movie review: War Of The Satellites (1958)

What did you watch? A Roger Corman quickie sci-fi epic, War Of The Satellites

How quickly was it made? in 10 days.

How quickly did you turn it off? Oh I managed to watch the whole thing.

War Of The Satellites was one of those movies where Roger Corman was like “hey gimme some money to make a movie about satellites, ’cause it’s in the news” and the studio was like “okay.” And then 10 days later he had a movie. I don’t need to explain Roger Corman, do I?

American scientists are gathered around a monitor helplessly as yet another manned spacecraft explodes trying to break a radiation barrier that seems to be the only thing keeping humans (Americans, duh) from leaving Earth to explore space. In the aftermath of this tragedy, some goofball “teens” in lovers’ lane witness a meteor fall from the sky. It turns out it’s a TINY ROCKET, and we cut to Sybil, part of the space science crew, at the UN building, reading the note that was in the rocket. It’s from some aliens, who explain that they’re the ones who have set up the barrier to keep earthlings from exploring space and doing who knows what to it. Just stay outta space, earthlings.

The American delegates who are also the scientists are like “nah,” and then the lead scientist, Dr. Van Ponder, is driving home when a hovering light high in the sky causes his car to crash, killing him. The Americans are announcing this news at the UN, the only place to convene at this point in the movie for any and all discussions, and that they’d suspend further rocket launches. And then Dr. Van Ponder walks in! Alive!

It turns out Dr. Van Ponder is an alien pretending to be Van Ponder, and can duplicate himself. This was actually a pretty neat special effect, considering how cheap and on-the-quick Corman was…with all his movies. Granted, he’s obviously reusing the same sets and has office chairs for his astronauts. A split screen so his actor can appear twice in the same frame? That’s like an actual film technique that requires planning. Not just filming a talky scene in an “lab” and then moving on to the next scene in the same canyon he films all his movies in.

Anyway, some of the crew starts to suspect things about Dr. Van Ponder, mainly after he burns his hand in front of a fellow scientist, but is able to regenerate his skin while no one is looking, making the other scientist and crew look crazy.

What’s happens next is that those who are suspicious of Van Ponder still get on the next ship with him, as he duplicates himself again to sabotage the project and end humanity’s last attempt to reach the stars once and for all.

It only devolves into a standard Corman scientists vs a monster story, on a spaceship, instead of a windowless room with one or two flasks to indicate a lab, from there – but, and I can’t believe i’m saying this, it’s actually a pretty interesting movie despite all of its flaws. And it’s flawed nearly everywhere. If the aliens have the power to cause an accident from the sky, can’t they just cause the earthling ships to explode before launch? The spaceships look terrible. The interior sets are cheap. As if they’re filming in real time, it goes from observation room to the UN to the lab to an office or two to the humans’ interior rocket.

But, considering how often antagonists often just make speeches out of their intentions while wearing a terrible monster costume, often from another movie, having an impostor fool the crew is a different cliche that is still pulled off pretty well here (though that kind of infers how dumb the humans are). American knowhow is at the front of a scientific discovery, where once again aliens have technological power that can create a barrier around the earth, but write a letter to the Earthlings. A LETTER. Sent via rocket. And the non-Americans at the UN are like “we should totally back down.” No one is like “omg, there’s extraterrestrial life – and they have advanced technology but can’t call us or use our radiowaves. They send us a letter in a rocket.”

That still sounds kinda dumb, this movie. Yeah, the bar for a Roger Corman movie is pretty low. One thing is sometimes these movies have an element of comedy, and in some cases, a sense of humor and self-awareness stays throughout. In this case, maybe the “teens” in lovers’ lane overacted as dumb teens and Corman was too lazy to do another take. They added a little bit of silliness and the movie could have used more sarcasm as suspicious escalated.

Anyone of interest in this one? I think one of the teens is played by Mitzi McCall, who has had a long career in film & television, and still works as a voice actor. The lead is Dick Miller, a Corman regular and later featured in every Joe Dante movie – you know him as Mr. Futterman in Gremlins. Seeing him in a lead role is so odd, only because of his context as such a background character in so many of Corman’s movies.

I’m not wholeheartedly endorsing this one, it’s just not AS BAD as other Corman quickies, with some positive points.

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