“They don’t want the classic horror films anymore. Today it’s all giant bugs. Giant spiders, giant grasshoppers…who would believe such nonsense?” So said “ex-bogeyman” Bela Lugosi (Martin Landau) to neophyte filmmaker Edward D. Wood, Jr. (Jonny Depp) in Tim Burton’s 1994 biodrama Ed Wood. And yes, the Hollywood sci-fi landscape of the 1950s had more than its fair share of Brobdingnagian beasts, chintzy effects–some of them courtesy of Wood himself, and less-than-cerebral screenplays.
A few pictures, however, attempted to elevate the genre above the Saturday matinee serial fare of earlier decades: 20th Century-Fox’s The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), Paramount’s When Worlds Collide (also ’51) and The War of the Worlds (1953), and MGM’s Forbidden Planet (1956), to name a few. As for Universal Pictures (at this time working under the seemingly redundant moniker Universal-International), which rose to prominence thanks to those aforementioned classic horror films and such serials as Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers, its biggest foray into serious science fiction was This Island Earth.The 1955 interplanetary drama featured all the requisite genre touches: stalwart scientist protagonists, impressive alien spaceships, a weighty message (either anti-war or pro-defense, depending upon how you look at it), and so forth. It also managed to toss in one of the era’s more memorable “bug-eyed monsters.”
The story opens on a Washington, D.C. airfield, as electronics researcher/amateur pilot/all-around ’50s hunk Dr. Cal Meacham (the wonderfully heroically-named Rex Reason) joshes with a crew of reporters after attending a conference on the “industrial applications of atomic energy” (science news was apparently a hot topic during the Eisenhower Administration). After gleefully confusing the journalists by describing his work as “the reconversion of certain common elements into nuclear energy sources,” Meacham hops into the cockpit of his jet for a quick cross-country flight back to his Southern California lab.
The trip nearly ends in disaster. After Cal playfully buzzes the airport control tower where his nebbishy co-worker Joe Wilson (Robert Nichols) is faithfully waiting for him, his jet flames out and starts spiraling towards the ground. It’s then that a mysterious emerald light envelopes the plane and takes over the controls, guiding the vehicle and its pilot safely down. Unable to account for the green glow or how he avoided becoming a human pancake, Meacham chalks it up to someone up there liking him. He’s right, of course, but his saviors aren’t from the “up there” he’s thinking of.
It becomes clear–to the audience, at least–that whoever is responsible for Cal’s rescue has an ulterior motive for keeping the electronics whiz hale and hearty, as he and Joe are sent high-tech equipment unlike anything they’ve seen before, followed by crates containing the 2,486 parts and pieces needed to put together an interocitor. What’s an interocitor, you ask? Well, following the obligatory assembly montage, we see that it’s a two-way communication device that allows people to see and talk to each other across long distances (wow, definitely like nothing on Earth!), with a viewscreen that looks (to me, at least) like a giant hamentashen.
On the other end of said hamentashen sits Exeter (Jeff Morrow), an amiable, white-haired and high-domed chap who informs Meacham that his constructing the device has proven his aptitude. Exeter then tells Cal that he’s gathering the world’s top minds to work on a top-secret project…a top-secret project that no self-respecting scientific hero could possibly resist. Cal proves he’s no different, and a pilotless, remote-controlled plane ride lands him in a remote area in the Georgia hills, the organization’s base of operations. As Exeter promised, some of the greatest intellects from around the globe have been assembled there: folks from Germany, Finland, China…
…even an uncharted desert isle somewhere in the South Pacific. Yep, that’s the old Professor himself, Russell Johnson, playing Dr. Steve Carlson. The lady in the middle is another nuclear expert, Dr. Ruth Adams (Faith Domergue), whom Cal became “acquainted with” at a conference in New England several years earlier (draw your own hypothesis here). The three are a little suspicious of their hosts’ intentions (Exeter says his team is working to put an end to war) and even more curious about what Exeter and his similarly large-foreheaded colleague Brak (Lance Fuller) have done to their colleagues to apparently rob them of their free will. Could it be that the pair are…not of this world?
Hey, Cal, Ruth and Steve are scientists; nobody said they’re geniuses (which would explain why Ruth states they dubbed the laboratory cat Neutron “because he’s so positive.” Uh, Ruth, protons are the positive particles). It starts to dawn on our trio that they’re in the presence of extraterrestrials, and they hatch an plan to escape before they wind up the latest converts of the aliens’ “Thought Transformer” device. Well, one disintegrated station wagon–and one disintegrated Professor–later, Cal and Ruth manage to make it to an airplane and take off. Exeter and company, however, had transportation of their own stashed away, and after blowing up the laboratory they bring Cal, Ruth and the plane on board for a voyage back to their homeworld.
Once everyone is squared away on the flying saucer, Exeter informs his “passengers” that his people come from a distant planet called Metaluna, which has been locked in a devastating nuclear conflict against a neighboring race, the Zagons, whose world is said to be “a planet that was once a comet” (apologies to Neil deGrasse Tyson). The Metalunans’ plan was to use Earth’s greatest minds to help them develop new sources of uranium so they could restore the depleted “ionization layer” that protects them from Zagon meteor attacks, but now they’re bringing the pair back with them in a last-ditch effort to…well, actually, it’s not really clear at first why they brought the two Earthlings with them. It does give Cal and Ruth a chance to don Metalunan garb and undergo a session in special “conversion tubes” that will adapt their bodies to the rigors of space travel.By the way, did anyone else ever try putting togeher those Visible Man and Visible Woman model kits as a kid? Don’t know why I suddenly thought of that.
