…is another sci-fi film eclipsed in fame by a fragment of it’s own iconography. “Everyone” “knows” the image to your right; you’ll have “seen” it in a thousand places. Possibly a thousand-thousand if you go to any decent number of sci-fi conventions. But can you name that man-in-suit monster without resort to Wikipedia? I couldn’t, until I watched the film again for the first time in far too long…and remembered why it’d been so long in the first place. I’ll take it over Lady and the Tramp or fucking Oklahoma! any day, but as paragons of its era go, it’s no Day the Earth Stood Still. Or Beast from 20,000 Fathoms. Technical movie nerds remember it primarily as one of the last films to use three-strip Technicolor, but as far as technicolor SF goes, War of the Worlds will give you more bang for your buck (literally). So what is it about This Island Earth that I like so much? All the pretty, pretty colors? Am I that shallow?
Cameras that printed color on one strip of film were available as early as 1941, which is where Ken Burns found all that color battlefield footage from World War II. If you watched The War you probably noticed how grainy and soft-focus everything looked. It took almost fifteen years to refine that out of the process, but it happened. That’s why movies from before 1954 look the way they do – all the colors are brighter – they “pop” at you – and I’m willing to bet that was this movie’s primary selling point. It looks, in almost every detail, like a parade of pulp magazine covers.
And that makes sense, because This Island Earth is an adaption of a Raymond S. Jones novel…which was itself an expanded version of his short story, “The Alien Machine,” first published in a 1949 issue of Thrilling Wonder Stories. Which, just to refresh your memory, regularly bore covers like this:
But as with a good chunk of the stories in those pulps, This Island Earth is less well thought-out than it would like us to believe. It tries to tackle big issues, but it’s a scrawny kid trying to tackle an NFL wide receiver and Red Bait him at the same time. I applaud…some…of its efforts, but find its execution woefully lacking. Par for the course with these William Alland productions. It Came from Outer Space still rocks my face off, but watching he rest of his early-to-mid-50s output is an exercise in diminishing returns. Still, 1955 was a busy year for the ex-Mercury Player: he produced this, Tarantula, Revenge of the Creature and…a bio-pic of Crazy Horse?!?!?! “Told from the Indian perspective.” Uh-huh. Right. Or the Hollywood understanding of the Indian perspective circa 1955. That’s gotta be…interesting…in the old Chinese curse sense of the word.
But first…This Island Earth is the tale of Dr. Cal Meacham (the incomparable Rex Reason, whose looks are often compared to a Titanic-era Billy Zane). We’ve discussed Super Scientists previously, but those others seem like gnats next to the great big blowfly in a small jar that is Dr. Meacham. An atomic engineer, plugged into the heart of the military industrial complex, we meet him on the runway as he shoos off some reporters and climbs into the jet plane that “the folks at Lockheed” gave him at some point in the past. “Hope you tax payers don’t mind,” he says, to the reporter’s uproarious laughter. Fucking one-percenters, always rubbing it in our faces. And the fucking mainstream press is happy to lap it up, like the dogs they are. Some things never change, folks.
Flying back home, Dr. Cal buzzes the tower like a Hot Shot Cadet Who Doesn’t Play By the Rules. His subsequent flame-out and loss of control is a well-deserved karmic ass-kicking. The green tractor beam that rescues him flagrantly interferes with the Great Wheel, but if he died now we’d never get to know him as anything other than a Pentagon-approved tool.
He’s also a curious tool, working towards the oh-so-scientific end of reversing radioactive decay. Leave uranium alone for a few billion years and it’ll turn itself into lead, but if you’re looking to turn lead back into uranium (and you don’t happen to have a 21st century super collider handy) you might as well resort to alchemy. Dr. Cal and his assistant Joe (Robert Nichols) are slowly learning that as the film opens and another of their experiments fail. Then someone starts intercepting their requests for replacement parts…someone from “Electronic Service, Unit 16.”
