Not Today Satan: Quatermass and the Pit

 One of the most basic questions humanity has always had is, How did we come into being? For some, this question is answered by religion. For others, science reveals the truth. But regardless, the origins of mankind, of our rise to prominence as a species on planet Earth, is fascinating to consider. Human beings as individual organisms are not very impressive compared to other creatures. We are not especially strong or fast, we don't have claws or fangs, and our skin is soft. The advantages we have though, are our intelligence, and our ability to work together, to cooperate. Over many thousands of centuries, we were able to develop societies and cultures and advance ourselves to a point where we were able to take our first steps off the planet.

But what if we owe  our intellect, our drive, our ability to work together, to the intercession of an outside intelligence? The idea that aliens could have interfered with mankind's evolution is one that has been around for some time, certainly since science fiction pulp magazines appeared. It's been luridly popularized by shows like Ancient Aliens, but there's a powerful concept at its core and some films and literature have handled it in a thought-provoking way. This includes the subject of today's post, the Hammer film Quatermass and the Pit (known in the US as Five Million Years to Earth). 

Although Hammer is best known for their horror films, they did make some science fiction movies, including the Quatermass series. There were three films in the series, of which this 1967 effort was the last. Professor Quatermass was the head of the British experimental rocket group and was pulled into a number of adventures involving extraterrestrial threats. The films were actually based on television series that were shown on the BBC. The writer of the those series, Nigel Kneale, also wrote this film. 

The film deals with the discovery of an ancient alien space vehicle buried under the streets of London. along with the five-million year old skeletal remains of the apemen predecessors to humanity. Quatermass (Andrew Keir), a rocket expert, and Roney (James Donald), an archaeologist, as well as the military, explore the vehicle further, discovering the remains of grasshopper-like aliens who resemble the demons of legend. The surrounding area, known as Hobb's End, has been plagued by supernatural occurrences for hundreds of years. Professor Quatermass theorizes that the 'Martians,' dying as a species, came to Earth over five million years ago and experimented on pre-humans, increasing their intellectual capabilities and creating certain Martian-like qualities in them, in an effort to preserve something of themselves. Those qualities were passed along to their descendants, humanity,  although they were mostly submerged. But the unearthing of the craft triggers these latent mutations and race memories, which results in possessed mobs unleashing a telekinetic fury, and the Martian machine converting into pure energy, manifested as a the shape of a huge Martian over London.  Roney  sacrifices himself, crashing a crane into the towering image, grounding and dissipating its energy, ending the Martians' control.

While Quatermass definitely has a science fiction premise, Hammer's trademark horror is readily apparent. The scenes in the abandoned neighborhood of Hobb's End are heavy with dread. The moments when people are "possessed" by the Martian force are creepy, especially when entire crowds of people start going Martian and using their telekinetic powers to attack and kill those who are different. And who could forget the disgusting green ooze that poured out of the decomposing Martians? Most striking to me is the downbeat ending, with our hero Roney dead, and the area around the excavation looking like a war zone. This was more like what I would expect from a 70s film.

The author Kim Newman, in both his commentary on the Shout Factory disc and in his book on the film for the Sci Fi Classics series, notes how both Quatermass and 2001 A Space Odyssey posit the concept of alien intervention with human evolution. However while the motives of the aliens in 2001 are left unfathomable, it's clear what the Martians wanted: to carry on their lineage indirectly through altering the human species. 

Both 2001 and Quatermass seem to say that mankind's advancement is due to the alien intervention, and that in large part, it is aggression that has fueled our success. But does it also ultimately carry the seed of its own destruction? The Martians would have violent purges where they would kill each other, and when the ship activates the mutation in the Londoners, they try to kill anyone who doesn't have the Martian genetic modification. Do intelligence and aggression always go hand in hand?

I highly recommend the Shout Factory blu-ray of the film. For a long time, it was basically impossible to get a hold of the movie in the US. But last year, Shout Factory released this disc, which is positively gorgeous. It has a number of interviews and other extras, and to top it off, the paper insert can be turned over to show the artwork for the US version of the film, Five Million Years to Earth. So you can catalog this disc under either title in your collection. Nice touch!


  1. Quartermass and the Pit, both the movie or the TV series, and really all things Quartermass, are a real blind spot in my SF consumption. I really need to rectify that, but don't know when I'll get around to it.
    Otherwise, though, the theme of aliens somehow spurring human evolution/intelligence - either by genetic manipulation or manipulation of events to bring it to the fore - is indeed a popular idea in SF; so many, many writers have gone and often still do go to that well.
    The question of whether intelligence and aggression are intertwined is an intriguing one. Personally, my view is that they don't have to be, and my impression is that what has made humans such a successful species is our ability to communicate and cooperate. It seems like everything flows from that.

    1. Edo! Thanks for coming by and leaving your thoughts. I do think you would find this film quite enjoyable -or maybe at least interesting. The combination of science fiction and horror is really done well. I tend to agree with you regarding cooperation. Aggression does perhaps help give us drive, but it's our ability to communicate, develop shared goals, and work together which has allowed us to thrive.

  2. I love it. It's one of my favourite movies of all time and I never get tired of watching it, which is good, as it turns up on British TV every few weeks. As you said, it's like the dark twin of "2001," and also has some thematic similarities to "Forbidden Planet."

    The TV version's great too, with a cast that's almost diametrically the opposite of the movie cast. The fact that both sets of actors work equally well shows how strong the writing and themes are.

    The thing that's most impressive about the TV version is that it was broadcast live. Doing a live sci-fi show is the definition of madness but they pulled it off.

    1. Hey Steve, I haven't seen the TV version and I need to rectify that! I have heard nothing but good things about it. Perhaps it is on YouTube -so many other things are. Thanks for stopping by!

  3. Hi, coming in late here, just wanted to say, I first saw "5 Million Years to Earth" probably early 70's on TV as a kid, the things that really stood out for me were the grainy images of the aliens marching and of course the Devil head looking thing at the end. Just got the Blu ray and, yes, it does look awesome


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