Earth vs. the Flying Saucers (1956) ***
There aren’t a lot of movies with such clarity of purpose as Earth vs. the Flying Saucers. Characterization is less than sketchy. Not a single subplot worthy of the name appears at any point after a perfunctory stab at establishing the two main characters’ newlywed-ness in the opening scene. Viewers will look in vain for any allegory or deeper meaning; what subtext there is to be mined out of Earth vs. the Flying Saucers quite obviously just lost its way and wandered into the film by complete accident. This movie’s creators set out to make a flick about aliens kicking human ass until they get their own asses kicked in return, and that— and nothing else— is precisely what they did. And for that very reason, or so it seems to me, this movie is one of the best beloved classics of 50’s science fiction.
When I said Dr. Russ Marvin (Hugh Marlowe, from World Without End and The Day the Earth Stood Still) and the former Carol Hanley (20 Million Miles to Earth’s Joan Taylor) were newlyweds, I meant newly— as we learn after a pre-credits sequence (highly unusual for the 1950’s), that establishes the occurrence of an especially intense rash of UFO sightings, they just got married two hours ago. At the moment, the Marvins are in their car, driving out to the headquarters of Operation Skyhook, where both of them work. Skyhook is a rocketry program intended to launch a total of twelve artificial satellites into Earth’s orbit; Russ is the director of the project, and Carol is his secretary. (Hey, guys— remember back when it used to be okay to date your secretary? Wasn’t that great?) Before they get there, though, our heroes are distracted by a brush with what can only be described as a flying saucer. The strange machine approaches them from behind at extremely low altitude (we’re talking less than treetop height here) and circles their car for a while, making a loud, cicada-like chirring sound the entire time. The whole encounter lasts perhaps 30 seconds.
Later, at Skyhook headquarters, Russ and Carol discover that they have tangible— if also arguably inconclusive— evidence that what they saw on the highway wasn’t just some sort of weather anomaly. Dr. Marvin had been dictating research notes into a tape recorder when the saucer appeared, and while Carol is transcribing them, she hears the sound made by the UFO on the tape. Shortly thereafter, when rocket #11 is preparing for liftoff, Skyhook receives a visit from General John Hanley (Morris Ankrum, from Kronos and The Zombies of Mora Tau), Carol’s father and the Skyhook project’s military liaison. The general arrives too late to accomplish this goal, but he was hoping to stop the launch. Marvin’s lab has lost contact with all ten of the previously launched satellites, you see, and Hanley has just figured out why. The wrecked remains of seven of them have been discovered at what had been thought to be meteor landing sites all over the globe; the other three, presumably, went down at sea.
That gets Russ thinking. He could accept it if one or two of his satellites had malfunctioned and crashed, but all ten is another matter. True, there is no weapon known to man that could shoot down an object orbiting at such high altitude, but a weapon that could do the trick might be known to somebody else. To the pilots of those flying saucers people have been seeing all over the place lately, for example. That night, when a courier from the lab arrives at the Marvin home, interrupting dinner with Carol’s father with a message that contact has been lost with rocket #11, Russ decides to tell General Hanley about the UFO he and Carol saw. And despite Hanley’s objections, Russ announces his intention to carry out the twelfth launch tomorrow, as scheduled. This time, though, the rocket will be carrying a suite of audiovisual recording equipment along with the satellite. When #12 goes down, Russ is going to know the reason why.
Actually, rocket #12 never goes up in the first place. Before the final countdown has even begun, a flying saucer lands at Skyhook headquarters. General Hanley evidently never saw The Day the Earth Stood Still, because he immediately orders the saucer surrounded by as many armed men as are on hand at the base. That isn’t very many, as it turns out, and the closest thing to heavy artillery they’ve got is a truck carrying a pair of 40mm Bofors machine cannons. The soldiers manning the Bofors gun stupidly open fire the moment the crew of the saucer begins disembarking, and though one of the aliens is killed, the others find shelter behind their vessel’s electromagnetic force-shields. Thus protected, the aliens proceed to wipe out the defenders of Skyhook, and then level the entire base. They also take General Hanley with them when they withdraw.
Hanley’s first face-to-face talk with his captors does not go well for him. The aliens claim that they had previously made arrangements to meet Dr. Russ Marvin for a discussion at Skyhook headquarters, and they are not at all happy about the reception they received instead. When Hanley protests that Marvin said nothing to him about any communication with the saucer that buzzed his car the morning before, the aliens mutter something about compensating insufficiently for the time differential, and steer the conversation in another direction. Hanley isn’t cooperating, though; under international law, he is required only to give his captors his name, rank, and serial number. Of course, only a fool would expect beings from another planet to consider their actions constrained by terrestrial “international law,” and all Hanley’s protests get him is a session with a device the aliens call an “Infinitely Indexed Memory Bank”— for all practical purposes, a brain-drain machine.