Except there is no Electronic Service, Unit 16 or otherwise. Yet, this phantom outfit continues to send Joe and Cal care packages. The next one is a catalog of parts for something called an “interocitor.” Cal and Joe order all 2400 parts, and recieve them free of charge, with no return address…only a warning that “no interocitor part can be replaced. Please bear this in mind during assembly.” Once completed, the interocitor is a standard 1930s pulp sci-fi communications station with frickin’ laser beams attached to its monitor. The white-haired, knobby-forheaded dude who answers the screen, Exeter (Jeff Morrow), explains that the assembly process was a test Cal’s just passed. Exeter’s recruiting top scientists, you see, and invites Cal to join his efforts at an undisclosed location (a palatial estate in Georgia).
Cal accepts and, over the objections of his assistant, boards a pilot-less and window-less plane the very next morning. Arriving in the Deep South, he meets Dr. Ruth Adams (Faith Domergue) and a mansion full of other nuclear scientists, all of whom seem to talk around the issue of their hosts.
I caught my first sight of This Island Earth‘s on a VHS trailer compilation tape – one of those artifacts of a pre-DVD age you almost never see anymore. The $5 bins at Wal-Mart used to be full of ’em, and they introduced a youthful me to plenty of classic monster movies no TV station would dare touch in the early-90s. Watching that trailer effectively spoiled this movie’s second act “twist” because the movie saves all its big-ticket, “Whoa!” inducing moments for the back third.
Not that you couldn’t guess it. Anyone with a functioning brain and passing knowledge of SF (like, say, an atomic physicist in the 50s) should be able to see the obvious: Exeter and his knobby-headed cronies are aliens from the planet Metaluna, and this mansion is their intergalactic recruitment drive. They blow smoke up Cal’s ass about the work being done eventually helping humanity, somehow. Cal’s suspicious, and once he gets her alone, Dr. Ruth confirms that’s a safe thing to be. The Metalunas have a bad habit of hooking their new pet scientists up to mind control machines, ensuring docility, compliance and an end to annoying questions.
Attempting escape, Drs. Ruth and Cal are tractor beamed right into the Metaluna’s saucer as it flies homeward, blowing up the mansion without a backward glance at the rest of their science menagerie. Fuck ’em, right? They weren’t main characters and, hell, most of ’em were foreigners with no lines. Aboard ship, Exeter explains that Metaluna’s loosing its long-term war with the planet Zagon, whose go-to weapon seems to be massive orbital bombardment. Metaluna’s uranium deposits are exhausted, their planetary shield is running out of juice, and the surface long-since devastated by Zagonian-directed meteors. Exeter’s human recruitment drive was a desperate attempt to find some new power source, the Metalunan’s Last Best Hope for Victory, now scrapped due to time constraints. So the Monitor of Metaluna (Douglas Spencer) is less than impressed by the fact all Exeter can show for his trouble are two live specimens. He casually orders them brainwashed before getting back to the real business of ruling over a charred cinder. This, along with Exeter’s balking, allows Our Humans to escape…though the mutant (or “Mute-Ant,” as some render it) on their trail might have a thing or three to say about that, were it capable of speech.
As an adult, I suspected this was a literary adaption from the sheer amount of plot involved. Compare this to Faith Domergue’s other 1955 SF movie, It Came from Beneath the Sea, where characters spent a full hour sitting around tables, talking about the plot. Here, there are no Tedious Meeting Scenes because there’s tension in every meeting…until we leave Earth. Like any good plot, this one constantly throws questions at your feet. What the hell’s up with “Unit 16?” What the hell’s up with this Gone with the Wind house? Why does everyone there act like a Stepford person? And what in the hell’s up with the Metalunans themselves?
The set-up in those first two acts is almost Lovecraftian in its pacing, a gradual reveal of increasingly weird shit that draws our protagonist into a mad, mad, mad, mad world. The Metalunan’s are an intergalactic force, whisking puny humans from their everyday lives with fantastical, otherworldly intelligence. They could flatten us like pancakes if they weren’t so busy with their war and, indeed, by the end of the film, the Monitor reveals that was his back-up plan all along. They even bred their own slave race of shoggoths! Because it wouldn’t be a William Alland SF movie if the monster didn’t try to carry off the leading lady near the end.
