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Friday, July 10, 2015

War of the Satellites (1958)

Story by Irving Block and Jack Rabin; Screenplay by Lawrence L. Goldman
Directed by Roger Corman

DICK MILLER!:  Dave Boyer
Susan Cabot:  Sybil Carrington
Richard Devon:  Dr. Pol Van Ponder

With Beach Dickerson, Bruno VeSota and Roger Corman himself (as a ground control crewman)

I'm positive that nobody working on today's movie expected it to be remembered five years after it came out. It was one that got made because Roger Corman knew the value of an irresistible title. According to his invaluable autobiography, he placed a call to Allied Artists Pictures the day that American newspapers reported the launch of Sputnik I, the first artificial satellite and a major victory in the space race and Cold War.

Well, Corman couldn't put another technologically created moon in the sky but he could sure as hell sell some movie tickets based on the story of the decade. But he told Allied Artists that if they cut him a check that day he could have a movie called War of the Satellites in theaters in twelve weeks. I imagine they asked him what it would be about and he said he didn't know yet (not a syllable of the script had been written), but were they going to pay him or not? Corman got his check, AAP got this movie (which made plenty of money because it was the first one to hit the screens about satellites when the USSR gave them hundreds of millions of dollars of free publicity), and I got a natural movie to review for Telstar Day this year.

Plus it's a rare starring role for Dick Miller, the living avatar and patron saint of "you know, that guy, who was in that movie with the other actors". If you've only seen ten movies in your life, chances are Dick Miller was in three of them.

Special love to Shout! Factory, by the way, for releasing this film on a three-movie DVD set with Attack of the Crab Monsters and the original Not of This Earth. It's great to see the disposable culture of decades gone by treated with reverence and made available to current and future generations. With the rise of infomercials on early-morning TV and cable broadcasts taking away one major gateway drug to B movie fandom, it's wonderful to think that anyone could order these movies from Netflix, get 'em at their local library, or possibly even find them at a "video store", if you live in a town that still has one.

This film was made under such a time crunch that the credits are just block lettering with a circle, triangle or abstract shape on the screen--a far cry from the cool undersea paintings from similar-period Corman efforts. And at 65 minutes, it's barely feature length. Everything about this one says "we were sprinting as fast as we could in order to make money off being the first ones to the theater exploiting this subject".

After the credits, a starfield fades into view. A round beeping thing zips from screen left to screen right, giving the audience what they wanted (a satellite) less than two minutes into the running time. The scene then shifts to an observatory run by Project Sigma, where six concerned white guys in suits are watching a monitor that displays the same shot we just saw of the spinning satellite. Dialogue among the scientists reveals that nine previous satellite launches went bad, destroying the orbital payloads and that this is the tenth launch. One of the observers puts the price tag at a half a billion dollars for the wasted effort and materials so far, which is probably lowballing the figure by a significant sum (Telstar I, launched in 1962, cost about $200,000,000 in early-Sixties dollars when all was said and done).

One of the Suited Worriers asks a slide-rule toting woman what she thinks is going to happen next. She says that as a scientist, her purpose is interpreting data rather than making predictions. The German-accented scientist played by Bruno VeSota says the men on the satellite are going to die, just like the last nine crews (holy cats! Crewed space flight in 1958! Corman obviously wanted to have something more compelling than the real story--which was just that a tone generator in a metal sphere was whipping around the Earth every 98 minutes, but damn! This movie is leaping forth with vigor and abandon into speculation about what anyone could do to get into orbit!). The German says that if the tenth satellite is destroyed, the United Nations, which is funding project head Dr. Pol Van Ponder's research, is going to find some other recipient for its research grants.

