“Keep watching the skies” was the call for action at the end of The Thing from Another World, but for most of the 1950s, science fiction menaces came in a decidedly different fashion. Those threats would emerge from beneath the oceans, out of the southwest deserts where nuclear testing was being performed, or would covertly creep in out of the shadows lining Main Street, Small Town, USA. The threat of an overt attack on a major capitol loomed over The Day the Earth Stood Still, but the film was ultimately a message of peace, not a story of invasion. In American science fiction films, there really were only two full scale alien invasion films before Independence Day and Mars Attacks! The first was the classic The War of the Worlds (1953), a film which Independence Day clearly draws influence from. The second is the B-picture, Earth vs. the Flying Saucers, a film which clearly influenced Mars Attacks!
The plot of Earth vs. the Flying Saucers is entirely perfunctory. Scientist Dr. Russell Marvin (Hugh Marlowe) is launching satellites into Earth orbit as part of his operation Skyhook. Problem is that they’re disappearing. After a highway encounter with a flying saucer on the highway with his new bride Carol (Joan Taylor), aliens land at the base during one of his scheduled rocket launches. Carol’s General father (Morris Ankrum) attacks the aliens as they emerge from the flying saucer, but their magnetic force field prevents all attacks and the aliens lay waste to the rocket base. Afterwards, Dr. Marvin finds on a tape recording which slowed down reveals that the aliens were trying to contact him. Ultimately he meets up with the aliens who demand that Earth surrender and gives the Earth two months to make a decision. Dr. Marvin instead sets out to develop a sonic cannon that will disrupt their magnetic fields. The aliens try to stop Dr. Marvin in a fiery sequence, but Marvin escapes and his cannon proves effective. Finally there’s a big battle centered on Washington D.C. with the sonic cannon proving to be the key to defeating the invaders.
It’s more tonally consistent than a film like Independence Day, but not particularly smarter. The screenplay by fantasy veteran Kurt Siodmak fits in a couple of science fiction concepts such as the aliens existing in a different “time reference” than the inhabitants of Earth to lend some science fiction color to the proceedings, but the plot is straightforward and there’s not much character to anyone. The film is really as straight forward as its title.
Earth vs. the Flying Saucers is clearly meant to be a knockoff of The War of the Worlds and there’s little in the plot, dialogue, acting, or themes that would ensure any lasting impact. That the film remains a delightful romp rests on the many charms of Ray Harryhausen’s special effects. Harryhausen had wanted to make War of the Worlds for a long time and when he lost out on that opportunity this must have been seen as a nice fallback.
Without a doubt, Harryhausen created the best looking flying saucers ever put on film. There’s a still central area and outer rings which rotate in one direction on top of the saucer and in the opposite direction on the bottom. The result is one of the best looking flying saucer designs ever put on film. Even just hovering in place, they’re inherently interesting. The saucers also have a slightly phallic looking ray gun which emerges from the ship and provides a nice variety of actions associated with the ships.
The flying saucers also have a surprising amount of personality as they dip and change direction frequently. Harryhausen concentrated on creatures for most of his career where some suggestion of emotion could be read into the features. It must have been a particular challenge to Harryhausen and his crew to imbue some semblance of intelligence guiding these creations and it’s a triumph for all involved that they succeeded despite the obvious limitations.
One of the keys for making a convincing special effect is lighting. The failure to pay attention to lighting is why CGI costing millions frequently fails to be convincing. Earth vs. the Flying Saucers is a particular triumph in that regard. Easily the highlight is a sequence featuring the flying saucers flying amidst a forest fire with the light flickering and illuminating the saucers in an entirely convincing manner. The fact that they had to repaint the wires supporting the saucers between each shot as they changed in respect to the background, animated the saucers, and created a realistic flicker effect is a testament to everyone’s dedication to their craft. The saucers look more part of the scene than the people fleeing from the fire which is clearly a rear projection shot. It also work’s as Harryhausen effectively blends his saucers with stock footage, creating scenes of destruction which occurred in real life but which now appear to be caused by the invaders.
The most famous sequence is, undoubtedly, the grand finale with the flying saucers attacking Washington D.C. and the army deploying sonic weapons to fight the invaders. The Washington Monument is destroyed, which Tim Burton clearly references in Mars Attacks!, a saucer crashes into Union Station, and, as a climax, the Capitol building is destroyed. War of the Worlds ends with the invaders being defeated by germs which is well conceived but perhaps understated. The 1950s produced only one grand alien invasion climatic battle and it’s entirely due to Harryhausen’s vision and craft. It’s not a particularly smart film, but it is a ton of fun.
That might particularly sum up Harryhausen’s appeal. Whatever else you may say about these films, they clearly had a man with a tremendous amount of skill behind the camera creating these visual wonders. These weren’t films made by committees and people manipulating pixels, but by a few individuals who put their effort, sweat, and fingerprints on film in a meticulous fashion. There was only one Ray Harryhausen and his effects are instantly recognizable not just for their craft but for their personality. A personality that was consistent from film to film. Ray Harryhausen may not be an auteur in the traditional sense, but there’s undoubtedly such a thing as a Ray Harryhausen film.