EARTH VS. THE FLYING SAUCERS
“Warning! Take Cover! Flying Saucers Invade Our Planet! Washington, London, Paris, Moscow Fight Back!”
Expressing concern over the recent satellite launches from Earth, aliens in flying saucers attempt to contact Earth scientists to discuss the matter. Sensing an invasion, however, the military decides to open fire as the first alien emerges from his craft, a decision which leads to disastrous results for the Earth forces. To make matters worse, it turns out that the aliens truly weren’t looking for a fight, but were hoping instead to negotiate for the peaceful surrender of Earth as they didn’t want the place getting messed up before they took over. Deciding that surrender would be no better of a fate than being invaded, Earth’s military begins a desperate battle with the aliens while its scientists search frantically for a way to break through the saucer’s seemingly impenetrable force screen. (Sound familiar?) After a few costly encounters, the means to unraveling the secret finally falls within mankind’s grasp (by happy accident, not because Jeff Goldblum owns an ibook), but it may be too late as the flying saucers unleash a final all out assault on the capital cities of Earth.
It’s one of the most iconic images in all of 1950s B-moviedom. A disc shaped UFO spins madly out of control before nose-diving into the Washington Monument, bringing one of the United States’ most recognizable structures crashing down onto a crowd of fleeing spectators. Even if you’ve never seen Earth Vs. The Flying Saucers, there’s a good chance you’re familiar with the scene. And maybe that’s as it should be because, really, that image, and the entire climatic sequence from which it’s taken, is the whole reason this movie even exists in the first place.
It’s generally accepted that the modern UFO craze started on June 24, 1947 when Pilot Kenneth Arnold recounted seeing nine disk shaped objects in the skies near Mt. Rainier, Washington. Within the following two months there were another 853 sightings reported around the country by a panicked population. By the time the early 50s rolled around even President Truman and the CIA were getting a tad concerned, putting together the ad hoc Robertson Panel in order to formulate the government’s official public policy on UFOs. (Which amounted to something like “Don’t worry, be happy.”) In a recent interview, special effects genius Ray Harryhausen remembers, “There was a big scare about immense sightings of the flying saucers. So saucers were on the front-page things and Charles [Schneers] called me and wanted to see if we could make a picture about flying saucers. We developed a script with Curt Siodmak and then we got a screenwriter to adapt it to the screen and it worked out quite well. People still love it.”
Earth Vs. The Flying Saucers, the film which Harryhausen and producer Schneers threw together so quickly, is indeed very fondly remembered in sci-fi circles although the reasons why aren’t that obvious at first. It’s certainly not because it was the first UFO movie to grace theater screens. By 1956 moviegoers had already been treated to such true classics as The Thing From Another World, The War Of The Worlds, and a mercifully Keanu-less The Day The Earth Stood Still, not to mention scores of goofy low budget double bill fillers like, say, Devil Girl From Mars. (Not that there’s anything wrong with goofy low budget double bill fillers.) And it certainly wasn’t star power. Lead actor Hugh Marlowe is dependably heroic (it’s kind of cool how 1950s movie scientists were regular guys, not eccentric weasely geeks with ibooks), but is also equally dependable at being, as Allmovie critic Hal Erickson describes him, stiff and humorless. As for the budget, Earth Vs. The Flying Saucers is definitely on the low end of the scale, going so far as to superimpose the alien ships on top of stock footage from armed forces test films whenever it was required to show a plane or ship exploding. At first glance, the movie looks like your typical low budget time killer. (Not that there’s anything wrong with those either.) So what does this movie have which has so elevated it in the esteem of genre fans over the years?
Well, obviously, the first thing which comes to mind is Harryhausen himself. Even though he was only at the beginning of his feature length career when he worked on Earth Vs. The Flying Saucers, it doesn’t really show too much. Oh sure, the titular saucers may not be as flashy as the sword slinging skeletons and snake haired Medusas which Harryhausen would later give us, but they’re still miles ahead of the toy rockets on a string typically found in 50s movies. (Not that there’s anything… okay, I’ll stop.) Harryhausen’s meticulous artistry really shines through in the final battle sequence. “When the Washington Monument fell over after a saucer crashed into it” Harryhausen would recount, “each piece had to be animated on a wire. We couldn't afford high speed photography for that at that time. It would take a big crew, so I did it all by myself.” When asked by director Joe Dante why you couldn’t see the wires in the final picture, Harryhausen responded, “Because if you did, then I would have failed.” That dedication to his craft is why one guy was able to sit in his basement and animate the destruction of Earth’s major cities by a fleet of UFOs frame by frame, 24 frames per second, and the end result still looks better than most of the CGI stuff you get in a Sci-Fi Channel original movie.
