Wednesday, 27 October 2010

This Island Earth (1955)

Yes, it’s the film that inspired this blog’s title, so it’s about time I got around to reviewing This Island Earth, all the more so considering that I had not seen it since a single viewing in my early teens. Based on a novel by Mormon pulp writer Raymond F. Jones, This Island Earth was another production by William Alland for Universal Studios after his success with the likes of Creature from the Black Lagoon (1953) and It Came From Outer Space (1953), and it represented an obvious leap in ambition and scale, shot in Technicolor and sporting special effects that were, at the time, groundbreaking, and which remain beautiful and fascinating, if often very dated. The makers of Forbidden Planet (1956) reputedly borrowed a print from Universal to model some of their own work on, and the result is one of the most visually and thematically iconic works from the legendary sprawl of ‘50s sci-fi cinema.

The plot is hardly watertight, but it’s dense and clever, and revolves around an imaginative bluff, a geek’s delight, that would later be reworked by The Last Starfighter (1984), in which an Earthly hero completes a difficult task and discovers it was a test that places him contact with aliens, desperate for aid in an intergalactic war. The hero here is atomic research scientist Cal Meacham (Rex Reason), who’s introduced reporting on his efforts to transmute common elements into fissionable material to journalists. This is a film from the days in which movie scientists were manly men who pulled jumpsuits on over their suits to fly private jets and spoke with bass-baritone voices. Strange phenomena begin proliferating around Cal, from a green ray that saves him from crashing his plane, to super-sophisticated pieces of technology arriving in the mail. When he and his assistant Joe Wilson (Robert Nichols) put these pieces together, sent to them by an outfit calling themselves Ryberg Electronics, they produce a machine called an Interossiter, which proves to be, amongst other things, a kind of TV set, upon which appears a man calling himself Exeter (Jeff Morrow).

Exeter announces to Cal that he is head of a research group cherry-picking the best minds for the purposes of promoting world peace through science, and invites Cal to join, before the Interossiter then self-destructs. Cal, ignoring Wilson’s pleading, boards a remotely-steered aircraft to the group’s headquarters, a spacious mansion in some uncertain tract of rural California. There, he’s greeted by Ruth Adams (Faith Domergue), a scientist he remembers having a romantic tryst with years before at a symposium, but who denies knowing him. The mansion’s international selection of savants prove to be largely, equally cagey. Exeter plays the avuncular host, but he and his other employees all share strange physical traits of unnaturally high foreheads and white hair and brows, and a mood of oppressive suspicion seems to hang over the house. Cal convinces Ruth and colleague Steve Carlson (Russell Johnson) to trust him, and learns that other employees have been subjected to mind-altering procedures. Exeter and the other white-brows are aliens: they are soon ordered to return to their home planet Metaluna with Cal and Ruth to finish up their experiments, and to destroy the rest of the installation. Cal, Ruth, and Steve attempt to escape. Steve is killed, and the other two beamed aboard Exeter’s colossal spaceship.

This Island Earth’s cleverly delayed revelations means the part everyone's waiting for commences an hour into an 86 minute running time: the voyage to, and adventures on, Metaluna. That planet is under siege by an aggressive race called the Zygons, who live on a planet that was once a comet, and, determined to wipe out the Metalunans, bombard that world constantly with asteroids. Having used up all their supplies of uranium to maintain a repelling shield, the Metalunans face complete destruction unless Cal and Ruth can finally make good on their neo-alchemic experiments. The screenplay, written by Franklin Coen and Edward G. O’Callaghan working with Jones’ material, is essayed on a reasonably elevated conceptual level, with Exeter a humanist in the most expansive sense of the word, conflicted with the somewhat cruel expedience that his fellow Metalunans have internalised as necessity, but plays along with in knowing his planet is facing doom. Exeter offsets his coldly practical commandant, The Monitor (Douglas Stewart), who proposes moving Metalunan society in entirety to Earth, and Exeter objects to draining the minds of the Earth scientists and wreaking havoc, no matter how urgent the purpose. Exeter isn’t above using intimidation to get what he wants, but he is nonetheless a conscientious being who finally dedicates himself to getting his human charges back to Earth even when all else is lost. Exeter's an unusually complex creation, then, especially by the broad standards of the era's genre cinema.

The canny story point that provides the narrative's initial thrust, that tantalising technological handbook arriving in the mail, evokes the very underpinnings of sci-fi fandom itself. So often in those days such fandom was built around the notion that portals to world-expanding, even transcendent, happenings and creations might indeed be regularly posted to you, and required only receptive intelligence and a sense of adventure to fully grasp. Meacham’s insatiable curiosity, like that of the audience, who have come for a ride, is whetted by hints of the unimaginably advanced and alien, and taken through stages to whole new levels of awareness: as the prosaic Wilson shouts in panic at Cal to leave the pilotless airplane, Cal never seems to consider doing as he says, because whatever fear is inside him is subordinate to his desire to understand the enigma. And indeed, having been anointed by passing the test, like a super-modern equivalent of the oldest variety of mythic hero, how could Cal turn back? The collective of scientists put at the service of winning a war with technological breakthroughs carries an unavoidable resemblance to the Manhattan Project, and the war of the Metalunans and the Zygons can therefore be read as a version of WW2, although Cold War overtones are inevitable. The images of the Zygons’ spaceships steering a relentless stream of fiery meteorites evokes a bleak, cosmic-scaled Blitz. But it’s not, unlike the raw Red menace that infuses George Pal’s adaptation of War of the Worlds (1953), a simple us-vs-them tale. The title’s suggestively poetic perspective on human existence resonates only after glimpsing the suitably nightmarish landscape of Metaluna. Pocked with craters, riddled with exploding meteorites, the once-glorious cities built beneath the planet’s brittle surface now ghostly in their depopulation and besieged disintegration, Metaluna’s a vision of a civilisation in freefall, and echoing throughout is a cautionary tale for an Earth blindly stumbling on in the early Atomic Age, threatened with its own Cold Wars, and also by the deterioration of humane concern and reasonable communality. Metalunan society, as conveyed by Exeter’s violence-relishing assistant Brack (Lance Fuller) and the Monitor, has virtually degenerated into a joyless totalitarianism, and is relying on a race of grotesque mutants to perform its slave work.

