Saturday, July 27, 2013

Stubs – Earth vs. the Flying Saucers

Earth vs. the Flying Saucers (1956) Starring: Hugh Marlowe, Joan Taylor, Donald Curtis. Directed by Fred F. Sears. Screenplay by George Worthing Yates, Bernard Gordon. Based on the book, Flying Saucers from Outer Space by Maj. Donald Keyhoe. Produced by Charles H. Schneer. Technical Effects by Ray Harryhausen. Run Time: 83 minutes. U.S.  Black and White. Science Fiction

Ray Harryhausen was such a powerful force in science fiction that most films he worked on are referred to as his films, rather than the director’s or an actor’s. Part of it may have to do with the fact that he’s the only name to survive these low budget film offerings. Not only were the special effects he created important to telling their stories, but they were precursors to the CGI special effects we have come to expect today in what are largely big budget sci-fi movies. No one celebrates the works of Fred F. Sears or names restaurants in animated films after Hugh Marlowe.

An example of one of Harryhausen's effects from Earth vs the Flying Saucers.
A year before Harryhausen worked on 20 Million Miles to Earth (1957), previously reviewed here, he worked on this film, based on a non-fiction book about flying saucers. Like 20 Million Miles, there are space ships and aliens, except the space ships are not returning to Earth, but an invasion force, and the aliens aren’t large lizards, but mechanical-suited humanoids who can shoot disintegrating rays out of their hands.

Aliens that can shoot a disintegrating ray from the end of their arms. Talk about handy.
The film opens with a quick look at UFOs, no doubt inspired by the book it’s based on, Flying Saucers from Outer Space, briefly touching on the phenomenon and asking if we’re be ready for a battle pitting Earth vs. the Flying Saucers.

Are we ready for this?
The story really begins one morning when Dr. Russell Marvin (Hugh Marlowe) and his bride of two hours, Carol (Joan Taylor), witness a flying saucer as they drive down a deserted desert road to work. While they don’t have photographic evidence, only a recording of a report he was dictating at the time on which is the sound of the saucer, they decide not to inform his superiors. Marvin is in charge of Project Skyhook, a Defense Department space program that has launched ten research satellites in preparation for man’s pending space exploration.

Talk about a road hog. Aliens buzz the Marvins on their way to work.
Brigadier General John Hanley (Morris Ankrum), Marvin’s boss and Carol’s father, arrives at the base to tell Marvin that he has evidence the satellites have crashed back to Earth. While he tries to stop the launch of the eleventh, Marvin insists they are on a tight schedule and the eleventh is launched. But at dinner that night, Marvin admits to the General that he had lost contact with all of them and tells him he suspects aliens are involved. Soon after, Project Skyhook loses contact with the eleventh satellite. For the twelfth launch, Marvin and Carol lock themselves in his underground lab to watch. Like the others, this one crashes, too.

Above ground, an alien ship lands and immediately comes under fire from U.S. soldiers. While one alien who has left the ship is killed, those on board are protected by the ship’s force field. The aliens then destroy the base, killing everyone, except the Marvins, who are trapped in his underground lab, and General Hanley, who is kidnapped and taken aboard the alien saucer.

In a pretty good special effect, the aliens extract knowledge from General Hanley's brain.
Russell records an alien broadcast, but can only decipher the message when the tape recorder’s batteries run low and the playback slows down. He realizes that the aliens have come to meet with him. After being rescued, Marvin and Carol are taken to the Pentagon. There he plays the message for his superiors, but they have to wait for authorization from the Cabinet before they can act.

Dying batteries slow down the playback so they can hear the alien's message.
Left sequestered in his hotel room, Marvin contacts the aliens on his short-wave radio and schedules a rendezvous with them. Over Carol’s objections, Russell leaves to meet the aliens. She contacts Major Huglin (Donald Curtis), Russell’s escort, and the two chase after him. A motorcycle cop (Larry J. Blake), in turn, chases after them. All arrive at the designated meeting place one right after the other. The saucer is already there and invites all of them onboard.

