In which I watch a movie I’ve owned for years, long after doing so could have any meaning.
Why’d I Buy It?
When I was six, we did not have cable. Don’t cry for me; network TV was a benevolent god, and nearly all of my childhood memories—perfectly happy—consist of its Saturday programming. Saturday meant monsters. Yes, it meant cartoons too, and Abbott & Costello (often meeting a monster)—but I can’t overstate the importance of low-budget science-fiction monsters in the Saturday equation. First there’d be a Godzilla (vs. a monster), and after him would follow an hours-long parade of more monsters. Aliens, werewolves, big ants, carnivorous trees, blobs—every imaginable creature of vintage 1940-1963. I loved this like a weekly Christmas, and when the run of movies ended I would sit with magic markers and draw monsters, not ready to let go.
This was the world I was swimming in when, in kindergarten, the Scholastic company came to my school to stage a book fair. And two books blew my mind. The two most important books ever written. Both were about monsters. Here is the cover of one:
It was from this treatise that I first learned the title Earth vs The Flying Saucers. And man, that just boiled it down. Even at age six, I grasped the salient fact of it: If you call your movie THAT, you are rollin’ balls-out like you know you just dropped the single greatest movie of all time. (In the category of movies about flying saucers vs Earth.) Surely, to live without ever seeing this movie would be to live a life incomplete—I suffered the truth of that in my bones. But I could only hope our sweet, merciful TV would deign to show it some Saturday.
Alas, that never happened.
And then… one day… science perfected the Blu-ray.
Perhaps I expected too much.
At least it starts with a bang. The main guy, Dr. Russell A. Marvin, is in a car with his wife—per the fashion of the time, she is the very intelligent and attractive Mrs. Dr. Russell A. Marvin—when they are buzzed by a flying saucer!
Well, actually, the movie has two beginnings. That is the second one. The first is a montage of stock-footage Air Force jets, over which a 1956 voice intones, “Since Biblical times… mankind has speculated on the possibility of visitors from another world… Today, from the fields of Kansas… to the rice paddies of the Orient… come consistent reports of UFOs.” Thank you, Greek chorus; you importantly establish the stark realness of all the science this movie is about to pump into our faces. And THEN we cut to Russ & Carol getting buzzed.
Russ & Carol decide not to tell anyone they just saw aliens, lest they be judged bananas. They proceed to their destination: the top-secret Department of Defense rocket site where Russ is in charge of putting 12 satellites in orbit.
They’re in the launching bunker getting ready to loft #11 when a general appears (he is also Carol’s dad, for no reason) and asks them to stop. General Dad says, Notice how we immediately lost track of the first 10 satellites you put up? Maybe we should pause to wonder why. But Russ, who was buzzed by a spaceship just hours before, connects no dots and says Eh, I’m going ahead with it. Plus we’re launching #12 tomorrow!
So #11 goes up and disappears. The next day, he’s about to launch #12—he puts a microphone on this one, so if it gets knocked out of orbit too, we’ll hear why?—uh—look, he’s the rocket scientist here, don’t bother him—when his buzzy saucer swoops down and lands at the base.
It shows no hostility, so the army rolls up a leftover World War II canon and opens fire. Really? Beings arrive from light-years away and our reaction is, “We better massacre these guys”? Anyway, that doesn’t pan out, due to a sort of incinerating ray. Who could have foreseen. The aliens really lean on it, too, blowing up most of the base and nabbing General Dad as their prisoner.
In the smoldering aftermath, Russ is tape-recording a diary or podcast of the very bad day so far, and the tape machine’s batteries are running out. He accidentally hits a playback button—and it plays back some audio he recorded in the car when the aliens buzzed it. I guess he was taping his podcast over that? Good science. But it leads to a penicillin-level discovery, because at low-battery slow speed, the tape reveals a message in English: the aliens saying, We’re landing to meet you tomorrow, Russ! At the base! Meet us, Russ!
Russ concludes the aliens must have miscalculated the speed that we use sound at. Neat! I mean, dumb. But neat. And it seems they meant to land in peace?
You can guess what happens next: Officials think the message is fake, so they put Russ under house arrest, he sneaks onto his ham radio and calls space until he gets the aliens, they tell him, New meeting, tonight at the beach, don’t blow it this time. He evades his guard, punches a valet, gets his car. A punch, a chase—classic ’50s thrills. Russ and Carol run down the beach with the guard and a motorcycle cop hot on their heels. And those guys don’t care one whit about the marvel of it all.
The aliens say, All of you, shut up and get aboard. So they do, and the saucer takes off. Here’s where the science really cooks. Russ, being observant, notices that his heart isn’t beating. The aliens explain Relativity: We use magnetism to fly so fast that we’re going faster than your heart! So it’s not that your heart has stopped; it’s that all of our current conversation is taking place between the beats!
Also, the saucermen have downloaded General Dad’s brain into an “infinitely indexed memory bank” (the internet?) so now they know everything about Earth that he knows. Lotta useful secrets in the Dad brain.
The aliens ask Russ to deliver a message: Their own planet disintegrated, and Earth better surrender so they can have it. They’d prefer to avoid a fight. They point out we have inferior technology, so it’s also in our best interests to avoid a fight. For emphasis, they sink a ship with 300 people on it, then drop Russ off to inform all the world leaders. They give him 56 days to organize our surrender.
Russ uses the 56 days to invent a super-weapon. It’s based on observations he made while aboard their craft and, like the rest of this movie, it is scientifically rock-solid: It uses a sonic frequency “to project a highly intermitted and induced electrical field.” That’ll glork the alien magnet-based flying tech. Obviously it won’t blow them up, but it will make them crash, which is promising. We also manage to capture an alien helmet, and (by trying it on) we discover it acts like a pair of glasses and hearing aids.
Therefore, going into Day 56, we feel pretty evenly matched. When the whole alien fleet descends on Washington DC, we don’t surrender! The ensuing battle lacks the intensity of the main one in Saving Private Ryan, but this movie does seem to be a real ground-breaker in terms of national landmarks destroyed. Mainly because our battle plan is to force the saucers to crash into national landmarks.
Look, sorry to recap half the plot points, but they don’t matter. What do I mean, they don’t matter? Well, A) they are approximately the same as every other movie in this era and genre, as if this particular movie decided only to be one-stop shopping for flying-saucer-movie plot points. Not much is original or surprising. Although the saucers do look cool. And B) None of the plot points actually matter—except one. Late in the game, to get more intimidating, the aliens seize control of every radio on the planet and broadcast in every language at the correct speed. In other words, to demand our surrender, they didn’t need to go through Russ & Carol. Russ should never have got aboard to observe their magnetism, never saved humanity, and never punched a valet. It was all a dream? Or the aliens are morons.
This was the family TV until I was 13.
Gavel Bang! Rank It.
For 30+ years, this movie sat in my head as a platonic ideal. Now, I have discovered that I waited so long to watch it, it lost its ability to influence me. I should have seen it at 6, or at least by 12, to get the full bonk. It can’t change my life now. It’s a kids’ movie? About mass murder and Relativity? Fine. Locked somewhere in my brain, there remains an intact, very adult version of Earth vs The Flying Saucers, eternally unviewable. I give the real version Two and a Half Monuments in Washington DC That Used to Be Five Monuments Before All the Crashing, and I rank it #142. That’s between two true stories, one about the sweet science (When We Were Kings) and one about World War II guns when they were big (The Guns of Navarone).