Ray Harryhausen Spotlight: Earth vs. the Flying Saucers

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It’s week two of my spotlight on special effects legend Ray Harryhausen. Last week I discussed his work on Jason and the Argonauts, including the iconic skeleton fight sequence. This week we go from Greek gods and monsters to aliens. Yes, this week I’m spotlighting Earth vs. the Flying Saucers (1956). The 1950s brought us many great science fiction b-movies. This was one of them.

Alien invasion movies generally involve aliens who want to make friends with us (E.T.) or aliens that want to wipe out the human race (War of the Worlds). Earth vs. the Flying Saucers falls into the latter category. Rockets sent up to explore the possibility of future space flights suddenly disappear. The answer? Aliens.

Dr. Russell Marvin (Hugh Marlowe) heads up Operation Skyhook, which is tasked with sending rockets into the upper atmosphere to probe suitability for future space flights. Unfortunately, all the rockets somehow disappear. While investigating this strange occurrence, Russell and his new wife Carol (Joan Taylor) are abducted by a flying saucer. The aliens demand to meet with certain people in order to negotiate. It turns out to be a ruse. The Martians only want to kill them. The invasion has begun and if Russell and Carol can’t find a way to stop these creatures by getting past their defenses, it may be the end of the human race.–IMDB

The aliens don’t really want us to take them to our leader. They just want to kill us all. The cultural exchange program of Close Encounters this is not. That’s the bad news. The good news is that the special effects for 1956 are pretty good. While Ray Harryhausen considered it his least favorite film, his work here is definitely worthy of study.

Earth vs. the Flying Saucers is notable for being the last film to use one style of animation. As Internet Movie Database notes:

This was the last movie in which Ray Harryhausen used stop-motion to create collapsing buildings. He said it was too much work.–IMDB

That’s kind of a shame because Harryhausen was so good at it. But thankfully he was so inventive that he kept leaving his mark on modern movies. Anyone that’s seen Tim Burton’s film Mars Attacks! and goes back to watch Earth vs. the Flying Saucers will see similarities, especially in the way the look of the UFOs and the general plot. Earth vs. the Flying Saucers, while a b-movie, influenced a whole generation of science fiction films.

While the plot of Earth vs. the Flying Saucers is formulaic, the special effects work is not. First, there’s the design of the aliens. Most science fiction films today show aliens as looking very human. In this film, they have metal suits and weird helmets. When the helmets come off, their faces have this creepy mangled, melted look. The creatures look nothing like us and they do not come in peace. The design adds to the paranoid feel of the film.

The other noteworthy effects are the UFOs, especially at the end when they crash into government buildings in Washington, D.C. at the end. While the scenes may look a little cheesy to us today in the age of ILM, they were impressive for the time. There’s an impressive sequence of a flying saucer attacking a jet. I learned from Internet Movie Database that it was based on footage of an airshow crash.

But, as I mentioned, the real stars of this film are the scenes at the end of the attack on Washington, D.C. The UFO’s go after the U.S. Capitol Building, the Supreme Court, the Washington Monument…basically every essential D.C. landmark. The model work is more detailed than you might expect for 1956. The buildings are obviously models, but when they get struck by the flying saucers, there’s a realism that you don’t expect in special effects of that time. That’s why Ray Harryhausen continues to be so highly regarded. His effects could overcome even the most predictable plot lines. Watching his imagination at work is something to behold.

Earth vs. the Flying Saucers isn’t the best film Ray Harryhausen worked on. But it’s a fun b-movie, and he’s a major reason why. The creepy look of the aliens and his stop motion UFO attack sequences make it a good popcorn movie. Other films have had bigger budgets and more advanced effects, but not nearly as much imagination.

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