Wednesday, May 9, 2018


PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*

If it's true that Curt Siodmak, credited with "screen story" on IMDB was the first person to try figure out how to get a fictional tale out of Donald Keyhoe's non-fiction book FLYING SAUCERS FROM OUTER SPACE, one has to wonder how he approached the task. Ray Harryhausen presumably was charged with everything involved the saucers and their effects, but someone, whether it was Siodmak or producer Charles Schneer, had to decide the basics of the story. Personally, I think it's likely that someone took a close look at the 1953 box-office success THE WAR OF THE WORLDS and used it as a template, though there are some strong points of divergence between the two films.

In both films, aliens come to Earth in strange vessels and seek to conquer the planet. In the Wells-derived film, the Martians make no attempt to communicate whatsoever. In EARTH, the unnamed invaders initially seek to contact one human who heads an American space program, Operation Skyhook, whose main focus in the film consists of launching satellites around Earth. Doctor Russell Marvin and his new bride Carol are buzzed by a flying saucer, which bombards them with seemingly nonsensical sounds. Only by sheer luck-- the fact that the couple had been using a tape recorder around that time-- does Marvin later learn that the gibberish they heard was an appeal from the aliens to make first contact at Skyhook Base, but that the appeal was out-of-sync and therefore incomprehensible. As a result of the failed communication, the aliens land their saucer at Skyhook, but the military perceives them as threats and attacks, shooting one of the extraterrestrials. The other aliens strike back with devastating sonic beams and then take off, abducting one officer, General Hanley, who happens to be Carol's father.

By itself this opening gambit sounds like a setup for a story about "mankind victimizing misunderstood aliens," like another popular SF-film, 1951's THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL. Yet the 1957 EARTH is nothing of the kind, for after the aliens are repulsed, they lure Russell, Carol, and two other Earthmen into another meeting. The newcomers reveal that they are the last remnants of a race with no homeworld, so they've come to take over Earth. They also reveal that the fate of General Hanley, who has been reduced to little more than a walking corpse after having had his brain drained of pertinent information. Unlike the Wellsian Martians, these invaders offer humankind the chance to capitulate without violence. However, when one of the other Earthmen attacks an alien device, he meets the same fate as General Hanley. Russell reluctantly agrees to take the aliens' message to humankind, though it's actually his intention to thwart the conquest.

Some of these plot-contrivances don't track especially well. The aliens' first activity on Earth, long before Russell deciphers their failed message, is to shoot down all of Skyhook's satellites. Later the aliens make the feeble excuse that they mistook the satellites for weapons-- a mistake I find difficult to credit in a spacefaring race. The aliens' reasons for wanting to contact Russell in particular are weak at best, and their second mistake-- their inability to make their own message clear-- seems equally improbable, though it's admittedly a good writer's device for generating suspense about the aliens' motives. Their initially covert approach is explained as an attempt to keep from spreading "panic" among the Earth-people, but after the conference with Russell, the invaders don't seem the least bit concerned with keeping a low profile. I speculate that the only reason the writers chose the covert approach had nothing to do with consistent motivation, and everything to do with giving Russell Marvin an inside look at one of the saucers, so that he, alone among all Earthmen, would have some inside knowledge about how to defeat them.

Once the purpose of the flying saucers is known, Russell indeed proves the linchpin of the efforts to come up with alien-destroying weapons before the invaders attack. The invaders disclose that they can manipulate time to some extent, though it's never clear in what manner, and that most of their weapons have a basic in sonic technology, although their spacesuits are made of "solidified electricity." Thus Russell, aided by other scientists around the world (talked about but not seen), invents a sonic cannon. A test of the cannon brings down one saucer, and the humans get their first look at an alien without his suit, showing that the creature, somewhat after the fashion of the Wellsian Martians, is a humanoid with an attenuated appearance.

In any case, when the aliens launch their first concerted attack, Russell's cannons go into action, resulting in the great Harryhausen set-pieces, showing them the saucers falling from the sky-- though they also manage to take out a lot of American icons as they go down, demolishing the Capitol Building and the Washington Monument.

Given that all of the other characters are ciphers-- not least Carol's father, who only exists to get brain-drained and thus cause Carol grief-- Russell and Carol have to carry the burden of making the invasion relatable in a human sense. Hugh Marlowe is good within the limitations of the role, but Joan Taylor, though she's given some decent lines, doesn't ever get beyond the limitations of being the obedient hausfrau.

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