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Monday, March 17, 2008

Target Earth

Target Earth (TE) is not an innovative B-movie, but retains a little freshness in how it mixes a little of this and a touch of that from previous works. The final result is not too bad, despite its very evident small budget. The poster promises "Raw Panic," but doesn't quite deliver. There is, however, a generous helping of post-apocalyptic gloom, a big dose of pulp crime drama and some attempted dashes of robot alien sci-fi. Sprinkle in some non-wooden actors and you get a fairly watchable movie about a small group of people who find themselves alone in a big city, evacuated in advance of an alien invasion.

Quick Plot Synopsis
A woman (Nora) awakens from a failed suicide attempt (sleeping pills) to find the large city completely empty. All power and water off. Eventually she finds Frank (Richard Denning). The two of them explore the empty city together, eventually finding another couple, Jim and Vicki, living it up in the lounge of a luxury hotel. No one has any idea what happened. They were all asleep (or drunk or knocked out) when whatever happened happened. While making their way towards the edge of town, they're joined by a nervous little man named Otis. A robot appears, frightening them all into another hotel's lobby. A discarded newspaper tells of invasion by a mystery army. Otis gets spooked and runs outside. The robot zaps him dead. The others decide to hide in rooms upstairs to formulate a plan (if possible) for escape. Meanwhile, the army has captured a broken robot. (They've only taken the city, not the whole world) The army scientists experiment on it to see how stop them. The tests seem futile. The army will have to use nukes on the evacuated city if the robots can't be stopped.
That night, a shifty stranger intrudes and holds Frank, Nora, Jim and Vicki hostage, at gunpoint. His plan is to force the others out into the streets as a decoy so he can escape via the sewers under the aliens' lines. He's a wanted murderer, so his only hope to escape the authorities is to go under the aliens. Vicki challenges him, but he shoots her dead. In a rage, Jim fights with, then strangles the killer. The gunshots attract one of the robots, which pursues the three survivors up the stairs and onto the roof. It zaps Jim dead, but before it can get Frank and Nora, the army's loud-speaker jeeps come up the street. They're playing a special sound frequency which the scientists found out breaks the robots' "eye", incapacitating them. The robot falls over on its back. The world is safe. The end.

Why is this movie fun?
The first half of TE is intriguing. What happens if you wake up to find everyone else gone? Later movies would pick up on this eerie theme too. The second half morphs into a more pedestrian pulp drama, but the robot is actually amusing to watch, even though he's not supposed to be amusing. It's interesting to know that people who saw the film as children report "nightmares for years" because of the deadly relentless robot. He must have touched a nerve in young 50s folk.

Cold War Angle
The premise of an invading army in a major American city pushes many Cold War buttons. For those born after the Cold War, TE provides a little opportunity to get into the heads of people at that time. There's the almost paralyzing fear of an unstoppable army. There are people trying to integrate the prospect of immanent death with daily life. The citizens in TE are a microcosm of Cold War citizenry. And don't overlook the ubiquitous moral -- Rest easy, the military will save us. Very Cold War.

Based on the Book -- The screenplay of TE follows the story line of Paul Fairman's short novel, "Deadly City," rather closely. Many of the movie's plot elements parallel the book. In some ways, though, the movie is better. The book differs in that, there are no robots. The book's aliens get little attention beyond other-worldly calls in the distance, so fear of them begins to seem unwarranted. The characters are more seedy. Jim's "girlfriend" (named Minna) is a milk-toast doormat, not the spunky "dame" of the movie. In the book, the army doesn't figure out how to stop the aliens. Borrowing from Wells, Fairman just has his feeble aliens expire in the streets from something in our atmosphere. A final difference is that Frank and Nora do not get together at the end. They just go back to being solitary seedy losers like they started out.

Essence of Humanity -- TE is like Five ('51) in following a small group of survivors in an empty land. It's a bit like Quiet Earth ('85) that way too. There's also a similarity to Invasion USA ('52) which follows a small group while America is invaded. It's inevitable that the few characters begin to represent segments of present society. Bill Raynor's screenplay is more optimistic than Fairman's rather misanthropic pulp novel.

An Army of One -- An obvious symptom of the low budget is that there is only one robot costume. Even though the dialog describes there being more, as many as hundreds, we see only the one at a time. The director used none of the usual low-budget tricks to imply lots of robots. (multiple shadows, mutli-shot quick cuts. Not even split screen) As such, the robot comes across as what he is -- the only one.

