In the annals of notable sci-fi films, Earth vs The Flying Saucers gets an entry. But just barely.
Earth vs The Flying Saucers is one of those films that seems like it may have a lot going for it. Sure, it has a lot of the elements that make for good science-fiction films: heroic scientists, invading aliens, spaceships, laser rays, attractive female lead. But it just can’t quite assemble them into the proper ratio for a movie with such an auspicious title.
This film looks incredibly hoaky! After some great invasion films like The Day The Earth Stood Still and The War of the Worlds, Earth vs The Flying Saucers appears to be pure popcorn entertainment. The entire globe is attacked by invading saucers from a dying planet. Their heat beams, and craft are used to sow destruction across all the world’s cities. It’s up to Hugh Marlowe and Joan Taylor to stop them! What can repel firepower of this magnitude?
Presented below is the trailer for the film.
The Fiction of The Film
Earth vs The Flying Saucers is a return to pretty standard sci-fi fare. The film opens with a narrator expounding on the increased amounts of sightings containing Unidentified Flying Objects, also known as UFO’s. The question arises, if only 3% of these sightings are truly unexplained, is Earth ready to defend themselves from the flying saucers?
On their way into work at Operation Sky Hook, newlyweds Dr. Russell Marvin (Hugh Marlowe) and Carol Marvin (Joan Taylor) encounter a low altitude flying saucer. It emanates a strange noise before disappearing into the skies. The Marvin’s dismiss the event, having no physical proof. However, Russ discovers later that his tape recorder was running and he in fact has proof of the encounter.
After launching the 11th of 12 man-made satellites, Russ meets with General Hanley (Morris Ankrum), who also happens to be Carol’s father. The General informs the scientist that the previous 10 satellites have crashed or gone missing, apparently shot down by some unknown power. Russ invites the General to the 12th launch the next day, which he hopes will explain the mysterious disappearances of the previous satellites. Unfortunately, the rocket explodes on the launch pad, destroyed by a flying saucer, that lands near the operation. Military personnel are called to shoot the ship down, but are destroyed by the aliens with some sort of laser ray. General Hanley is kidnapped and Russ and Carol become trapped in the launch bunker.
Aboard the spaceship, Hanley is questioned by the aliens. They wonder why they were attacked, when they offered friendship to Dr Marvin. Hanley explains that the sounds that were heard made no sense to human ears. It’s only after slowing down the tape recording of the noise that Russ is able to understand that the aliens are looking to meet him, possibly in friendship.
After traveling to Washington DC to advise the military, Russ is again contacted by the aliens, who wish to meet with him. Taking the meeting, Russ, Carol, Major Huglin (Donald Curtis) and a passing motorcycle officer get taken onboard a flying saucer into outer space. The disembodied alien voice explains that they are the remnants of a disintegrated solar system, and wish to land on Earth. The aliens do not wish to use force, but demonstrate that they have the means to destroy mankind. They ask Russ to convince the government to allow the saucers to land so they may stay on the planet. He has two lunar cycles, or 56 days, in which to comply.
Using that time, and the knowledge gleaned from being on the alien craft, Russ works with the Army to create a sonic weapon that can disrupt the electromagnetic field used by the flying saucers for flight. These giant cannons are deployed around Washington DC and pointed at the saucers when they return. The aliens are able to destroy some of the Army vehicles, but soon prove no match for the genius of mankind, as their ships are forced to crash in various areas around the nation’s capital. Having saved the planet, Russ and Carol retire to a beach to enjoy the rest of their honeymoon, choosing not to worry about if or when the flying saucers may return.
“We operate in a very different time reference. You might say all this is happening between the ticks of your watch or the beats of your heart.” – The Alien Voice
History in the Making
As sci-fi films go, Earth vs The Flying Saucers isn’t extremely special. The basic plot being an alien invasion, however poorly executed, had been done several times before, with better plotting and execution. The one thing that most scholars of film can concede is that the animation effects, created by Ray Harryhausen are the highlight of the film.
This was Harryhausen’s second film with producer Charles H. Schneer (after It Came From Beneath The Sea, 1955), and only the fourth film that he had worked on animating. His work provided a unique look to the flying saucers, in an era replete with flying saucer films. He of course would go on to greater accolades with his stop motion work for fantasy films including Jason and the Argonauts, The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, and his magnum-opus Clash of the Titans.
The use of animation on the flying saucers, rather than a model on a string, or some other effect, created a different look for the alien craft. It allowed the models to be animated into background plates of real locations, or as in the final scenes in Washington DC, crash into models of famous landmarks, including the Capitol building. Where some of the effects processes break down comes with the animation of debris from the various buildings. Harryhausen had stated in a number of interviews that he was not completely happy with the effects in this film, and that it was one of his least favorite films that he worked on.
Even though films like The War of the Worlds and Forbidden Planet advanced the quality of sci-fi films, they didn’t immediately change the rest of the genre. Earth vs The Flying Saucers continues with the tried and true method of presenting aliens invading the planet and all of the associated genre elements, such as space ships, laser weapons, and carnage. The reasons that the aliens are invading are not very clear. They transmit a message to a human they must have known was unintelligible, given that they have been observing the planet, and then get upset when they are attacked for “invading.” It seems at times that they wish “peaceful co-existence” but then they blow up a naval destroyer to prove their superiority. In the end it’s all a good excuse for the aliens to blow-up some trucks and the heroes to shoot flying saucers out of the sky.