After the saucer takes off, a disembodied voice (Paul Frees) tells them that the satellites were shot down because they were considered to be weapons. The voice continues to tell them that the saucers now encircling the globe are survivors of a dead solar system. The voice further demands that it meet with world leaders in 56 days in Washington to discuss their occupation of Earth. Just then a zombie-like General Hanley appears. The aliens have managed to extract knowledge from his brain and stored it in their memory banks. Russell agrees to deliver the aliens' message and the saucer lands. He, Joan and Huglin are released, but the policeman and the General are not so lucky.

Because flying saucers are impervious to conventional weapons, upon returning to the Pentagon, Russell suggests the development of a new type of weapon to use against them. He works feverishly on a prototype of a high-wave frequency ray that would disrupt the flying saucer’s magnetic field. While they’re testing it, a spy device, which looks like the spot from a flashlight, flies about the room. Huglin shoots it down, but they decide it’s time to get the prototype to Washington before the aliens figure out what the scientists are up to. But before they get too far, a flying saucer arrives at the lab, letting out three aliens to investigate.

Aliens arrive at their lab right after Marvin and his group vacate with their new prototype.
Huglin shoots one of the aliens when he wanders away from the ship’s protective force field.  When the scientists remove the helmet of the suit, they see that the aliens are really shriveled up humanoids.

What the aliens look like without their masks.
Taking off again, the saucer uses its own disintegrating ray to destroy the bomber sent to give the scientists cover. Next the aliens throw out General Hanley and the policeman, who fall to their deaths.

Like their crew, the flying saucers also shoot a disintegrating ray.
Back at the Pentagon, the alien’s suit is analyzed. Made of what is described as frozen electricity, the helmet gives the aliens super hearing and sight. They start to decode the aliens' plan of attack, when a voice announces to the world that in nine days violent explosions on the sun will signal the start of the alien invasion. With the deadline approaching, Russell works to perfect the new weapon and Washington D.C. is ordered to be evacuated.

Look at me, I'm an alien. Marvin tries on one of their helmets.
Right on schedule, nine days later, as predicted, the violent solar eruptions lead to storms that disrupt all means of transportation and communication. The mass evacuation doesn’t occur as planned as a result.

I've never heard of solar activity causing floods before.
Alien ships arrive in Washington, London, Paris and Moscow and begin to destroy everything and everyone in their path. But Russell arrives in Washington with a convoy of trucks equipped with the new interference weapon and begin to shoot the saucers down. The Washington Monument, the Supreme Court, Union Station and finally the U.S. Capitol all sustain damage during the raid, but the Earth manages to defeat the flying saucers.
Nobody was a fan of Congress even back then.
The film ends with Russell and Carol finally celebrating their honeymoon and the end of the danger.

Flying saucers and fifties’ sci-fi films go together like milk and cookies. Before Earth vs. the Flying Saucers, several classic sci-fi invaders from space movies had already been released including Flying Disc from Mars (1950), The Flying Saucer (1950), The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), The Thing From Another World (1951), Invaders from Mars (1953), It Came From Outer Space (1953), The War of the Worlds (1953), Killers from Space (1954) and This Island Earth (1955) to name a few. The best of these, The Day the Earth Stood Still, The Thing From Another World, The War of the Worlds and This Island Earth, are considered classics of the genre. Unfortunately, Earth vs. The Flying Saucers isn’t one of them.

This feels like the twentieth zombie movie or umpteenth TV series featuring vampires, in that it is following a trend and not breaking any new ground. Even Ray Harryhausen’s special effects aren’t good enough to make this a really memorable film. There really isn’t anything unique about the premise, the location, the characters or the conclusion. While the film shows that man is resourceful and will not go quietly into the dark night, even when faced with a superior enemy, so do a lot of other films. To me this comes off as a poor man’s variation on The Day the Earth Stood Still, except that instead of being misunderstood, the aliens are definitely out to do us harm.

Now watching a film like this does have some interesting images. The computer, though they don’t actually call it one, that helps translate the alien language is archaic now as it might have seemed modern then.

Modern science in action.
While this film will appeal to diehard fans of fifties sci-fi and of Ray Harryhausen’s stop motion animation, there are better examples of both out there for anyone interested in dipping their toes into the genre.

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