Drive-in Week: “Earth vs. the Flying Saucers” (1956)

September 15, 2008

Welcome to “Drive-In Week” here at The Flickering Screen where we take a look back at some of the classic monster movies from that golden age of crap cinema, the 1950s. Why? Because it’s my blog and I’ll do what I want. So settle in, hepcats and hepkittens, because it’s (roughly) a week of jukeboxes, sock-hops, tail fins, poodle skirts, and invaders from outer space. And you don’t get much more 1950s than our first installment, daddy-o: Earth vs. the Flying Saucers.

The title’s a bit of a misnomer, since most of the earth really doesn’t do squat against the flying saucers. It’s all the USA, baby, but I guess America vs. the Flying Saucers seemed like bragging. Anyway, no point in getting too wrapped around the axle on that point. EvtFS begins by assuring us that reports of unidentified flying objects have come in from all corners of the globe, from “the hills of California to the rice paddies of the Orient” (ah, the good ol’ Orient and its rice paddies…). The movie then kicks into gear when newlyweds Dr. Russell Marvin (Hugh Marlowe) and his wife Carol (Joan Taylor) are buzzed by a flying saucer as they’re driving home from the church. Well, ain’t that the damndest thing, they think and carry on.

Russ is scientist with “Project Skyhook”, a government initiative to launch a series of satellites into orbit to help “facilitate man’s entry into space.” I don’t know what that means either. Anyway, Russ is a little anxious, since his satellites keeping coming crashing out of space. What could be causing this? And is it related to the ball-lightning they keep seeing? Why yes, now that you ask. Russ learns this the hard way when the next day’s satellite launch is interrupted—and demolished—by the appearance of a (wait for it) flying saucer, which spits out a couple of klunky-suited aliens that proceed to blast everything in sight.

The aliens also kidnap Carol’s father (Morris Ankrum), who happens to be a general involved in the Skyhook program. Aboard the spaceship, the general learns that the aliens were actually trying to communicate with Russ and Carol when they buzzed his car. That’s the good news. The bad news is that what they were trying to say basically amounts to “Surrender or die.”

Oh yeah, they also probe the general’s mind (in a cool special effect for the ’50s) and learn everything about everything that has to do with the American war machine. Makes it easier when they begin their attack. The rest goes down about how you’d expect: the aliens whoop military ass, while Russ and a couple of other egg-headed scientists figure out a way to bring the saucers down.

Earth vs. the Flying Saucers is practically the quintessential ‘50s sci-fi movie, but what a great example it is. Sure, the characters are cardboard-thin, but it’s a fast, fun story wrapped in enough dated pseudoscience to do the job. Harryhausen has said that this was his least favorite film, yet it’s also a knockout. His flying saucers are nothing short of iconic—witness their cameo in the latest Indiana Jones movie—and the stop-motion effects of the battle for Washington D.C. still stand up. Ironically, EvtFS has an almost laughably cavalier attitude toward the onscreen destruction. Along with wantonly destroying numerous national landmarks, much of the damage is caused by crashing spaceships (the scene in which an out-on-control saucer slices through the Washington Monument and sends it falling onto a Boy Scout troop made me fall in love with this movie when I was 11). I suppose ten years after World War Two, America didn’t get too worked up over a little collateral damage.

The movie is also very clearly an Eisenhower-era movie product. Let’s see here? Everyone smoking? Check. Hero married to his secretary? Check. Everyone drinking? Check. Flying saucers? Check. Unwavering faith in the military-industrial complex? Check. Ray Harryhausen sfx? Check. But aside from the obvious, there is also the unflagging belief in capital-P progress as our greatest enemy against the unknown. The movie has its military-fetish side, but it’s science (imagine that echoing) that wins the day. A year later, Sputnik would be launched, and America’s response would be to completely restructure its educational system to prioritize science and mathematics for the new “space age.” Now, we stand on verge of electing a VP who denies the existence of global warming and pushed her schools to teach creationism. Where are the goddamn flying saucers when you really need them?

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