As with other early sci-fi films (or low budget films, in general) there is a lot of stock footage. In the case of this film, it was necessary, due to the photography needed of rocket launches, military vehicles and plane footage. There were even some good stock shots of a crashing airplane that was made to look like a flying saucer shot it down. But of course, stock photography never quite matches with the principal photography from the film, and sometimes it doesn’t match other stock shots. The rockets often change appearance between shots, and many scenes have repeated footage to make up the necessary edits. Original footage was shot in and around Los Angeles, which is painfully obvious when Dr Marvin visits the shores of the Chesapeake Bay, but is presented with the rolling waves from the Pacific Ocean. There are several examples of this sort of filming glitch. At least The Day The Earth Stood Still attempted to make L.A. look like Washington DC.
There’s very little in this film that questions human existence. While there are thoughts about man’s place in the universe, the end of the film has the main characters dismiss the thoughts of the future for their pleasure today. “Russ, do you think there are any more? Will they come back again,” asks Carol. “Not on such a nice day. And not to such a nice world. I’m glad it’s still here. And still ours.” The movie is quite flippant about the invasion. Also, there’s not much actual tension from the events, even though the aliens are complete jerks. At one point after capturing Carol’s father and the police officer, having used them to gather more information about the world and customs, they then pitch the humans out of the ship (presumably used up, and dead) for no other reason than jettisoning their trash. Scenes like this may prove that humans are superior to the aliens, at least in the context of this film, but in reality, it’s mostly lazy filmmaking.
The film as is setup as a global attack of the flying saucers; remember it’s called Earth vs The Flying Saucers! But other than a couple scenes depicting the alien message being translated into various languages as different nations listen to the warnings, the premise of the film is really America vs The Flying Saucers. And what a great nation it is! American scientists come up with the idea and plan for defeating the ships, and when testing it on the alien ships over Washington DC, it shows immediate results causing the invasion to be stopped (either because all the ships were destroyed or it scared the aliens off). The Day the Earth Stood Still provided a much more convincing use of global cooperation.
Earth vs The Flying Saucers also plays on the increased UFO sightings that began in the 1950s. As mankind began expanding their reach into the skies it seems only appropriate that his imagination and the fact that many more “things” were in the sky (some which were probably listed as ‘classified’) would cause for the mistaken identity. It’s a no-brainer that film makers latched onto this plot device and created so many UFO films during the era.
The Science in The Fiction
There is some basis for scientific fact in the film, even given it’s broad concepts for Unidentified Flying Objects. Several times during the film, a pair of mysterious lights appear, dubbed ‘foo lights’ by Carol, who explains they are similar to St. Elmo’s Fire (also known as swamp gas). She says that they’re “they’re electric particles agitated by moving air. Same principle as the aurora borealis.” The term derives from pilots claiming to have seen ‘foo fighters’ during World War II; mysterious UFO’s during combat. Most people are familiar with this term, due to the 1990s rock band taking the name for themselves.
The project where Russ and Carol work is called Operation Sky Hook. This appears to be a version of the real-world Project: Skyhook. Project: Skyhook was a 1940s and 50s program that used large weather balloons with scientific instruments attached to gather information about the planet and atmospheric events. Presumably some of these balloons were regarded as UFO’s by civilians that may have seen them. The film uses “Operation Sky Hook” as an analogue to the real world program, having Dr Marvin’s project send up satellites that will perform similar tasks.
Earth vs The Flying Saucers also makes use of discussion of electromagnetic repulsion and solidified energy, as the means by which the aliens fly and protect themselves. These pseudo-scientific explanations go hand in hand with the method of defeating the aliens – sonic weapons. While nothing like any of these exist, at least to the level seen in the film, electromagnetism can be used for limited repulsion, as used on some maglev trains. And the use of sonic weaponry has been tested in military applications, mostly as crowd deterrent.
The Final Frontier
As with many films in the genre, Earth vs The Flying Saucers has several actors that have repeated roles in other films. Hugh Marlowe has a bit role as Patricia Neal’s boyfriend in The Day The Earth Stood Still, and Morris Ankrum has been seen in Rocketship X-M, Invaders From Mars and director Fred F. Sears’ other crazy sci-fi film The Giant Claw, portraying a military man in all of these. The voice of the alien may be familiar to fans of Disneyland, and the Haunted Mansion. Paul Frees, who performs as the ghost host in the Disney attraction did the vocal work here as well.
In the end, Earth vs The Flying Saucers is a mediocre alien invasion film, that has some notable talent working on it. Unfortunately, it cannot transcend the individual elements thrown together to make the film. In this case UFO might as well stand for Unknown Filming Objective.
Coming Next Week
Having grown up on comics, television and film, “Jovial” Jay feels destined to host podcasts and write blogs related to the union of these nerdy pursuits. Among his other pursuits he administrates and edits stories at the two largest Star Wars fan sites on the ‘net (Rebelscum.com, TheForce.net), and co-hosts the Jedi Journals podcast over at the ForceCast network.