Looks like Dr. Van Ponder is going to have to hit Kickstarter, because the tenth satellite runs into some kind of distortion field in orbit and blows up. I kind of wonder who volunteered for, say, the seventh launch when the first six all got blown into dust so far above the Earth. I'm pretty sure I would have shot myself in the foot or kissed a dude to get out of the Space Army if it were me. Van Ponder says that he's going to continue working towards the satellite program until there's a success, which means that there's going to be as many futile launches that get disintegrated as he can get the RAND corporation or AT&T to pay for. Another scientist considers the repeated loss of life to be unconscionable and tells the project lead that he'll fight any effort to continue Project Sigma at "the Council".

Then two necking "teens" in a car see a descending light in the sky; the boy realizes that it's not Sputnik because the TV listings would have mentioned it (huh?). The two crazy mixed-up kids watch whatever it is crash into a California mountain range and explode. The girl tells her boyfriend to go see what impacted, which is the kind of thing people do in monster movies ALL THE TIME (both versions of The Blob as well as Killer Klowns from Outer Space have this happen in the first act). The girl gets her boyfriend to go look for whatever is making the electronic noises on the soundtrack by implying that he's a fraidy cat for not going. This works, because testosterone poisoning makes you stupid. The boy finds a crashed projectile and calls his girlfriend over ("I hope you know what you're doing--you flunked Chemistry twice!"). The kids pull the rocket out of the sandy impact crater and Dollar Store Archie reads the Latin inscription on it.

Whoa! Sudden jump cut to the United Nations building, which in 1958 would have still been something of a novelty itself. Stock footage of the General Assembly leads to Sybil Carrington reading an address to the people of Earth from "the masters of the Spiral Nebula Aganna". The Masters don't want humans getting off-planet and have quarantined the Earth with their forcefield. The Masters also say that any future attempts to leave Earth will meet the same fate, but don't give any reason for why they're doing this. Well, the word "infected" comes up when describing the third rock from the Sun, so maybe the Masters are treating our world as a planet-sized leper colony.

The American delegate doesn't cotton to that disease talk, and that alien races don't have the right to keep anyone from Earth out of the stars. What exactly he plans to do about it, I'm not sure. The movie isn't sure either, because the scene shifts to reporters asking Dr. Van Ponder about the situation rather than continuing that first reaction from the American diplomat. Van Ponder thinks that the message might well be a hoax (why would aliens write it in Latin?), and says that in order to be certain that Sigma Eleven works properly, he'll be going up in it himself.

I hope he left detailed notes with his subordinates, because chances are the next satellite isn't coming back either.

Dr. Van Ponder ends the press conference immediately after saying he'll captain the next ship himself and the reporters leave in order to file their stories. Van Ponder's assistants (Dr. Carrington and Dave Boyer) say they're volunteering to join him on the next launch. When talking privately to his people rather than to the journalists, Van Ponder drops a bomb. The metal that the message capsule was made of is something none of the scientists working on it can identify; it's nearly indestructible and extraordinarily resistant to heat. As for the Latin, he just assumes the aliens don't know any of the more recent Earth languages (a fair enough bet, I guess).

The budget-conscious device of a series of newspaper headlines let the audience know that time is passing, and the Sigma XI launch is getting closer. Dr. Carrington has crunched some numbers for him about how fast the satellite can expect to travel in a vacuum, and Van Ponder says he wants information for rates of travel up to and including lightspeed. Since the previous Sigma launches have all been destroyed in orbit, nobody knows exactly how fast the satellites are going to be able to go once they're in actual outer space and working as designed.

This meeting is interrupted by a call from the UN delegate, who says that some of the Sigma backers think that a suicide mission isn't the best use of planetary resources. Van Ponder leaves for the UN building immediately to try and talk sense into everyone who thinks he should possibly not go off on a death charge into space. A passing flying saucer (or other alien craft) fires a ray at his car (using the iconic sound effect of the 1953 War of the Worlds heat ray) and Van Ponder drives his 50s road yacht off the road for a fatal crash. The American delegate to the UN tells the gripe session that Van Ponder died while driving there to address them (and, politicians being politicians, the ones saying Sigma needs to be shut down say that without the project head, there's no reason to keep the project going).

