Ray Harryhausen Retrospective: Earth vs. the Flying Saucers (1956)

earth-vs-the-flying-saucers Background: In July 1952, pilots and air traffic controllers at both Washington National Airport and Andrews Air Force Base reported fireballs and strange lights in the sky above the nation’s capital. Airport radar detected seven unidentified flying objects that moved completely unlike any earthly aircraft. Combined with Cold War tensions, these sightings caused a media frenzy, as newspapers around the country published stories about flying saucers. The public reaction to these stories lead military higher-ups to hold a major press conference at the Pentagon: Major General John Samford, the Air Force Director of Intelligence, explained that the sightings were really natural phenomena. More than sixty years later, fringe theorists continue to use the incidents as evidence of alien visitors.

Columbia producer Charles H. Schneer took notice of the public interest in UFO’s – and, doubtlessly, the success of films like The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) and The War of the Worlds (1953) – and decided to make a flying saucer picture of his own. Besides Ray Harryhausen, who he brought back to do the visual effects, Schneer also hired b-movie journeyman Fred F. Sears to director and The Wolfman (1941) writer Curt Siodmak to work on the screenplay. Haryhausen’s copious research into UFO sightings led him to meet and interview people who claimed to have been abducted by aliens. Drawing from this, he designed and built both the alien spaceships and the Washington landmarks that they so memorably destroy. flying saucers Plot Introduction: The US Air Force prepares for manned spaceflight with Operation Skyhook, a project that uses satellites to gather data on the upper atmosphere. Alien visitors, however, misinterpret the satellites as offensive weapons and shoot them out of the sky as a prelude to their assault on earth. The aliens land at a military base and use their advanced weapons to kill everyone except for Skyhook direction Dr. Russell Marvin (Hugh Marlowe) and his wife Carol (Joan Taylor.) Shortly thereafter, the Marvins and several others are abducted by the aliens and tasked with setting up peace negotiations between the extraterrestrials and leaders of the world; as one might imagine, the human race is unwilling to surrender. Dr. Marvin analyzes captured alien technology and creates a sonic weapon that he hopes will prove effective against the invaders. The final showdown takes place in Washington D.C., where Marvin’s weapons cause the aliens to lose control of their spaceships and crash into various landmarks. earth vs. flying saucers My Thoughts: Last time, I marveled at the fact that Ray Harryhausen’s sophomore effort was released on a double bill with a film called Creature With the Atom Brain: a film with that title could have only come from the 1950’s or an attempt at 1950’s retro cool. Earth vs. the Flying Saucers, however,has to be the most sublimely kitschy fifties movie title – it’s completely absurd and high-concept to the point where I really didn’t need to write a plot introduction at all. Fortunately, Harryhausen and Schneer crafted a fun, fast- paced science fiction flick that lives up to its amazing title. Because Columbia continued to provide Harryhausen and Schneer with shoestring budgets (on the DVD commentary, Harryhausen estimated that the production cost well under $300,000), they and director Fred F . Sears wisely choose to play Earth vs. the Flying Saucers as camp. While it shares the same basic plot structure as Harryhausen’s previous films, the script peppers its live-action scenes with ridiculous pseudoscience – the extraterrestrials wear suits made of “solidified electricity” and can remove minds from bodies, leaving the unfortunate human in a zombie-like state – and silly alien voices. (The aliens are voiced by Paul Frees, best known as the narrator of Disney’s Haunted Mansion.) Hugh Marlowe explains the alien technology like Adam West’s Batman solving one of the Riddler’s riddles: in one scene, he exclaims “of course!” and launches into an unbroken stream of technobabble.

Due to budget constraints, the aliens had to be men in suits instead of Harryhausen creatures, which adds another source of possibly intentional humor. It’s painfully clear that there only two aliens on screen at any one time because that’s how many costumes they had. On that note, the supposedly advanced extraterrestrials often behave in completely idiotic ways; during the assault on the Air Force base, one of them steps outside the flying saucer’s protective force field and is immediately shot and killed. Besides adding some much-needed humor, the screenplay (along with editor Danny D. Landres, who seamlessly merges live-action, stock footage, and special effects shots) helps the film flow better by cutting out the obligatory romantic subplot: the two leads are already married when the film begins. Because of this, the human story never detracts from the science fiction plot like it did in It Came From Beneath the Sea. 

Despite the lack of actual stop-motion creatures, Harryhausen’s visual effects are a new personal best. Deprived of his signature technique (creature animation), Harryhausen had to use all of his creativity to bring the alien invaders to life. Although the disintegration rays and protective force fields both look fantastic by 1956 standards, the titular flying saucers are the reason to watch the film. Desperate to prevent the spaceships from looking like “boring lumps of metal,” Harryhausen designed the saucers so that the top and bottom halves rotate in opposite directions, a design feature that gives them a suitably otherworldly feel. When the aliens lose control and the saucers start to wobble and veer off course, the viewer never thinks of them as merely models on wire. In both The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms and It Came From Beneath the Sea, Harryhausen simulated the destruction of buildings by painstakingly animating pieces of rubble on wire, a technique that he uses extensively here. As Richard Scheib, one of my favorite internet film critics, writes, “Harryhausen’s vandalistic fantasies reached their absolute apotheosis in Earth vs. the Flying Saucers.

Although he worked on the visual effects by himself, Harryhausen gets a lot of help from the sound design. Besides Paul Frees’ alien voices, the flying saucers sound unearthly (Harryhausen’s book reveals that it’s really modified noise from a sewage treatment plant!) and the ping when bombs bounce off of their force fields wouldn’t be out of place in Star Wars.  Along with Forbidden PlanetRodan, and Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Earth vs. the Flying Saucers is a major reason why 1956 was such an important year for science fiction cinema. It has also proven to be one of Harryhausen’s most influential films, predating Independence Day (1996) by forty years and directly inspiring Mars Attacks! (1996.) For a perfect illustration of how groundbreaking Harryhausen was, just compare his work to the visual effects in director Fred F. Sears’ next effort, The Giant Claw (1957); that film’s monstrous bird is truly something you’d expect to see on Mystery Science Theater 3000. With Ray Harryhausen, you can never see the wires.

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