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This Island Earth (1955)


This Island Earth is a quintessential 1950s sci-fi film, with flying saucers, alien beings, strange planets and weird monsters.

The film stars Rex Reason as leading scientist Dr. Cal Meacham. Meacham isn't one of those stuffy boring scientists. His job involves him flying fighter jets around and briefing hordes of journalists eager to know what major scientific problem he's working on next.

Flying into an airfield where he's going to be doing some cool top secret scientific work, Meacham takes a few minutes to buzz the guys in the control tower first. As he flies towards them, they have to instinctively duck their heads. But they don't mind about him giving them a fright. They know what a great guy he is.

But as Meacham comes in to land on the runway, he finds that his plane's controls have mysteriously stopped working. His colleagues in the control tower can see that the plane has become enveloped in a strange green glow. Some mysterious force has taken control of the plane and brings it in safely to land.


Rex Reason and Robert Nichols
Cal Meacham (Rex Reason) with his assistant Joe Wilson (Robert Nichols)

More strange events start to happen once Meacham is at work in his laboratory. He and his assistant Joe Wilson (Robert Nichols) find the condensers they ordered have been replaced by a different, more advanced type. When Meacham checks, he discovers that his equipment orders have been intercepted and replaced by better technology from a mysterious research department.

More advanced hardware starts arriving, together with instructions on how to assemble a mysterious machine. When it's completed, it becomes a sophisticated communications device, an "interociter", complete with a viewscreen.

A mysterious figure calling himself Mr Exeter (Jeff Morrow) then appears on the screen and tells Meacham that his organisation is looking for scientists of exceptional ability. His completion of the interociter means that he has passed their test. Would he like to join them in their research department and learn more about their work? Given their obviously advanced technology, that's an offer that Meacham can't refuse.

When he arrives at the rendezvous at an airfield, he finds it shrouded in impenetrable fog. Surely the plane won't be flying in this? But the plane comes in to land safely and on time. When Meacham climbs aboard he finds that it's empty and has no crew, not even a pilot. Somehow the mysterious plane is able to fly itself. Despite the pleadings of his assistant, Meacham decides to continue his journey to the mysterious research facility. But just what is he going to find when he gets there?


Mr Exeter (Jeff Morrow) on the interociter
Mr Exeter (Jeff Morrow) appears on the interociter

In the years before World War II, science fiction cinema, if it was attempted at all, usually meant stories about futuristic technology or mad scientists meddling with things they didn't understand. What it didn't usually mean was space ships and aliens, except in the occasional Flash Gordon serial.

But the flying saucer craze captured the public imagination in the early 1950s, fired by a blizzard of reports of strange craft and mysterious lights in the sky. So it wasn't long before the cinema began to explore stories about UFOs and alien beings. Inevitably, there was speculation about whether aliens who might visit Earth would be peaceful visitors or hostile ones. Two of the earliest films to feature visitors from outer space illustrated this uncertainty.

Released in 1951, The Day the Earth Stood Still starred Michael Rennie as an intelligent humanoid alien who has brought a message of peace and a warning to mankind about the dangers of nuclear weapons. The same year also saw the release of The Thing from Another World, in which a hostile alien creature terrorises a US research station at the North Pole.

Unusually, This Island Earth manages to present its aliens as neither entirely hostile or entirely peaceful, making them more nuanced than in most 1950s science fiction films. The aliens in This Island Earth are using and abusing human scientists for their own ends. But they are made more sympathetic by the fact that their planet is fighting for its survival and they are acting out of desperation.


Rex Reason and Faith Domergue
Cal Meacham is reunited with Ruth Adams (Faith Domergue)

With their planet Metaluna under constant attack, and losing a war against their hostile neighbours, the force field that protects it is increasingly under threat. The Metalunans are recruiting scientists from Earth to help them in their quest to find new ways of producing the extraordinary amount of atomic power they need to power the force field and keep their planet protected.

While the rulers of their planet are hostile and somewhat fascist, regarding humans as their obvious inferiors, Mr Exeter - or whatever his real name is - is a sympathetic character, who assists the hero and heroine as much as possible.

The rulers of Metaluna, as represented by the Monitor (Douglas Spencer), embody the understandable fear that intellectually and technologically more advanced aliens would be hostile to humans and might regard them as their slaves or playthings. Mr Exeter represents the more optimistic view that more advanced beings would also have more enlightened attitudes.

Jeff Morrow gives the most interesting performance in the film as Mr Exeter, a character who is trying to do his best for his people in difficult circumstances. Exeter would rather not harm the humans he is relying on, but is subject to the orders of his less squeamish superiors. Exeter and the other aliens are humanoid, but have been given high foreheads to accommodate their presumably larger brains. In Exeter's case, he also has a white wig and stiff white eyebrows that make him look a little like his own Thunderbirds puppet.


