Friday, 7 September 2018

War of the Satellites (1958)

A typically fast and cheap Roger Corman sci-fi epic and certainly not his best!

Directed by Roger Corman
Produced by Roger Corman
Music by Walter Greene
Distributed by Allied Artists
Running time: 66 minutes
Budget: $70,000 (approx..)


Dick Miller: Dave Boyer
Susan Cabot: Sybil Carrington
Richard Devon: Dr. Pol Van Ponder
Eric Sinclair: Dr. Howard Lazar
Michael Fox: Jason ibn Akad
Robert Shayne: Cole Hotchkiss
Jered Barclay: John Compo
John Brinkley: Crew Member
Bruno VeSota: Mr. LeMoine
Jay Sayer: Teen
Mitzi McCall: Teen
Roy Gordon: The President

In the office of the head of Allied Artists, the phone noisily and hysterically cries out for the boss’s attention. The boss could tell just by the ring who it would be….

Walter: Hello, Roger. What can I do for you?

Roger: Hey Walt. You know how the Russians sent up that Sputnik last year and scared the hell out of everyone?

Walter: Yeah. What of it?

Roger: Well, I’ve just had a talk with Jack Rabin and he agrees with me that we could capitalize on this Sputnik hysteria with a nice little sci-fi movie of our own!

The wheels in Walter’s mind began to crank up faster and faster at the prospect just put before him by his pal, Corman.

Roger: Hello, Walt. You there?

Walter: Sorry, Roger. Sounds good. What timed frame are we looking at?

Roger: Well, you know me. No dilly-dallying. Just throw a few bucks my way and you’ll have a great little movie with a great story about satellites ready for distribution in about two or three months.

Walt: No kidding? Sounds fine to me Roger. I like the satellite angle. Let’s get the ball rolling! 

As Corman hangs up the receiver he notes that Walter had not even asked him about the story’s details. Good thing too! He figured he could get a first draft screenplay, a full cast and enough of a set together to begin shooting in….say…. a couple of weeks! Principal photography could be wrapped up in about 10 days and in about three months’ time, “War of the Satellites” would be up on US screens. Yes Siree! Don’t let anything stand in the way of a good story and good acting, coz that’s all ya’ really need!


What happens when;

A mysterious alien force declares war against planet Earth?

The United Nations disregards warnings to halt its attempts at assembling the first satellite in space?

Read on for more......

Spoilers follow below....

A satellite sails across a star field and is being observed in a control room by members of the United Nations space program consisting of a group of scientists and politicians. It is as if they were a bunch of guys watching a sporting event and hoping their team scores the crucial winning goal.

“All those men in that satellite will die as have all the others. And when they do your project comes to an end, doctor."

Suddenly their hopes are crushed when the satellite, the tenth in the Sigma Project is destroyed after coming into contact with a mysterious space barrier. Recriminations begin when Jason ibn Akad criticises Dr. Pol Van Ponder about his lack of success and the waste of half a billion dollars on Project Sigma. He believes it must be terminated because of the loss of money and lives.


The Apollo, Space Shuttle, various Mars lander and other space missions have shown us that space can be a very dangerous place and that disaster and failure is an inherent part of human space endeavours. And yet faced with such a prospect, we persist with space exploration hoping to learn from mistakes made.

A scientist or mission specialist might devote most of their working life to a particular space mission. So much of their being is invested in the success of that mission and if it fails one can readily imagine what a personal blow that would be.


After the satellite’s destruction by the force field, Van Ponder announces that he will launch another satellite. 

On a moon-lit night, a young teenage couple are seen necking in a car. Their nocturnal face-nibbling activities are abruptly interrupted when they notice a light in the sky. Their initial shooting-star hypothesis is quickly disproved when they go to investigate something that has crashed to earth. It turns out to be a small missile-like object which the teenagers turn over to the authorities.

“Well, why not Latin? Once, it was understood throughout the civilized world. Perhaps they think it still is.”

After examining the small rocket, the U.N. calls a meeting where a message in Latin is read aloud to those assembled. It purports to be a message from…..wait for it……. THE MASTERS OF THE SPIRAL NEBULA, “GHANA!” (No, not the Republic of Ghana!) It turns out that these are aliens who are irked by our repeated attempts to leave the confines of our planet to explore space.

The aliens warn the inhabitants of Earth that their, "contamination shall not be allowed to spread." Having labelled us as a "disease," the aliens declare they will set up a quarantine to protect the universe and that any attempt to depart the Earth will be stopped.

