August 2, 2021

Astonishing Alien Robot Invasions, Part One: Target Earth

Predictably, the Pentagon’s UAP (Unidentified Aerial Phenomena) task force report that was released at the end of June was a big, fat nothingburger (see my “Unidentified Flying Horrors" post). It amounted to “yes, our people have seen strange things, and no, it’s not our technology,” capped with a shrug of the shoulders as to what they might be. 

After decades of denials and chalking it all up to weather balloons, swamp gas, temperature inversions, ad nauseum, an official “hell, we’re as baffled as you are” is at least… different.

But this squirrelly throwing up of hands is not likely to satisfy large swaths of the population. Polls indicate that huge majorities of Americans think the government is not owning up to all it knows. In 2019, a Gallup poll revealed that 68% of respondents believed the government knew more than it was telling, and in March of this year, a CBS News poll recorded 73% holding the same opinion.

A common response to all the hoopla and uncertainty about recent revelations is “well, if this stuff really is extraterrestrial, then why haven’t the aliens contacted us?” To which legions of true believers respond, “they have!” -- the contacts just haven’t been of the “take me to your leader variety,” like Klaatu landing his ship in the middle of Washington, D.C. in The Day the Earth Stood Still.

Still, The Day the Earth Stood Still, 1951
"Seriously? You're giving me a parking ticket?!"

While I’m officially neutral as to the origins of UFOs, it’s easy to see how visitors from an advanced civilization might be reluctant to engage us as more or less equals, given the mess we’ve made of the world. If the numerous abduction stories are to be believed, we’re wildlife to be bagged and tagged by alien biologists in the field. That makes a certain amount of sense. A fisherman doesn’t ask a fish to take him to its leader.

Whatever you think of the authenticity of alien contact and abduction stories, they can be fascinating, humbling and terrifying all at once. When you’re used to thinking of yourself as the smartest, most adaptable thing going -- the apex of evolution -- it’s disconcerting as hell to think that there’s a way more advanced species that can fly circles around your most advanced tech, paralyze you anywhere and anytime they want, abduct you and basically do anything they want.

The spindly grey alien has become practically an icon representing the extraterrestrial visitor, but over the years, other alien species have emerged from the contact lore, as if we’re finally interesting enough (or behaving badly enough) for a federation of planets to send numerous representatives to secretly check us out.

Depending on the source, there are as many as several dozen documented alien species that have shown up on earth and mucked around with people in some way or another. In addition to the ubiquitous greys, commonly reported aliens include the tall, blond Nordics, reptilians (shades of “V”!), dwarfs/littles, and even the infamous Men in Black, who some believe to be aliens in not-so-effective disguise.

Shadowbox Collectibles' Alien series of figures
The Shadowbox Collectibles Alien series, L to R: Neonate Alien, Grey Alien,
Roswell Alien, Nordic Alien, Reptilian Alien and the Man in Black.

Accounts of alien robots have been few and far between, but not unheard of. Back in 1973 in the small Alabama town of Falkville, a woman reported seeing a UFO land in a nearby field. The investigating police officer encountered a figure that was covered in a silvery metallic substance, had an antenna on its head, and moved around in a jerky, mechanical-like way. In 1989, in a park in Voronezh, Russia, a huge red sphere disgorged 9 foot tall entities with domed heads and silver outfits accompanied by a smaller “box-like” robot in front of astonished witnesses. [Brent Swancer, “Some Really Completely Bonkers Alien Encounter Cases,” Mysterious Universe, March 2, 2020.

Back in the ‘50s, when some cheery folks were envisioning a future of flying cars, vacation trips to the moon, and a robot in every home, robots were a regular feature in sci-fi. Some, like Tobor the Great (1954) and Robby from Forbidden Planet (1956) were our creations, designed to assist us as we blasted off to explore the endless depths of space.

Others were menacing sidekicks of alien kidnappers like the UK’s Devil Girl from Mars (1954). The U.S. independent film Target Earth, also released in 1954, took the idea of alien-produced robots even further and, in spite of its low budget, ambitiously tried to tell the story of an army of robots rampaging through a city as part of an alien invasion.

Still, Devil Girl from Mars, 1954
"On Mars we've perfected refrigerator technology. This Frigid-Air 3000 model follows you
wherever you go, so you're never out of arm's reach of a cold beer!"

(Ten years later the UK would contribute its own version of an alien robot invasion with The Earth Dies Screaming, which I will cover in part two.)

Poster - Target Earth, 1954
Now Playing:
Target Earth (1954)

Pros: Believable characters and smart dialog make for an engaging first half.
Cons: Cheap effects and stock footage undermine the sci-fi thrills.

