War of the Satellites (1958) **½
So we were just talking, over in the Rocket Attack U.S.A. review, about how the more savvy operators within America’s independent junk-movie industry saw a golden opportunity in their countrymen’s collective tizzy over the successful launch of Sputnik 1. By 1957, nobody was savvier or quicker on the draw than Roger Corman. After talking with Jack Rabin, a writer and special effects artist who had been similarly inspired by Sputnik-mania’s cinematic possibilities, Corman called the head of Allied Artists, and said he could have a satellite-themed sci-fi movie ready for distribution in two to three months. The Allied exec green-lit the picture right over the phone without so much as asking what the story would be. That was just as well, because there wasn’t actually a script yet. All Corman had at the time was a sketchy treatment brainstormed by Rabin, but two weeks later there was a completed first-draft screenplay, a full cast, and enough of a set to begin shooting. Principal photography wrapped ten days after that, and War of the Satellites was up on theater screens all over the US in another three months, just a little later than Corman had promised. It’s one of my favorite Roger Corman anecdotes, and one of those that best capture the seedy energy of mid-century independent filmmaking. What I never imagined, though, was that the end product of that drag race against the news cycle could be any good. Yet remarkably enough, War of the Satellites turns out to be an able little programmer, equal to many low-budget films that faced no such countdown to obsolescence, and better than quite a few.
In a clear and frankly rather lazy echo of It Conquered the World, the magnificently named Dr. Pol Van Ponder (Richard Devon, from The Saga of the Viking Women and Their Voyage to the Waters of the Great Sea Serpent) is having a crummy run of luck with his space flight program, Project Sigma. Eight times, his satellites have taken up orbit in preparation for voyages into deeper space, and eight times, they have been destroyed along with their crews by a mysterious energy barrier that seems to form in anticipation of their arrival. Van Ponder’s ninth satellite is on its way out of orbit now (yes, I agree— the writers do seem to have been a little unclear on the precise meaning of “satellite”), and the mission’s progress is being closely watched. Three of the observers, naturally, are Van Ponder and his top assistants, Sybil Carrington (Susan Cabot, of The Wasp Woman and Son of Ali Baba) and Dave Boyer (Dick Miller, from The Student Teachers and Rock ‘n’ Roll High School). There are also more critical eyes on the ninth launch, however, those of Jason ibn Akad (Michael Fox, of The Magnetic Monster and Gog, who I’m pretty sure is the reason why the Screen Actors’ Guild insisted that Michael J. Fox use his middle initial) and an even grumpier guy named LeMoine (Bruno VeSota, from Daughter of Horror and Creature of the Walking Dead). The latter men are not scientists but foreign delegates to the United Nations General Assembly, at the behest of which Project Sigma is being undertaken. They think it’s long past time to pull the plug, and after eight *KABOOM!*— excuse me, nine— consecutive failures, I have a hard time disagreeing with them, especially since Van Ponder seems to have nothing but blind faith to offer as a reason for any new mission to break through the Sigma Barrier. Hell, so far as I can tell, Van Ponder doesn’t even have any clear idea what the Sigma Barrier is!
That much at least is about to change, thanks (if you can believe this) to a couple of teenaged greasers (Jay Sayer and Mitzi McCall). The kids are out parking one night when their intimacy is intruded upon by a strange object falling from the sky. It looks like a rocket, it’s made of no metal ever seen on Earth, and its fuselage is engraved with a lengthy inscription in Latin, of all languages. One assumes that ancient tongue is still a required subject at the local high school, because Jay and Mitzi are able to puzzle out that the missive from space is addressed to the UN. Sybil Carrington has the honor of reading an English translation aloud before the General Assembly, revealing that the Sigma Barrier is the work of aliens from the spiral nebula Gana who have taken it upon themselves to keep humans from spreading beyond the Earth. If ibn Akad and LeMoine were against continuing Project Sigma before, you can imagine what they think of it now. Van Ponder tries to make an end-run around ibn Akad’s favorite objection— the fate of the project’s volunteer astronauts— by announcing that he intends to captain Sigma 10 himself, but before the General Assembly can take up that proposal, the scientist is killed in a car wreck. Strange wreck it is, too. Some kind of radiation from the night sky bombards Van Ponder’s car until its workings seize up and the vehicle runs off the road.
With that in mind, it should probably cause more trepidation than joy when reports of Van Ponder’s death prove exaggerated. The Pol Van Ponder who returns to work claiming blithely that the policeman who found him in the ruins of his car “made a mistake” has much less fight in him than the old one when it comes to the Gana beings’ quarantine of Earth. To be fair, the stakes look higher now, too, because the aliens have begun flexing their muscles by causing earthquakes and meteorological disasters all over the globe. It now falls to Boyer to be the voice of defiance, one time going so far as to deliver a message to the General Assembly— ostensibly from Van Ponder and Project Sigma coordinator Cole Hotchkiss (Robert Shayne, from The Lost Missile and The Giant Claw)— the gist of which is exactly contrary to what he was told to say. But what nobody realizes yet is that the Van Ponder calling now for the abandonment of his life’s work is really one of the Gana beings in disguise.
