Earth vs. The Flying Saucers (1956)

Watch the Skies!About six months ago I bought Earth vs. the Flying Saucers on impulse. I’d picked up an MST3K episode and was looking for something to go along with it. This was before Christmas, before the snowstorm trapped us all inside the house. So I bought Earth vs. the Flying Saucers and set it down on my bookshelf, next to the stack of Books To Read. I remember setting it down and thinking Eh, I’ll get to it, eventually.

Three months later I found the tape (still unopened) under a Dean Kootz book. Lightning, I think. I dusted the movie off and put it in my Movie Drawer, thinking, Eh, I’ll get to it, eventually. I began reading.

Three months after that (last night, as a matter of fact) I opened my Movie Drawer and there it was, nestled snug between my copies of The Thing and Bulworth, where it would rest, I realized, until the last trumpet sounds and the gates of Doomsday opened up to swallow us all, screaming.

"Glad you approve...otherwise our uberchildren would have to kill you first."So, with that apocalyptic vision in mind, we go back. (“How far ya goin’ back? Way back. As we go a little somethin’ like this: hit it.”) It’s 1956, and Man has yet to touch Outer Space. Before anybody goes anywhere, the brass at Hemisphere Defense Command Headquarters (a fictional precursor of  NORAD, which would not be officially “born” until August 1, 1957) decides to launch some “unmanned observation posts” for a quick look around at Just What’s Up There.

This is Project Skyhook, headed by none other than Dr. Russell A. Marvin (Hugh Marlowe, fresh off the success of The Day the Earth Stood Still). Now, Russ is a pretty happy guy. In charge of the latest “Great Stride Forward,” we meet him as he attempts to neck with his new wife, Carol (Joan Taylor, star of, among other things, the suggestively named Girls in Prison) on the drive into Skyhook’s desert facility. Life is good…so, of course, it’s time for a Flying Saucer to buzz his car. Taking it like scientists (or, at the very least, a Scientist and his Secretary), Russ and Carol pulls off to the side of the road and tries to keep from hyperventilating. That couldn’t have been a real flying saucer, after all…could it?

In the stunned, that-didn’t-just-happen-did-it? aftermath, Carol discovers that Russ managed to accidentally record saucer’s sounds on (his enormous reel-to-reel) tape. That’s something. At least Russ stops doubting his own sanity. And  just in time, too: Skyhook is about to launch another rocket.

Shields at 23%, Captain.Well, the launch goes off without a hitch but, the next day, Carol’s father, Our General for the remainder of the flick (Grandon Rhodes) breaks some unhappy news: all of Project Skyhook’s satellites have been shot down by Persons and Powers Unknown. Russ tells General In-Law about the flying saucer that tried to play “Chinese chicken” with their car the general puts two and two together. “Surely you’re not going to send up number twelve!”

Russ does because he “has” to. He’s the Man here, after all. And his hubris dooms everyone to a laser-bream death. Attracted by the latest launch, a saucer lands right in the middle of Skyhook. The local military force proves Johnny-on-the-Spot, but their weapons are predictably useless against the Saucerian’s shields. By way of a “Thank you,” the aliens burn Skyhook to the ground with cartoon laser beams and kidnap General In-Law.

Trapped in the wreckage, Russ discovers something while fiddling with his tape recorder: it seems that the saucer’s sound was actually a message from its inhabitants, requesting an audience with Russ at Skyhook. That’s why their ship landed in the complex but, because the aliens exist in a different strata of the space-time continuum than we puny humans, the Saucerian message sounded like a bunch of gibberish. So the destruction of Skyhook, and all those hundreds of deaths, were really All Russ’ Fault.

He doesn’t take this very well, flipping out quite nicely when the Washington bureaucrats refuses to do anything about all this…except what they do best: hold meetings. Endless, tedious meetings. Nothing for Russ to do but go behind the Government’s back and arrange a meeting with the Saucerians his own damn self. Managing to do just that, Russ inadvertently gets the entire cast abducted by a passing ship.

"I'd rather watch Seinfeld reruns, myself."Inside, everyone has a little pow-wow. Seems the Saucerians (voiced by voice-acting legend Paul Frees) are the last survivors of a dead solar system and they didn’t come to Earth on any kind of social call. They give Russ orders to arrange a meeting with representatives of every country on Earth. If we Earthlings will just knuckle under and hand over the planet, nice and quiet-like, they won’t have to vaporize the whole short-time lot of us.

