allegorical storytelling—everyone is likely to take something different from it. No matter what your takeaway is, though, it’s sure to teach you something about your own views and prejudices (perhaps even make you question them). When a story really makes you think, it does you a great service, though you may not realize it right away. That’s why the pointed absence of such complex and thought-provoking narratives in cinematic SF is so keenly felt. SF literature has no shortage of that—seminal works like Flowers for Algernon have their meaning debated to this day—but on the silver screen science fiction too often takes the form of braindead spectacle like Roland Emmerich’s Independence Day. Exceptions to the trend are few and rightly treasured: The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1979), Blade Runner (1982), and, more recently, Ex Machina (2014) and Primer (2004). Despite its schlocky exterior, The 27th Day absolutely deserves its place among these lauded classics—and, in an ideal world, it should inspire new works that ask the big questions as fearlessly as this little gem does.