For today’s entry in It Came from the 1950s, we have a film that tries its best to resemble its poorer cousins, but the overall sheen of competence cannot be hidden.
Earth vs. the Flying Saucers comes to us via director Fred F. Sears and screenwriters Bernard Gordon and George Worthing Yates. Released in 1956, Saucers stars Hugh Marlowe and Joan Taylor as Russell and Carol Marvin. Russell is a scientist in charge of Project Skyhook, which is a series of unmanned research rockets launched into orbit. Carol is his wife and assistant.
Something has been going wrong with the rockets, however. They keep crashing back to Earth. Carol’s father, General Hanley (Morris Ankrum) suspects foul play — possibly involving flying saucers. There are indeed aliens in flying saucers running around. They tried communicating with Dr. Marvin, but he wasn’t able to interpret their message as communication at all before a flying saucer lands right on Project Skyhook’s doorstep.
The soldiers guarding the facility are not amused and shoot an alien who emerges from the craft in the chest with an anti-aircraft gun. That’s fairly aggressive. Our guys never gave the aliens a chance. Sure, it’s never a good idea to show up at a military facility unannounced, but these are aliens. They might not know how touchy we are about security. But, more than that, we really are the kind of people who shoot first and ask questions later. Don’t believe me? During the Bush Jr. years, it was called the one percent doctrine.
Luckily for the future of interstellar relations, it turns out the aggression was warranted. Martin is able to establish a rapport with the aliens, and learns they are here to conquer the planet. They tried the nice approach at first because they believe their technology so overwhelming as to make a war needlessly bloody, and they wished to avoid ruling a disgruntled populace. Boy, did they underestimate us, those stupid fictional aliens. Of course our heroes would fight back, and thus begins the ‘vs’ of the title.
It’s a pitched battle, featuring somewhere around a dozen feature players on screen (the filmmakers didn’t splurge on extras), and spinning flying saucers here, there, everywhere! At first the aliens are right. Their weapons are lethal and their defenses impenetrable. But, Dr. Martin has invented a secret weapon that could save the day.
This film has all the trappings of a b-sci-fi flick of the day. Even the plot is similar. There are also lengthy expositional scenes where scientists leap to conclusions designed to advance the plot more than reason out what’s happening.
Marlowe’s performance had many b-movie qualities to it. Marlowe worked in radio for a time and one can tell in his inflection. His most convincing work here is reading copy into a microphone.
Then there are the aliens. The aliens are guys in suits. The suits, however, are laughable. They are matte black armor with no joints at knee or elbow, with an opaque helmet to match. The actors look ridiculous trying to move around in them. Paul Frees gave the aliens voice, and it’s a far less overpowering performance than his work voicing gigantic, grunting giants for Bert I. Gordon.
But one can tell something is up when the film opens. I was shocked, shocked, to see this film was shot in widescreen. I’ve gotten very used to seeing these ’50s flicks in an aspect ratio better suited to CRT televisions. I thought that maybe whoever prepared this film for digital release had cropped it for widescreen, but, nope, it really was shot in 1.85:1. That points to this being a serious production.
Next are the special effects. They’re cheesy as all hell, but for the day they were good. It includes stop motion work from Ray Harryhausen. One of the reasons it looks so good for stop motion is that most of the shots are of the flying saucers. Mechanical devices have much more restrictive movements, which makes for much smoother animation than something like a clay lizard. It’s also Ray Harryhausen, who was the best at what he did.
The final nail in the coffin for this flick’s b-movie prospects is the pacing. The plot is really nothing special, but Sears kept everything tight and moving smoothly. There are little in the way of slow spots, even when the cast gets to explaining stuff. There were even anxious moments scattered here and there.
Earth vs. the Flying Saucers is not some big budget sci-fi extravaganza, but it does show what heights were possible with the ’50s b-movie format.