Shitty Movie Sundays: War of the Satellites

Missile Test will always appreciate Roger Corman, no matter how much crap we give him for being one of the most miserly filmmakers to ever grace the business. If one absolutely, positively, had to get a movie made quickly and as cheaply as possible, Corman was the guy to call. Case in point is War of the Satellites, conceived, shot, and released in only a couple of months, in order to capitalize on the launch of Sputnik, which was dominating the news at the time, and which fed a lot of Cold War paranoia and consternation amongst the American people.

Corman directed and produced, from a story by co-producers and visual effects techs Irving Block and Jack Rabin, with TV writer Lawrence L. Goldman penning the screenplay.

Humankind is reaching for the stars. But, there is a problem. Every time a new launch reaches a certain distance from Earth, a mysterious energy barrier destroys the ship and its occupants. After ten(!) of these failed missions, the United Nations is ready to put the kibosh on the whole works, but project lead Dr. Pol Van Ponder (Richard Devon) wants to forge ahead with one last launch. He’s also willing to put himself at risk commanding the mission.

Much debate ensues, which viewers will get to watch. A film that had set itself up in the open to be a space flick, instead appears to be a political thriller. No worries, though. There is an act set in space.

Before then, the players learn that the barrier is alien in origin. It has been erected to contain humanity to Earth, the aliens believing that humans are not ready to explore space. This sticks in everyone’s craw, but there doesn’t seem to be much that can be done.

Meanwhile, Van Ponder is killed in a car crash and replaced by an alien doppelganger, who hopes to poison the project from within. That doesn’t work out, and it’s off to space everyone goes.

The Van Ponder alien is the film’s antagonist. The hero is Dave Boyer (Dick Miller), a member of the space project who begins to have suspicions of Van Ponder’s true loyalties before the launch. It’s up to Dave to convince the others in the mission, particularly War of the Satellites movie posterVan Ponder’s assistant, Sybil Carrington (Susan Cabot), that something is amiss. This leads to the final act in space where alien Van Ponder’s plan either comes to fruition, or humankind is able to break free and explore the stars.

That’s some heady stuff, but one must remember that this flick was made for about 70 grand, and was shot in only ten days. It was cheap, and boy does it look it. The spaceship set was a series of plywood arches that the film crew would move around to create passageways and compartments. The true pièce de résistance of low-rent shittiness were the gravity couches aboard the spaceship. They’re lounge chairs. Regular old 1950s lounge chairs with brass studs and wooden feet. Corman and company didn’t make any effort to disguise what they were or dress them up like something one would find on a rocketship. Lounge chairs.

Then there is the model work. It’s very basic, with strings visible and objects casting shadows on the space background. The sequence where the spaceship assembles in orbit after multiple rocket launches must be seen to be believed. It’s on a par with the model work in the opening for Mystery Science Theater 3000, which drew much inspiration from this era of b-cinema. Hats off to Block, Rabin, and Louis DeWitt for providing viewers with so much mirth.

The passing of time has made War of the Satellites kitschy as all get out. Its value as an artifact of 1950s b-cinema cannot be exaggerated, and therefore it fits nicely into the greater oeuvre of its penny-pinching producer and director. It is essential viewing for fans of Corman, and ’50s flicks in particular. It’s also decently acted, and, with a running time of 66 minutes, is no chore to watch. War of the Satellites makes it into the hallowed top 100 of the Watchability Index, displacing Psychomania at #92. Check it out.

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