The first person to suspect as much is a technician named John Compo (Jered Barclay, of Howling VI: The Freaks), who sees the scientist accidentally burn his hand to a crisp with an acetylene torch, and apparently not even feel it. Compounding Compo’s alarm and deepening his confusion, Van Ponder exhibits no sign of injury at all by the time staff physician Dr. Howard Lazar (Eric Sinclair) arrives to treat his previously horrid wound. All in all, I’m thinking there’s a very sinister reason behind pod-person Van Ponder’s recruitment of Boyer, Carrington, Compo, Lazar, and indeed all the key Project Sigma personnel to ride the next satellite along with him. On the other hand, it happens that the last thing the real Van Ponder did before being replaced by an alien was to devise a scheme that might actually defeat the Sigma Barrier. Fake Van Ponder can’t very well delete that protocol from the Sigma 10 mission plan without giving the game away; he can only prevent it from being executed once the satellite is on its final approach to the barrier. Quarters aboard a spacecraft are close indeed, however, so it’s hardly a foregone conclusion that the alien can prevent Compo from spreading his suspicions among the rest of the crew in time to stop him.
I expected a completely different experience from War of the Satellites than what it actually delivered. Knowing only that Roger Corman made a movie by that title in response to Sputnik hysteria, and that he did so with all other concerns subordinated to getting it into release before the public had a chance to settle down, I pictured a very dull and talky thing (because talk is cheap, while action costs money) that would culminate in a brief and disappointing clash between American and Soviet satellite controllers— a bit like a black and white Robot Jox in which we’d never see the high-tech machines in action until the last five minutes. A workmanlike alien invasion movie, with a bit of style and a story structure that makes it feel much faster-paced than it is, was thus a welcome surprise, even if it’s basically just It Conquered the World with no name actors and no rubber monsters.
The second half of that description sounds deadly, I realize. As clunky as It Conquered the World was, who the hell would want to sit through it without the benefit of Lee Van Cleef or Paul Blaisdell? But Roger Corman matured fast as a director, and even the year and a half or so separating this movie from that one did wonders for his technique. The setting alone is a point in War of the Satellites’ favor. Although the offices of Project Sigma and whatever hotel conference room is standing in for the chamber of the UN General Assembly surely cost no more to build or to rent than the earlier film’s tiny Southern California town, they don’t trumpet their cheapness in the same way, nor do they suffer from the exhausted familiarity that a hundred low-budget sci-fi movies had by this time imparted to the combination of irrigation-dependent LA exurb and Bronson Canyon cave. War of the Satellites also shows Corman beginning to move beyond the newsreel-influenced aesthetics that ruled drive-in screens during the 50’s. Part of it is just canny employment of the more visually interesting sets. Project Sigma’s control room has a curious claustrophobic feel, starkly unlike its famous real-world counterpart in Houston. Something tells me Corman shot it that way mainly to hide the fact that it was just a few pieces of equipment shoved into the corner of a huge and otherwise empty space, but the low light, too-tight blocking, and cramped camera placement subliminally magnify the tension of the opening sequence in which Van Ponder and his colleagues must helplessly observe the destruction of yet another spaceship. A similar psychology is at work all through the final act, which is set entirely aboard Sigma 10. The satellite interiors have all the Spartan inhospitability of a real-life warship, combined with a maze-like layout to create an emotionally apt environment for struggling against an invisible enemy. The lack of star-power, meanwhile, is counterbalanced by greater visibility for Corman’s informal repertory company: Dick Miller, Susan Cabot, Bruno VeSota, Jonathan Haze, Beach Dickerson, etc. Few of the Roger Corman Players were truly cut out for conventional leading roles, but all were reliable character actors, and their long association with the director gave both sides a noticeable boost whenever they worked together.
As for what provoked me to cover War of the Satellites in this update, the Cold War subtext turns out to be surprisingly muted for a film made expressly to cash in on Sputnik mania. The Gana beings’ quarantine of Earth might be seen as a sort of Iron Curtain in reverse, and the movie does eventually get around to playing the “emotionless alien doppelganger” card that comes up so often in the Commies from Space subgenre. There’s also the issue of the UN General Assembly as a venue for international grandstanding, which did so much to degrade the institution’s reputation as the Cold War wore on. Jason ibn Akad never takes off his shoe to pound on the table with it, but his behavior is consistently reminiscent of the antics indulged in by UN ambassadors from Eastern Bloc countries. Curiously, however, ibn Akad seems not to belong to the delegation from the Soviet Union or any of its European allies. Syria was a Soviet client state in the late 1950’s, though, and “ibn Akad” is a name one might expect to encounter in northwestern Mesopotamia. Still, for the most part, War of the Satellites is little more specifically Cold War-flavored than any other 50’s alien invasion movie.
This review is part of a team-up between 1000 Misspent Hours and Counting and Checkpoint Telstar, the proprietor of which shares my queasy fascination with all things Cold War. Click the banner below for a complete list of the films we’re covering to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Berlin Wall coming down.