When the ship finally reaches the war-ravaged Metaluna and its now-subterranean society, the planet’s leader informs Cal and Ruth that they will have their minds conditioned and then assist in rebuilding the ionization layer defense long enough for his people to emigrate to Earth, where their superior intellect and technology will (naturally) make them rulers of mankind. As a reluctant Exeter leads the duo to the thought control chambers, Ruth exclaims “My mind is my own and nobody’s going to change it,” as she and Cal try for the second time in the picture to make a break for it, only to be stopped by one of these guys.
Finally, an hour into the movie! This is a Metalunan Mutant, and even if you’ve never watched This Island Earth you’ve probably seen his handsome kisser as a Halloween mask, on trading cards, or in monster magazines. “They’re similar to some of the insect life on your own planet,” Exeter helpfully explains, “larger, of course, with a higher degree of intelligence.” “We’ve been breeding them here for ages to do menial work.” Sure, who wouldn’t love to have their every own Mutant vacuuming, washing dishes and helping out around the house?
Before there’s a lengthy debate on mind control or why the Mutants wear pants, more Zagon meteors obliterate the complex, and Cal, Ruth and Exeter decide the best course of action is to abandon the dying planet and hightail it back to Earth in the spaceship. There’s one little bug in their plan, though. Actually, it’s a rather big bug: another Mutant, badly injured, who stows away on the craft, mortally wounds Exeter, and (this being a 1950s sci-fi film, after all) tries to get cozy with Ruth before the gravitational pressure does him in.
The ship makes it back to Earth, and a dying Exeter manages to send his abductees-turned-friends back in their airplane before his saucer crashes and explodes in the sea, taking with it the last remnants of his world’s doomed culture.
This Island Earth was made for Universal-International under the auspices of actor-turned-producer William Alland (the reporter in Citizen Kane), who had already given the studio It Came from Outer Space and Creature from the Black Lagoon. It was also U-I’s first big-budget sci-fi picture to be filmed in Technicolor and was, if the poster at the top of this piece is to be believed, “2 1/2 years in the making!” At some point in those two-and-a-half years, executives seem to have gotten cold feet about the project’s cost, as several planned special effects sequences never made it to fruition and shooting deadlines even kept the crew from finishing the bottom part of the Mutants’ design (which explains why these giant insectoid creatures are wearing khaki trousers).
From a visual standpoint, what did finally make it up on the screen was definitely worth the wait. This is a very striking film, from the techno-intricacy of the interocitor to the sleek look of the Metalunan spaceship (although its interiors do seem a little bit overly spacious) and the Salvador Dali-esque matte paintings depicting the destruction of the alien planet. And the Mutants themselves rank among the most fondly-remembered sci-fi creatures of the period.
As far as the story goes, the movie is a mixed bag. It’s tri-episodic nature (Cal’s lab, the Georgia estate, Metaluna) reflects how the source material, a novel by Raymond F. Jones, started out as three connected magazine novelettes. Along the way, though, some key motivations seem to have fallen by the wayside. If the Metalunans had working spaceships, why not just evacuate their homeworld rather than hope to prop up their weakening defenses? Did they really try to make peace with Zagons, as Exeter claims, or are they as dictatorial as their leader made them appear? Why would Cal, Ruth and the other scientists so readily work on a secret nuclear energy project for unknown benefactors, especially at the height of the Cold War? And speaking of the Cold War, does one come out of the picture moved by a depiction of the futility of all-out nuclear war, or are we instead supposed to think that America should be propping up its own defenses (that ionization layer sure sounded more than a little like Ronald Reagan’s “Star Wars” Strategic Defense Initiative)?
The acting in the film is serviceable at best, with Jeff Morrow coming off as a convincingly alien Exeter who grows to care for the Earth people he was sent to control. Reason is suitably square-jawed and stalwart, with a reasonable if underutilized romantic chemistry between him and Domergue (who was a protégé–and possible love interest–of millionaire and would-be movie mogul Howard Hughes). Other than Gilligan’s Island co-star Russell Johnson, the cast member who perhaps went on to the most professional success was none other than Neutron the cat. In real life a tabby named Orangey, this feline thespian broke into pictures with the title role in the 1951 baseball comedy Rhubarb, menaced Grant Williams in The Incredible Shrinking Man, worked opposite an alien Jerry Lewis in Visit to a Small Planet, and was Audrey Hepburn’s four-footed friend Cat in Breakfast at Tiffany’s.
While the film was a modest success at the box office, the production problems mentioned above seem to have soured U-I on any more grand space operas, because Alland’s unit would take a step down in quality over the remainder of the decade with such drive-in fare as The Mole People, The Deadly Mantis and The Land Unknown.
Despite its being (unfairly?) lampooned by Mike Nelson and his robot pals as the cinematic experiment in 1996’s Mystery Science Theater: The Movie, the earnest (which nowadays can be mistaken for campy) This Island Earth still holds up as one of the more thoughtful examples of ’50s Hollywood sci-fi. It also demonstrates what a studio like Universal and producers such as Alland were capable of at a time when the fledgling genre was dominated by Lugosi’s “giant bugs,” Metalunan Mutants notwithstanding.