Earth vs. The Flying Saucers (1956)

Dr Russell Marvin (Hugh Marlowe) and his new wife, Carol (Joan Taylor), are driving to a military base where they are working on Operation Skyhook, which plans to explore space by sending rockets into orbit around earth. Whilst they are driving, they are stunned to be followed closely by a flying saucer, an aurally memorable experience as much as a visual one. It is the first of many to be seen around the world, but who are the mysterious visitors in the UFOs and what are their intentions?

I have to say, I enjoyed this film thoroughly from start to finish. The design and story borrow heavily from two previous genre entries in particular – The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) and The War of the Worlds (1953). The two represent the opposing sides of the spectrum of 50’s alien invasion movies, the former being a cautionary tale in human hostility and the latter being the template for the “earth’s screwed” camp of alien domination flicks. Curt Siodmak’s (famed for penning 1941′s The Wolf Man) script, very cleverly and knowingly, plays the field between them, leaving the viewer on uncertain ground to begin with.

At first, when the saucers appear their intentions are unknown, neutral, then when they land humanity shoot first, through fear. For the audience, this recalls “pacifist” genre movies like The Day the Earth Stood Still or It Came from Outer Space (1953), and humanity is made to feel like the aggressor, with the aliens’ retaliation (a shocking first glimpse of their devastating destructive capabilities and a prelude of what’s to come) therefore seen as self-defence. We’re made to feel this all the more soon after, when Dr. Marvin discovers a hidden message meant for him and sent prior to the attack, a message that hinted at a peaceful meeting at the location of the conflict. The violence was therefore a product of miscommunication rather than intent, as they expected Marvin to have understood the message, so when he later meets with the aliens (disobeying military orders to do so, feeling personally culpable for failing to decode the message sooner, as well as the guilt of being on the side of the attacker), their question of why they were attacked seems accusatory, and by association the aliens seem benign because of their confusion at this response.

…And this is the point at which the rug is firmly pulled out from under us. Having set us up for the first act of the film to believe the aliens are going to be of the peaceful kind (though perhaps with a strong message about humanity’s armaments), it suddenly switches pace and becomes The War of the Worlds – yes, they wanted a peaceful meeting with humans, but it was a very considerate, polite gathering in which they were to tell humanity that they are now in control and it would be futile to resist. Following a chilling display of their technological superiority they give humanity fifty-six days to decide their fate, upon which they will return to conquer, one way or the other, and this brilliantly sets up the latter half of the movie, which is a suspenseful race against time for Dr. Marvin and the world’s scientists to create a way to defeat these would-be invaders, and the last act being its implementation, the showdown, the Earth vs. the flying saucers as the title promises.

The pacing of the film is excellent, with just the right amount of build-up, spectacle, action and a satisfying conclusion. One particularly innovative idea, that would later be purloined by (and indeed prove to be the most memorable part of) Roland Emmerich’s dumb, bombastic popcorn flick Independence Day (1996), is to set much of the finale’s action against notable US landmarks, with some of them being left worse for wear by the altercation, giving these sequences an added energy and sense of scale. The whole is elevated by the saucers’ masterful animation by stop-motion god Ray Harryhausen (and also some great sound design to go with their appearance, though it is somewhat in the shadow of War of the Worlds in that respect). Whether flying in formation over Washington or teetering slightly on their mad central landing mechanism, they ooze charm and character, and despite being models Harryhausen knows how to animate and film them to give these sequences cinematic scope and feel, something that a lot of similar effects work on UFOS, spaceships etc. in other movies of the period lacked (and still sometimes lack today in all their mundane, CGI rendered glory…yes, Mr. Lucas, I’m looking at you and your bloody prequels). So effective are these shots, in fact, they’ve been used time and again in other pictures, and homaged to death in films like Tim Burton’s Mars Attacks! (1996).

If you can get past the schlocky title and embrace the essence of a 50’s sci-fi B-movie, then this is a classic example of that genre and is highly recommended.

Rating: ★★★★★★★★☆☆

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