Full Message:

“To the United Nations of the third planet of minor luminary Sol, called by the inhabitants thereof the Earth, Attention. We the masters of the Spiral Nebula, Ghana have been observing your actions. Understand, earthlings, that we look with disfavour upon your persistent efforts to depart from your own planet and infest other areas of the universe. We have therefore set up quarantine measures to ensure that this contamination shall not be allowed to spread. We shall frustrate your every attempt in the future, as we have those in the past. Knowing that earthlings are equipped with rudimentary reflex-type intelligence, we are taking this means of conveying our command that all such efforts to expand and depart from the infected planet Earth shall from this moment be stopped.”


t is quite true that we do in fact orbit a very non-descript star which is just one out of countless trillions of stars in an expanding universe. It kind of puts things in perspective in terms of our significance.

It would also not be all that surprising that an advanced alien species would wish to curtail out ability to venture beyond the confines of our planet and spread throughout the universe like some kind of pestilence.

After all, consider what human beings have managed to do with the planet they already infest. In the interests of corporate greed and nationalistic imperatives we have managed to tear out large chunks of the planet’s guts and lungs. When the wounded and choking planet strikes back at us for our depredations, our response is to deny that there’s anything to see here and that it’s business as usual.

The imperatives of political ambition, ego and collective insanity have provided us with the excuse to embark on periodic wholesale slaughter and acts of genocide on members of our own species.

Not only that, but we are now on the verge of relocating our ability to wage war on one another from the surface of the earth to the very realm of space!

To a dispassionate alien observer, the only conclusion to be reached is that such an unworthy species never be permitted to “infest other areas of the universe.”


In response to the aliens’ message, the United States representative, Mr. Hotchkiss declares in an impassioned speech that no other life force has the right to prevent humanity from venturing into space. The continuation of the Sigma Project is whole-heartedly supported.

“I won't ask anyone to take a risk I wouldn't take myself. I mean to captain my own ship.”

Later on, the head of Project Sigma, Dr. Van Ponder played by Richard Devon (who bears some resemblance to the Robbie Barone character in the TV series, Everybody Loves Raymond) calls a press conference in his office at which he informs reporters that he believes that the alien message is a fake, but that he still plans to lead the next satellite mission.

Van Ponder then privately reveals to astronomer David Boyer and researcher Sybil Carrington that the capsule has defied all analysis and that its origins remain unknown. In addition to Van Ponder leading the next mission, both Sybil and Dave will accompany him on that mission. Preparations, training and crew selection will now start in earnest.

As preparations for the next mission proceed, Akad has been voicing opposition to the project. One evening, Hotchkiss summons Van Ponder to a U.N. meeting after calling him and warning him that Akad is trying to stop the mission.

As Van Ponder drives over to the U.N. he experiences trouble with his car and is attacked by a mysterious ball of light. The aliens then cause him to drive him off the road and wreck his car. This “accident” then allows them to execute their plan which involves replacing Van Ponder with one of their own.

"Dr. Van Ponder was killed in an automobile accident while on his way to this forum."

At the UN Hotchkiss receives notification of Van Ponder's death which causes stunned consternation among the council members. This is replaced by shock when out of the blue, Van Ponder arrives at the meeting and is soon greeted with thunderous applause. Unknown to those assembled, the aliens have assumed the form of Van Ponder to infiltrate and hamper the project. 

In case we are in any doubt, when Van ponder is later alone in Hotchkiss' office, we witness him splitting into two separate but identical duplicates of the human Van Ponder.

At the research centre, we are almost spared the usual ‘this ain’t fit for women folk work’ routine from David who requests that Van Ponder reconsider Sybil's participation in the mission. If he agreed, then Sybil would have to go back to being a stereotypical ice-cold calculating machine female type of scientist.

Anyway, just in the nick of time Sybil enters with her wannabe Liz Taylor eyebrows to tell the two men to turn on the radio. News reports feature a large number of natural disasters occurring worldwide and it is speculated that the disasters may be related the U. N.'s warning from outer space.

"We must proceed with project Sigma at all costs."

Not surprisingly, alien Van Ponder decides to capitulate to the aliens’ threats and suggests to Hotchkiss that they should call a halt to Project Sigma. Hotchkiss reluctantly agrees and Van Ponder writes a letter to be read at the U.N. declaring the end of human space exploration.

