|Earth vs. the Flying Saucers|
|Written by Bill Warren|
|Tuesday, 17 September 2002|
The movie was, however, a low-budget production from Sam Katzman's division at Columbia, and was not released with any special fanfare. It did well enough at the boxoffice to allow a somewhat higher budget for the next film ("Twenty Million Miles to Earth") from producer Charles H. Schneer and effects maestro Ray Harryhausen. And it has been given a snazzy treatment in this new DVD.
This was the only one of Harryhausen's effects features to not feature creatures brought to life by his stop-motion animation technique. Instead, very inventively, he applied the same technique to the flying saucers arriving here from outer space. He even animated Washington landmarks as they're smashed by the flying saucers, building braces to support each collapsing building fragment. The result is vivid and lively; at times, the grim, purposeful flying saucers seem more alive -- literally -- than the human cast. In a forest fire sequence, the cast is reduced to running on a treadmill in front of a rear-screen conflagration; compared to the saucers moving through the blazing trees, the people look artificial, even phony.
Harryhausen used saucers of several sizes; for near shots, the models were bigger than for shots of the saucers at a distance, but both had counter-rotating rings, one on the upper surface, one beneath, that suggested a power source. The saucers are highly mobile, tilting frequently as they zip around the screen, or moving in threatening straight lines. They're overall the best flying saucers ever done in movies, certainly the best of the 1950s (though Klaatu's saucer in "The Day the Earth Stood Still" is pretty cool, too).
While the saucers alone make "Earth vs." well worth watching, the movie otherwise is fairly ordinary for 1950s science fiction. It's weakly structured, with most of the effects confined to an opening attack on an air base, and the climactic showdown in Washington, D.c. By the time George Worthing Yates and Bernard Gordon (fronted by Raymond T. Marcus) wrote the screenplay, Harryhausen's effects had either all been done, or were locked in place. This limited the script, but certainly there was no reason to include a lengthy scene of examining the armor of the aliens from the saucer. It has no story function at all, although it is similar to a scene in "War of the Worlds." (In the late 1940s, Harryhausen tried to rouse interest in a movie of "War of the Worlds," and shot some test footage of the Martians, but nothing came of this. At least, not until "Earth vs. the Flying Saucers.")
The cast is adequate, with familiar 1950s SF faces turning up: Hugh Marlowe was in "The Day the Earth Stood Still," and both Morris Ankrum and Thomas Browne Henry were in several 1950s SF thrillers. But the movie isn't about the cast; it's about the flying saucers, and Joe Dante knew it.
The director interviews Harryhausen in one of the supplemental featurettes, handling one of the saucer models in front of the miniature of the destroyed U.S. Capitol building. The camera is locked down, but there are cutaways to illustrative material from the feature itself, pointing out particular elements, such as Harryhausen's masterful control of lighting of his animated models. As always, both Dante and Harryhausen come across very well.
The other two featurettes have been included on, it seems, all of Columbia's home video releases of Harryhausen films. One is an excellent documentary by Richard Schickel on Harryhausen, the other is a promotion film, "This is Dynamation," made for "The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad." (And inapplicable here, since Harryhausen had yet to begin using his "sandwich" of Dynamation.)
The print is excellent, letterboxed to 1.85:1, although in 1955, some theaters were probably still showing movies like this at the old Academy aperture of 1.33:1. It looks terrific, the sound effects are rendered in mono very effectively, including the eerie sounds of the saucers. (Which we learn from the Harryhausen-and-Dante short is the sound of sewage gushing through piping.)
It's taken Columbia a long while to get around to releasing Harryhausen's movies on DVD, but they're giving the films pretty good treatment, nonetheless (although the box illustrations are usually pretty lousy). So many people have spent so much frustrated time trying to track down videos or TV showings of movies such as "Earth vs. the Flying Saucers" that it's great to now have it so readily available.
Ray Harryhausen is one of the few great effects people still alive to accept the acclaim for his long-ago work. Movies today still pay him homage, such as the big arena battle in the most recent Star Wars movies: it's a deliberate Harryhausen sequence, using CGI rather than stop motion. Too often pioneers like Harryhausen have died before they received their due tributes; it's great that he's lasted long enough to know what a powerful influence he's had.