In the annals of science-fiction film, This Island Earth holds a firm position as a memorable film.
Designed as a space-adventure film, This Island Earth merges a blend of several sci-fi genres to create a film greater than the sum of its parts. It’s a colorful and creative film about science, technology and war – providing amusement for generations to come.
The trailer provides some exciting moments, but is also long on its use of inter-titles. The film appears to gives a vibe of sci-fi action as a flying saucer takes off from Earth and dodges all sorts of space debris. It appears that a couple are being taken to an alien planet for some unknown reason. There’s a lot of explosions, and running, and screaming! But really the trailer does nothing more than sell the sizzle, as there’s no real substance contained within.
Presented below is the trailer for the film.
The Fiction of The Film
This Island Earth is a film that sits between classic sci-fi film and cheese-ball epic. That line is for the viewer to decide. In Washington DC, famous nuclear scientist Dr. Cal Meacham (Rex Reason) is flying to his lab in California. Upon his approach the controls of his plane go haywire and he almost crashes, but there is a mysterious noise and the plane glows green, landing itself. He and his assistant Joe Wilson (Robert Nichols) decide to investigate this later. In the lab Joe tells him that the condensers they ordered were substituted with super small beads that can hold tremendous amounts of energy; more than the giant condenser.
Soon they receive a catalog from Electronic Service Unit No 16 with instructions on how to build an interocitor. After receiving the parts they assemble the device according to the graphical instructions and diagram. The unit created is a video communications device they use to talk with a strange looking man who calls himself Exeter (Jeff Morrow). He is looking for scientists to assist with a problem, and offers Cal a position. The device then destroys the blueprints and catalog with some sort of laser ray, before melting down itself. That evening, Cal meets a plane that lands with no pilot, in a very dense fog. It transports him to Exeter’s retreat with the other scientists.
Ending up in Georgia, Cal is met at the plane by Dr. Ruth Adams (Faith Domergue) who acts strange when Cal recognizes her from a previous meeting. She takes him back to the main house and shows him around, introducing him to Dr. Steve Carlson (Russell Johnson). Exeter then calls him in for a meeting, explaining that he and his associates, all who have white hair and large craniums, are working on an end to war, and they are having the scientists help them in the project to better all mankind.
Ruth and Steve let Cal know something weird is happening. Other scientists have been brainwashed to do their work without question, subverting their free will. Only the three of them have been spared. They leave the grounds to investigate a strange section of road Steve discovered, but the car is bombarded by mysterious laser blasts. Cal and Ruth bail out while Steve drives off to distract the blasts from them. His car explodes, killing him. Cal and Ruth find a plane and attempt to escape, but are caught in another green light and drawn into a large flying saucer that flies out of a hill near the facility, just before the entire facility explodes!
Exeter meets the pair on the ship and explains that his superiors are calling him home. He was behind on the project and had hoped that Cal’s work would allow him to overcome the delays. Exeter and his associates are from the planet Metaluna, which is locked in an age-old war with another planet Zagon. The supply of uranium on Metaluna is nearly depleted and Exeter was tasked to get the most brilliant minds from Earth together to solve the problem of synthesizing the element. The saucer ship lands on Metaluna amidst a hail of comet-rockets volleyed by Zagon.
Exeter reports with the pair to The Monitor (Douglas Spencer) for instructions. He tells Exeter to wipe their free will so they can finish the project before the Metalunan shields (aka the “ionization layer”) fails. Cal and Ruth break free, avoiding a mutant (a giant insectoid creature bred by the Metalunans for labor) and return to the ship. Exeter agrees to help them escape, having been around humans for too long, and seeing the folly of his peoples’ ways. Damaged in the fight with mutant, Exeter launches the ship back to Earth, as the Zagon bombing finally eradicates the last of the shield, destroying Metaluna and turning it into a new sun. The saucer enters the Earth atmosphere at full speed. Cal and Ruth manage to escape in the plane they used earlier. Exeter crash lands the UFO in the ocean, exploding, and removing all traces of alien life on Earth.
“I represent a group of scientists who work with but one purpose, to put an end to war.” – Exeter
History in the Making
This Island Earth was Universal Internationals first science-fiction film in technicolor and was based on a story by Raymond F. Jones. The film combines a number of elements that had yet to be presented together in a science fiction film from the period. It’s also an example of wish fulfillment film. In imagining that aliens exist, they have come to Earth to take the viewer to their planet.
The visual effects were also a big step forward for this film. Besides having to shoot all the effects in color, the crew also ended up creating new technology and new planets. The use of miniatures, split screen, matte paintings, costumes and makeup effects all combine for an enjoyable depiction of an alien world, and the strange creatures that live there. The War of The Worlds had lots of effects, but combined the alien menace into the familiar environments of Earth while This Island Earth manages to create a new civilization showcasing Metaluna with miniatures, matte paintings, lighting and costumes. For those following along, the Metalunan vehicles in this film were recycled from Universal’s sci-fi film two-years previous, Abbott and Costello Go To Mars. They were used by the Venutian women for transportation in that film.
The one detraction about this film, other than it seeming dated, is the fact that the characters have no growth and that they don’t do anything! As examples, aliens present new technology to the Cal and Joe, but they don’t have to figure anything out about it. They just assemble it per the instructions. Cal and Ruth don’t choose to go to Metaluna. They are basically kidnapped and then need to find a way to escape. And in the most thrilling moment, when Ruth is being chased and attacked by the mutant, Cal doesn’t actually save Ruth, like he says he’s doing. The mutant falls and bashes its over-sized head on a workstation. The film is more of a sci-fi ride for the characters, like one would get on at Disneyland, rather than a typical film structure.
