Thursday, June 23, 2016

Cardboard Science: Take that, George Washington!


Ray Harryhausen codifies alien invasion cinema with this sub-classic from the middle of the 1950s, tying in everything you thought you knew about UFOs into one spectacular package, gifted with some of the very best special effects of the whole era—though you routinely wish there were a whole lot more of them.

Directed by Fred F. Sears
Written by Curt Siodmak, George Worthing Yates, and Bernard Gordon (based on the book Flying Saucers From Outer Space by Donald Keyhoe)
With Hugh Marlowe (Dr. Russell Marvin), Joan Taylor (Carol Marvin nee Hanley), Donald Curtis (Maj. Huglin), Morris Ankum (Brig. Gen. John Hanley), and Paul Frees (The Voice of the Saucermen)

Spoiler alert: moderate

"This exploitation programmer does a satisfactory job of entertaining in the science-fiction class," said Variety in 1956, and you rarely see more apt and accurate praise.  Earth vs. the Flying Saucers has its strengths, however, and aside from a few cool stray ideas let loose by the screenplay—that are mainly interesting in their sheer goofiness—most of Flying Saucers' charms are bound up principally in the work of Ray Harryhausen, the master of stop-motion photography, and the man who could plausibly claim to be the most famous special effects artist in the history of cinema.  It is not his most technically-demanding work; it is not his best; but it's absolutely one of his most memorable efforts, because despite the preexisting "non-fiction" material it was already building upon, Flying Saucers puts two things together that simply hadn't been put together before, but would hereafter stick like glue to the underside of America's collective imagination forever: the image of spinning alien discs, and the image of those selfsame discs blasting the living shit out of some recognizable landmarks.  Years and years later, the impulses that guided this film would take on a new life in a new era, and become Independence Day.  So it's not too much to say that it's a legitimately indispensable piece of motion picture history.  (And if you don't think that the arrival of Independence Day Resurgence has anything to do with this look back at some of the alien invasion spectacles of yesterday, then I simply don't know what to tell you.)

Either way, the thing that'll probably surprise you about this seminal film—or at least I assume it will surprise you, since it sure as hell always surprises me, and I've seen this movie somewhere between three and eight times—is just how precious little Earth vs. flying saucer action there actually is in this movie named Earth vs. the Flying Saucers.  The seriously good stuff is contained almost entirely within the last ten or so minutes of the film, and, if you want to get really critical, most of the destruction that this alien invasion causes is actually the result of the aliens crashing into things after the humans disable their ships, rather than the aliens blowing it up on purpose.

Which is not to say, mind you, that this movie doesn't have a nice big death toll.

The story, meanwhile, is practically a template that someone only half filled-out: Dr. Russell Marvin (a sensitive, half-commie scientist) and his new wife, Carol (a woman), have returned to the U.S. Air Force's Project Skyhook after their honeymoon, ready to get back to the important business of shooting objects into space for the national security.  The curious thing is that Russell's artificial "moons" or "satellites"—those scare quotes are almost without a doubt in the original script—keep falling out of orbit.  But as General Hanley—Carol's father—learns in Panama, they're actually getting shot out of the sky, sent back to Earth as fiery shells.  But by whom?

We already know the answer to that fateful question, thanks to the opening montage, complete with a standard-issue stentorian narrator, which has shown us exactly what we're facing—alien saucermen from beyond the stars.

Those saucermen do a fly-by of Russell and Carol while they're out for a drive, but leave them with no evidence other than a very odd tape recording of the flying saucer's strange sounds.  Russell doesn't see any need to cancel his important Skyhook-related activities, however, until a flying saucer lands squat in the middle of his base, smashing everything to pieces when base security precipitously responds to the alien incursion with violence.  Now buried beneath the Earth by the aliens' action, this leaves the two newlyweds with a lot of time to consider asphyxiation, but also to play their tape over and over, which they at last learn—a little too late—was a message in English from the saucermen, only delivered at 100 times the speed of normal voice.

Well, in the meantime, General Hanley's been captured and had his brain uploaded into the alien memory banks.  And soon, the aliens, by abducting Russell and Carol—not to mention their USAF handler, Maj. Huglin, and some random police officer—make their intentions fully known at last.  It is with these revelations that Russell abandons his crypto-weenie stance, and becomes a Real American: you see, these beings have traveled from their dying world to resettle upon a living one—namely ours, of course!—and the only reason they don't simply annihilate us from orbit is because they want to keep the planet below healthy.  Plus, they reckon that all us primitive screwheads will make an excellent race of slaves.

