Roger Corman is often thought of as a businessman first and a filmmaker second. Indeed, his name is synonymous with the b-movie in the eyes of many cinephiles. That assumption does him a disservice, though. Corman was actually a very skilled and savvy craftsman with a unique gift for making a lot out of a little. Even the less interesting entries in his filmography show a sense of craftsmanship that you didn’t always see in low-budget cinema of that era.
A good display of Corman’s craftsmanship applied to mediocre material can be found in War Of The Satellites. Like a lot of vintage b-movie fare, this 1958 production took its plotline from the headlines and exploited public fears about the then-current satellite race between the U.S. and Russia. The story begins with the U.S. trying to send manned satellites into space, only for them to be destroyed by some unforeseen force before get very far. Dr. Van Ponder (Richard Devon), the head of the project, gets permission to make one last attempt and decides to pilot the mission himself, with faithful aids Sybil (Susan Cabot) and Dave (Dick Miller) along for support him.
Unfortunately, the heroes do not know that aliens are plotting to keep Earth dwellers on their own planet by any means necessary. They sneak down to earth, secretly killing Dr. Van Ponder and creating a duplicate version of him to derail the mission. When that doesn’t work, they plot to have their Van Ponder clone destroy the satellite after its launch to discourage the inhabitants of Earth into ending their space quest. Dave figures out something is wrong with Van Ponder before the mission but is forced to go up into space to confront him.
As far as 1950’s sci-fi programmers go, War Of The Satellites is middling stuff. This is mainly due to the script: despite decent characterizations and dialogue, the storyline is a bit muddled. Also, the setup is more interesting than the space-set second half: the early portions of the film include some thoughtful dialogue about whether or not Earthlings have the right to travel in outer space as well as some nice small-scale suspense scenes as the Van Ponder clone struggles to elude detection. Once the ship is up in space, the film settles for stock cat-and-mouse scenarios that bypass the interesting material touched on in the first half and a rushed finale that is further hampered by the film’s limited resources.
That said, War Of The Satellites still works as a programmer despite its story’s shortcomings and this is mainly due to Corman’s direction. He diverts the viewers attention from any story problems by maintaining a snappy pace that covers a lot of material in its tidy 65 minute running time. The film also boasts a nice level of technical polish: cinematographer Floyd Crosby gives the film a noirish black-and-white look while Daniel Haller supplies some intriguingly stylized spaceship sets on a budget. Both Crosby and Haller would go on to make important contributions to Corman’s work during his influential and celebrated cycle of Edgar Allan Poe adaptations so it is interesting to see their early work as a unit. The special effects are mostly passable but a few miniature shots are surprisingly good.
Most importantly, Corman keeps the talk-driven narrative compelling by getting good performances from a solid b-movie cast: Devon makes a pretty decent alien-driven baddie, Cabot fulfills the eye-candy component of the film with poise and Miller offers a very credible turn in a rare leading role. Those viewers who grew up watching Miller as a wisecracking comedy presence in New World fare will find it a pleasant surprise to see him tackle a moodier, more serious sort of character with flair.
In summation, War Of The Satellites is a minor entry in the Corman filmography but it gives the viewer an opportunity to focus on how his sense of craft could elevate middling material. Thus, serious devotees of his work will want to give it a look.