War of the Satellites

War of the Satellites. Santa Cruz Productions 1958.

Before watching the movie:

I probably know about as much about this movie as Roger Corman did when he decided to make it. Earth is about to start launching satellites and aliens disapprove, and it’s all very “hey, remember Sputnik?”

It sounds more interesting to watch than to write. The effects and action sequences will probably be hilarious but also the best part. It looks like even though the United Nations is standing in for the United States, they still manage to let the United States be the most American part of the Earth.

I like going into movies completely blank on them until I have to write about my nonexistent preconceptions.

After watching the movie:

After having lost ten Sigma Project manned satellites to collisions with a mysterious matter-energy barrier that forms in the way of each satellite, the UN space program is on the verge of cancellation, to the chagrin of Sigma’s leader Dr. Van Ponder. A missile lands on the earth bearing a message in Latin from an extraterrestrial force declaring that the Masters of the Spiral Nebula Gana refuse to allow humans to infect the rest of the universe and will destroy all probes launched, which fuels the project’s opposition but also galavanizes the resolve of Dr. Van Ponder and the American delegation to the UN. To demonstrate his belief in the project, Van Ponder announces that he will lead the Sigma 11 crew himself. With this news, Van Ponder’s secretary Sybil declares her intent to volunteer for the mission, which obligates her boyfriend, project astronomer David, to volunteer as well. On the way to the UN assembly to defend Sigma from another attack on its budget, Van Ponder’s car is taken over by a ball of light and crashes. His death is announced to the UN assembly only moments before Dr. Van Ponder appears in the chamber himself, declaring the police officer’s assessment an error. Once alone, “Van Ponder” divides into two replicas of the scientist to accomplish more at once. When a coordinated global attack demonstrates the power of the aliens, Van Ponder declares an end to the Sigma Project and a surrender, but when David volunteers to read the statement for the American UN delegate, he instead makes a speech about how Earth cannot allow the aliens to dictate humanity’s fate, and the project continues forward, rapidly approaching the launch date with the Van Ponder imposter still in command.

If this is About anything more than making a quick profit off of Sputnik fever, I suppose it’s about human/American resolve. Though the UN is nominally in control of the mission and there are characters from all over the (non-Soviet) world, the Sigma Project survives apparently exclusively on support from the American delegation, and all of the heroes seem to be American. There might have been something in the false Van Ponder having trouble with his abilities after changing his internal anatomy to pass a physical exam and then declaring he’s human thanks to Sybil and desperately needs her, but it’s not handled consistently and just doesn’t make much sense. It’s like a stray idea they left in the draft without taking the time to connect it to anything.

I was expecting to have a laugh at the visual effects, and they were as expected. The Sigma 11 launch and deployment in particular was impressively pompous and unwieldy, and they use some very obvious lounge chairs (Contour chairs) as take-off couches. However the silliest part was the one scene with the caricatured teenagers getting interrupted from their necking to find the missile with the message from the aliens. The direction was clearly to drown them in stereotype to the point of extreme camp. Overall though, the short runtime seems padded out by attempts at tension and dramatic irony that don’t really pay off. People learn things but they don’t get to act on them until several scenes later. This is a movie sold on playing with the space race toybox, and that’s the main thing it gets to deliver.

A movie made from concept to premiere in six months is not going to be the most solid picture, but while the visuals deliver about as well as cheap, rushed visuals of the time could, the script is rushed to the point of being dull. All of the interest is in the topic and the visuals, so the story is just there to excuse them. It adds up to one of the longest one-hour movies I’ve ever seen.

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