Knowing Roger Corman’s legendary reputation as a savvy businessman and even savvier exploitation filmmaker, it should come as no surprise that he managed to capitalize on the Sputnik scare of 1957. The endless parade of news broadcasts relaying breathless coverage of the red satellite, and politicians denouncing Eisenhower’s stingy missile budget meant plenty of free advertising for sci-fi films. Corman capitalized on it in a way that lives up to his reputation as well, while Rocket Attack USA (1958) and The Lost Missile (1958) were directly targeting the fears of an insecure nation, Corman just dressed up the film he wanted to make anyway in more marketable clothing. The War of the Satellites is consequently the Holy Roman Empire of 1950s sci-fi film; it contains no satellites (despite what the characters in the film say) and it contains nothing that resembles a war (though a handful of people do come to a violent end).
Indeed, the world depicted by The War of Satellites is pointedly at peace, to such an extent that it borders on utopian considering the film’s release date in the midst of the early Cold War. In War of the Satellites, the nations of the earth are at peace, and have even joined together to collaborate on projects for the good of all mankind. This isn’t Star Trek, nations still exist and there are still rivalries and squabbles among them, but these disputes take the form of diplomatic speeches in the UN, rather than proxy wars and rocket rattling. The latest of these rather mild international incidents is over a series of failures in the Sigma Project, a space program aimed at sending human beings into deep space. Every time the program launches a spaceship (which the characters insist on calling a satellite, despite the fact that they aren’t trying to orbit anything) it is destroyed when it hits a mysterious barrier called the Sigma Barrier. So far they’ve lost 10 spaceships, with their full crews by crashing into the Sigma Barrier.
The project is the brainchild of the United States, and headed by one of their most brilliant scientists, Dr. Van Ponder. Up until now he’s managed to maintain support in the UN, but the repeated failure is causing some members to get fed up with the whole program. In particular the Soviet delegation (I’m guessing, they are never named as such) lead by Mr. Akad and Mr. LeMoine, is calling for an immediate cessation of the program. LeMoine’s boisterous personality, perpetual glower, and bowling-ball physique makes it clear that he’s our stand in for the Soviet Premier, Nikita Khrushchev. The UN’s general assembly is initially inclined to agree with him; I’m amazed it took so long for them to get suspicious of the Sigma Project; at $3,000,000,000 a piece these spaceships aren’t cheap, to say nothing of their crews. Thirty billion dollars and perhaps 100 lives is a lot even for such legendarily profligate organization as a world government.
That all changes once the earthlings receive a mysterious message that falls from the sky in a capsule obviously of extra-terrestrial origin. The message, written in of all languages Latin, claims to be sent from an alien empire. The aliens call humanity a disease and inform the earthlings that they have been quarantined for their own safety and the safety of the rest of the galaxy. If the aliens think this going to stop us, they have seriously misjudged the character of your average human being; there is nothing so likely to get an earthling to overcome an obstacle as to tell him that it’s hopeless and he’s better off not trying. The UN, which was previously opposed to any attempt at breaking through the Sigma Barrier, is galvanized into action. They commit to yet another Sigma Project mission, this one captained by Van Ponder himself. To show us that they’re not joking, the aliens unleash a wave of natural disasters on earth, but that only hardens the resolve of the world’s governments. As the US ambassador puts it: “Man cannot be dismissed as a disease… Our hopes, our aspirations lead us to the stars, and no other race has the right to judge us or deny us that journey.” Yeah, you tell those alien bastards!
