One of the most famous, and fondly remembered sci-fi movies of all time, This Island Earth (1955) opened the doorway to a new era of fantastical cinema. Although there had been a multitude of flying saucer and bug-eyed-monster flicks already, director Joseph M. Newman's slice of the cosmic pie was the first to show human beings transported to another world and, thus, going beyond the constraints and familiarity of our own. Utilising all the glories of the pulp stories that populated the likes of Amazing Tales or Astounding Stories, This Island Earth, which was based on the serialised novel by Raymond F. Jones, tapped into the next imaginative leap that could be visualised on-screen. Not simply content to have an alien menace stalk about our well-worn planet, Jones had opted to have his threat to Earth possess a real, bona-fide agenda that wasn't just the subjugation and annihilation of the human race as we know it, but to pilfer our most learned brains and use our intelligence to help win their own war effort.
“Look, the two of you are beginning a strange journey. A journey that no Earth people have ever undertaken before. Now, whether you consider me a devil or a saint, is unimportant. What is important is that you're here ... on this spaceship.”
Fantastic movies had been enjoying a successful run with audiences worldwide since the 1930's when James Whale's Frankenstein and Tod Browning's Dracula gave birth to the horror genre, a new sensation that was solidified in the next decade with a multitude of gothic and noir-ish chillers from the likes of Val Lewton and Jacques Tourneur, not to mention a plethora of Universal monster-mash sequels. But, post World War II, movie-makers began to look elsewhere to cultivate their thrills. And, consequently, the 50's saw the golden age of the science fiction genre taking audiences by storm on both sides of the Atlantic. Ushering in a new cinematic dawn, This Island Earth rode the then-current wave of flying saucer mania that was sweeping the US. Just a little earlier, George Pal had unleashed his version of The War Of The Worlds, Robert Wise had preached universal peace with The Day The Earth Stood Still and Howard Hawks had greeted an alien invasion with wisecracking dialogue, an arc of electricity and a purely shoot-first stance but, although intergalactic visitors seemed to be raining down upon us like there was no tomorrow, most of the action was still centred firmly upon a beleaguered Earth. No-one had yet made that leap to settings much further afield.
The plot of This Island Earth couldn't be simpler. Jet-plane-flying nuclear scientist Dr. Meacham (the unbelievably gung-ho Rex Reason) is lured into working on a top secret project at a remote mansion out in the sticks, whereupon he quickly realises that the experiments being conducted are not of this Earth, and that his queer-looking employers, Exeter (Jeff Morrow) and Brack (Lance Fuller), probably aren't either. Soon his suspicions give way to thoughts of escape and, together with old flame, and fellow scientist, Ruth Adams (Faith Domergue), who has also been coerced into the strange experiments along with other renowned members of international academia, Meacham finds himself on the run from some chaotic red laser bolts and a large, oval-shaped spacecraft that arises from out of the hillside. The frantic chase is abruptly curtailed when the intrepid duo, and their getaway plane, is sky-jacked by the spaceship with a pulsing green tractor beam that hauls them in. Exeter, who is captaining the ship, now has to come clean and confess that his people, from the distant planet Metaluna, are at war with another race, the Zahgons and their only hope of survival lies in the expertise of the human scientists whose help they want in the construction of a vast atomic shield with which to defend themselves from the endless bombardment they are suffering. Of course, things aren't going to run that smoothly for our galactic travellers once they get to this new world. With the Zahgons steering mighty meteorites towards the surface of Metaluna like bombs, crazed mutant minions running amok through the ruins of the city and a spot of brainwashing on the cards, they have no choice but to mount another escape bid before the devastated planet explodes.
“My mind is my own ... and no-one's going to change it!”
All sounds very exciting, doesn't it? The thing is, This Island Earth never reaches its full potential to amaze and astound. The film is badly disjointed, the first half revelling in a sense of mystery and menace, whilst the second literally jettisons its atmosphere in favour of laborious set-piece melodrama. Most effective are the early scenes which show Dr. Meacham receiving strange deliveries to his laboratory of bizarre electrical gadgetry from some unknown benefactor. When constructed, these bits and bobs create a video-phone through which Exeter, in a very Outer Limits-style fashion, can communicate with him. Of course, such technology is the intoxicating carrot that Exeter dangles before him, coaxing the driven scientist into joining his hand-picked team with the promise that he will learn things he never dreamed possible. But, once Meacham has arrived at the isolated mansion that the Metalunans have taken over, the tension is rapidly dissipated when we finally get to meet the aliens, themselves. Fashioned with elongated heads that resemble pistachio nuts, Exeter and the slightly more determined Brack bumble around the mansion, eavesdropping on their suspicious workers and getting strained orders from their impatient boss, The Monitor, back home. A fumbled element that sees Ruth pretending not to know her ex-beau Dr. Meacham, a half-hearted spot of detective work and a non-stop cavalcade of over-ripe dialogue sink the next act into what becomes a headlong rush to get to the “worth-the-admission-price-alone” special effects. The makers obviously, and correctly, assumed that their movie was going to succeed on the back of the visuals they had, allegedly, spent two-and-a-half years creating so, ditching the sinister air of mystery that had once prevailed, they pitch the audience into an assembly-line of sequences that would become fertile ground for ridicule and parody in the years to come.
“Do you notice the peculiar indentations in both their foreheads?”
“Coincidental, no doubt.”
Huh? You reckon, Dr. Meacham!
