Wednesday, 17 September 2014

Earth vs. the Flying Saucers (1956)

It’s a tough thing for a fan of cult movies to admit but until tonight I had never seen Earth vs. the Flying Saucers. I had heard a great deal about it of course and I can’t really explain why I’d never seen it. I have now had the chance to see it on the Blu-Ray release (that’s the good news) in a colorised version (that’s the bad news).

I managed to endure a few minutes of the drab lifeless colours before switching to the black-and-white version which is (mercifully) also included.

This is of course one of the legendary Ray Harryhausen movies of the 1950s. Harryhausen’s flying saucers do not disappoint.

In some ways the plot, from a story by Curt Siodmak, is pretty much a stock-standard alien invasion story. Flying saucers were big news at the time so combining the flying saucer craze with an alien invasion story was an excellent idea. The original inspiration was apparently a book by noted UFO enthusiast Donald E. Keyhoe, who had been a prolific writer of extremely good and wildly imaginative pulp fiction back in the 1920s and 1930s. Many of his pulp stories are now available in book form and I can highly recommend The Vanished Legion and (even more particularly) Strange War.

Dr Russell A. Marvin (Hugh Marlowe) is a scientist working on Project Skyhook, which involves the launching of a dozen artificial satellites. Marvin and his new bride Carol (Joan Taylor) encounter a flying saucer while driving to the satellite launch site. Project Skyhook has been running into problems and contact has been lost with most of the satellites. What Dr Marvin does not know but will soon find out from his boss General Hanley (Morris Ankrum) is that the satellites are no longer up there in space. The wreckage of the satellites has been found scattered in various locations across the globe. It won’t take the viewer long to figure out that the loss of the satellites is connected with the flying saucers that have been spotted recently. It takes Dr Marvin a little longer to spot the connection, but not too long.

The flying saucers attack the launch site and pretty soon Project Skyhook is a smouldering expanse of rubble and scrap metal. Dr Marvin discovers (through a clever early use of the much-used technique of slowed-down sound recordings) that the aliens have been trying to make contact with Earth. At this point you might think this is going to be another of those alien invasion movies involving tragic misunderstood aliens fleeing a dying world. That turns out to be partly true but it soon becomes obvious that the aliens were not trying to contact us to negotiate with us but merely to inform us of our impending conquest. They were hoping for a surrender to save them the trouble of destroying us.

Of course the Earth has no intention of surrendering. And Dr Marvin is not one of those irritating movie scientists who tries to persuade us to try to understand the aliens’ point of view. Dr Marvin is in fact as gung-ho as anyone about resisting the invasion and he is soon busily inventing a secret weapon to knock those flying saucers out of the sky. The story builds towards the inevitable showdown with the aliens, and some very satisfying battle scenes.

One of the great attractions of 1950s sci-fi is the technobabble, something 1950s film-makers were very good at. This movie has some superb examples, the best being the Infinitely Indexed Memory Bank and the alien helmets made from solidified electricity (Ray Harryhausen himself claimed the credit for that last one). 

It goes without saying that when you see Ray Harryhausen’s name in the credits you expect that the special effects will be a major feature of the film and that they will be impressive. In this movie Harryhausen delivers the goods on both counts. The flying saucers really do look terrific. The amazing thing is that the largest models used were only a foot in diameter and yet they look much more convincing and much more sophisticated than any other attempts at that time to depict flying saucers.

This movie, like most low-budget sci-fi movies of its era, uses a lot of stock footage. The difference is that in this movie the stock footage is integrated into the action with extraordinary skill and in almost every case it’s been so carefully selected that it fits in perfectly. This film is an object lesson in how to use stock footage properly and effectively.

The climactic battle scenes, with flying saucers wreaking destruction on Washington and other cities while Dr Marvin’s new sound gun takes a toll on the saucers, are remarkably effective. The flying saucers look like they’re really there.

The Blu-Ray includes a number of extras including an audio commentary with Harryhausen himself and a couple of supposed experts who seem to know very little about their subject. Harryhausen though supplies a good deal of fascinating information on the making of the film and the creation of the special effects. The breath-taking simplicity of some of his techniques demonstrates that getting special effects right depends on skill and imagination rather than the popular modern approach of just throwing money at the problem.

While I listened to the audio commentary I forced myself to sit through the colorised version. I was not impressed. The colours look much too much like the colours in so many movies today - too drab and way too much blue and green toning. To my mind the black-and-white version looks fresher and brighter. The good news is that apart from the ill-advised colorisation the transfer is extremely good.

The biggest surprise is that Earth vs. the Flying Saucers works very well as a genuine science fiction action movie rather than an exercise in high camp. There is nothing of the so-bad-it’s-good quality to this movie. And there is no reason to be embarrassed by the special effects - they still look very impressive. Highly recommended.

1 comment:

SampleScience said...

Excellent review! For me, the color version looks very good and i like it better that way. It may be because I'm young, as most people seems to dislike colorized version of old classics.