David volunteers to present the letter, but without consulting Van Ponder, he decides to make a declaration on the floor of the UN to the assembled delegates at the council meeting that the Sigma Project will continue despite the alien injunction:

“The delegate has spoken of naked survival. Gentlemen, you do not survive by abject surrender. Nations and worlds must fight for survival. If we give in now, let down our defences, give this alien planet full control over our actions & our lives for mere survival, won't they decide to take even that away from us? Have the gentlemen here asked themselves why these aliens are so concerned that we do not penetrate the Sigma barrier? Isn't it peculiar that this action alone excites them to retaliation? They consider us a danger to them if we break out of "quarantine" as they so tactfully put it. They haven't even bothered to find out whether our motives are peaceful or not. They don't know that we would collaborate and share knowledge, greet them as equal partners in the universe. But we can't show them this by surrendering. No, it is precisely because they do not wish us to travel the skies that we must do so. Gentlemen, we must proceed with Project Sigma at all costs.”


Yes, human beings are ornery and contrary critters. If someone tells them they can’t do something, like defiant teenagers they’ll go ahead and do it anyway.

For life to find a way in this universe it needs to be defiant as by rights “Life” itself shouldn’t even exist! Peaceful motives or otherwise playing a part in our forays beyond our planet are irrelevant as it will eventually boil down to a matter of survival as will be the case for other life forms throughout the universe. In such a scenario there may not be room for equal partnerships. It certainly hasn’t been so on just our own planet when technologically advanced cultures have come into contact with indigenous or First Nation peoples.


As Dave and Van Ponder discuss matters to do with the launch, astronomical engineer John Campo enters the room and is surprised to see Van Ponder. He states that he just saw Van Ponder at the Proving Grounds. Not only that, but Dave notices a growth on Van Ponder’s arm and is further surprised to notice that the scientist has an identical marking on his other arm. Afterwards, a curious Dave records the license plate (New York 9Z 9324) on Van Ponder’s Lincoln in the parking lot.

"There's something about you. You're not human!"

Meanwhile, Van ponder joins John Compo in the lab where he is welding a component. John sets down the welding torch while he and Van Ponder consider the solenoids. Suddenly, the torch is accidentally bumped causing the flame to come into contact directly with Van Ponder's right hand. Curiously, Van Ponder fails to notice that his hand is being burned by a torch and his hand becomes quickly charred. An alarmed John pulls Van's hand away from the flame and runs off to summon medical attention.

While John races for a doctor, Van Ponder shuts off the acetylene and heals the damage to his hand. When John arrives with Dr. Howard Lazar, Van Ponder's hand is perfectly restored. John, in an almost hysterical state, insists that Van Ponder’s hand was severely injured but Van Ponder pretends that nothing has happened. Dr Lazar suggests that John has perhaps been working too hard.

When Dave locates Van Ponder's wrecked car by means of the identical license plate number, it is obvious to him that no one could have survived the “accident.”

Dave then contacts Sybil by phone and she informs him that the Sigma launch schedule has been moved forward and is to occur in just a few hours.

Dave hurries to the launch site where preparations continue for blast-off. Dr. Lazar arrives at the elevator with John Compo and tells Van Ponder that John is cleared to be a part of the mission. The news that John is to be a part of the crew unsettles Van Ponder.

Later, while heading for his post, Dave is shocked to witnesses Van Ponder's ability to duplicate himself. Van Ponder is indeed an alien who intends to sabotage the mission.

“We're up against a race of beings whose intelligence is as ours to ants and bacteria”

Aboard the rockets while preparations continue for departure, Van Ponder pays a visit on John Compo. He corners John and places his hand on John's chest, paralysing him so that he cannot escape. Van Ponder reveals himself and his mission. He informs John that;

“The warning from outer space….came from a superior intelligence. An intelligence able to transform energy into matter, and back again. You once told me I was not human. You were correct. I am above the human. A transformation which can be yours. This satellite will never return to Earth. Its disintegration upon contact with the energy barrier will end Project Sigma, and all similar projects to come. The creatures of your planet are not yet ready for space.”

When Van Ponder offers John the opportunity of joining him and the alien race, John defiantly responds with, “You can go to hell! I was born a human, and I'll die one before I'll join a race that kills innocent people for abstract ideas!”

With that decision, Van ponder kills John.

Sybil suddenly enters the control room and, Van Ponder explains that John did not survive the g-forces from the ship's rapid acceleration. While a funeral service is being arranged for John, David tells Sybil that Van Ponder is an alien, but Sybil refuses to believe him.

Later, David questions Howard about John's death and the doctor states that John was perfectly healthy. David then informs Howard that Van Ponder had murdered John because he discovered something that Van Ponder was trying to conceal. Howard agrees to give Van Ponder a medical examination.