So when Dr. Van Ponder walks through the door to get to his speech, the UN delegates are just as confused as the audience. He might be acting a little different now, but it's genuinely hard to say. The viewer really didn't spend all that much time with Van Ponder before the auto crash but seeing an energy projection of the doctor emerge from his body and turn into an exact physical duplicate probably means that something's up. The two different Van Ponder entities walk off two sides of the screen in a nifty shot that might have been split-screen, or might have just been careful blocking of the real actor and a stand-in that looked enough like him for the shot to work. Even with a ten-day shooting schedule for the entire feature, a Corman movie tries for neat little things like that.

Another headline lets the audience know that the next Sigma mission is proceeding, and the faux Van Ponder sits in his office speaking into a flickering Boom Tube that makes another noise pinched from the George Pal War of the Worlds. Fake Van Ponder says the humans didn't listen to the first warning, and the disembodied voice says it's time to try a stronger one. All they need is eight more plans and they'll be joining up with Eros and Tanna, firing electrode guns at corpses.

After the conversation between alien intelligences ends, Dave Boyer walks in to talk with Van Ponder (Dick Miller gets to deliver the requisite "I thought I heard you talking to someone in this room right before I walked in but there is nobody else around" line, and he does it like a champ). He's there to ask his superior to forbid Dr. Carrington to go on the mission; Boyer doesn't think it's a suicide mission or he wouldn't have volunteered. But he does believe it's horribly risky and doesn't like the idea of Carrington facing those insanely high risks. "Van Ponder" says that Dr. Carrington is a grown woman who knows the odds better than anyone, since she's a mathematician and engineer. If she wants to try breaching the orbital barrier, she gets to try.

Speak of the scientist, and she appears. Dr. Carrington says there's something important on the radio, and she's understating the case significantly. The announcer says that volcanoes are exploding all over the world; apparently the Soviet Union accused the USA of somehow triggering the seismic events until they found out that America's reeling from the same damage, as are unnamed other countries. This being a cheaply shot drive-in movie, there's no way we get a look at any actual eruptions, but there's visibly poor-condition stock footage of a forest fire, surging waves, and stuff like that.

The announcer says that the disasters out of nowhere (and at the same time) seem to be directed by some kind of intelligence because there's no way for them all to strike at exactly the same time. "Van Ponder" takes a phone call and says he's going to call off the mission rather than risk any more destruction; when Boyer tries to talk him out of it the scientist tells his assistant that the aliens causing this damage could wipe out the human race without apparent effort, and it's better to stay on Earth and not tick them off than to launch another Sigma project satellite. He writes a speech for the American delegate to the UN to deliver (and, ironically, all of Van Ponder's friends are sad and angry for him when the see the speech, since they don't realize his body's been hijacked by an alien life force).

Boyer takes the prepared statement to the UN when the delegate refuses to deliver the speech. He gets there just as the Soviet delegate is winding up his "no society on Earth can withstand the awesome force of whoever is quarantining the Earth" speech, and responds by going way off his provided script and saying that because the aliens are trying to stop Sigma, that alone is the reason that it must be supported to the fullest by all the governments of Earth. The six guys standing in for the entire UN General Assembly burst into applause and the anti-Sigma diplomats grudgingly put their hands together for rocket science. "Van Ponder", in his office, listens stone-faced as a radio announcer delivers the news of Boyer's speech and the renewed funding and support for Sigma.

Back in his office, "Van Ponder" and Boyer are working on some kind of mathematics table for the mission; another scientist comes in and claims he could have sworn he saw Dr. Van Ponder in another building. Boyer chides him for working too hard, saying the eyes fail first under stress tests like the one they're all undergoing. When "Van Ponder" gets called away to another building, Boyer notices that he's got one mole on his arm that's always been there, and an identical one on his other arm that wasn't there before.