Target Earth was released at a time of high anxiety that the Cold War superpower confrontation could erupt at any time into an all-out nuclear war. The antagonists not only had the A-bomb, but both were testing a new doomsday weapon, the H-bomb, that made the bombs that leveled Hiroshima and Nagasaki look like firecrackers.

Leading up to the mid-fifties, filmmakers exploited existential fears with such thrillers as Invasion U.S.A. (1952), featuring a group of ordinary citizens witnessing a Soviet invasion and atomic bombing of the U.S., and Five (1951), which explored how a diverse, racially mixed and politically divided group of survivors might deal with the aftermath of a nuclear war.

Target Earth similarly exploits Cold War anxieties, but replaces the godless commies and their H-bombs with an uncanny alien menace. A group of disparate strangers wake up to find that their world has been turned upside down overnight. Their city is completely deserted, except for some stray dead bodies. Somehow they’ve missed out on a sudden, mass evacuation.

We’re first introduced to Nora (Kathleen Crowley), who has woken up after a botched suicide attempt with sleeping pills to discover that her apartment complex and the surrounding neighborhood are eerily empty and deathly quiet.

After Nora discovers a woman’s dead body on the sidewalk, she literally runs into Frank (Richard Denning), a traveling businessman who, after assuring her he’s not responsible for the woman’s death, explains that he got mugged outside a bar and was left unconscious in an alley.

The two eventually discover another couple, Vicki and Jim (Virginia Grey and Richard Reeves), living it up in an otherwise deserted restaurant, swilling champagne and seemingly enjoying a situation where they can help themselves to anything they want. They had been dead drunk when everyone was evacuated.

Still, the lost stragglers drown their sorrows in Target Earth, 1954
The "Didn't get the memo" club parties like it's 1999.

Early on, Nora and Frank bounce ideas off each other about what could possibly have happened. Nora floats the possibility of a nuclear attack, but Frank points out that a.), they’re still alive, and b.) the enemy wouldn’t have given advance notice to enable everybody to get the hell out of Dodge.

Nora wonders if there’s anyone else left in the city, to which the worldly philosopher Frank replies, “There’s probably a few. Ever try to empty a sack of sugar? Some of the grains always stick to the sack like the two of us.”

The two lost souls are happy to be stuck on each other, and when Vicki and Jim enter the picture, it practically becomes a party. A united front becomes paramount when the quartet discovers that instead of Soviet invaders, the city is full of 7 foot tall alien robots that are stalking and killing anyone who’s left with death rays projected from their faceplates.

To add insult to injury, the robots aren’t the only thing they have to worry about. Yet another lost soul, Davis, a sociopathic killer on the run (Robert Roark), sneaks up on the group in the middle of the night and holds them at gunpoint. His plan is to use them as decoys for the killer robots so that he can escape.

Unbeknownst to any of them, the military, which has tried to repel the invaders with infantry and jet fighters to no avail, is planning to use atomic weapons on the city if scientists can’t come up with another way to disable the robots.

Kathleen Crowley and Richard Denning in Target Earth, 1954
Nora and Frank contemplate the horror of studios releasing movies
to theaters and streaming services on the same day.

Target Earth anticipated the end-of-the-world psychological dramas like The World, The Flesh and the Devil and On the Beach that debuted to much fanfare at the end of the ‘50s. While Target Earth lacks the antiwar message and social commentary of those later films, its characters’ depth and their backstories, including depression, attempted suicide and alcoholism are surprisingly sophisticated for a nothing-budget B movie.

The sleeping pills are Nora’s last, desperate attempt to deal with the pain and guilt of her husband’s death in a car accident; Vicki and Jim struggle with their deteriorating relationship and drown their feelings in alcohol when they’re not sniping at each other.

Frank is no paragon either, having been rolled for the wad of cash he carelessly flashed around at the bar. However, with his unassailable logic and more than passing familiarity with military tactics, he is the glue that holds the group together.

The script eventually gives each a chance to shine with new-found inner strength as they confront the twin threats of Venusian invaders and a desperate sociopath.

About midway through, Target Earth reverts back to ‘50s B-movie form with stock footage of military planning sessions, troop movements, and planes strafing and bombing the metal marauders.

In one unintentionally amusing scene, scientists are examining a captured robot in a lab. One scientist (played by Whit Bissell), talks about the “cathode ray tube” embedded in its helmet as if it were the most dangerous, alien and invulnerable piece of technology ever.