Dr. Lazar goes to give the required medical exam to Van Ponder, but before he can check his heart, an urgent call comes through concerning the satellite’s approach to the space barrier. Before meeting up with the doctor again, Van Ponder creates a beating heart for himself, and he is startled by a new sensation: a surge of emotion for Sybil. When Van ponder tries to express his feelings for Sybil, she is taken aback and fobs him off by telling him, "I'm in the middle of a computation." A novel way of giving a guy the brush off!

Van Ponder undergoes the doctor's cardiac exam and tries to eliminate Dr. Lazar the same way as he did with John. However, this method does not seem to work, so Van Ponder goes old school and kills Dr. Lazar by choking him.

After murdering Howard, Van Ponder announces to the crew that he suspects David of having killed John. Just before his arrest, David insists that Sybil seek the doctor’s protection, unaware that he has in fact been killed.

When Van Ponder's orders two crewmembers to arrest Dave, it finally begins to dawn on Sybil that Dave is right about him.

"You're not human. Who are you? What are you?"

As Sybil goes in search of Dr Lazar, she sees Van Ponder placing the doctor's body in the disposal chute. Van Ponder catches sight of Sybil and gives chase. Sybil then flees from him and takes refuge in the solar radiation energy room. As Van Ponder follows her, he hears an announcement that David has escaped his guards. Van Ponder then replicates himself in front of Sybil. While one replica heads for the command centre in search of Dave, the other confronts Sybil.

As the satellite ventures closer to the space barrier, the pilots are puzzled over why Van Ponder should order them to head toward the barrier. David soon follows Van Ponder into his cabin where he confronts him and wounds him with a gunshot to the hand. Both the van Ponders bleed! A brief punch up then follows in which Dave gets hold of the gun and shoots Van Ponder dead. At that moment, the replica with Sybil also collapses and dies.

Dave then orders the abandonment of Plan B to be replaced by the activation of Plan A. The Solar Accumulator is deployed against the barrier involving the detonation of a radiation blast thereby catapulting the satellite through the barrier. Just in the nick of time, Dave rescues Sybil from the radiation room before the blast. The Sigma barrier is finally broken and as the satellite orbits the Earth, U.N. Satellite Control receives the following message;

“We are passing through Andromedae at the speed of light. (Buuuushit! Sorry, I sneezed!) We've made it. The whole universe is our new frontier.”

This would be the cue for the whole universe to run – run like hell!!

Points of Interest

War of the Satellites was released on a double bill with Attack of the 50 Foot Woman which is also featured on this blog.

Roger Corman is well-known for his ability to make something fun and enjoyable out of nothing and War of the Satellites fits the bill. Corman even has a bit part as a ground control radio operator! It is a fast-paced film with an interesting premise that gets right down to business. Just add a few war-surplus props, footage lifted from other films and a set that looks like a basement for a UN meeting scene and Bob’s your uncle! I’d love to get my hands on those fabulous reclining chairs that were used by the crew of the rocket ships!

In October, 1957, the Soviet Union shocked the world with the first successful launch and orbit of a spacecraft, the satellite, "Sputnik". That name and the term "satellite" was featured on the front pages of every newspaper in America. 

Roger Corman knew he could get funding from his distributor by promising a film with word, "satellite" in its title. The timing couldn’t be more perfect with the USA viewing the Soviet satellite “Sputnik” as a dent to national pride and a threat together with the consequent rush in the US to launch its own satellite in response.

Interestingly enough, the “satellite” in the film appears to be assembled by using a modular system whereby different portions of the satellite are fitted together in space. Our own International Space Station consists of a collection of modules that have been progressively joined together in space. Added to this is the international basis of the space station missions of today and of the “satellite” program in the film.

Notice also that the rockets containing the satellite modules in the film are staged rockets whereas most depictions of rockets leaving the earth in early sci-fi films were single rockets that seemed to burn their propellant continuously.

Finally, War of the Satellites presents a scenario which even we in the 21st century have to contend with. This involves the use of power or perceived power to bully others to act and think in ways that benefit the interests of the powerful. We see acts of intimidation occurring in the world of politics, international relations, the corporate sphere, relations between the State and the governed and so on. Intimidation and abuse of power will only continue unless it is recognised for what it is and is resisted.

Full Film

This is the last post for the year, 1958. We next move on to the final year of the golden decade of science fiction films and it's sure to feature a pretty good selection of sci-fi classics.

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©Chris Christopoulos 2018

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