Run Time: 75 minutes
Original Release Date: November 7, 1954
Ever heard someone spout the old tried-and-true phrase “they just don’t make ‘em like they used to?” Well, in the film industry that phrase is definitely true, although the resulting shift in cinematic techniques nowadays as opposed to the days gone by is both a blessing and a curse.
I have a special place in my heart for the old sci-fi “B” movies of the 1950s and 1960s. Granted, I didn’t grow up watching them when they were new and first released, but I have spent many a late night in front of the TV since, catching up on this intriguing sub-genre of films through my ever-growing movie collection or stumbling upon one via the magic of basic cable. And now, with Netflix and other on-demand movie services? There are literally hundreds of these “golden oldies” at your fingertips.
But it’s a mixed bag: for every film like ‘Forbidden Planet’ or ‘Night of the Living Dead’ that featured a truly compelling idea whose story has stood the test of time, there are a dozen movies like ‘Manos: The Hands of Fate’ or ‘Plan 9 From Outer Space‘ whose creators were so blinded by their intent to create something “fantastical” they slap-dashed ideas and objects together so haphazardly that the film is barely watchable for actual entertainment value.
‘Target Earth’ falls somewhere in between the two extremes. It was produced and released in 1954, on the overall forefront of the massive influx of “B” movies during the time period. Its story follows a few random strangers who have seemingly missed a massive overnight evacuation of a large city (many reviews list the city in question as Chicago, but I never heard anyone in the film specifically reference where they were). After a very eerie-feeling first half of the film, where both the characters and the audience are unaware of what is truly going on, the aforementioned “fantastical” element arrives: the city has been invaded by an army of “giant” mechanical men from Venus who have come to slowly (very…slowly…) take over the Earth.
Can these few people trapped inside the city survive? Will the character with a shady past pose an even bigger threat than the rampaging automatons? Can the army scientists come up with a so-simple-I-can’t-believe-they-didn’t-think-of-it-sooner way to defeat the otherworldly invaders?
As mentioned previously, the film does establish a great atmospheric vibe early on, and maintains this Hitchcockian flavor for about half of the story. Sadly, though, once the threat “from beyond the stars” is revealed, things quickly spiral into just another attempt at filmmakers of the time trying to present the viewer with something they’ve never seen before and possibly (hopefully) won’t understand. I do enjoy the first half of the film very much, though, but with a run time of only an hour and 15 minutes, it’s hard to think of Target Earth as “feature-length” by today’s standards.
The more “astonishing” elements of the film turn out to be rather blasé – giant robots! Oh wait, they’re only about six feet tall…amazingly-advanced military compounds! Oh wait, they’re just in someone’s basement…shiny metallic invaders from beyond! Oh wait, they just look like upside-down washer and dryers. Some of this is forgivable, or at least understandable, due to the budgetary constraints of the time. On the flip side, the film does score highly in its characterization of the human cast of the select few left behind in the city. These people are shown with real-world problems in addition to the whole pesky robot-invasion thing – and extra points for the film opening with the surprisingly-heavy content of aftermath of Nora’s (Kathleen Crowley) failed suicide attempt.
While the main conceit of the story could hide behind the shroud of mystery at first, once the true nature of the threat was revealed the story just didn’t have anywhere to go. Almost all of the film is spent showing how unstoppable these iron-clad monsters are…until the military scientists “miraculously” discover the too-simple solution at the last moment. It’s kitschy, and while some kitsch can be fun kitsch, in this case, it’s just kitsch for kitsch’s sake, and that’s not the good kind of kitsch. I think I’ve just set the world record for number of times using the word “kitsch” in one sentence!
I understand that the film budgets of yesteryear are chump change compared to today’s blockbusters (even compared to many of today’s “independent” productions), but if ‘Target Earth’ had any kind of budget, it was money poorly spent. In addition to looking largely ridiculous, the “robot army” didn’t even fit that definition: the effects team only created one robot suit, so the viewer never sees more than a single robot in any given shot. When one of the automatons fires it’s “death ray” and vaporizes a human, the effect is eye-rollingly bad at best, and you can actually see the film jump from where the person was standing one moment and gone the next. But hey – at least the robots weren’t the bodies of gorillas with deep-sea divers helmets for their heads, am I right?
In re-reading this article, I think I sound particularly harsh on this film, and that really wasn’t my intent. The acting is well above-average for its time, and as I’ve said previously, the first half of the movie is incredibly effective as an unknown/suspense horror type of tale. Ultimately, the story has nowhere to go and falls very flat before finally copping out to an easy conclusion. If you are searching for a solid “B” movie to pop in as you settle in on the couch in a dark room with a bowl of popcorn, ‘Target Earth’ is passable, but there are far better options for you out there.
Tony Schaab started an online petition to try and get Gilbert Gottfried hired as the voice of B-9, the robot in Netflix’s ‘Lost in Space’ reboot, because – well, c’mon, wouldn’t that just be awesome? A lover of most things sci-fi and horror, Tony is an author by day and a DJ by night. Come hang out with Tony on Facebook and Twitter to hear him spew semi-funny nonsense and get your opportunity to finally put him in his place.