Although I wasn’t aware of it at the time, Ray Harryhausen made a huge impression on me when I was a kid. In 1981, I was obsessed with Clash of the Titans. I saw it no less than 5 times at the drive-in theater by my house (I even picked it over seeing Raiders of the Lost Ark, which I had not yet seen while I had already seen Titans 3 times by then). Sure, the mythological/fantasy plot of Titans was great storytelling, but what really appealed to me as a kid was its awesome special effects. Who could forget the terrible Medusa and the snakes on her head, the evil Calibos, or the Kraken? Years later, I learned that all this magic was attributable to the genius talents of Ray Harryhausen, one of the industry’s leading pioneers in the field of visual effects.

One of Harryhausen’s most famous films is a 1950’s sci-fi alien movie (what? Are you surprised I’m reviewing another one of these?) called Earth vs. The Flying Saucers. It follows a similar formula contained in most of the sci-fi films of the era. Aliens show up on Earth. A scientist discovers them. He tries to warn/notify skeptical authorities who discount him as a quack. The aliens finally attack or reveal themselves in some way that convinces everyone that they’re real. As I have discussed in recent posts, these films were an allegory for the xenophobia that was affecting the nation over Communism. The aliens represent the unfamiliar, terrifying threat of the Communists invading the American way of life. The scientist who everyone doubts stands for the paranoia that accompanied America’s xenophobia.

As I allude to above, what makes Earth vs. The Flying Saucers stand out among the many sci-fi films of the 50’s is Harryhausen’s special effects. Remarkable for their time, Harryhausen not only gave his audience cool-looking flying saucers, but he even created believable miniatures of famous landmarks that get destroyed by the UFOs. These effects are obviously dated and primitive compared to what you get in today’s visual effects movies, but I found myself still amazed by how far advanced they were compared to earlier films. When you know what to expect from a film like this, your brain somehow lowers your expectations for credibility and you enjoy the film more.

Flying Saucers also uses a lot of stock footage to effectively depict the military/alien battles. If a film today was to use stock footage, especially to the extent its used here, I would chalk it up to pure laziness. However, given the technology available then, showing military forces taking on alien spaceships was prohibitively expensive and probably impossible to create and show in a plausible manner. An interesting thing to note here is the use of stock footage of the explosion of the HMS Barham in WWII. It got me thinking of how unacceptable it would probably be today for a film to use stock footage of death and destruction from the Iraq War whereas it was obviously fine back then.

The plot in Flying Saucers is similar to other 50’s sci-fi stories, but it crafts its story at a larger and more ambitious scope. Many of the other sci-fi movies set their stories, I presume for budgetary reasons, in small towns whereas Flying Saucers takes place around the world, mainly in the U.S. Shots of different parts of the country are shown where UFO’s have been spotted and scenes were apparently shot in California and Washington, D.C. For a B-movie, this certainly felt more big-budget than it ought to have felt. The story reminded me a lot of Independence Day, which I’m sure was heavily influenced by this movie. Aliens attack famous landmarks just as they do in ID4 and the military futilely takes them on before the scientist invents a special weapon to defeat them. As the 1950’s was a time of great advances in science and technology for the United States, this is reflected in the characters’ dialogue. The scientist speaks with great optimism of what we are capable of in trying to beat the aliens. Relatedly, one of the film’s charms is seeing all the cutting-edge technology thats being employed by the characters to take on the aliens.

Earth vs. The Flying Saucers is clearly no Citizen Kane and its not meant to be. It stands tall among its brethren thanks to the pain-staking detail Harryhausen put into his effects. The whirring spaceships and the ray guns are still fun to watch. This is a goofy movie, but it set the stage for later Harryhausen spectacles like Jason and the Argonauts, The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, Mysterious Island, and my beloved Clash of the Titans. This is a great film to watch for any science-fiction fan and for anyone interested in the pop culture of the 1950s.

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