Cal Meacham and Ruth on board the Metalunan ship
Cal Meacham and Ruth on board the Metalunan ship

The film's square jawed hero, Dr Cal Meacham, is a wonderfully 1950s creation. A brilliant scientist, but one who's also tall, dark and handsome, with a deep baritone voice. He flies jet planes around, while sharply dressed in a range of over-sized suits and sports jackets, and spends his time off canoodling with beautiful lady scientists. Yes, he may be a scientist, but he's a cool scientist of the jet age, not some square. When he buzzes his colleagues in the control tower, they instinctively duck their heads down, but then look at each other as if to say "What a guy!"

Appropriately enough, Cal Meacham is played by an actor with the perfect 1950s 'B' movie star name of Rex Reason. I initially assumed that "Rex Reason" was a name he had adopted at the suggestion of some Hollywood agent, and that Rex's real name was "Edgar Nordlehoff III", or something like that. But, surprisingly, it turns out that Rex Reason actually was his real name. And, ironically, despite having a perfect, manly movie star name, when Universal-International put him under contract they originally made him change it to "Bart Roberts", which sounds more like a character from a pirate movie. After making a couple of films under that name, Rex insisted that he use his actual name and Universal relented. They accepted Rex's reasons, meaning that, in the end, reason prevailed.

Rex Reason, Faith Domergue and Jeff Morrow all did much work in sci-fi and creature features in the 1950s, and Reason and Morrow would appear together again in the same producer's The Creature Walks Among Us in 1956. This was the second and last sequel to 1954's Creature from the Black Lagoon.

The first half of This Island Earth develops as a moderately intriguing mystery. Meacham gets drawn into Mr Exeter's mysterious "organisation", receiving advanced but minor pieces of equipment. He then builds the interociter machine, before being transported to the research facility. There he has lots of questions about exactly what's going on and why Exeter is so interested in developing nuclear fusion above all else. Meacham also wonders why his fellow scientists are so cagey and reluctant to speak to him. Particularly Dr Ruth Adams (Faith Domergue), who claims that they've never met before, although the two clearly have.

The second half of the film sees Cal Meacham, Ruth Adams and Mr Exeter travel to Metaluna. Here the film enters pure pulp sci-fi territory, with space ships, an interplanetary war, a fantastical planet and even a giant mutant creature. In these scenes the film pulls out all the stops with what was some impressive special effects work for 1955.


The surface of Metaluna in This Island Earth
On the surface of Metaluna

Inevitably, the effects don't look quite so special now, but they have a certain degree of 1950s charm. Some are a little bit wobbly, like the scene where Exeter's ship, a classic 1950s flying saucer, has to take evasive action to avoid an incoming enemy fireball. Others are complex for the time. These include a scene where the ship comes into land on a model of the planet's ravaged surface, while a fireball streaks to the ground and impacts alongside. A later scene has Cal Meacham, Ruth Adams and Exeter travelling across the surface of Metaluna, with the strange planet represented by a giant matte painting background. These images could have been lifted straight from a 1950s pulp sci-fi magazine cover.

As well as the humanoids personified by Mr Exeter, on Metaluna the humans meet that other staple of pulp sci-fi, the bug-eyed monster. The monster, a mutant pronounced suggestively as "Mute-ant" by Exeter, is a classic man-in-a-rubber-suit 1950s sci-fi creation, a menacing creature with a bulbous head, exposed brain and huge long arms ending in giant pincers. Exeter explains that the creatures are similar to insects on Earth, although much larger, and have been trained to carry out simple tasks.

This particular creature has been trained to guard a corridor. But it obviously wants a more important role in the film than that, diligently reappearing to menace our heroes, and especially the heroine, at every opportunity. Maybe it was trying to catch the eye of a Hollywood casting director. Although obviously without success, as the Mutant's film career didn't really take off.


The mutant in This Island Earth
The mutant

This Island Earth was produced by William Alland, a former actor whose acting work had included small roles in Orson Welles' films Citizen Kane (1941) and The Lady from Shanghai (1947). As a producer he specialised in creature features in the 1950s, making It Came from Outer Space (1953), Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954), Tarantula (1955) and The Deadly Mantis (1957).

The film was directed by Joseph M. Newman, and this is probably now his best known film. Newman was mostly a director of second features, and his previous films included Abandoned (1949), 711 Ocean Drive (1950), Red Skies of Montana (1952) and The Human Jungle (1954).

But a good proportion of the action of This Island Earth was actually directed by an uncredited Jack Arnold. Arnold re-shot the scenes on Metaluna, apparently as Universal were unhappy with Newman's work. Arnold had worked regularly with William Alland, directing It Came from Outer Space and Creature from the Black Lagoon.

The film's script was written by Franklin Coen and Edward G. O'Callaghan and based on the novel by Raymond F. Jones. Although the film apparently doesn't bear that much relation to the book, Jones did at least supply one of the best and most poetic sci-fi titles of the era.