The wheels start turning in Boyer's mind, and if he saw "Van Ponder" burning the shit out of his hand on a blowtorch flame without noticing it, those wheels would go into overdrive. (the makeup effect looks pretty gnarly, but I was really impressed with the simple and cheap way the burn was delivered--the actor holds his position in a scene where the flame will be superimposed and black burn marks are just animated on his hand). The fake doctor heals himself up before the medic gets there and stonewalls both the doctor who wants to know what's up with this "fake" report of a burnt hand and the technician who saw "Van Ponder" get an extra-crispy appendage. The technician knows what he saw, but good luck telling the doctor (who can see with his own eyes that the project head isn't injured) what happened before you left the room in a panic, buddy.

Boyer, for his part, takes a trip to the wrecking yard where Van Ponder's car was towed after the wreck; he seems to realize that nobody was walking away from the crash and calls Dr. Carrington to mention his suspicions. She tells him that the launch has been moved forward and he needs to be at the base in 45 minutes(!), so he just tells her they need to talk before the next Sigma mission goes up. Six minutes before Carrington's rocket goes up (there are three on the launch pads, all far too close to each other for it to be safe once ignition starts), Boyer still isn't able to tell her much more than that he needs to talk to her. She's scheduled for Rocket One; Dave is in Rocket Two and the technician that says he's no longer hallucinating wicked burns on Van Ponder's hand is ready to go into space as well. Van Ponder duplicates himself so that he can be on board his rocket and talk to people at the ground station at the same time (and Boyer sees it happen, so he's now absolutely certain that something completely unprecedented is going on).

One of the Van Ponders tells the technician to have a good trip right before the launch, then buckles himself into the acceleration couch next to Carrington; the following launch isn't going to give Destination Moon anything to worry about but it works fine for what the movie needs. Boyer makes his way to Rocket Two (and it's a neat way to get more use out of a single set; the two acceleration couches in Rocket Two are transparently the same ones from the first launch but it makes sense that each rocket would be built identically). When the various rockets move through their launch phases and converge in space it's Roger Corman on the ground describing what's happening. Also, if the shots of the model rocket nosecones stopping on a dime and hanging in front of the star field background don't make you giggle, you're a tougher B movie fan than I am.

Each nose cone jettisons a section of a massive orbital vehicle that floats over to a junction point and glues itself to the other pieces, which means that the Sigma project is making a fresh crewed space station with each launch. I think that "half a billion" figure was significantly lowballing the actual cost of this venture, yeah...

I'm a sucker for scenes where a mission commander says for an underling to do something and they do it while repeating the command or just acknowledging that they're doing it (it's one of the reasons I dig SpaceTeam as much as I do). But this sequence does go on a bit long, especially because the model satellite looks pretty damned chintzy to have so much stuff going on in it. Soon enough it's time for everyone to unbuckle from their launch couches and start doing science (and hopefully not running into the Sigma barrier and dying).

Once everyone's up and about on the satellite, "Van Ponder" goes looking for the technician that knows some of what's going on with his boss. He paralyzes the technician by gesturing at him and tells the guy--now that it's way, way, way too late for anybody to do anything about it--that the warning came from a civilization so advanced that they can effortless change matter to energy or vice versa. Whatever happens to everyone else on the satellite when it smacks into the Sigma Barrier, the entity that made clone bodies of Van Ponder at will is going to live through it. And with the deaths of everyone important to the continuation of the Sigma launches turning into an exo-ring of frozen corpses and shrapnel around the Earth, there won't be a twelfth Project Sigma launch to try and get out into space. "Van Ponder" says it's for humanity's own good that the Sigma launches have all been destroyed, but the technician is less than impressed ("You can go to hell!". Well, that sums it up, pretty much.) I swear it's the first use of the phaser sound effect when the technician gets telekinetically murdered by "Van Ponder", who blames hyperacceleration for the man's death when Dr. Carrington walks in on them seconds after the body hits the floor.

