Sputnik was only a year away when alien invaders descended on Washington D.C. with their terrifying death rays in Fred F. Sears’s Earth vs. the Flying Saucers, one of countless pieces of ‘50s pulp to come out of a social fabric defined equally by interest in the unknown and mounting Cold War paranoia. Here, however, such social significance takes a backseat to pure B-movie matinee fun, albeit without losing any of its implicit self-examinations of moral questions in the process; the film lacks the weight of works like Invasion of the Body Snatchers or The Thing from Another World, but its thrills never want for intelligent examination of human behavior under duress.
A series of rocket ships designed to collect information while orbiting the earth have been falling back to the surface almost as quickly as they’ve been launched, an occurrence soon explained by presence an extraterrestrial species hovering nearby. Secretly planning to take over with as little force as necessary, the invaders only use force when fired upon by a typically knee-jerk military, and quickly, their malicious intentions send scientists scrambling to discover a means to defend the earth against such technologically superior beings. Unlike the ballsier Gojira, nuclear power is never explicitly invoked in the film, but a question of “what if” hangs dreadfully over the proceedings as the destruction ensues, begging reflection on the effectiveness of first attack versus the necessity of weapons as a means of self-defense.
Don’t feel too bad, though, if the notion of mutually assured destruction fails to cross your mind during the film’s climactic set piece, in which the titular flying saucers descend on the U.S. capital in Ray Harryhausen stop-motion glory, an incredible mixture of animation, miniature work, stock footage, and location shooting. That the saucers are about the most stationary special effect Harryhausen ever worked on is of little matter: Infused with personality a la the thumbprint of the artist, they are a joyous creation to behold as they spin and pivot throughout the sky. I can only hope the human cast will forgive me for saying that the saucers are the most expressive characters in the entire film.
As is often the case with any film old enough to be reasonably deemed a classic, one suspects that the transfer for Earth vs. the Flying Saucers is about as good as possible. Blacks, whites, and grays are rich with depth and texture, while inconsistencies in image quality are mostly the result of the film's routine reliance on stock footage. Ditto the newfound colorized version in all of its crayon box glory, a process endorsed here by Ray Harryhausen, who would have filmed in color had his meager budgets allowed (the "angle" option on your remote allows you to toggle between both versions of the film, to fascinating ends). Sound is similarly excellent, from the whirring of the circular invaders to the repeated explosions unleashed by their white-hot death rays.
This is something I can personally attest to: Geeks will spend hours devouring the special features packed into this new set. In addition to both versions of the film located on disc one is the compulsively listenable commentary track featuring Harryhausen himself, along with visual effects artists Jeffrey Okun, Ken Ralston, and Arnold Kunert. Anecdotes and facts pour like rain as the three chat it up with their chief inspiration, the highlight being a collective agreement that aliens taking over the White House at this point in time would surely be an improvement over the current administration. Rounding out disc one are previews for the recent releases of Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Dragon Wars on DVD (two films that, in distinctly different ways, represent Harryhausen's legacy). Disc two is chock-full of meat and potatoes: the mini-doc "Remembering Earth vs. the Flying Saucers," an interview with film star Joan Taylor, a present-day look at stop motion animation presented via NYU, photo galleries, advertising artwork, a digital comic book, and a look at the colorization process used to render the film closer to Harryhausen's original vision. Equally informative is "The Hollywood Blacklist and Bernard Gordon," which examines the role blacklisting had on both Hollywood and this specific production, and "David Schecter on Film Music's Unsung Hero," which breaks down the film's effectively simple scoring in the larger context of '50s B fare. Last but not least is a cut of the film's original credits sequence (as it was manipulated by authorities suspect of one of the film's writers) and a joyous interview with Harryhausen conducted by none other than Tim Burton.
A killer package for a lesser classic in the '50s sci-fi pantheon.