As “Earth vs. the Flying Saucers” opens, Dr. Russell Martin (Hugh Marlowe) and his brand new bride Carol (Joan Taylor) are driving through the desert. He’s dictating into a tape recorder about various scientific concerns which seems pretty misplaced considering they just got hitched. Carol lets him know it. So they canoodle, a little, and then, wouldn’t you know it, he goes right back to dictating. A domestic drama beckons. Then, an ominous sound appears. It is a flying saucer, looming right out their rear window, up to who knows what. And this immediately reveals the overall intention of director Fred F. Sears. He never seeks to draw out suspense regarding the existence of flying saucers. I mean, why would you when they are right there in the title? So they are right there in the beginning, and because they are, they immediately upstage the two primary characters, rendering their backstory moot not more than a few seconds after it’s been established. No one came to the theater (put in the DVD) to watch The Newlywed Game.
The film’s DNA is in the litany of 1950s movies that imagined invaders from other planets, like Mars, for instance, which is never name checked as the homeland of these flying saucers but still feels like the place from where these loping robotic invaders with human beings clearly inhabiting their alien cinematic spacesuits feel like they must hail. Perhaps that observation is merely an extension of having seen Tim Burton’s 1998 “Mars Attacks!” first, a droll and sporadically brilliant comedy which seems to have drawn at least partially from “Earth vs. the Flying Saucers”, although the latter’s determination to play it completely straight never even threatens to crumble despite the thoughts of a mugging Pierce Brosnan and a preening Tom Jones that were dancing in the back of my head.
That successful seriousness can be attributed primarily to the supremely effective visual effects engineered by the legendary Ray Harryhausen. The saucers, plain as a sketch in the notebook of a little kid dreaming about extra-terrestrials, are not scary, not exactly, but they never feel pre-programmed, beholden to strokes on a keyboard. Instead they seem to move of their own scary free will, dropping or sliding into the frame, often over stock footage of national landmarks and battleships at sea and remote desert locations, as if they may have always been there, lurking. And the sound design, that incessant buzz that grinds its way into the back of your brain, heightens the sensation. Those big spaceship behemoths in “Independence Day” sought to generate awe; these regular ol’ UFOs in “Earth vs. the Flying Saucers” seek to put a pit in your stomach. They do.
Though many of the sci-fi invasion movies of 50s often employed their alien invaders as allegories, “Earth vs. the Flying Saucers” is generally free of such pesky metaphors. Oh, it flirts initially with the idea of the military resistance jumping the gun, as men in combat uniforms immediately open fire at the first sign of alien visitors. The movie then dangles the idea that perhaps the aliens come in peace, but that's quickly revealed as a mere feint. They do not come in peace; they come to destroy. America, and then the rest of the world, must stand up to them, and do, though to be fair, “Earth vs. the Flying Saucers” does not fetishize the military and instead makes science the focal point of the resistance, as Dr. Marvin and his team must deduce what these invaders are up to and then fashion a more intelligently methodical means of combatting them. It’s a healthy bit of screenwriting chicanery rather than simply going nukes ‘round the clock.
The characters, from Russell and Carol on down to the rest, all of whose names could be anything, are pawns of the plot. But admirably, after that opening, the screenplay also more or less refuses to even try and give them dimension beyond what they need to do to deal with and stop the flying saucers. And that’s actually a pretty smart decision, making the movie that much more compact and heightening the pace, while also intrinsically putting forth the idea that once the aliens do finally invade our blue planet, any and all human interest stories will fall by the wayside.