double feature movie reviews: Flying Saucers!

Flying Saucer double feature

I caught TWO movies about UFOs: one a miracle of stop motion animation, the other a miracle of someone fooling the studio to let him take a vacation in Alaska.

The Flying Saucer (1950)

One of a few things to know about early sci-fi movies dealing with visitors from space is the context. It’s after WW2, we’re worried about commies, and “flying saucers” caught on with the general public to describe Unidentified Flying Objects because those who claim to have witnessed them didn’t know how else to describe them. Who has ‘saucers’ now? Or uses that term to describe anything? “A stationary saucer.” “A driving saucer.”

Anyway, writers and filmmakers might have a lot of imagination but getting an epic story about UFOs might be difficult with a limited budget. But right off the bat, these stories are either warnings about the loss of personal identity at the hands of communism, or a warning about war between ideologically different countries. The Flying Saucer is the latter, literally. It starts off with sightings of a UFO, so America asks a guy, Mike, who is rich, to look into the sightings near his hometown in Alaska. I’m not sure which was the relevant qualification: that he is a rich guy, or that he used to live in Alaska. You could probably ask any local to help you out. Is it because he’s rich that Uncle Sam thinks he’s trustworthy? I don’t know.

The government is on to the idea that the Soviets are also interested in UFO sightings. They send an agent, Vee, to go with him under disguise as his nurse, the cover story being that he had a breakdown. A good chunk of what follows, literally 25 or so minutes, is Mike & Vee exploring areas around Juneau, Alaska, and the few people who saw this film got to look at a lot of beautiful scenery. Vee and Mike also make googly eyes at each other, and eventually start making out. Now is a good time to point out that Mike is played by Mikel Conrad, who is also the writer and director.

Mike plays up a drunken louse pretty quick around the locals, even fooling Vee into think inking she’s wasting her time with him. Or maybe it’s an amazing act, except the only people not fooled are the Soviets who are in fact scouring the area for a UFO. It turns out that the flying saucer is man-made, by a genius local inventor who wants to develop a new kind of flying transportation. However, one of the scientist’s helpers sells out the project to the Soviets, who overpower Mike and I guess they’re going to kidnap Vee and the scientist and take them to Russia with them. Or dispose of them before stealing the aircraft.

This is a cheap film, with a flying saucer that is double exposed (I think) over the background during its flying appearances. Was all the money spent sending Conrad to Alaska to film the mountains and glaciers? Just seemingly endless shots of scenery, which is pretty to look at. The beginning is effectively  creepy, the stillness of a forest with no music before a flying saucer zips by. Nothing really happens from there. The budget probably didn’t have enough to allow for more interactions, or maybe Mr. Conrad was like “look, send me to Alaska, I’ll take care of the rest” and then had a scenic vacation. I’m guessing this was forgotten save for some re-showings year later to capitalize on other sci-fi movies with bigger budgets and better special effects being released. Speaking of:

Earth Vs. The Flying Saucers (1956)

This lives up to the title in so many ways that contemporary monster and most other alien or space travel movies didn’t,  or couldn’t, before and after. I say “most,” I had to look it up: War Of The Worlds came out three years earlier. The formula is somewhat similar. A scientist just wants to send up satellites in rockets to observe Earth. Aliens zip around in spaceships  and knock them out of the sky and destroy launch pads. There’s a misunderstanding where the aliens kill a lot of people because they were fired on, when they just wanted to visit the launch site to explain themselves.

The explanation? They’d like Earth to surrender to them. These are some petty aliens, and some stupid scientists (and military handlers). At one point the scientist and his wife board the spaceship to hear the aliens out even though it just seems like a terrible idea. The aliens could just wipe out the planet if they wanted to in that moment. But they let the scientist go to go tell his world leaders to take a vote to agree to surrender to the aliens. Look: you’re not in the theater to watch a boring UN meeting. You get scientists talking endlessly about the differences between the humans and aliens, and equipment needed to fight the aliens. And then, just some back and forth battle between the aliens and the military with a new sound ray developed by the scientist. The humans take down a few UFOs, the UFOs blow up a few buildings, and this goes on back and forth, but the humans win out, just because.

What’s the lesson? Vigilance? Scientific knowhow? “MARS ATTACKS” parodies specific scenes, “Independence Day” lifts the plot (though the scientist is not married to a stripper). What’s this movie known for? The kickass UFO animation by Ray Harryhausen, with an iconic scene of a UFO crashing into the Washington Monument. Is it good? Uh, probably a reason why Harryhausen is known to all of us and not the plot. It’s just a bland back and forth between humans and aliens plotting and duking it out.

Anyway, both movies are short. Strangely, both are kinda neat to look at, though for “The Flying Saucer,” not for the reason you’d think. If you’re interested in that ear of sci-fi, such as “The Day The Earth Stood Still” or “War Of The Worlds,” then Harryhausen puts “Earth Vs The Flying Saucer” up there with them. “The Flying Saucer” cops out of its sensationalist headline influence for an espionage thriller, which would be worth checking out if it was actually a thriller. View at your own risk!

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