But Earth Vs. The Flying Saucers has a bit more going for it than just being a footnote in the career of Ray Harryhausen. You’d be hard pressed to find a more single-purposed sci-fi film in all of the fifties. The title promises you Earth Vs. The Flying Saucers and, by gum, that’s exactly what the movie gives you. Romantic subplot? Forget about it. In the very first scene we meet our lead scientist driving back from his honeymoon having already married his assistant. They spend all of four lines recounting their courtship before moving on to talk about satellites. After that, it’s all business for the next 83 minutes for Hugh and his dame. Political or philosophical subtext? Nope, no time to fret over hidden communists or blacklisting McCarthyists. In this movie, every character works towards the singular purpose of finding a way to wipe out the invaders, even those stinkin’ Ruskies. And as for character development? Well, only if dying counts as development. All of the things we supposedly clamor for in motion pictures is totally missing from Earth Vs. The Flying Saucers, and oddly, it’s a more enjoyable movie for it.
Still, wouldn’t it be great if you could keep everything good about Earth Vs. The Flying Saucers AND add all that other stuff to it? Plus add tens of millions of dollars to the budget? That would be great! Wouldn’t it?
“Nice planet. We'll take it!”
Under the guise of a diplomatic mission, aliens in flying saucers land on Earth to discuss matters. Unfortunately, since the aliens can only communicate by using the words “Ack Ack”, what is meant to be a peace offering apparently gets misinterpreted and sends the Martians into a frenzy, leading to disastrous results for the Earth’s forces. To make matters worse, a second arranged meeting turns out to be nothing more than a ruse to allow the Martians the opportunity to destroy the command structure of the United States. As Earth’s military begins a desperate battle with the aliens, a motley cross-section of misfits attempts to find a safe haven amidst the chaos. A happy accident provides the secret to defeating the aliens, but it may be too late as the flying saucers unleash a final all out assault on the capital cities of Earth… and Las Vegas… and a trailer park.
It’s kind of reminiscent of one of the most iconic images in all of 1950s B-moviedom. A disc shaped UFO shoots a laser ray at the Washington Monument, bringing one of the United States’ most recognizable structures crashing down onto a crowd of fleeing boy scouts. Even if you’ve never seen 1956’s Earth Vs. The Flying Saucers, there’s a good chance you’re familiar with the slightly different original scene from that movie. And that’s exactly what Tim Burton was counting on when he made 1996’s Mars Attacks! It would seem that following his critically acclaimed biopic of legendary bad movie auteur Ed Wood, the noted director was bitten by the bug to make his own 1950s style sci-fi flick. “I grew up with this kind of movie. They’re in my blood.” Burton told Starlog Magazine in 1997. “I love the old Ray Harryhausen movies, so a lot of [Mars Attacks!] draws inspiration from those… We’re using a different technique, but still trying to capture the feeling that those movies created.”
And Mars Attacks! does try really, really hard. Unlike the same year’s Independence Day, which chose to go for a totally “realistic” portrayal of the destructive proceedings (I’m talking visually, okay. I’m well aware of all the incredible lapses in logic like those jet fighters that make 90 degree turns. Look, don’t get me started on Independence Day.), Mars Attacks! labors to retain the campiness of an old B-movie. Warner Digital Studios’ CGI saucers not only keep the design of Harryhausen’s original saucers, but also their jerky movements and whirring noises (which Harryhausen revealed to Burton came from the sounds of the sewage plant next door to his house) as well. ILM’s digitally rendered Martians are all nice and rubbery, the color schemes are Technicolor garish, and a number of the human characters, especially Pierce Brosnan’s manly pipe-puffing scientist, are pitch perfect riffs on their 1950s counterparts. Throw in references to other sci-fi classics (i.e. the human-headed dog from the 1978 version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers) and outlandish scenes taken directly from the 1962 Topps Mars Attacks trading card series (the movies opens with the flaming herd of cattle from Card 22), and Mars Attacks! should be a dream come true for someone of my particular tastes.
It’s got some problems. The majority of professional critics thought so too, giving it a meager 46% approval rating over on Rotten Tomatoes. A lot of those critics, Roger Ebert included, were quick to lay the blame for what’s wrong with the movie at the feet of its $70,000,000 budget. “The movie was obviously expensive” Ebert wrote, “and Burton lingers too long on the dollars onscreen. The massing of the Martian fleet continues long after we've gotten the point, for example, and the animated Martians would be funnier if we saw a lot less of them.” You hear this criticism a lot with ginormous productions like Mars Attacks! The assumption, apparently, is that having such a large budget will drive most directors to concentrate on the effects and eye candy, either simply because they can or because they feel they have to justify the expense. As a result, the movie suffers. Now you might be inclined to think, given this blog’s penchant for reveling in all things cheap, that I would rush to agree with this conclusion and condemn Mars Attacks! big wallet. But this blog also celebrates Catholicism, and as any good Catholic boy should know, the simple possession of lots of money is no more of a sin than the lack of it is necessarily a blessing.