The aliens are not about to let up though; they dispatch one of their own to do the old Body Snatch on Van Ponder and sabotage the mission from within. Obviously such a step proves that the humans are closer to success than the aliens would ever admit publicly. The plan that Van Ponder put forward, before an alien clone replaced him, will work, provided that it’s executed properly. The Van Ponder imposter, as captain of the mission, will be in the perfect place to make sure the expedition fails and fails spectacularly. The only problem is that he’s not very good at blending in with humans. First of all, the Van Ponder imposter is constantly splitting up into two clones and running tasks concurrently. While this certainly makes him more productive it begins to raise the suspicions of Van Ponder’s right hand man, Dave Boyer. It’s such an unnecessary risk that it makes no sense for the alien to do so, other than as an excuse for the filmmakers to showcase an unusually adept (for the strata of film we’re talking about at least) double-exposure effect. Moreover, the alien is immune to pain and consequently doesn’t act with the customary caution of human beings. He’s almost caught when he burns his hand severely in front of one of the expedition’s technicians, John Campo. Some fast thinking, and faster healing allows the alien to conceal his identity, and pass off the whole ordeal as a case of Campo cracking up under pressure. Despite the imposter’s deception, at least two members of the crew are suspicious of their leader once the spaceship is ready to depart. You can bet that Boyer and Campo will be watching Van Ponder like a hawk once they’re in space together.
Corman certainly earned his reputation as a man who could bring a film in on time and under budget, but make no mistake, War of the Satellites is not a hack job. Sure it’s cheap sci-fi quickie that was filmed in a couple of weeks, but it’s also a labor of love that makes the most out it’s limited resources. There is some filler, some stock footage ripped from movies with larger special effects budgets but nothing compared to films of similar budget and origin. On the other hand we see some very competent miniature work (the extended sequence where the three spaceships launch and connect is quite impressive). Though it makes no logical sense (given the nature of his mission) the sequence where the Van Ponder impersonator splits into two identical clones is completely convincing. Beyond the special effects, War of the Satellites demonstrates a rare engagement with the material on an intellectual level, it’s a film that’s asking questions, and a film whose creator is intellectual involved with.
Admittedly, on its own The War of the Satellites is a rather pedestrian film, but when compared with its great forerunner The Day the Earth Stood Still (1952) it becomes quiet a bit more interesting. In the earlier film the alien Klantuu represents the galactic interests to which humanity is a potential threat. He journeys to earth to guide our civilization to enlightenment, or destroy us if we prove beyond saving. It’s an interesting mix of altruism and Machiavellian self-interest that motivates the mission to earth. The Day the Earth Stood Still is a brilliant film, but it does not capitalize on the sheer arrogance of the alien ambassador. Who the hell is he to come down to our planet and tell us how to run our civilization; hell if Gort and the other robots are used to destroy any world that get our line it seems like the aliens haven’t come up with a better solution to war than the logic of mutually assured destruction either.
In War of the Satellites we see a much less noble picture of similar alien interlopers. Here the aliens are plainly afraid that if mankind makes it to the stars then their days are numbered. They know that despite their superior technology and head start on us, in a fair fight the humans will beat them every time. The only good thing you can say about them is that they tried to quarantine the earth to prevent us from getting out, rather than glassing the whole planet. At least, that’s how it looks on the surface. We never get a clear explanation for what the aliens are hoping to accomplish by keeping mankind from the stars. It could be that behind their arrogant posturing that the aliens really have our best interests at heart. After all, we don’t know what horrors might be lurking in the darkness of the void or what dangers might be entailed by light-speed travel. The aliens obviously haven’t been paying much attention to us (the fact that they send their first message in Latin suggests that the last time they bothered to visit was around the time of the Crucifixion); it’s very possible that this could all be a misunderstanding. Such ambiguity sours the film’s apparently “happy” ending when you take the time to think it through.
Despite the ambiguous ending, it’s still a real treat to watch some sci-fi where mankind is treated as essentially heroic. In War of the Satellites mankind is a tenacious upstart species that won’t sit still and do what our social/technological betters tell us; it’s why the aliens are so scared of us getting out into the larger galaxy. It’s a refreshing attitude to see. Don’t get me wrong, I love Arrival (2016) and Aliens (1986) as much as anybody (probably more than average) but despite the occasional odd hero they treat humans as stupid, fearful, violent, or selfish. While we certainly are all those things in turn, such a negative vision of mankind doesn’t really do us justice nor is it particularly helpful in a world already overflowing with hate and sneering condescension. Optimism about mankind, while unfashionable, remains justifiable in the light of our species’ monumental accomplishments. I am inclined to agree with the American ambassador’s speech: the stars are our destiny, and we must, and will triumph over any material obstacle in our way.