As leads go, you’d be hard pressed (especially with this movie’s budget) to find better. I’ve always like Rex Reason, and as much shit as I give his character, Dr. Cal comes off like an affable everyman…despite being a jet-flying Super Scientist. That’s talent, especially when half your dialogue’s Made of Technobabel. Combined with the wholly believable “WTF?” faces Reason wears and you have a perfectly flat protagonist the audience can project themselves into. I know I’d love to be the dude Faith Domergue spent her summer with a few years ago. She has less time to shine here than in Beneath the Sea, and less to do once the second act concludes (in a grand car vs. frickin’ laser beam chase scene) but she remains a beacon of professionalism who deserved better than the decade of TV bit parts that followed this. Jeff Morrow completes this movie’s holy trinity and works hard to give Exeter more inner conflict than you’re likely to see in any alien invader who’s name isn’t Klaatu.
So the leads are strong, and that’s part of the problem: they’re much stronger than the movie they’re in. The movie they’re in has serious Third Act Problems. Once we leave Earth, and the special effects take over, all the tension drains away…except for a brief, beautiful moment when it looks like Our Humans won’t make it. They shouldn’t have made it. Dr. Cal should’ve died giving an impassioned monologue to the stars, crushed by a meteor just as he beamed his last will and testament, via interocitor, back toward This Island Earth. Along with a warning to Watch the Skies. But that might’ve depressed an audience that obviously “wanted” to gawk at all the pretty colors of Metaluna. Can’t leave them thinking about stuff or they might start questioning the whacked out premise.
For example: if the Metalunan’s are so desperate for power, why are they wasting it lobbing star ships at podunk, trailer trash planets like ours? The idea of a non-nuclear power source is never even brought up because that would ruin the metaphor that might, or might not, lay at the heart of this work. Depends on whether you want to see the Metalunans as Communist infiltrators come to steal our precious bodily fluids (brain fluids, in this case) or ciphers for the very Military Industrial Complex that gave Cal his jet. They’re war-obsessed, desperate, and too desperately short-sighted to realize they’ve lost, and no technical breakthrough will turn that around. You really could read it either way or take the “pox on both their houses” approach, which I personally favor.
Without a book to work from, I doubt our screenwriters, Edward G. O’Callaghan and Franklin Coen, would’ve known what to do with all this. Neither had a background in SF. This is O’Callaghan’s first credit, and Coen’s include the usual smattering of Westerns and Crime Dramas everyone used to pay rent back in the day. Experienced SF fans might’ve realized this film’s third-act is no where near cool enough to justify all that set-up.
Yes, Metaluna’s an impressive collection of beautiful matte paintings and less-than-beautiful composite shots. Yes, its destruction is apocalyptically awesome (illustrating a point from the Superman review about movie audiences familiarity with planet-scale destruction). But the film leaves a lot of moral ambiguity on the table. I’m supposed to sympathize with Exeter as the professional crusader for a doomed race – but, because of their designs on my doomed planet, I can’t help but feel relieved at their destruction. Our doom damn well better be our own or we’ll be nothing but the splinter in some universal eye, just like Lovecraft always feared.
So, as 50s sci-fi flicks go, This Island Earth barely scoots over the middle of the road. It’s a classic and, despite recognizing every flaw I’ve mentioned (and the numerous ones you guys are likely to come up with), I still enjoy it. Enough to simultaneously praise and damn it with the term “classic,” which I know comes with its own load of baggage. It conjures up images of staid, turgid, black and white films where nothing ever blows up. This Island Earth‘s pretty much the polar opposite of that. It’s both colorful and explosive enough to stand out from its contemporaries and more than deserves the reputation its gained from the few who remember it at all. I recommend everyone else watch it and take one more step toward completing your SF film education. We’ll never get better films until we start being better fans, and those who forget their history are doomed to see it remade…or reduced to fodder for Mystery Science Theater 3000.