HCF REWIND NO. 182: EARTH VS THE FLYING SAUCERS [US 1956]
AVAILABLE ON DVD AND BLU-RAY
RUNNING TIME: 80 min
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
Flying saucers have been spotted all over the world, and scientist Russell Marvin and his wife Carol see one flying over their car. Without proof of the encounter other than a tape recording of the ship’s sound, Dr. Marvin is hesitant to notify his bosses. He is in charge of Project Skyhook, an American space program that has already launched ten research satellites into orbit, but earth has lost contact with them and many have crashed. He suspects alien involvement. A saucer lands at the lab the next day and soldiers immediately begin firing upon it, killing one alien who has left the ship, but the others and the ship itself are protected by the saucer’s force field and the aliens then destroy the base, killing everyone but the Marvins, who are trapped underground….
Ray Harryhausen said that this film was his least favourite of his films, probably because it didn’t have any creatures to build and animate, though that actually makes it somewhat unique in his filmography. It’s essentially a cheapie variant of The War Of The Worlds, and as long as you realise it had a small budget and don’t expect too much there is quite a bit of fun to be had. There are a few too many talkie scenes around the middle of the film where it should be ramping up the tension, but the plot manages to be engaging enough to make up for the fact they couldn’t afford lot of scenes of spectacle, and the final twenty minute action sequence, which really makes the picture, remains thoroughly exciting as well as ingenious. Yes, you can sometimes see the joins, but less so than your equivalent ‘B’ movie production today which would rely almost entirely on poor CGI for its special effects.
Giant monsters was one particular movie craze in the 1950’s, but an even bigger one was beings from another planet. Small wonder then that Harryhausen and producer Charles H. Schneer decided to make aliens the subject of their next motion picture. The script, which as usual went through many drafts, was “suggested” by the 1953 non-fiction book Flying Saucers From Outer Space by retired U.S. Marine Corps Maj. Donald E. Keyhoe, who believed that certain aerial phenomena were interplanetary in origin. Harryhausen sought advice from noted 1950s UFO “contactee” George Adamski [who was paranoid at the time] on the depiction of the flying saucers. The iconic flying saucer design, a static central cabin with an outer rotating ring with slotted vanes, matches descriptions in Keyhoe’s book. Harryhausen animated the saucers with stop-motion animation, and originally the aliens were going to be animated too, but the budget didn’t allow for the time to do this so they became three men walking stiffly in constricting rubber suits except for some long shots featuring more than three of them, which were done with normal animation. As before, some stock footage was employed, and, though this isn’t that well known, some shots [mostly crowd shots] of from The Day The Earth Stood Still and The War Of The Worlds were used too. The film went out in the US on a double bill with The Werewolf.
Unlike It Came From Beneath The Sea, Earth Vs The Flying Saucers begins with its hero and heroine already married, so there is no real romantic interest to slow the proceedings down and the resulting film moves at a decent pace right from the beginning, though later on a bit too much footage is taken up with stuff like meetings for my personal liking. The early destruction of the research satellites occurs off-screen, but some aliens land on earth pretty early on, and interestingly earth shoots first, though these aliens turn out to be nasty anyway, even if they would rather negotiate their occupation of earth than destroy everything in sight. Subplots not really developed are a scientist who is taken over by the aliens and the alien’s little spying devices, flying saucer-like lights, though the latter were originally intended to be seen more. As usual, the humans build a special weapon that can destroy the aliens. The thrills only get underway big time in the last half an hour but the sustained lengthy climactic set piece, with various Washington D.C. land marks destroyed by the saucers either intentionally or by saucers crashing, is quite remarkable in its execution. They even get away with things like saucers being matted into real footage or shots of actual destruction, and best of all you can’t see the wires, a typical flaw with spaceships from films of this era. The aliens themselves look more comic than scary stumbling about though one shot of the actual face of one is quite an effective variant on the typical alien ‘look’ of the 50’s, the lined face very ancient-looking. There are some fun details elsewhere, like the hypnotic device that looks like a giant white rose. The overall minimalist design works well.
The acting and direction are mostly just adequate and Mischa Bakaleinikoff’s score just backs up the action in a routine way without really adding much. Some narration, telling us what we could work out over montages, is distracting though it’s not as prominent as in It Came From Beneath The Sea, while there is one rather inept scene where the three main characters are being chased through a wood and it laughably looks like they are barely running at all. Overall though Earth Vs The Flying Saucers is well put together and is good fun from beginning to end, though whenever I watch it I can barely wait to get to its final sequence which is really on a higher level, and the film doesn’t really come close to the real classics of the era of this nature like The Day The Earth Stood Still and Invasion Of The Body Snatchers.