It's as good as B-movies get.

James Plath's picture

As Tim Burton sits in the home of legendary stop-motion wizard Ray Harryhausen and holds one of the models from "Earth vs. the Flying Saucers" (1956), he quips, "You got more personality out of this than some of the actors."


But it's true. Baby Boomers who grew up with Harryhausen's stop-motion monsters went to the movies to see his latest concoctions, not to soak up whatever shallow plot was offered, and certainly not to see the actors--most of whom we couldn't name.

Harryhausen pioneered a technique he dubbed Dynamation, which split the background and foreground so that the stop-motion could be "sandwiched." Fans, meanwhile, are split on which of Harryhausen's films offers the best special effects: "Jason and the Argonauts" (1963), "The Golden Voyage of Sinbad" (1974), or "Clash of the Titans" (1981). Not surprisingly, it has to do with what decade they grew up in. "Jason and the Argonauts," with its skeleton fight that had to have been the inspiration for the bony battles in Disney's first "Pirates of the Caribbean" movie, gets my vote. But let's not forget that Harryhausen's genre was the B-movie. They were produced on the cheap and written to be mildly entertaining vehicles for no-name actors. It was Harryhausen who helped those B-movies make the grade.

Harryhausen collaborated with "King Kong" stop-motion animator Willis O'Brien on a 1949 variation, "Mighty Joe Young," and went solo four years later with "The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms." Baby Boomers will most remember Harryhausen for a string of films that came in the '50s and early '60s--campy sci-fi flicks like "It Came from Beneath the Sea" (1955), "Earth vs. the Flying Saucers" (1956), "20 Million Miles to Earth" (1957), "The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad" (1958), "Mysterious Island" (1961), and, of course, old Jason and his Argonaut buddies.

So does "Earth vs. the Flying Saucers" still fly?

Surprisingly, yes. Harryhausen's special effects, which were better integrated throughout the entire film than in "It Came from Beneath the Sea," along with a better-than-average script really elevate this B-movie. It was slightly campy when it first came out, and it's hilariously campy now--but not because it's so BAD. Rather, "Earth vs. the Flying Saucers" is a hoot because of the naïvete displayed and Harryhausen's then-innovative but now bargain-basement effects. The acting, for a B-movie, isn't bad at all, and the tone is such that we can believe that these people believe what they're thinking and saying--though now, it seems like a Fifties' time-capsule of quaintly antiquated thought (and paranoia).

Hugh Marlowe feels like a regular "Father Knows Best" as Dr. Russell Marvin, the head of the Department of Defense's "Operation Skyhook," which is charged with launching missile probes into space to determine the feasibility of future flights. But all of the probes are exploding in space, and the doctor doesn't think it's the atmosphere. Rather than a long and talky build-up to the saucers, which was typical of sci-fi films from this period, we get a surprisingly quick appearance by one of Harryhausen's creations. As Dr. Marvin and his new bride Carol (Joan Taylor) drive along, they're buzzed and bumped by one of the saucers. And it turns out that what Dr. Marvin thought was St. Elmo's Fire was really flashes of aliens who had come to Earth in their saucers because they misinterpreted those space probes as an act of war.

It wasn't a bad instinct for these aliens to have, because when one of the saucers lands and the creatures (in suits that look fresh out of "Buck Rogers" or "Flash Gordon"), though they may have come in peace and do nothing menacing, what's the first impulse of the Americans on the ground? Blast the bastards! And that does, indeed, start a war that's a precursor to "Independence Day." In fact, if you like that 1996 film, you might appreciate the way Harryhausen handled the alien attack on Washington, D.C. When some of the Americans are taken up into a saucer, you'll also have flashbacks to "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," which found Americans far less pugnacious and more communicative. And when the aliens knowledge-sucking device kicks into gear, and you get the explanation of their "translation device," it also might remind you of the old (and equally campy) "Lost in Space" TV series. In any event, it's great fun, and as B-movies go, not that bad!

This combined color/b&w version replaces the previous release. While the liner notes says it was "remastered in High Definition," I can't tell the difference in level of detail between this release and the previous one. If anything, the print looks slightly darker this time around. I thought it looked better colorized than in black & white, and once again Legend Films gives us a solid, natural-looking color version. Nice job, guys. The film is presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen.

The soundtrack comes with 2.0 Mono in English, Portuguese, Spanish, and French, along with a beefed-up English Dolby Digital 5.1 which almost seems a little over-processed, given the whole B-movie nature of the beast. But the sound is clear with little distortion, and subtitles in English, French, Portuguese, and Spanish.

There's some overlapping here with "20 Million Miles to Earth" and "It Came from Beneath the Sea," which are also newly released in two-disc color/b&w sets. It's always a treat listening to Harryhausen talk about his work, and he takes center stage on the full-length commentary track that he shares with visual effects artists Jeffrey Okun, Ken Ralston, and Arnold Kunert. "Remembering 'Earth vs. the Flying Saucers'" shows Harryhausen on-camera with his model, explaining how he did the stop-motion (the highlight of this otherwise routine look back). "The Hollywood Blacklist and Bernard Gordon" is a mini lecture by a member of the writer's guild about the blacklist-where it came from, what happened, etc. For those who don't know anything about the blacklist it will be a useful primer; for the rest, it's a snooze. But the feature is here because Gordon's credit was restored on this version for the first time. So what took so long???

The original screenplay credits are included, along with art galleries, original artwork, and a short feature on the colorization process. "David Schecter on Film Music's Unsung Heroes" is an okay feature on the way that music supports the dramatic tension, while an interview with Joan Taylor underscores how "B" these movies really were. The best feature is the interview that Tim Burton conducts with Harryhausen, which is also available on the other releases. And surprisingly, a second-best short feature is one that has absolutely nothing to do with the film and "stars" an NYU student. Kyle Anderson shows us clay and foam models he's made of characters that he's using for an animated feature, and explains how animators approach stop-motion today. Though the most famous stop-motion is Nick Park's "Wallace & Gromit" team, it's fascinating to hear from a student and get some sense of how and why this medium has endured.

Bottom Line:
Just as there's good cholesterol and bad cholesterol, there's good and bad camp. "Earth vs. the Flying Saucers" isn't campy because everything is so bad it's funny. It's campy because the attitudes and Ray Harryhausen special effects now seem so charmingly quaint. It may be unintentionally funny now, but this B-movie is better than most of those low-budget affairs. In that context, and since it's as good as B-movies get, it certainly merits a 7. If you removed the B-movie factor and considered it as-is, well, then it would be closer to a 6.


Film Value