Classics: Earth vs. The Flying Saucers

After the success of “Destination Moon” and “Rocketship X-M”, movie studios were anxious to produce a galaxy of science fiction movies. Consequently, the flood of “alien invasion” films that continued for the next 50 years taught audiences that special effects alone didn’t make a good movie.  Rather, a good yarn was needed to back amazing effects.  Fortunately, the 1956 film Earth Vs. the Flying Saucers provides both.

Without doubt, the most memorable aspect of this film are the saucers themselves, whose hulls spin above retractable rayguns on their underbellies that look like satellite dishes and spew intergalactic death. The saucers remain one of the grand early creations of special-effects guru Ray Harryhausen, better known for his stop-motion effects on Jason and the Argonauts, the Sinbad films, and Clash of the Titans. The effects were stunning for the time, including signature shots of dying saucers crashing into the Washington Monument and the Capitol dome.

The story had its origins while producer Charles Schneer, who had teamed with Ray Harryhausen for the 1955 It Came from Beneath the Sea, began clipping UFO stories from the newspapers after the rash of UFO sightings in July 1952. These were climaxed by a series of sightings over the Capitol dome that were observed by airline pilots and evaded reacting jet fighters.

Schneer consulted with retired Marine Corps Major Donald E. Keyhoe, author of the best-selling 1950 book “Flying Saucers are Real” and the 1955 book “The Flying Saucer Conspiracy” to create his story of hostile aliens invading Earth. At the time, the Roswell incident was a relative unknown in UFO lore and wasn’t included in the story.

The movie begins simply enough, with Dr. Russell A. Marvin (Hugh Marlowe), a rocket scientist, driving through the bleak desert to the base of Operation Sky Hook, a space program designed to launch satellites into Earth orbit.

He is accompanied by his new wife, Carol. Suddenly, there is a strange sound as their car is overflown by a flying saucer which circles them, then heads off into the sky. The pair continue to observe a rocket launch that is interrupted by the appearance of more saucers. Aliens appear behind a force field as the base security forces open fire. The invaders respond with lethal force leveling the base. Their intensions are clear!

In a key scene, Dr. Marvin manages to contact the aliens and arranges a meeting between the invaders and the leaders of Earth to allow the humans to universally surrender and avoid the pain of being conquered. They give the citizens of the world 60 days to comply.

Yet, the Earthlings don’t go down easily. Working with the resources of the Pentagon, in record time, Dr. Marvin builds a secret weapon with the help of Army specialists that will cripple the alien spacecraft. Before the aliens can completely destroy them, Dr. Marvin employs his invention to thwart the invasion and destroy the alien machines.

The movie was a smashing success with a pure storyline and unsurpassed effects that certified Ray Harryhausen’s name as the king of stop-motion animation. His creative technique of blending stock footage with animated clay figures was as revolutionary at the time as John Dykstra’s motion control system (Star Wars, Battlestar Galactica) would be – that effectively abolished all former spacecraft filming techniques.

Earth Vs. the Flying Saucers has since been remade in two very different ways. Ironically, both were released in the same year (1996). The first rendering came in the form of Independence Day. This film tried to embrace the horrific ideas of global destruction by an alien menace. The second effort, the far more jovial Mars Attacks, took a light-hearted look at the Earth Vs. the Flying Saucers story and all of its follow-on films.

Although the storyline and theme of both films are directly extracted from the same original source, the end products are remarkably different. This is demonstrated by the alien’s encounters with Washington D.C. In Independence Day, like the 1956 classic, alien spacecraft destroy the nation’s landmarks forcing a grim sense of doom on the viewer. In Mars Attacks, invading aliens meet with government leaders and make peace, only to then laugh and vaporize them all. In response, the American president (Jack Nicholson) comically assures the American population that their government is still operating in some fashion, despite the chuckling aliens searing away national leaders with their supersoaker ray guns.

– written by the Two-Brained Cylon