Director: Fred F. Sears
My rating: Class A (3/7, rather hot white star). In some ways a cinematic time capsule of the fifties, this movie also embodies the more recognizable aspects of UFO lore. Though its pacing is rather slow, and the characterization is somewhat weak, it’s still an amazing ride with special effects that hold up quite well even now.
The concept behind this movie is hardly a new one; Wells’ The War of the Worlds certainly did it first, both as a novel (1898) and as a movie (1953) (previously reviewed at #40). There can be little doubt that that movie paved the way for this one, but Earth Vs. The Flying Saucers is unique in two respects: it encapsulates many of the most recognizable aspects of the already existing flying saucer lore, and it incorporates some impressive special effects by stop motion master Ray Harryhausen. It is also the forerunner of the more modern Mars Attacks and Independence Day.
The movie credits its inspiration with the non-fiction Flying Saucers From Outer Space by Donald Keyhoe, a writer of science fiction and weird fantasy for pulp magazines. Ray Harryhausen, the effects designer who did the saucers and some of the falling buildings, as well as the colorization process, worked closely with George Adamski, who is probably one of the first “contactees” in UFOology (at least until Adamski grew so paranoid that Harryhausen could no longer work with him), in designing the look and feel of the flying saucers. Since these two men were instrumental in the growing field of UFOology, it makes sense that the movie strikes such a familiar tone with modern viewers.
The movie comes in two versions, the original black and white and a colorized version—the colorization process was supervised by Ray Harryhausen himself. We watched the colorized version.
Setup: Our hero, Dr. Russell Marvin, and his new wife Carol, are deeply involved in Project Skyhook, a satellite program which has put ten satellites of the proposed twelve into orbit. And yet something is happening—none of the satellites are operating properly. And all over the globe, people sight mysterious flying saucers. One follows Dr. and Mrs. Marvin in their car on the way to Project Skyhook. The next day, at the launch of the eleventh satellite, the aliens arrive in one of their flying saucers and land. The guards open fire, and the aliens respond with deadly force, killing almost everyone on site and burying the Marvins in the rubble….
Short summary: Boy and girl elope. Boy and Girl return to work. Aliens attack. Boy and Girl escape. Boy and Girl meet with the authorities. Boy meets Aliens. Aliens deliver an ultimatum and say they will take over in 56 days. Boy develops a weapon against the flying saucers. Boy uses the weapon on one, and it works. The aliens attack. Boy’s weapon, now in mass production, continues to work. Though battered and damaged, the Earth is saved!
The look and feel of this movie is so iconic, and so well-matched to the body of UFO lore which inspired it, that it bears discussion.* In June 1947, an American pilot, Kenneth Arnold, saw (or claimed to have seen) nine disc-like shapes flying at supersonic speeds near Mount Rainier in Washington state. The incident garnered nation-wide news coverage, and was quickly followed by numerous additional sightings and the use of the term “flying saucer.” In July of that same year, the United States Air Force announced that a “flying disk” had crashed near Roswell, New Mexico, though a day later, the Air Force stated that it was a weather balloon, and not a UFO. The two incidents sparked a widespread interest in UFOs and flying saucers.
Public interest was so great that the United States government was forced to investigate the issue. In 1948, the United States initiated Project Sign, which investigated the unidentified flying object phenomenon. Most of the project’s investigators favored the extraterrestrial origin theory, and the project was terminated by a report which the Pentagon did not like. Next up was Project Grudge, a 1949 investigation which was intended to follow standard intelligence procedures—the implication being, of course, that Project Sign had been hopelessly contaminated by faulty work. The Grudge Report concluded that UFOs were the result of misidentification. From 1952 to 1970, the United States investigated UFO sightings under the auspices of Project Bluebook. Bluebook was to conclude that there was no military threat to the United States and that the sightings were not of extraterrestrial craft.
Donald Keyhoe, the writer of the book which inspired the movie, was a former Marine pilot and successful writer who became a major figure in the emerging UFO phenomenon. He investigated the Arnold sighting and after some initial skepticism concluded that they were real. He wrote “Flying Saucers Are Real” for the magazine True (published in 1950), and it may have been the most widely read and discussed magazine article in United States history. He followed it up with two books, The Flying Saucers Are Real in 1950 and Flying Saucers From Outer Space in 1953.
George Adamski, the other major UFO figure behind the scenes of this film, emerged in about 1953 as one of the more influential “contactees.” He popularized his story in Flying Saucers Have Landed, in which he claimed to have seen UFOs in 1946 and 1950, and then to have met a man from Venus when his scoutship landed. Adamski had a national following, and as recently as 2003, was still the subject of news articles even though he had been dead since 1965. Adamski’s descriptions became the base for much of Harryhausen’s work on the flying saucers in this film.
In many ways, the presence of this film in the Top 50 Films list is a surprise, since it’s definitely a B movie. That shows up in the script, the acting, the music—everything but the effects and the look and feel of the movie, in fact. Sears directed an astonishing 29 films, including this one, in the period from 1953 to 1957, and most of them on six day shooting schedules. So the movie is not high art by any stretch of the imagination.
