The 1950s are the perfect setting for sci-fi, somehow. That Golden Age of the American suburb makes the ideal backdrop for an alien invasion. The only decade that can compare are the 80s: its Silver Age. (But by then, these stories had mostly transferred to straight horror films, the ghost of a new era taking over haunting duties.)
The Iron Giant understands this completely, and squeezes every last drop out of its setting. That 50s America mix of optimism and paranoia, as USA’s then-molten identity settled into what we Brits understand it to be now. It’s a film which knows the metaphors behind all the alien invasions, pushing headlines about Russian satellites, Red Menace comics and school filmreels of nuclear apocalypses casually into the foreground.
It’s deeply cine-literate, the very first scene taking that questionable opening from The Thing, and making it cartoonishly, trascendentally beautiful in a way that an 80s live action budget would never allow. It takes in a lot of other films that I’ve never seen but have experienced equally second-hand elsewhere: The Day The Earth Stood Still; Invaders from Mars… The world that the Giant enters is one already deeply familiar with cheap B-movie science fiction, and so our boy Hogarth Hughes accepts him without question.
The squares, however, are an entirely different story. ET had its federal alien-nappers, but that was the 80s. The 50s is the natural home of the behatted, besuited career man with a sinister agenda. The Iron Giant incorporates the full spectrum, between beatnik Dean McCoppin and government agent Kent Mansley. For anyone with a basic knowledge of genre, it’s no surprise who we’re going to end up siding with. But that doesn’t make the way the film incorporates all the myth around the era’s government, and especially its more secret services any less satisfying.
But that doesn’t fully account for the film’s appeal. Nor does the fact (yes, fact) that it features Jennifer Anniston’s best-ever screen performance, or Vin Diesel’s.
The Iron Giant is Brad Bird taking his first step from the blessed halls of early Simpsons and into film, and making something beautiful in an old-fashioned way while incorporating modern technology. That applies to the visuals, but it’s equally true of the solid storytelling, values and genuinely touching sentiment of the film too. It brings old and new together beautifully, to make a film that isn’t just a good kids’ sci-fi film, but a good sci-fi film. (And a good kids’ film, and just a plain damn’ good film.)
It came out the day before my 11th birthday, and I wish I’d seen it then. It probably would have made for a better me. But seeing it a year ago, it managed to get through to that inner child, while also catching on things that had developed since. I imagine I’ll use it the same way throughout my life, finding new facets to admire. If nothing else, it would be the perfect way to introduce a child to what is – in an opinion that seems to be my inheritance – American’s most fascinating period of history.