"The terrifying truth about flying saucers!"
-- ads for the picture in 1956
Director: Fred Sears
Screenplay: George Worthington Yates and Raymond T. Marcus
Special Effects: Ray Harryhausen
Starring: Hugh Marlowe, Joan Taylor, Morris Ankrum, Harry Lauter, and Donald Curtis
Russell Marvin (Hugh Marlowe) directs the US Army's Project Skyhook, an effort to launch the first artificial satellite -- this movie was released the year before the Soviets launched Sputnik I. Ten launches so far have ended disastrously, with the rocket crashing and burning.
Russ has married the boss's daughter -- wedding Carol (Joan Taylor), the daughter of General Hanley (Morris Ankrum). As they return from their honeymoon, Russ and Carol have a close encounter with a flying saucer.
After the eleventh rocket also crashes. Russ suggests to Carol's father that the rockets may have been shot down. Then he and Carol tell him about their encounter with the flying saucer.
— As the scientists prepare to launch the twelfth and final rocket, a flying saucer lands at Project Skyhook. Three aliens emerge from the craft and one is promptly shot. The flying saucer takes off again and proceeds to destroy the Project Skyhook facility. While Russ and Carol are trapped in the wreckage, General Hanley is abducted by the aliens. Once on board the saucer an alien device absorbs his mind. In a later scene the aliens will toss out his body like a bag of trash.
While waiting to be rescued, Russ and Carol discover that the sounds they recorded during their earlier encounter with a saucer were actually a message from the aliens requesting a meeting with the Project Skyhook scientists. The message was only intelligible when played back at a slower speed. The alien's transmission of their invitation at too fast a speed had made it unintelligible to the scientists and led to the hostile response the aliens got when they landed at Project Skyhook.
Following their rescue, Russ and Carol are summoned to Washington to report what happened. Despite being forbidden to do so, Russ makes radio contact with the aliens and arranges for another meeting. Carol and Major Huglin (Donald Curtis) follow Russ to the meeting along with a pursuing motorcycle cop. All four are taken aboard one of the saucers, where they are told that the aliens intend to take over Earth. While they would prefer to do it peaceably, they are prepared to do it by force. They ask Russ to arrange a meeting with the world's leaders. They also demonstrate their power by blowing up a Navy destroyer.
The aliens then take over the world's communications media, announcing their intention of conquering the planet.
It isn't long before the battle is underway, with great scenes of a flying saucer drifting past the Eiffel Tower and another landing in front of the White House. The terrific fifteen minute sequence depicting the battle in the skies over Washington, D.C. and the resulting destruction of just about every famous building in the city is oddly a joy to watch.
Earth's conventional weaponry, as the conventions of these films requires, prove impotent. Rockets fired at the saucers hit their targets but are totally ineffectual.
Most of the civilian casualties, however, are caused, not by the invading aliens, who concentrate successfully on purely military targets, but by the American armed forces. This could have been far worse since one of the generals quite naturally suggests using the atomic bomb. Major Huglin wisely points out that it doesn't make much sense to use the atom bomb when the enemy is on your own soil and beside that they don't even know if it would work.
Russ and his scientific team race against time to prepare weapon that can defeat the invading aliens. Defeating them takes an entirely new weapon put together cooperatively -- the idea of an Indian scientist put into practice by a team of Americans with materials from all over the world. This weapon too inflicts more damage on the city than the alien's weapons do. Landmark after landmark is demolished as Russ Marvin's magnetic disruptor sends the aliens' saucers plunging to the ground.
Ray Harryhausen's stop-motion animation of the aliens and their flying saucers is the focus of the movie and the reason it remains well worth watching half a century after it was made. The cast wisely doesn't try to compete with the special effects. All the performances are low-key to the point of being unobtrusive. Although Hugh Marlowe gets the role of the hero here, his performance is considerably less memorable than when he was playing Patricia Neal's self-centered jerk of a boyfriend in The Day the Earth Stood Still. Joan Taylor's performance is even more forgettable without in any way being actually bad. Morris Ankrum turns in another of his many turns as the crusty old soldier, a role he played so often that he may have qualified for a military pension.
This is simply a fun film. Watch it for some of the greatest special effects of the pre-CGI era and for the fun of watching Washington, DC be destroyed without feeling like you're a terrorist.