Leapin' Ludwigs! -- The background music is pretty well done, generally. It's atmospheric, enhancing, but not intruding. At one point, however, the music stands out. This comes when the robot crashes through the hotel lobby window after Davis shot Vicki. The robot busts through with a slightly discordant version of the theme from Beethoven's 5th Symphony. This is the very recognizable, da da da DUMMM theme.

Any City Will Do -- The evacuated city in Fairman's novel is clearly noted as Chicago. There's no significance to it. It just is. Other than naming a few streets, the location is very neutral. It could be anywhere. In TE, the screenwriters intentionally played up the "any city" angle. Even though TE was shot in Los Angeles (on Sunday mornings when no one was around), there is a noticeable avoidance of saying what city it is. No street names, no landmarks referred to. This helps TE be an everyman tale, relevant to whatever city the audience lives in.

Venus, the New Mars -- Unlike the writers' consensus, which saw Mars as the source of invaders, TE tags Venus as the source. The science is appallingly thin. Venus has clouds, therefore Venus has water, therefore Venus has life, therefore they came from Venus. The Venusians are never seen, nor even conjectured about. All we see is their robot, sent to do the invading by remote control. No theories are offered as to why the Venusians are trying to invade. They just are.

Stock Footage Spotting -- As a B-movie, it's almost mandatory to have several minutes of stock military footage. TE complies, but with nuggets of interest. There are some clips that are obviously from World War II, showing A-20 and B-25 bomber formations. There are even some squadron ready-room clips of pilots preparing for missions, but there are clearly maps of Germany on the walls. We'll save Los Angeles by bombing Germany! Bet the aliens weren't expecting that! Mixed within these war clips are the usual snippets of 50s jets. There are the customary P-80 Shooting Stars, and the usual B-47 taking off. There are some less common F9F Panthers and a fairly rare stock-footage star, a B-45 Tornado with an escort of P-80s. Watch for it. The B-45 was America's first operational jet bomber, but almost totally eclipsed a few years after its introduction by the more modern B-47.

Bottom line? TE is worth the watch for its apocalypse theme. The first half, especially, does quite a good job, even if the second half gets a bit pulpy. The robot is too lame to evoke anything beyond a chuckle from 21st century viewers. But, people who said they remember seeing TE as a youth (in the late 50s) report being quite spooked by them. That's worth watching, if only to try and understand the times.


Anonymous said...

I was one of those who saw TE in the late 50's and it scared me half to death at the time. I definitely had nightmares about it for years. I always remembered it, but never could conjure up the name of the movie, until now. Your synopsis is just as I remember it.

Now, as I approach 60, perhaps, I have the courage to rent it from Netflix and watch again.

Thanks for reconnecting me with my childhood.

Nightowl said...

Hi pre-60. Glad you liked the review. TE certainly was one of the interesting movies. The book was more "dark". I liked the movie better. If you rent it from Netflix, it will be interesting to hear how you feel about the movie, watching it so many years after that first impression.

Anonymous said...

I too saw "Target Earth" in the middle 1950s and found the robot's unnerving eye to be very memorable, even though the robot only appears on a few occasions. In retrospect, the movie's austerity (i.e. budgetary constraints) and confined geographic scope allow the characters' plight to be the movie's focus.

Occasionally I've thought "Target Earth" could successfully be remade in the 21st century...as long as it did not star Will Smith in the title role.

Unknown said...

Howdy 1950’s movie fans,>br>

This movie scared me as a kid.

First off, this film was made on a shoestring budget – but it still worked very well.

The plot line was pretty darn good.

The acting was excellent.
Richard Denning is always a believable character.
Kathleen Crowley was just fine, better than in “The Flame Barrier.”
Virginia Grey, as expected, was great.
Richard Reeves was, as usual, a strong character actor.
Robert Roark was a superb nut case killer.
Whit Bissell, of a zillion movies, was fine.

The robot, it was sure hinted as being more than one, was hokey but great.

The scene where Davis kills Vicki then Jim slides him up the wall and snuffs him out, is a well played out payback moment.

If you watch it as a suspense movie with a little science fiction thrown in, it will hold up as good entertainment.

This is also an educational movie.
Don’t overdose on sleeping pills and never flash a wad of cash in a bar.

See you at the movies and please toss your empty popcorn containers in the waste can in the lobby.


thingmaker said...

I first saw it in the '70s, as a teenager, and it worked pretty well for me. The human melodrama of mixed cliche characters trapped in an isolated place by a deadly outside force, yet more threatened by a human monster may be borrowed from "Key Largo". It seems to have been re-used often in SF/Horror.
It's puzzling but kinda cool that Paul W. Fairman, of all writers, has two films based on his work in the '50s - the other being the likable but brainless "Invasion of the Saucer Men".