"Van Ponder" gives orders to the remaining crew that they'll be doing a two phase plan to defeat the Sigma Barrier; he then reports the technician's death and orders all available crew members to attend the "space funeral", which is probably the most awesome kind of funeral anyone can ever have. Then it's the alien's turn to walk in on someone at the least convenient moment; he goes through the door behind Dave Boyer as he's telling Dr. Carrington that the satellite's captain is some sort of inhuman Dr. Manhattan creature that can bilocate himself.

Incidentally, I really like the design of the satellite sets. Despite the fact that nobody who had anything to do with this movie at any point knew what a satellite was, I dig it. The sets look bland and utilitarian, which makes sense if they're $50,000,000 Quonset huts assembled in space for the crews to use. The war-surplus controls and props also make a huge amount of sense--outer space is the least forgiving environment imaginable and anything that's going to be exploring there should be rugged rather than delicate. All those Bakelite dials and switches look like they belong in this film's milieu. So to the jumpsuits that everyone's wearing (though I would imagine rank patches and some kind of insignia would be there if there had been more time for the costume designers to come up with something).

"Van Ponder" tells Boyer that the mission is down one man already with the technician dead; if Boyer gets chucked in the Space Brig then they're down two and everything gets riskier for the remaining crew members. There's also the wonderful line "I remind you that I am the captain of this ship, and that astro-planetary law gives me supreme and unquestioned command" dropped here, and I bet Richard Devon loved being the one who got to say it. Boyer stomps off to fulfill his duties and Dr. Carrington says everyone's under a lot of stress as a way to (unsuccessfully) get "Van Ponder" to go a little easier on him.

At the space funeral, Boyer and the ship's doctor sneak off in a COMPLETELY OBVIOUS MANNER while "Van Ponder" gives the eulogy for the man he murdered. It's not quite up there with Captain Kirk mourning his best friend, but it's hard not to get at least a tiny bit emotional thinking about the poor sucker giving his life for the future of humanity. And of the hypocrisy of his murderer being the one to say the official words over his plastic-sheathed body before it gets dropped down a floor hatch out into the void.

While Boyer and the doctor are talking about the dead crewman's physical results (he was in phenomenal shape, as was everyone on the crew), Boyer tells the doctor that the dead man was murdered. He points out that "Van Ponder" has a perfectly symmetrical face--which is impossible for a human to have--and that each of his fingerprints is completely identical to the other, which is even more impossible. With the evidence literally in front of his eyes, the ship's doctor has to accept Boyer's admittedly insane-sounding theory (and says that he's going to give "Van Ponder" a checkup at this point; only an emergency page from the control room preserves the alien's ruse for any length of time). Turns out there's some kind of signal interference in the control room, but "Van Ponder" says it's probably just cosmic dust--whatever that is--and leaves to remake his human form to include a cardiovascular system. I love the idea that the simulated body was basically a golem of solid undifferentiated flesh that the alien mind manipulated second-by-second to move and talk, by the way. That's just from the screenplay and didn't cost a penny.

Once "Van Ponder" gets back to his command chair he lets the doctor listen to his brand new ticker and blames Dave Boyer for the doctor's (fully justified) suspicion. It looks like the Death Touch doesn't work once the alien has turned his body into something more flesh and less barely-contained energy, but he strangles the doctor quite effectively as a Plan B. That's going to be harder to pass off as acceleration damage, so as a stalling tactic "Van Ponder" accuses Dave Boyer of killing the technician and sending a pair of security officers after him.

Boyer gets thrown in the Space Brig and Dr. Carrington, looking for the ship's medical officer, finds him when "Van Ponder" is dumping his body into the floor-hatch-covered launch tube. A neat little claustrophobic chase through the ship's narrow corridors and bulkheads follows. Dr. Carrington hides in the "Solar Energy Room", which is too dangerous for anyone to stay in it for long. Boyer knocks out the two security officers and takes their gun, chasing down "Van Ponder" just as the flesh golem discovers that having a functioning nervous system and genitalia is so much better than just being a space brain energy field. And all this is happening while the satellite is rushing towards the Sigma Barrier!

