The 1950s were truly the Golden Age for science fiction movies, ushering in an impressive array of films, some of which I've already written about for IROSF, such as Invasion of the Body Snatchers and The Day the Earth Stood Still. There are many others to be written about in future columns, like Forbidden Planet, The Incredible Shrinking Man, The War of the Worlds and Them! This time, though, let's focus on a film often thought to be a classic...until you actually sit down and watch it.
This Island Earth (1955) was one of the biggest budget SF films up to that time and is fondly remembered. It was one of the few films of the era done in color and which took its characters to another world. It has a beautifully poetic title, and some of its special effects were outstanding achievements for its era. So much for its virtues.
When the folks at Mystery Science Theater 3000 did their feature version in 1996, they knew that they would need to spoof a film that would look good on the big screen. Manos, Hands of Fate might work on TV (where most of us saw it, if at all), but they wanted something that would be visually engaging in a movie theater. There was some surprise when they chose This Island Earth. Wasn't that a "good" film? As Roger Ebert put it, "The odd thing about MST3K: The Movie is that its target is not that bad—or at least, not all that bad. On second thought, maybe it is. Let's put it this way: I liked it a lot more when I was 12 than I do now."
Presumably the reason it was chosen was that the parent studio for the MST3K movie, Universal, already owned This Island Earth, so the legal problems in chopping up and mocking the film would be minimal. Also, it was in color and had all those nifty effects. However, if you watch the film on your own, you may find yourself channeling Tom Servo and Crow T. Robot yourself. Special effects aside, this proves to be a very silly movie.
Let's start with the cast. The highest profile SF films of the era had stars who were either on their way up (Gene Barry in The War of the Worlds, Kevin McCarthy in Invasion of the Body Snatchers), stars whose glory days were behind them but still had prestige (Walter Pidgeon in Forbidden Planet), or even actors who were right in the middle of productive careers (Patricia Neal and Michael Rennie in The Day the Earth Stood Still). The leads of This Island Earth are Rex Reason, Faith Domergue, and Jeff Morrow. Looking through their credits one is struck by the fact that a) they worked steadily in film and TV, no small accomplishment in Hollywood and b) This Island Earth is probably the most prominent movie any of them ever did. Reason and Morrow would be teamed again for The Creature Walks Among Us, which isn't necessarily a plus. Clearly Universal didn't think this was a movie worth spending money on when it came to the actors. Modern viewers are more likely to notice the appearance of Russell Johnson in a supporting role as another scientist, but only because of Johnson's lasting fame as The Professor on Gilligan's Island.
The same can be said for the choice of director. The Day the Earth Stood Still and Invasion of the Body Snatchers had up-and-coming directors Robert Wise and Don Siegel. The Thing had unknown Christian Nyby, a protégé of the film's producer, legendary director Howard Hawks. War of the Worlds had Byron Haskin, whose success led to a string of SF films, including Conquest of Space, From the Earth to the Moon, Robinson Crusoe on Mars, The Power, and several episodes of the '60s TV series The Outer Limits. Only Forbidden Planet and This Island Earth went with relative non-entities, and MGM was spending money on the cast and the effects to make up for it on Planet. This Island Earth had journeyman director Joseph M. Newman and, if reports are to believed, his work may have been supplemented by an uncredited Jack Arnold, whose filmography includes Creature from the Black Lagoon, It Came from Outer Space and The Incredible Shrinking Man.
Then there's the plot. Based on a series of stories (later combined into novel form) by Raymond F. Jones, the movie seems in many ways to be a serial. Cal Meacham (Rex Reason) is intrigued when his scientific supply house not only sends him some equipment that shouldn't exist, but also provides a weird catalog that tells him what he'll need to build an Interociter. When it's completed, it turns out to be a communication device that connects him with Exeter (Jeff Morrow), a high-domed, white haired fellow who tells Cal he proved his worth by constructing the Interociter. Exeter invites him to join a secret science project. The Interociter then sends out beams to destroy the catalog. Cal unplugs the Interociter, which causes it to self-destruct.
This is mildly engaging stuff, until you start asking the obvious questions: The Interociter has to be plugged in? What sort of outlets do they have on Exeter's home planet, AC or DC? Even assuming this was a special version adapted for Earth, Cal seems too willing to go along with things. Does he not notice Exeter's alien-like appearance?
This is all set-up, however. Once he's at the country estate where Exeter and other odd looking folks play host to a group of scientists, all experts in atomic energy, Cal learns there's plenty of reason to be suspicious. For one thing, his old girlfriend Dr. Ruth Adams (Faith Domergue) is there, but she's decidedly cool. Finally we learn the truth. This whole research project is actually being conducted for the benefit of the planet Metaluna, where a terrible war is raging. Cal and Ruth decide to escape rather than work for Exeter.
All right, we have some intrigue here, some '50s paranoia about authority and who's really pulling the strings, and if the characters weren't so wooden we might actually care about their fates. What happens next, though, is what some of the film's defenders claim redeems the proceedings but, in fact, exposes the movie as not having much to say at all.
Cal and Ruth escape in a plane, but the plane is then seized by a Metalunan space ship. On board they are greeted by the ever-genial Exeter who apologizes for the way they've been treated, and explains the dire straits his planet is in. The surface of Metaluna has been destroyed by bombardment by the Zahgons, another alien race. The Metalunans are hoping to move to Earth. Instead, in short order, Cal and Ruth escape, Metaluna is destroyed, and Exeter dies. There are some nifty special effects, including a menacing mutant, but the whole trip to Metaluna has been a sideshow. Cal and Ruth get there, are menaced, and return to Earth.
The image of the mutant creature immediately entered SF film lore, but what was the point of the trip in the first place? It's largely an excuse to showcase the bombardment of Metaluna which, according to Kenneth von Gunden and Stuart H. Stock, in their Twenty All-Time Great Science Fiction Films, took twenty-six days to shoot and used up $100,000 of the film's estimated $800,000 budget. The special effects take up sixteen of the film's eighty-seven minutes. The problem is that with characters who are little more than stick figures and a plot barely worthy of the name, the special effects are simply a fireworks show. Universal's publicity machine boasted about the fact that the mutant monster costume cost $20,000-25,000, making it the most expensive monster created for a movie at that time. But who are they? Mutant Metalunans? Experimental creatures gone wrong? Captured Zahgons? As with everything else in the film, it simply is, with no time for further explanation.
It's not surprising to learn that This Island Earth was not a box office smash, and didn't lead to imitators or even, years later, to a remake. It fails, in spite of the science fictional trappings and the potentially complex alien Exeter, because in the end it's simply a shaggy dog story. When one looks at The Day the Earth Stood Still or The Thing or Invasion of the Body Snatchers or Forbidden Planet, it's not hard to discern the message of the film. But what is the message of This Island Earth? Von Gunden and Stock argue that it is that human creativity cannot be forced, which is why enslaving the Earth scientists is doomed to failure. It's a valid point, but it's just as clearly not the focus of the film. Others say it's a reflection of '50s paranoia about the atomic bomb and nuclear war, but Metaluna is being destroyed by meteor bombardment, an interplanetary update on the catapult.
For fans of '50s SF, This Island Earth may be fun to watch, but it's no classic, lacking both the substance and the influence on the genre that we expect from the truly great films.