A young woman who attempted to take her life with an overdose of sleeping pills wakes up the next day to find that the city in which she lives, Chicago, is deserted. The streets are empty. Cars won’t start. Electricity is off. And there are people lying dead all around. She encounters three other survivors who have no idea what is going on and decided to stick together in order to get out of the city. But their plans are thrown into disarray when they come across the reason why Chicago is deserted – killer robots from outer space have landed and commenced an invasion of Earth.
Made on a shoestring budget in the midst of the “alien invasion” films of the 50s, Target Earth is a film where the premise is actually a lot scarier and more effective than the eventual execution. Who wouldn’t be more than a little concerned and afraid to wake up one day and suddenly find that everyone in your town or city was gone? And even worse at the fact there are killer robots roaming the streets hunting down human survivors. It’s a scarier thought than it is realised in this middling sci-fi film. But I can’t go too hard on it. After all, this was a decade in which anything and everything from outer space decided to land and have a go, with varying quality and budgets. It will have worked back in the 50s, not in the 2010s.
Target Earth starts with great mystery – the eerie shots of a deserted Chicago will have you thinking of the likes of later films The Omega Man, Day of the Dead, 28 Days Later, I Am Legend and many more. Clearly some inspiration has been drawn from Target Earth in this respect. As the young woman, Nora, explores the city and eventually finds fellow survivors Frank, Vicki and Jim, the film keeps up its level of mystery. We know something has happened. We know something is loose in the city. But we’re not quite sure of what. Being out in the streets, we get the feeling that they are only one block away from finding out. So the film manages to keep its audience on edge, makes guesses about what has happened.
Unfortunately the whole film then crashes into the wall once the alien invaders are revealed to be killer robots and the first robot is first shown. More about that later but it’s at this point where the film sheds its mystery and paranoia. The characters then settle down into a hotel to wait it out for a bit and see what happens. And that’s pretty much where they spend the rest of the film. No searching the streets. No attempting to piece together what has happened. They just take refuge in the hotel, encounter a murderer and then the robot appears again. If one major criticism can be levelled at Target Earth is that it’s just too sparse. Hardly anything happens, though when it does it offers promise that the film could have been a whole lot better with a bit more action or problem-solving.
A secondary plot thread runs alongside the main one from the half-way mark, featuring a bunch of scientists and army guys trying to figure out how to stop the robots and conducting tests and experiments. It’s dull, adds little to the narrative and is only included to pad out the running time (and provide a suitably convenient ending for the film). Like most of these 50s sci-fi films, these scenes are so uninvolving and distracting, taking you out of the fantasy elements of the monsters and aliens and transplanting you into boring melodrama.
The budget would only stretch to building one robot and so you’ve got to suspend your disbelief and assume that this is just one of a massive invasion force. At its first appearance, the robot looks rather laughable – well basically any appearance, let alone the first. But there’s something unsettling about it – with no real ‘face’ to speak of, little in the way of clanking when it moves and a single-minded determination to hunt down the survivors. The robot is really only in two scenes but makes an impression in them both. I guess the film tries anything to keep itself away from showing us the robot. The addition of the scared Otis, who panics, cries doom and then inevitably is the first on-screen casualty, and then later the killer, Davis, who adds a cartoony villain presence and meets a fitting end, serve as nothing more than temporary stop-gaps to pad out the human-human conflict.
In the mid 60s, long-time horror director Terence Fisher would make a very similar-themed film in The Earth Dies Screaming which featured a post-apocalyptic England being overrun by killer robots. It’s the better film of the two but there are so many similarities between the two, it’s obvious that whoever wrote it had seen Target Earth.
Like many a 50s science fiction flick, Target Earth saw its best days many decades ago but that doesn’t mean to say that there isn’t some merit still lurking around. Though the story is a little threadbare and is pushed about as far as it can go without a bigger budget, there is still enjoyment to be had in a “pretty much nothing exciting happens” sort of way.