Friday, February 8, 2019

War of the Satellites

War of the Satellites
Roger Corman

With the destruction of the tenth attempt to get a manned satellite into orbit, Dr. Pol Van Ponder (Richard Devon), the head of the project is facing pressure from the United Nations as well as the sinking feeling that powers beyond the Earth are thwarting him. Van Ponder ends up in a seemingly fatal car accident only to appear at a key U.N. meeting unharmed. Only, this isn’t Van Ponder and as he drives the next iteration of the Sigma Project towards disaster, only his colleges Dave Boyer (Dick Miller) and Sybil Carrington (Susan Cabot) begin to suspect that something is amiss.

"Murry Futterman? Never heard of him."
War of the Satellites is a surprisingly ambitious story. Roger Corman productions might be notorious for cutting corners, but this film still tries to tell a more complex story than a simple alien doppelganger  tale. The flip side of this is that it isn’t an especially focused story, alternating between United Nations meetings, gee-whiz space adventure, and some mysterious cloak and dagger activities. Another Corman film, It Conquered the World (1956) touches on some very similar ideas but keeps the whole thing on the ground level and centered on its characters which results on a much more streamlined narrative.

Being surprised while watching a 1950s SF film is a rare treat, so it was with some delight that Dr. Pol Van Ponder makes a turn to the villainous and the one only Dick Miller as Dave Boyer steps in to take the lead as the hero of the story. Dick Miller is always a fun presence, but he’s often regulated to smaller roles, so it’s great to see him get plenty of screen time and be the good guy for once. Richard Devon as Van Ponder moves between his warm human self and the cold alien beneath with a slippery ease that makes him into an effective threat. Susan Cabot turns in another great performance in a string of Corman films. Her Sybil is a strong character but relegated to damsel in distress by the 3rd act.

The working title for this film was War of the Upholsterers.
You should never go into a Roger Corman film expecting great special effects, but in the scenes where Dr.  Ponder replicates himself Corman pushes things here just a little bit and they transform into interesting little moments. The launch and formation of the Sigma satellite is much less successful, but I have to admire the attempt to show three rockets transforming and merging into a single satellite in a low budget production like this.

War of the Satellites plays a like a mishmash of other SF films from the period, and attempts to knit them together with a espionage plot that mostly works. It offers a few surprises here and there and a great role for Dick Miller. It is not a film I see mentioned in Roger Corman’s body of work very often but it is a solid little film that shows off some big ambitions.

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