While "Van Ponder" starts making alien mating dance moves on Dr. Carrington, Action Dick Miller is skulking around the satellite's corridors with a gun and the navigator and helmsman call the captain to the controls for consultation on what exactly they're supposed to do in order to avoid or punch through the Sigma Barrier. The captain radios them to stay the course, which inspires as much confidence in them as it would in, say, a random American in about 2006 or so.

With all these crises rearing at the same time, "Van Ponder" duplicates himself again and sends the sunken-eyed, evil looking one out to wreak havoc while the trembling one with a heart (and pancreas and spleen &c.) stays in the Solar Energy Room to tell Dr. Carrington that he's surprised himself to find that he's become human now that he's been in the same room with her while wearing a meat suit. That happens to all the aliens, doesn't it? Even Ro-Man, which was a gorilla with a diving helmet on his head, developed a crush on the young woman in his movie--though, to be fair, Ro-Man was just as confused at that plot point as anyone else in the film or the audience.

Boyer comes across the Id Controlled version of "Van Ponder", who gets to the captain's chair and asks the astrogators for information on the cosmic windshield they're about to smash into like a bug. With five minutes to go, the evil Van Ponder duplicate orders the ship to crash into the dead center of the Sigma Barrier; Boyer shoots the evil flesh golem (which didn't realize that it was vulnerable to bullets when the other "Van Ponder" became physically human). Both of the duplicates manifest a wound when one is shot. During a scuffle with the mean clone, Boyer loses and regains his gun--shooting the duplicate three times kills it as well as the other "Van Ponder" in another section of the ship (witnessing this causes Dr. Carrington to faint, because she is a woman and this movie was filmed in 1958--at least she didn't spend the whole film fetching coffee for the men).

Boyer takes command of the ship and orders the genuine Van Ponder's plan to break through the Sigma Barrier; both of the alien duplicates fade into nothingness as the satellite approaches the Barrier. It turns out the new plan involves accumulating, focusing and directing a massive amount of solar energy to punch a hole through the barrier. Dr. Carrington is unconscious in the Solar Energy Room, so it's up to Boyer to haul her out of there before she's burnt to a crisp.

Does the Sigma make it through the barrier? Does Dr. Carrington wind up barbecued? Yes on one and no on two--this is a movie meant to make Americans feel better about getting beat in space by a political system that was supposed to be inferior and uncreative compared to our square-jawed heroes of capitalism. But what exactly the Sigma is going to do once it's out there in the universe, I have no idea. I hope they packed plenty of food and water. Otherwise it's going to be one gruesome trip.

What a neat little film! I mean, I'm a complete sucker for anything with the early Space Race in it, but given that this was a Corman film with a ludicrously fast production cycle and a torn-from-the-headlines gimmick I wasn't expecting a heck of a lot. Instead there's an alien invasion movie, stock footage of disasters, the UN General Assembly represented by maybe fifteen middle-aged men in suits, an alien that puzzles over This Thing We Humans Call Love, Dick Miller turning into an action hero briefly at the end, and vindication of the real Pol Van Ponder's plan to smash through the Sigma Barrier and bring humanity out into the cosmos at large. That's an amazing amount of stuff to pack into a single feature and I'm happy to say it's much better than anyone would have any right to expect given the less-than promising origin story.

And lastly, I was very pleasantly surprised by one more factor:  There's almost no jingoistic Cold War chest-beating. Sure, it might have just been that Corman and company were making the film as fast as it was human possible to make it, but somewhere there were still artistic choices being made. Yes, there's a Soviet diplomat who wants to buckle down under the alien demands, but he's all talk. There's never any attempts at sabotage from evil Commies when the rockets are going up; for that matter, even though Van Ponder is probably an American scientist, the program is funded by the United Nations--yes, they have their headquarters in New York City, but the space program, in this movie, at least, was a cooperative venture for the entire world instead of a pissing contest between the US and its allies and the Soviet bloc. I absolutely would not have expected that from a movie that started with a phone call because America was losing its collective shit over a scientific achievement from our ideological enemies.

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