Despite some laughable makeup effects - those heads and the big mutants - This Island Earth does boast some wonderful spaceflight scenes. Foreshadowing the smooth fly-bys of Leslie Nielsen's spacecraft in Forbidden Planet and the Enterprise in the original Star Trek TV series, Exeter's ship sails effortlessly through picturesque star-fields. We see the crew and their human guests undergo a colourful type of decompression that reveals a surreal display of their inner workings, and we even get some pretty smart evasive action when the enemy hurl stolen meteors at them. But the best moments come when we finally arrive at Metaluna. Finally, the sense of wonder, so lacking up until now, is allowed to generate. A battered and blighted world, Metaluna, hangs like a bruise in space. Pitted and cleaved-open from years of warfare, it resembles a chunk of burned-out volcanic rock, vast craters opening up to reveal a species that has hidden itself away below the ravaged surface. These are the money shots, folks. Fabulous matte paintings stretch across the screen depicting a vast landscape of desolation, fire and destruction. They may not gel with the live action in the foreground that successfully, but they create a magnificently moody milieu, just the same.(A year later, Forbidden Planet would make a much, much better impression with very similar effects to illustrate the awesome Krell machinery beneath the surface of Altair-IV.) But, just when the film should really open up, Newman and writers Franklin Coen and Edward G. O'Callaghan botch the whole thing up by returning to sparse and unconvincing sets, appallingly directed action and a script that just descends into dim-witted farce. The Monitor is a mumbling ball of boredom and the much-celebrated mutants - a word that is strangely mispronounced by Jeff Morrow - are risible in the extreme, mustering just about as much menace as a slower moving and even clumsier Mr. Blobby - remember him, anyone? With their ludicrously bloated brains, lobster-claws and pink, fleshy goggles they are the epitome of all that can go wrong with sci-fi. Coupled with a plot development that renders everything that has happened in the film completely pointless, This Island Earth crashes and burns when it should have soared, leaving the bitter aftertaste of wasted time and talent. Although, as many of you will know, I am a major fan of vintage horror and sci-fi - oh, and stay tuned for the full resurrection of the RetroFest that began last year, folks - I find it incredibly hard to understand what catapulted this hollow effort into so many genre writers' lists of favourite fantasy films. It loses all momentum at exactly the point when it should have gone stratospheric, suffers writing so comical that the film actually plays like a parody of itself and ultimately offers little to the rich tapestry of imaginative fantasy.
How about this riveting and incisive little exchange between Exeter and Meacham regarding the trio of decompression chambers onboard his ship ...
“Ruth, you take the first tube. You, the next.”
“What about you?”
“I'll take the third tube.”
Well, duh! What else is he going to do?
Faith Domergue, who starred alongside The Thing's Kenneth Tobey in the lousy It Came From Beneath The Sea, makes for a wholly unappealing heroine. Lumpy, square-jawed and with a bouffant much more solid than the naff arm extensions on the Metaluna Mutant, she strides through the proceedings with a starched woodenness and a dedication to being downright ugly. Her scientific status is far more believable than her damsel in distress mode of the second half of the movie. When menaced by a stumbling bug-eyed-monster she looks anything but vulnerable, I'm afraid. But, having said all that, check out the quirky little moment when she appears to have a post-decompression-tube orgasm! It is, however, with great regret that I have to comment on two of the awesome cast from my all-time favourite vintage sci-fi movie, The Thing From Another World, who have strayed very unwisely into this alien extravaganza, as well. Douglas Spencer, who played Scotty, the motor-mouthed reporter at the top of the world, is seen here as the Monitor, an imperious Metalunan who is instigating, rather deviously, the migration of his species to the much safer planet of our own Earth. Sporting the same steroid-enhanced boffin-bonce as Exeter and his cohorts, he sits in a sparse set contemplating the fate of his world via some more of those elaborate matte paintings hung against the windows all around him. Bathed in the purple haze emanating from his own cosmic stress reliever, he does nothing more than spout crass lines of ominous, and ultimately pointless, Z-grade dialogue. Spencer has a comical enough visage and voice to begin with, so to then decorate him with his own banana-shaped dome-head just seems to compound the ridicule. And poor old Robert Nichols, who played a deadpan Corporal in Hawks' classic, is given a role that seems like it might, initially, be going somewhere as Meacham's loyal assistant Joe, until he bids a forlorn farewell to his hero and then steps rather prosaically back into the fog of a secluded airfield, his input to the tale ended. With regards to the poor sap essaying the mutant, I can only feel sympathy for his lopsided, gangly predicament. The costume may have become iconic, but that doesn't stop it from being patently ridiculous, too. It is quite obvious that the performer cannot see where he is going, and would also be powerless to stop himself from staggering through the flimsy set walls if he gathered any momentum, so top heavy is the bulbous suit that he has been squeezed into.
Ultimately, This Island Earth is a disappointment, although a very colourful one. The approach to sci-fi as a journey that man will one day undertake is sadly hampered by being far too immature for its own good, taking the easy pulp way out and destroying so much of the otherworldly atmosphere that it was at pains to create. So many great ideas are touched upon but then handicapped by a hollow narrative that sees the film rise into high camp without anything memorable or stimulating actually happening. In the years following This Island Earth, science fiction movies would embrace all avenues of the genre with great success and influence as well as, admittedly, a great many failures along the way. But it still seems very strange that this audacious ground-breaker is held in such high regard by critics and fans alike.
This Island Earth remains, however, an entertaining hybrid of Boys Own adventure and garish fantasy that did, at least, pave the way for much better things to come.
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