Meanwhile, Russ and Carol Marvin are still trapped in an underground bunker beneath the smoldering remains of Skyhook headquarters. Russ has been keeping a diary on the same tape deck he was using before, and as the gas generator that serves as the source of his and Carol’s electricity nears the bottom of its fuel tank, Dr. Marvin rewinds the tape to give it one last listen before the power goes out completely. There isn’t even enough juice to make the machine run at full speed, however, and Russ’s tape again offers up a surprising revelation. That cicada noise made by the UFO, when played at a fraction of normal speed, turns out to be a message from the saucer’s commander. The aliens had indeed made contact with Marvin on the day before they landed at Skyhook, but the doctor never realized it. And as the aliens interrogating Hanley indicated, what they had said was that they would be arriving at Skyhook to talk to Russ. Guess who feels like an enormous tool now…
He really shouldn’t, though. As we are about to find out, Russ wouldn’t have liked what the aliens had to say, anyhow. Shortly after he and Carol are rescued and debriefed by the top US military authorities in Washington, Russ makes radio contact with the visitors from space. This time, they slow their transmission down enough to be intelligible, and they make arrangements to meet on a secluded Chesapeake Bay beach. Russ is followed there by Carol and Major Huglin (Donald Curtis, of It Came from Beneath the Sea and The Amazing Mr. X), the army officer assigned to keep watch on him, and they in turn are followed by a motorcycle cop who tries to pull them over for speeding. All four humans end up coming aboard the saucer on the beach, and learn thereby the aliens’ true purpose on Earth. Their home planet— and indeed, their entire star system— was destroyed when their sun went cold centuries ago. All that now remains of their race is aboard the fleet of spacecraft circling the Earth. The aliens intend to colonize our planet, but because we humans are so many while they are so few, they would prefer to use the English model of colonization rather than the Spanish, and take over the Earth by diplomatic means with a minimum of bloodshed. They realize that a show of force will nevertheless be necessary, and for that reason, they introduce Carol Hanley to her now-zombified father and demonstrate the Infinitely Indexed Memory Bank on the traffic cop. Then they blow up a US Navy destroyer so as to dramatize the superiority of their armaments over ours. Russ and Carol are released a bit later with instructions to carry the aliens’ ultimatum to the leaders of the world.
Dr. Marvin does indeed relay the message, but he also gets to work immediately on a way to defeat the invaders. Having observed their technology at close range, Marvin believes most of it to be based on ultrasound and magnetism. His initial idea is to try to duplicate the aliens’ own sonic death ray, but Professor Kanter (John Zaremba, from Frankenstein’s Daughter and The Night the World Exploded), an old colleague of his, suggests that they might do better to attack the flying saucers’ magnetic propulsion systems. Because the army’s code-breakers have already figured out a way to read the aliens’ communications, the military knows that the invaders have scheduled their major offensive to coincide with a period of solar flare activity 56 days hence. It may not seem like a lot of time to prepare a counterattack, but remember— this is the 1950’s we’re talking about. If America could handle the Nazis, the Japs, and the Italians all at the same time, surely we could handle a little thing like an invasion from outer space!
One of the things I love about 50’s sci-fi is its incredible optimism, and there are few better illustrations of that optimism than Earth vs. the Flying Saucers. The most striking example in the movie comes when the generals take Russ and Carol on a tour of their decryption operation. Taking up practically the entire middle of the room is a huge mechanical computer, not at all unlike the machines that were used to defeat the German Enigma device during World War II. Yeah, the notion that such technology could be a match for anything conquerors from another galaxy might bring with them is more than a little laughable, but it gives me a little twinge of envy to consider that only 50 years ago, people (at least in this country) found it so easy to believe that our leaders were competent, our institutions dependable, our society almost infinitely resilient and adaptable— in short, that things actually worked, and reliably so at that. If Earth vs. the Flying Saucers can be said to have any underlying meaning beneath its “aliens invade Earth and a whole lot of famous shit blows up” storyline, I think this Can-Do vision of America in adversity is it.
Let’s face it, though— it’s the famous shit blowing up that most people really remember. When Dean Devlin and Roland Emmerich trotted out Independence Day 40 years later, it was obvious that they were shooting for an updated take on Earth vs. the Flying Saucers. The man behind all the destruction, of course, was Ray Harryhausen, and while I don’t think Earth vs. the Flying Saucers ranks very high on the scale of his achievements, his work here is still quite impressive. It’s just that a fleet of flying saucers and a city’s worth of collapsing public landmarks aren’t exactly the ideal showcase for stop-motion animation. That said, the climactic shots of the disabled saucers crashing into the Washington Monument and the Capitol dome are absolutely unforgettable movie moments. (You know, I think it’s awfully interesting that the saucers do far more damage to Washington by falling out of the sky in defeat than they do by turning their sonic death rays on the city…) Harryhausen also deserves credit for integrating his own work with the copious stock footage that was used to keep costs under control. Whereas most 50’s special effects artists would have been content to depict the sinking of the destroyer Franklin by cutting between a closeup of the model saucer and the stock footage of the ship exploding, Harryhausen takes the extra step of editing the alien ship into the stock footage, resulting in a far more convincing scene. He does much the same thing with the destruction of Skyhook headquarters and the final battle in DC. It’s just a pity the producers didn’t also have Harryhausen animate the aliens themselves; the rubber suits are among the very worst on record, and do Earth vs. the Flying Saucers a grave disservice.