The script does have one particularly bizarre moment, when Meacham declares to the Metalunans that "Our true size is the size of our God". This strange line, delivered in defence of mankind but apropos of nothing much at all, suggests there was some concern about religious audiences accepting stories about life on other planets, unless something about God and Christianity was inserted very awkwardly into the film to reassure them. Maybe Universal had become concerned about the lack of any mention of Metaluna in The Bible.

This Island Earth was relatively well regarded at the time of its release, for a film of its type at least. Variety gave it a rave review, calling it "one of the most imaginative, fantastic and cleverly-conceived entries to date in the outer space film field". Raymond Durgant also later wrote about the film at some length in the essay "The Wedding of Poetry and Pulp" in his 1967 book Films and Feelings.


The plane on board the Metalunan ship
The plane on board the Metalunan ship

The 1950s strain of sci-fi represented by This Island Earth fell out of favour quite quickly, its romantic view of space travel and other planets coming to seem naive within a few short years. The films's reputation has fallen in the years since its release, particularly as its' once vaunted special effects have come to seem a lot less special.

This Island Earth was also mocked in the 1996 feature film Mystery Science Theatre 3000: The Movie, a spin off of the Mystery Science Theatre TV series, something that's done its reputation no good at all.

The film's chief flaw is that its two halves don't seem to quite belong together and the audience is not softened up enough for the film's very different second half. The result is that the transition from intriguing mystery of the first part to the fantastical pulp sci-fi of the second can be a little jarring.

The film's two sections are also unbalanced, possibly partly because of the two separate directors. The Earthbound part is carefully and gradually developed, while the Metaluna and outer space scenes seem to be rushed through a little too quickly, with lots of information thrown out and questions left hanging in the air, before a slightly hurried finale.

The ending also leaves the audience with the realisation that none of what's happened to the characters really had any consequence at all, as the human scientists weren't able to play any part in the saving of Metaluna. This leaves the story as a colourful, if slightly empty, adventure.

This Island Earth is weaker in script and plotting than The Day the Earth Stood Still and the themes and visuals are less interesting than the following year's Forbidden Planet. But there's something slightly treasurable about it anyway. From its stand up hero to its fantastical planet scapes, its cheesy monster and its hopes and fears about the potential and pitfalls of nuclear energy. Although not in any way a great film, This Island Earth is a cut above many of its contemporaries in the sci-fi genre and is still strangely irresistible for lovers of fifties sci-fi kitsch.



This Island Earth

Year: 1955
Genre: Sci-fi
Country: USA
Director: Joseph M. Newman

Cast Rex Reason (Dr Cal Meacham), Jeff Morrow (Exeter), Faith Domergue (Dr Ruth Adams), Lance Fuller (Brack), Russell Johnson (Dr Steve Carlson), Douglas Spencer (The Monitor), Robert Nichols (Joe Wilson), Karl L. Lindt (Dr Adolph Engelborg)

Screenplay Franklin Coen, Edward G. O'Callaghan, based on the novel by Raymond F. Jones  Producer William Alland  Cinematography Clifford Stine  Art directors Alexander Golitzen, Richard H. Riedel  Editor Virgil Vogel  Special photography David S. Horsley, Clifford Stine  Musical supervision Joseph Gershenson  Make up Bud Westmore

Running time 87 mins  Colour Technicolor

Production company/Distributor Universal-International

Comments

  1. Finally I can comment on your posts again. The Seventh Seal was just a bit too high-brow for my schlocky tastes. :)

    I love 50s sci-fi. At first glance nothing more than schlocky, though charming, entertainment with funny mutant animals, it actually had quite serious undertones. It served as a political commentary and exploited the fears and ramifications of nuclear power. These little B movies served in their own humble way as a warning voice not to mess about with nature. I actually haven't see This Island Earth but I'll try to find it.

    On a different note, the tall, dark, handsome and square-jawed scientist seems to tick you off somehow. :)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Wolfman wrote about This Island Earth last year and at that time it was on YouTube, so it may still be. It's under ninety minutes and is pretty brisk.

      It's unusual in that it's positive about nuclear power generally, whereas a lot of the fifties creature features use radioactivity to create their monsters. There's often this tension in the culture in the fifties between seeing nuclear power as this amazing, cheap, powerful energy source, but also as this awful thing that could destroy the world.

      The scientist didn't really tick me off. It's just that being talk, dark, handsome and all round awesome, he reminded me so much of myself.



      Delete
    2. Damn, I seem to know the wrong kind of scientists in real life.

      Delete
  2. A childhood favorite! You are right, it doesn't have the sophistication of Forbidden Planet, but it is fun nevertheless. I thought many of the visuals were pretty cool! And I'm assuming this is one of the films Tim Buton was thinking about when he made the spoof Mars Attack.

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