We’re left to assume the Zygons, who remain unseen and are portrayed only through their ruthless pummelling of Metaluna and, according to Exeter, their disinterest in any form of negotiation, are even worse. The sole representative of the Metalunan mutants (pronounced, as in Invaders From Mars, in the amusingly retrograde styling “mew-taunt”) enters in the last fifteen minutes, as a bodyguard assigned to ensure that Exeter does as he’s told and subjects his human charges to the brain drain: they defy the creature, and battle it briefly in making their escape, after it’s been terribly wounded by falling debris. Alland retained this element of creature feature exploitation which had proven lucrative, and it’s a damn good bug-eyed monster with an impressive suit filled out by Eddie Parker, and the notion of having it manage to stow away on Exeter’s ship and terrorise the humans on their trip home, anticipates the final twist of Aliens (1986). And yet, in spite of its being the centrepiece of all the film’s advertising to this day – there it is, all over the DVD cover – the part it plays in the actual story is minimal, and it only manages some rather paltry terrorising of Domergue before succumbing to wounds and changes in atmospheric pressure. He brings a bit of action to a journey that in all other respects plays as a kind of elegiac travelogue, defined by the vision of the two humans and their tour guide Exeter watching his planet die in a terrible conflagration, and the film again grazes poetry as Exeter tries to take some comfort in the notion that his son, glowing white-hot under the cascade of asteroids, is becoming a sun that will light other planets.

This Island Earth is hampered by the usual limitations of films in this genre from the era: a wooden cast, an overly-compressed storyline to fit a regulation running time, and flat direction by Joseph M. Newman, a jobbing director who mostly handled Westerns and the odd film noir piece, who betrayed a minor sense of style. Universal was reputedly displeased by Newman’s work and brought in Jack Arnold to handle some sequences, which may partly explain why the framing and camera angles become more dramatic, and the editing more assured, as it proceeds. Clifford L. Stine’s strong photography, on one of the last films shot in classic three-strip technicolour, bathes in the saturated colours associated with old Amazing Stories covers. Interpersonal scenes in the middle third, when the film should be hitting its stride as an eerie mystery charged with threat, are stodgy and fall prey to the dreariness of the cardboard Reason and Domergue, who more than ever comes across like a particularly witless Ava Gardner clone. Morrow, at least, acquits himself fairly well, evoking some pathos and grace in Exeter. There’s a lot of potential in the story left unexplored by This Island Earth, which sprints for the exit just when it’s really getting interesting, and it’s finally more frustrating than some other works of the period that made sure to only bite off what they could chew. But it stands alongside Forbidden Planet and a handful of others amongst the most intelligent and inquisitive of Hollywood’s first sci-fi craze.


Beveridge D. Spenser said...

Wow, no comments? OK, I'll toss one in - the Mystery Science Theater version of This Island Earth is great, what with the homemade Interossiter and all. But the guys admitted it wasn't really appropriate, since the movie was far from the usual trash that they dump on.

But, really, don't you have an interossiter? Doesn't everyone?

Roderick Heath said...

Hi Bev.

Nonetheless, the "Normal View!" bit is hilarious - it's impossible to hear that music and not think of it. Whilst indeed it's maybe not fair to have subjected a good movie to the MST3K treatment, it's a film that offers a lot to good-natured ribbing, and I bet the MST3K production team suspected they needed a movie that was actually watchable in order to make their film watchable for many people.

I have an interossiter. That's why I gained twenty pounds, while it did all the work.

Greg said...

I'm sure they did want to go with a movie that looked good onscreen as opposed to the tv movie garbage that actually provided most of their best episodes. Nevertheless, it always annoyed me that they did it, thus implicitly making This Island Earth a bad movie for the hordes of people who saw MST3K in the theater. Well, okay, for the seventeen people who saw it in the theater.

Roderick Heath said...

Indeed, it is prejudicial. Similar thing with It Came From Hollywood a few years earlier snipping out bits of War of the Worlds and The Incredible Shrinking Man along with the likes of Prince of Space and The Creeping Terror.

Come to think of it, I tended to get most of my first glimpses of a lot of '50s sci-fi in clip shows and movies. I recall one - and I'll be damned if I can remember the title - that was structured around aliens who had taken over a movie theater and entertained themselves by endless showing bits out of such fare. They were almost always under a banner of "bad movies". Even worse, when I first saw Isle of the Dead and a couple of other Val Lewton films, they'd been released by a company that put them out as part of a series called "A Real Horror - So Bad It's Good!" Prejudicial indeed. But that sort of thing never obscures actual quality.

Greg said...

Even worse, when I first saw Isle of the Dead and a couple of other Val Lewton films, they'd been released by a company that put them out as part of a series called "A Real Horror - So Bad It's Good!" Prejudicial indeed. But that sort of thing never obscures actual quality.

True, but still, calling a Lewton film "so bad it's good" makes me want to punch somebody.

Roderick Heath said...

Yes, an understandable reaction. On the other hand, they were excellent prints, better than many I've seen from other sources. So, yeah, I have pleasant and nostalgic associations with those ill-worded video boxes.