Earth turned out to be a lot more involved then I originally thought. Seeing its trailer (“Run! Take Cover! Flying Saucers Have Invaded Our Planet!”) won’t give you the slightest clue to all the stuff that goes on in this flick. Besides the saucers, we’ve got brain drains, Washington bureaucrats, Alien Vision™, Shakespeare quotes, and tons of 1950s movie pseudo-science. All of which should keep all but the most jaded sci-fi fan, if not fascinated, the at least moderately entertained for 83 minutes.

I can safely say that this movie would not be made today. Some argue that it already has been remade as Independence Day but I am not one of those. ID4 was (by it’s makers own admission) a brainless popcorn movie, more a disaster picture form the 70s than anything else. Earth, though advertised as a brainless popcorn movie, seems to be shooting for something more. Or its makers were all schizophrenic money-grubbers. One scene might convince you you’re watching an epic story of man’s struggle against an alien invasion. But  whenever Russ takes over the movie’s sure to grind to a halt for a science lecture on How Best to Beat Back the Alien Threat.

Oh, yes. In this universe, we can beat their machines and we can beat them. We don’t need Earth’s viruses to do our dirty work, no sir. We can fight these aliens with good old American Know-How and that Can Do Spirit we liked to believe we had back in the ’50s. There’s a whole lot of gobbledy-gook about “magnetic waves” and “higher wave frequencies,” all of it capably handled by actors who obviously believed in what they were doing. They’re all quite adequate in their roles. It’s just that they never do much of anything except stand around and talk about what they’re going to do…until the end, during the strangely drama-free Ray Harryhausen special effects extravaganza, when they actually do it.

"We're going to root that Macarena song right out of your head..."The few times Our Heroes do encounter danger, their eventual escape is painfully obvious. (Much like the stock-footage poorly integrated with Harryhausen’s saucers.) No, we can’t have our main characters die. That might actually create dramatic tension, and God knows teenagers might not make come to our flick without all these slow parts, tailor-made for necking. Screenwriters Bernard Gordon (who’d go on to The Thin Red Line and Day of the Triffids, among others) and George Worthing Yates (who’d go on to write the English dub of King Kong vs. Godzilla) aim for nothing more than straightforward, drive-in pap and achieve it  easily. Don’t look for character arcs or interesting transformations. Expect many an intrusive piece of narration (supplied by William Woodson) to cover the massive chunks of time this movie blithely skips, sure signs of filmmakers who watched too-many war-time news reels.

Hugh Marlowe gets to express a little emotion around the second act when Russ goes all guilt ridden. But, ten minutes later, he’s completely  absorbed in his work, defeating The Alien Menace (which amounts to building – surprise – a new type of gun to shoot the bastards down – some world conquerors, defeated by what amounts to a bunch of truck-mounted satellite dishes). Joan Taylor’s Scientists Wife is feistier than others of her breed, but given this is the 50s, there’s little for her to do but pine for her man, mourn her abducted father, and stand around in what was probably the most uncomfortable bra in all creation.

This one's for the HUAC hearings!In many ways, Earth resembles a fairy tale. Evil is vanquished and the Good Guys get to retire to an idyllic beach. Sure, some people die, but that’s only to prove how evil Evil really is. The Good Guys who matter get to frolic, sure in the knowledge that the world is safe for capitalism…and surely the aliens wouldn’t dare return on “such a nice day.” Right? Right.

My theory? Director Fred F. Sears tried to seek the Middle Path, combining War of the Worlds (1953’s Oscar-winning, alien-invasion spectacular) with Hugh Marlowe’s 1951 success, The Day the Earth Stood Still…except this time, the aliens aren’t nice, quiet boarders. Instead they’re shriveled, awkward, clumsy things, trapped in their own armored suits, sucking the knowledge out of innocent American heads. Only other, more-level heads can hope to oppose them. The result is a bit of a Frankenstein: too talkie to be the extravaganza, too shallow to be the epic meditation on international cooperation, or intergalactic war and peace. Instead, in the best tradition of the early 50s, we’re left with a heartless excuse in waiting around for Russ the Scientist to save us…which, of course, he does. If you see only one 1950s alien invasion pic…then see War of the Worlds. If you see two…see Day the Earth Stood Still. But if you see three, you can do far worse than Earth vs. the Flying Saucers, however much that says.


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