Hugh Marlowe, who played Dr. Russell Marvin, usually played supporting actors or secondary leading men (though he was in a number of classic films, including Meet Me in St. Louis, All About Eve and The Day the Earth Stood Still). He does a workman-like job, successfully though not brilliantly portraying a man who feels driven to act in spite of bureaucratic inertia as well as a recently married man deeply in love with his new wife. Marlowe does shine in a few places, particularly when he’s given the idea for a sort of gun based first on sonic and then on magnetic principles designed to bring down the alien flying saucers; his excitement over scientific principles and the possibility of a weapon seems genuine.
Joan Taylor, in the role of Carol Marvin, also does a solid but not spectacular job. Best remembered as Milly Scott in television’s The Rifleman and for her role in 20 Million Miles to Earth (another Harryhausen movie), Taylor raised three children and had a full career as an actress. She also wrote the script for 1997’s Fools Rush In. At any rate, Taylor does an adequate job with a role without a great deal of meat to it—she’s mainly the attractive woman, a secretary, who ties her husband to her father, General Hanley, who is largely a source of exposition rather than a full-fledged character. Her horror and disgust, at least, seem real, as does her love for her husband, and the woman is no shrinking violet but rather a brave woman who won’t be separated from her husband even in the face of danger.
You might get the idea from the foregoing that characterization is not the forte of this movie, and you’d be right. Earth vs. The Flying Saucers is a 1950s action movie, where the action is the thing and everything else in the movie is subordinate to it. The characters are not particularly well-drawn, being ideas and plot devices more than people, and the focus of the movie is always on the mystery of the alien flying saucers and their mysterious goals. In other words, it’s all about the alien invasion, and the people are secondary to that. The plot is meticulously constructed, mind you, with all the right ingredients in place, but they’re all there to get us to the aliens attacking.
General Hanley (played by Morris Ankrum), Carol’s father, is a perfect example of that meticulous plot construction. Less a character and more a plot device, he serves to move the plot along by explaining to Dr. Marvin what’s happened to his satellites. The hapless general is captured by the evil aliens, and his mind is drained dry in their infinite indexing computer so they can use his knowledge, becoming a mindless zombie in the process. Later still, he’s unceremoniously dumped out of a flying saucer to drive home the idea that the aliens are evil and up to no good. So he’s not really a character—he’s General Exposition at first, and then General Example second.
So what are the aliens up to? Well, they’re the survivors of a “disintegrated” solar system (no word on how or why that might have happened), and they need a place to live. They’ve picked Earth, since it can support them, and they intend to enslave the technologically inferior humans. They’re a wizened and ancient race with atrophied senses and strength who rely on their technology and their suits for everything. The entire setup, of course, is an excuse for some striking imagery of a world—especially the immediately recognizable Washington, D.C.—under siege by aliens with superior technology.
That technology, however, is marvelous. They can translate human languages, travel to the stars in the blink of an eye, disintegrate matter, take over the radio broadcasts of Earth, steal knowledge from a man’s brain…the movie even takes the idea of Einstein’s relativity and presents a bastardized explanation of time contraction. The science is all plausible and the only real hole anywhere in the film is the aliens’ failure to realize that their message to Dr. Marvin would be so fast he wouldn’t realize it was a message.
The saucers, their weapons, and the aliens—along with their attacks—are the real stars of the film. And the effects hold up surprisingly well. They’re stop motion, state of the art at the time and dated now, so the effects appear rather fake to the modern eye. And at the same time, they’re undeniably eye-catching and fun to watch. The colorization process was also extremely well done; there were points where I simply forgot I was watching a colorized film, though it’s impossible to lose sight of the fact that it’s a 1950s film.
Earth vs. The Flying Saucers is not high art, and it’s not particularly well-paced or dramatic. The aliens don’t have a deep and disturbing goal, they just want a place to live with some ready slaves. But it is a lot of fun, and it offers an intriguing glimpse into ’50s attitudes toward science, the possibility of intelligent life elsewhere in the universe, and war. All in all, it is a fun and culturally relevant movie which captures the essence of the UFO movement at a time near its birth. If you love classic movies, science fiction or the ’50s, then this is one to watch.
* I address only the third, and most modern, of the roots of UFO lore, since it began less than ten years before this movie saw print. The other two roots are the end of the 19th century’s “mystery airships” and the “foo fighters” of World War II. Of course, there are many other historical references to mystery lights and things in the sky, and depending on how you interpret things—I’m looking at you, Erich Von Daniken—there is substantial evidence for alien astronauts visiting the Earth throughout and perhaps before recorded history. Jump back to starting point.
- “Flying Saucers” Come From The Other Worlds? (socyberty.com)
- Flying Saucers and Science (panoffolin.wordpress.com)
- The Surprising Origin of Alien Abduction Stories (livescience.com)
- UFO ‘lands’ near Roswell crash site… but why did aliens choose a flying saucer that looks like it was borrowed from a movie? (dailymail.co.uk)
- Ancient Aliens, the Collective Unconscious, and the Quest for Meaning (psychologytoday.com)
- UFOs The True Story of Flying Saucers 1956-Vintage Truth!!! (disclose.tv)
- Are UFOs Visiting Earth? (unastronomy.com)
- How To Prove You’ve Been Abducted by Aliens [Space] (gizmodo.com)