But wait, I can hear someone asking (not really, but you gotta make these transitions somehow), didn’t Jesus flat out tell us that “blessed are the poor in spirit”? Well, yes, but like most everything else in the Bible, you have to explore that phrase a little to get at its meaning. It certainly doesn’t suggest that the physical state of being without money or assets is glorious in and of itself. Fr. Henry Charles reminds us, “Poverty, as the absence of the material resources sufficient to ground a human life, is a great disvalue… This is not the poverty that Scripture canonizes.” If it was, rather than continuously reminding us to feed and clothe them, Jesus would have told us to just leave the poor alone because, you know, they have it so good already. And the phrase isn’t meant to imply that everyone in the world should attempt to adopt a lifestyle of asceticism. St. Jerome, who did feel called to such a life, warns us of the potential dangers that lie in that direction. “Be on your guard when you begin to mortify your body by abstinence and fasting” he wrote, “lest you imagine yourself to be perfect and a saint; for perfection does not consist in this virtue. It is only a help; a disposition; a means though a fitting one, for the attainment of true perfection.”
But if it’s not the lack of material wealth which is “blessed”, then which part of being poor is? In the simplest possible terms, it is the attitude of humility and detachment from material goods such an impoverished state can (if you allow it) engender which is to be desired. In fact, the Catechism reminds us, it is “the precept of detachment from riches [which] is obligatory for entrance into the Kingdom of heaven… All Christ's faithful are to "direct their affections rightly, lest they be hindered in their pursuit of perfect charity by the use of worldly things and by an adherence to riches which is contrary to the spirit of evangelical poverty.” That’s the point Jesus was trying to get across to the rich young man in Luke 18 whom he instructed to sell all of his goods; not that his wealth was evil, but that his disordered attachment to it was. Which is all swell, but has what exactly to do with Mars Attacks!? Well, only that it isn’t just the big budget that throws Mars Attacks! off its tracks any more than it’s the lack of a budget that makes Earth Vs. The Flying Saucers so good. Rather its Burton’s disordered attachment to the critics’ expectations that come along with having $70,000,000 and a gaggle of Academy Award winning actors to play with. He buys into the idea that he has to do something other than simply make the good old fashioned feel good B-movie he originally planned to. He seems compelled to start adding all the stuff Earth Vs. The Flying Saucers found unnecessary.
First off, he unwisely attempts to sandwich a message into the movie. “It was during the Gulf War” Burton told Premier Magazine, “when the media seemed to have taken it to another level-wars having titles and theme music-and I found it kind of disturbing. I felt like these characters were just a good cathartic shakeup of that kind of thing.” So in response to what was bothering him about current events, Burton didn’t just try to make his version of Earth Vs. The Flying Saucers, he also tried to make his version of one of the all-time satire classics, Dr. Strangelove. It’s all there; the lead actor playing multiple roles (including the president), the nut cases running the war room, one bureaucrat’s obsession with sex, the inanities of the decision making process in Washington, and so on. It’s all there… except for the laughs. You see, in direct contrast to what Roger Ebert said, when Burton sticks to the basics, just showing us the Martians and their hijinks, this is actually the fun movie Burton claimed he wanted to make. (The title promised Mars Attacks! and, by gum, that’s exactly what we want the movie to give us.) It’s hard not to smile at a scene like the one where the Martians slip in and “Ack Ack” backup for Tom Jones. It’s when the Martians are off screen and only the humans are left to try and carry the satire that things are, well, just not that funny. Glenn Close doing a one-note Nancy Reagan impersonation and Jack Nicholson doing… something… do not a Dr. Strangelove make.
Along with the stilted political commentary, Burton’s also missteps in succumbing (again) to his inescapable compulsion to lay out on camera his deepest feelings of being an outsider (despite having directed some of the most popular and successful films in history) coupled with his omnipresent daddy issues. These themes actually work well in his quieter movies like Edward Scissorhands, but in his more chaotic big budget blockbusters they just get all muddled. And in the case of Mars Attacks! they actually get a little mean spirited. Pay attention and you’ll notice that the Martians miraculously manage to avoid killing Burton’s kind of people. The put-upon teenage boy, the goth-lite presidential daughter, the new ager, the disenchanted old lady, all of the black characters (except for a thinly disguised Colin Powell); they all survive. (Okay, Tom Jones makes it too, but let’s face it, he’s just too cool to die.) The politicians, businessmen, rednecks, soldiers, reporters, scientists, and anyone else within fifty feet of being mainstream all get stomped, chomped, or disintegrated into Christmas colored skeletons. Once you notice it, Mars Attacks! starts to feel like the movie Burton was using to work off the chip he was carrying on his shoulder towards mainstream America. Is it any surprise mainstream Americans reciprocated his disdain by staying away from the ticket booths in droves?
In the end, although Burton got the look of Earth Vs. The Flying Saucers down pat, he forgot the humble attitude and singularity of purpose which guided that film to success. For all of the spectacle and genuine laughs interspersed throughout the film, Mars Attacks!, at least for me, ultimately leaves kind of a bad taste in my mouth. Ack.
Thanks to everyone for their patience in waiting for me to get back to business here. That was a weird bug that laid low my household and office these last two weeks. It did give me some time to mull over some weird thoughts though. Stay tuned.