Unfortunately, the film’s bare-bones budget seriously compromises its ambitious second act. The robot that finally shows up to menace the protagonists looks like a refugee from a ‘30s Flash Gordon serial, and, like many of its B-movie robot brethren, is so slow and clunky you’d give even odds that a senior with a walker could outrun the thing. But at least it can shoot death rays out of its faceplate (it is a cathode ray tube after all!).

Killer robot from Target Earth, 1954
The killer robot from Venus targets its victims with the very latest 4K Ultra HD death ray.

Your results may differ, but the first half of Target Earth, where Nora and Frank are disoriented and wracking their brains to figure out what’s going on, is so effectively played that it’s a letdown when the military's fight against the invaders takes center stage. For all their troubles, the protagonists deserve better than a stock footage army and Whit Bissell in a lab coat to come and save their bacon in the final reel.

Still, Target Earth is worth a view for its pioneering alien-invasion-as-a-substitute-for-nuclear-anxieties subtext, and its surprisingly deep and well-written characters.

Where to find it: Streaming

Astonishing Fact #1: While the characters in Target Earth talk about a veritable army of robots overrunning the city, the production could only afford one robot suit. Stuntman Steve Calbert told an interviewer years later that “I was the whole army, the general, the captain and the private! I’d walk down the street, they’d cut to a close-up of Richard Denning or somebody else, and cut back to me walking the other way, supposedly another robot.” [John “J.J.” Johnson, Cheap Tricks and Class Acts: Special Effects, Makeup and Stunts from the Films of the Fantastic Fifties, McFarland, 1996, p. 14]

Astonishing Fact #2: Richard Denning recalled that to get location shots of the deserted city, the cast and crew had to rise and shine very early in the morning: “To get the scenes of the empty streets, we had to get out there at four in the morning -- in those days, there wasn’t that much traffic downtown. And we’d start shooting as soon as it got daylight, before the cars started coming through.” As for the robot, he said that “[F]or those days it was good. I remember I did marvel at it -- it looked phony when you were right up close, but then when you’d see it on the screen, it looked pretty good.” [Tom Weaver, They Fought in the Creature Features: Interviews with 23 Classic Horror, Science Fiction and Serial Stars, McFarland, 1995, pp. 152-53]

Astonishing Fact #3: Robert Roark was cast as the crazed gunman when his father, an LA doctor, told the producers he would invest in the film only on the condition that his son be given a part. Roark also had a small part in Killers from Space, released the same year; he would go on to appear in a couple of dozen or so movies and TV shows through the end of the decade. [IMDb trivia

Robert Roark as the crazed gunman in Target Earth, 1954
"Okay, NOW will you hire me for the part? Huh? Huh?!"


  1. I remember seeing this film, years ago, and you're right, the first half, when Denning and Crowley are running through the empty city and trying to figure things out, was gripping and unusual. It was like a really well-done Twilight Zone episode, and because you didn't know what was going on, it held your interest. As you note, the second half is a disappointment (and the robot looked...clunky). Sometimes the sci-fi route can be too literal an explanation for a great set-up, unfortunately.

    1. I myself hadn't seen it since I was a kid, and I was surprised how good it was in parts, very reminiscent of The Twilight Zone's inaugural episode "Where is everybody?" with Earl Holliman. It's as if there were two factions on the production with very different ideas about what the picture should be, and they compromised by giving one faction the first half and the other the second. Thanks for stopping by! ;)

  2. New York City's Channel 13 is now the flagship station of the Public Broadcasting System, but when I was a kid they showed movies like Target Earth. I haven't thought about that for about 60 years, so thanks for reminding me!

    1. Hi Bill! Back when I was in elementary school, central Iowa had two creature features. The one on Friday night featured mostly sci-fi like Target Earth. On Saturday was Gravesend Manor, with not just one host, but a whole "repertory" company, with Malcolm the butler, The Count, Esmeralda, and Claude. Great times!

  3. Svengoolie on MeTV every Saturday night is a fun throwback to those local TV horror hosts. And he presents almost all his movies in beautiful HD. I have never seen The Creation of the Humanoids look quite that good before.

    1. We love Svengoolie and catch him often. Didn't catch Creation of the Humanoids though.

  4. I watched Target Earth for the first time last year and had to laugh at the pseudoscience nonsense and ridiculous looking robots. But, like you, I was pleasantly surprised to discover it actually has a decent, character-driven story. Great review, Brian (and not just because it agrees with my opinion :D ).

    1. I was especially surprised at Nora's attempted suicide backstory, which wasn't done back then, and especially not in a cheap sci-fi programmer. It's jarring, yet fascinating, to see sophisticated, three dimensional characters going up against such a cheap-looking robot.