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Tuesday, December 23, 2008

War of the Satellites

This is a dark and somewhat complex space drama, produced and directed by Roger Corman. The story came from Irving Block and Jack Rabin. Block gained fame from Forbidden Planet ('56), but was also involved in many other, lesser films. The basic premise of this story is similar to The Day The Earth Stood Still ('51) in that aliens warn the Earth that earthlings are not mature enough for space. In War of the Satellites (WotS), the aliens are far from Klaatu's benign Christ-like demeanor. The earthlings are proudly defiant.

Quick Plot Synopsis
A UN space program keeps sending up manned "satellite" missions, only to have them crash into "The Sigma Barrier" and explode. A warning from aliens is delivered and read at a UN assembly. The aliens have deemed earth too immature to venture into space and so have quarantined the planet. (the barrier) Impassioned speeches assert the right of humans to explore, so the program continues. The chief rocket scientist (Dr. Van Ponder) is killed in a car crash (by the aliens) and replaced with a duplicate. The duplicate tries to halt the program by various subterfuges. Some of the staff grow suspicious of Van Ponder. The three rockets are sent up anyway. Once the latest manned ship is assembled in space, the alien kills one of the crew who knows the truth. The alien frames a second crewman who also knows. The alien then kills the ship's physician for having discovered the truth as well. The alien develops "feelings" for the female crew member, Sybil. His plan is to crash the ship into the barrier so that this attempt too will fail. The framed crewman escapes and thwarts the plan. He shoots the alien, who dies, then vanishes. They accelerate the ship to a great rate and break through the Sigma Barrier, into the vast promise of space. The End.

Why is this movie fun?
As a murder-mystery, conspiracy drama, set in space, the story is actually pretty entertaining. There is enough twist to the plot to keep it from being totally predictable. The writers have avoided most of the sci-fi cliches, so even though the sets and effects are almost painfully low-budget, the story is engaging.

Cold War Angle
This is subtle. It casts the era's staunch nationalism into a new whole-earth planetism. The planetists zealously defy the oppressive outside power's attempt to restrict their freedom. There is also the notion of an important person being "turned" and thereby able to sabotage from within.

One World Government -- A feature that stands out in WotS is the prominence given to the United Nations. The UN is presented as the credible government of the world. While a few more decades have shown this not to be the case, WotS captures the 50s' optimism for the UN.

Manifest Destiny -- WotS captures a glimpse at human nature -- to want something simply because it's out there, to want something even more because some authority said 'no.' Perhaps by design, or perhaps inadvertently, WotS captures the youthful spirit of rebellion against the higher power over them.

Alien Duplication -- The trope of aliens operating among us, using human form, is a familiar one. Most often, the aliens take over a human. There's still only one "person", but they're changed. Less commonly, they duplicate someone. In 1953, the aliens in It Came From Outer Space made duplicates of townsfolk to repair their ship. In 1956 was the famous pod people of Invasion of the Body Snatchers. In WotS, the aliens kill Dr. Van Ponder and replace him with a nearly perfect duplicate. This alien Van Ponder is also able to duplicate himself so he can be in two places at the same time. Duplication (and replacement) will occur in later movies too.

Glorious Asymmetry -- WotS points out that people are asymmetrical. One half of their face differs from the other. Van Ponder's associates comment that his face is symmetrical. They also note that his finger prints are now identical left-right. The alien copy was perfect (symmetrical), as if it took a copy-and-paste shortcut of half of Van Ponder. Our "imperfection" is part of our true humanity.

Trekkie Sound -- Fans of the original Star Trek series of the late 60s will recognize the shimmery sound the Sigma Barrier makes. This sound was used in many ST1 episodes. Thus far, it appears as though WotS may be this iconic sound effect's debut.

Bottom line? War of the Satellites has a lot of entertaining elements, even if it is a bit light on action and monsters. Through it all, the determination of 50s men to explore space is palpable -- even if only because "it's there."

1 comment:

thingmaker said...

There's something about this film that I just love. Maybe the driving score, by a composer whose name I forget (Monstrous Movie Music put the main title from this on one of their albums). Maybe it's the sequence where the alien in human form burns his hand in a blowtorch and doesn't notice - He repairs the damage in a neat bit where he seems to sorta wipe away the burnt flesh...
OR maybe it's the odd mix of fairly nifty effects shots and a spaceship equipped with what look like barcaloungers.
Anyway this is one of those legendary Corman quickies and after better that half a century, it's still fun.