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This Island Earth

Posted on the 20 August 2023 by Christopher Saunders
This Island Earth

One of the iconic titles in '50s science fiction, This Island Earth (1955) is something of a puzzler. Hailed by some as a masterpiece and others as irredeemably cheesy (a heavily-edited version featured in the Mystery Science Theater 3000 movie), it really falls somewhere in between. William Alland's handsome production disguises that Island is a mass of interesting ideas, lying around half-digested by filmmakers who don't seem able to fully grasp them. 

Nuclear physicist Cal Meacham (Rex Reason) survives a plane crash when he's rescued by a mysterious green light. Soon afterwards, Cal and his assistant Joe (Robert Nichols) are tasked with assembling an Interocitor, an alien communication device which puts them in contact with Exeter (Jeff Morrow). Overcoming his reticence about Exeter's mysterious origins and massive forehead, Cal agrees to join his collective of scientists on a covert project, including his old flame Ruth Adams (Faith Domergue). Soon Cal and Ruth discover that Exeter and his friends are Up To Something - indeed, they're aliens from the planet Metaluna who hope to harvest Earth's uranium to save their own planet. After an explosive action scene, Cal and Ruth are whisked away to Metaluna where they witness the death throes of Exeter's planet - and Exeter's own crisis of conscience about betraying his human friends.  

Loosely based on a Raymond F. Jones novel, This Island Earth aspires to the high-end of '50s science fiction occupied by Forbidden Planet, It Came from Outer Space and a few other select titles. The movie's production design remains impressive, with some impressive matte effects and visual scenes of space travel. The dreamlike landscape of Metaluna, sharply rendered art and drawings of futuristic buildings, play like an Astounding Stories cover come to life, which no doubt accounts for its hold on generations of sci-fi buffs. The Metaluna Mutant, the Monitor's insectoid servant ("larger of course, and with a higher degree of intelligence!" Exeter assures us) became an iconic movie monster despite having only a few minutes of screen time. Along with an eerie tonal score (with contributions from an uncredited Henry Mancini) and spooky sound effects, it certainly captures the archetypical look, feel and atmosphere of classic sci-fi. 

But for all its spiffy surface, This Island Earth only intermittently works. Joseph M. Newman's direction lurches between long scenes of Cal and Joe noodling around with vague experiments and fast-paced exposition, resulting in a clunky pace that never settles into a proper groove. The movie's almost two-thirds over before the plot properly kicks off, and the scenes on Metaluna, beautifully realized though they are, are over almost before they've begun. Cal is the kind of stiff, useless hero so ruthlessly skewered on The Angry Beavers, whose contributions to the film involve mocking Ruth and staring bug-eyed at alien wonders. Exeter's arc as an alien who admires Earth and resents his overlord's manipulation of humans is rendered as high tragedy; yet it's hard to sympathize with a Metalunan who brainwashes his scientist-captives, then pitilessly orders their murder, whether or not he appreciates Mozart.  

Franklin Coen and Edward G. O'Callahan's script introduces interesting ideas that could (and have) served as fodder for a million analytical essays. A viewer can parallel the Metaluna-human "brain drain" with Operation Paper Clip, or the Metalunans' intellectual society's destruction by a more militant race as a Cold War allegory. The Utilitarian nature of Exeter's mission is contrasted with human Emotion, with Exeter belatedly learning the value of human connections over cold logic. Unfortunately, Island slights these angles for clunky dialog and stentorian speechmaking, of the sort that inspire groans even among sci-fi fans. When Cal boasts to Metaluna's dictator The Monitor (Douglas Spencer) that "our true size is the size of our God!" it's hard to know what we're meant to think. 

The performances are very much on-par with this genre. Jeff Morrow works overtime to make Exeter a tragic villain, and it must be said that his scenery-chewing makes the character entertaining, if not entirely credible. Rex Reason comes off like a less-emotive Rock Hudson, while Faith Domergue's ostensibly intellectual character is reduced to a screaming damsel. Genre hands Russell Johnson (It Came from Outer Space) and Lance Fuller (The Bride and the Beast) have substantial supporting roles. MSTies will have a chuckle recognizing Z-movie auteur Coleman Francis (The Beast of Yucca Flats) in a walk-on as a mailman. 

Shortcomings aside, This Island Earth is an endearing movie whose hold on sci-fi buffs is undeniable. The visuals are impressive, the story is engaging and there are enough interesting ideas to warrant watching it, even if none of them are fully realized. Even the cheesy elements, from the Metalunan's Rushmore-like foreheads to the Interocitor (a '50s Futurist conception of Skype), have their endearing side. It's one of the rare films spoofed by MST3K that's equally enjoyable when experienced in Normal View. 

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