This Island Earth’s combination of sci-fi elements is one of the best things about the film. It takes a number of genre staples, combines them and presents them to the audience in a brand new fashion. To date, there had been films with aliens, peaceful and not, visiting the planet. Rocketship X-M and Abbott and Costello Go To Mars had taken the characters to new planets within our solar system. The Day The Earth Stood Still had a brilliant race of extraterrestrials extolling the virtues of peace, while The War of the Worlds brought the horror of intergalactic war to our shores.
This Island Earth takes a piece of all these tales and creates a film with action and adventure showcasing and highlighting the best elements of the genre. A lot of the elements seen in the film would become further staples, not only with humans being abducted to alien planets, but future tales where humans travel between planets. Intergalactic wars would be told with more detail and grandeur and the aliens would get more intricate and menacing.
The introduction of the interocitor may be one of the greatest sci-fi creations ever. It’s a great McGuffin doing whatever needs to be done for the story, providing alternate energy, power and other scientific breakthroughs. It’s the first pseudo-scientific creation in sci-film history. One that would become known by fans worldwide, alongside a myriad of other devices such as the flux-capacitor, the oscillation overthruster and even flubber. It would even show up as a prop in the Weird Al Yankovic film UHF.
The film also has similarities to the classic Carl Sagan story Contact, in which aliens provide instructions on how to build a ship to reach them. But unlike that film, This Island Earth’s Metalunans don’t require any such knowledge from the humans. They want to use the humans to help stop their war by creating new types of energy, but it appears to be too late. The Metalunan and the Zagon battle has already progressed too far for even Cal and Ruth to stop.
The apparent plan of the Metalunans is to utilize the most advanced scientific minds on the planet to put an end to war. That’s what Exeter tells Cal. But it seems more as if Exeter and his team are more interested in finding the energy source to prolong their war with the Zagons, or at least find an energy source that can stop the Zagons. It’s not the same sort of altruistic message as Klaatu brought in The Day The Earth Stood Still. The enthusiasm for working on such a project fades when one realizes that the Metalunans are utilizing humans as just another cog in a centuries old war-machine.
The title of the film give a little nod to the real-world implications of war, and its devastating effects. Imagining that Earth is an “island” in the cosmos, now being swept up in an intergalactic war mirrors elements seen during the battles in the Pacific during World War II. One day people are going about their business, and the next the machines of war – one that the locals are uninvolved in – come rolling past their homes, usurping their matériel and destroying their land.
In the end however, Exeter’s time amongst the humans was not wasted. He realizes that he has changed (even though he’s not the main character) and now sees the error of his people’s ways. Allowing Cal and Ruth to go free, even aiding them in their escape against his fellow aliens shows that for a species as technologically primitive as humans, they may be more advanced than once believed.
The Science in The Fiction
No one could mistake the science in this film for anything but fiction. Cal spouts some gibberish about atomic energy teaming up with electronics to enter a “push-button age” at the beginning of the film. This was the concept that a button can perform a multitude of tasks. To the 1950s way of thinking, that was very futuristic. It’s not very far off from how science and technology affected the machinery of the late 20th Century. Today there are buttons that route information, power and even entertainment directly into the palm of our hands. To the 1950s we are truly living in the future.
Other aspects of the film are better off not being explained. How does the Metalunan’s craft fly? How can the ionization layer stop the comet-bombs from Zagon? These and other questions are definitely science fiction, and there’s no need to try to explain them – just as it is not necessary to explain how or why a car works.
One piece of science fact that is totally misrepresented is Ruth explaining why the cat is called Neutron. “We call him that because he’s so positive,” she explains to Cal. Any scientist dealing with nuclear energy would know that neutrons have a negative charge. Perhaps the naming, and this line, were meant as an ironic joke. It doesn’t seem that way, but it’s certainly possible. I’m positive!
The Final Frontier
The film contains a strong cast, that were well known at the time. Both Rex Reason and Jeff Morrow go on to both star in The Creature Walks Among Us the next year (one of Universal’s Creature from the Black Lagoon sequels). Faith Domergue was a protege of Howard Hughes, and an early “scream queen” in a number of Universal sci-fi films, also including It Came from Beneath the Sea and The Atomic Man. Pop culture fans will also recognize Russell Johnson, who would go on to be a much more famous professor in the television series Gilligan’s Island.
This Island Earth also inspired many fans of sci-fi and films to come. While the characterization of the Guardians of Oa (created by John Broome and Gil Kane in Green Lantern #1, July 1960) is said to be inspired by the first Prime Minister of Israel, David Ben-Gurion, I can’t help but see many similarities to their design with that of The Monitor from this film. The film struck such a chord with the creators of the television series Mystery Science Theater 3000 that when it came time to make their feature film, they chose This Island Earth as a natural candidate. Bands have recorded songs inspired by this film, the Metalunan mutant appears in Looney Tunes: Back in Action, and a reference to Earth being an “island” was made in an episode of the original Star Trek television series.
While some may look at this film, like MST3K did as a cheesy 1950s sci-fi film, there are actually many things to recommend about the film. Regardless of one’s feeling on the merit of the story and effects, it can be fully agreed that it’s a memorable film, filled with imagery, characters and dialogue that persist.
Having grown up on comics, television and film, “Jovial” Jay feels destined to host podcasts and write blogs related to the union of these nerdy pursuits. Among his other pursuits he administrates and edits stories at the two largest Star Wars fan sites on the ‘net (Rebelscum.com, TheForce.net), and co-hosts the Jedi Journals podcast over at the ForceCast network.