The rest of the film is the science-based struggle to come up with ideas to beat the aliens: ultimatums are delivered, time to prepare is granted, and Russell and Carol and some other scientists whose names I didn't quite catch work some genuine miracles in their lab, finally coming up with a new wonder weapon, even though the aliens interrupt them with surveillance and, ultimately, a rather half-hearted attack.

As you can possibly guess, the problem with Flying Saucers is that it never, ever fully breaks away from the impression that these ancient and powerful alien conquerors are concerned almost exclusively with following two or three people around and harassing them; even in the very end, it's Russell himself doing most of the shooting with his newfangled hypersonic gun that interferes with the saucers' operation and grants humanity its chance for survival, and essentially zero action occurs outside the (famous part of the) District of Columbia.  The film is necessarily much smaller than it really ought to be, then, considering that it depicts a large alien fleet that has deployed itself all across the globe, ready to spring into action at any time.  (At one point, it's implied that they blow up the surface of the sun, in order to overawe us into surrender.  And yet their timetable never changes—not even when they become aware of Russell's new weapon!)  On the plus side, the procedural elements are all quite charming enough, and (more importantly) gotten through quickly enough that you're never very bored with them, at least not for very long.

The film throws a fair few humdinger sci-fi concepts into the mix, too.  I've mentioned the brain scan machine, but what I've only barely alluded to is the incredibly bizarre conceit that the aliens' faster-than-light propulsion system works by actually slowing down time.  The saucermen demonstrate their chronal mastery by advising Russell and Carol to check their watches—and their pulses!—which they learn, to their great and rather understandable shock, have actually stopped.  That this makes no sense at all never seemed to occur to anybody—and maybe that's precisely why it's so lovable.

But, yes, there's a real deficit of saucers making landmarks explode, especially for someone raised on Emmerich.  The most the aliens manage to blow up during the film's first hour are a military base, a laboratory, and a U.S. Navy destroyer—and that sounds like a fair amount, although it's relatively underwhelming in the execution, especially the destroyer, which is delivered pre-exploded via stock footage of the HMS Barnham.  This means we get the nauseating spectacle of watching 862 people actually die while we're trying to enjoy our stupid alien movie; nor is this the last time that Harryhausen and director Peter Sears' stock footage is distinguishable from Faces of Death solely because the camera isn't close enough to register the mangled human bodies.  I'll say this—almost all of Flying Saucers' copious stock footage is technically well-integrated, and you can't be too big a crybaby about this stuff, but there's just no getting around its general unpleasantness if you're over the age of eight.

And, by pure accident, it seems I have identified my problem.

Ah, but the flying saucers themselves are works of real movie magic: just looking at their clean modernist lines, and watching their neverending circular wings spin around as they fly, is absolutely delightful all on its own.  It's not Harryhausen's best work, I said, but it honestly might be his most elegant, and the illusion is completed with the kind of expert optical compositing that kind-of sort-of holds up to this very day.  (In fact, it's frankly more convincing than some of the digital matting you'll see in a fair few of the huge-budget blockbusters that have come out in 2016.)  Meanwhile, J.S. Westmoreland et al's sound design gives them precisely the right otherworldly trill to make them pop right into life.  And, obviously, it's more than just fun—and a lot more than merely satisfactory—to witness Earth vs. the Flying Saucers climactic parade of iconography in the final act.  The aliens' assault upon the District of Columbia is the stuff that dreams are made of—and all the schematic characters and undercooked plots in the whole wide world can never change that.

Score:  7/10

That which is indistinguishable from magic:
  • You know, human neurons run on "time," too.  It's so batty it feels like it came out of a Silver Age comic book.
  • The brain scanner works like this!:
  • The solution to our alien woes is just so much pseudoscientific gobblydegook, starting the trend that shall never, ever die.
The morality of the past, in the future!:
  • In the 1950s, aliens played a lot fairer with deadlines than you would honestly expect.
  • Sure, marry your secretary!  I'm sure there aren't any weird power dynamics at play there and she actually loves you.  P.S. you score extra points if she's twenty years younger than you and really hot.
  • Those saucers!
  • The incorporation of all the classic alien tropes into one package gives Flying Saucers a definitive sensawunda: the dying planet; the atrophied bodies straight out of H.G. Wells; the disc-like shape of the UFOs; and, of course, the unexpected (that is, totally expected but narratively-unearned) triumph of human ingenuity.

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