Earth Vs The Flying Saucers (1956)
"Flying saucers attack! Warning, Take cover!"
Operation Sky Hook is a project which is tasked with sending rockets into space to prepare for future space travel., though numerous rockets have been vanishing without explanation. It becomes apparent that a fleet of flying saucers with aliens from a dying world is headed to Earth and they want mankind to do one of two things - allow the aliens to occupy the planet or be wiped out within sixty days. Traditional weapons have no effect on the seemingly indestructible flying saucers and so a team of scientists must find another way to stop them before the Earth is destroyed.
It sounds a lot like another version of War of the Worlds and plays out almost the same way - indestructible aliens laying waste to everything in their path and a team of scientists desperately trying to find a solution before mankind becomes extinct - only with a smaller budget and less scope. Earth Vs The Flying Saucers hopped on board the 50s obsession with all things apocalyptic, be they little green men coming from outer space to destroy Earth or man-made atomic monsters rising up from the ashes to punish humanity. It's obvious that the real inspiration for this comes from George Pal's 1953 classic but Earth Vs The Flying Saucers lists a non-fiction book, Flying Saucers from Outer Space, in its writing credits. The non-fiction book was written by Donald E. Keyhoe, a US Air Force officer and journalist who was one of the earliest to write about the UFO craze of the 50s and who eventually become the director of a US organisation which set out to study the flying saucer phenomenon. Keyhoe had a lot of contacts with the military though like many, was frustrated with the lack of access and accountability with regards to alleged sightings. Nothing like getting your information straight from the horse's mouth.
Earth Vs The Flying Saucers is a B-movie at heart and thus the budget is obviously struggling to match the ambitious project. Special effects are costly and time consuming and this film packs most of its pay-off into the finale which leaves little excitement for the rest of the film. These 50s sci-fi films are remembered for their iconic monsters or infamous screen shots but we forget just how dull and tiresome the rest of the films can be. Earth Vs The Flying Saucers is probably a bigger culprit than many. It's filled with exposition and scientific jargon in an attempt to make everything credible and delivered by the actors as if their lives depended on it. It's got the ‘shoot first, ask questions later’ military who always end up getting their asses kicked and thus uses the ability to recycle plenty of military stock footage. It's got a really pointless love story at the heart of it too - come on we're dealing with the end of the world, not marriage problems. But interestingly for the decade, the hero and heroine are already married when the film begins so we're forced to undergo the romantic subplot, although there's nothing quite like the imminent end of the world to strengthen a relationship. There's a narrator who 'helpfully' explains what's going on as the film skips over the course of a few days with montages galore - exposition at it's finest and most blatant.
The bottom line is that humanity will see itself through at the end of the day (although more specifically America in this film). Good old fashioned American ingenuity and guile saves the day! I can see the positive messages being echoed throughout the film in clear attempts to gee the audience back then into rallying behind the country during the early days of the Cold War. The context may be extremely dated now but the overall story has been done so many times since (Mars Attacks! and Independence Day being just two examples off the top of my head) that it's hard to remember that there were basic purposes to some of these films. Everything going on in the background is really just superfluous nonsense though, designed to pad out the running time because special effects are costly and its clear that the narrative is keeping its ammunition for the finale.
It was only early in his career but Ray Harryhausen was already making a name for himself with his stop-motion special effects, having already brought to life the Rhedosaurus in The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms and the giant octopus from It Came from Beneath the Sea and unleashed them upon an unsuspecting America. This time he brings to life the flying saucers - Tim Burton once famously quipped when he held one of the flying saucer models that “you get more personality out of this than some of the actors" and he is true. Harryhausen pulls out all of the stops once again with some great stop motion animation and the rousing finale with the flying saucers unleashing hell on America is amazing. Stock footage, stop motion, location shooting and miniatures are all mixed together to create the wonderful illusion that these aliens are really taking apart America. Amongst the many famous landmarks that Harryhausen destroys are the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument. We're so used to seeing famous landmarks being destroyed in film nowadays that one can't help but wonder just what the reaction to these scenes of destruction were like back in 1956. The saucers themselves are marvellous pieces of animation - spinning and rotating slowly enough to allow us a good look at them and brought to life with eerie sound effects.
Harryhausen said that this was the least favourite of his films to work on, purely because he wasn't bringing to life a creature of any kind but he still infuses the saucers with character. Originally the aliens were going to be animated too but time constraints and lack of budget sought to it that their roles be reduced and their brief appearances relegated to cumbersome men-in-suits.
It's not a classic as in the same vein as War of the Worlds but some quality special effects keep the last third of Earth Vs The Flying Saucers quite intense and exciting, its just a pity you wish the rest of the film would hurry up and get to the point. B-movie pulp at its 50s best.
Earth Vs The Flying Saucers
Director(s): Fred F. Sears
Writer(s): Bernard Gordon (screenplay), George Worthing Yates (screenplay), Curt Siodmak (screen story), Major Donald E. Keyhoe (supported by "Flying Saucers from Outer Space" by)
Actor(s): Hugh Marlowe, Joan Taylor, Donald Curtis, Morris Ankrum, Thomas Browne Henry, Grandon Rhodes, John Zaremba
Duration: 83 mins