Sunday, September 24, 2017

This Island Earth (Universal-International, 1955)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I managed to spend most of the morning in front of the TV set — watching the Superman serial and also the 1955 movie This Island Earth, produced at Universal and starring Jeff Morrow, Faith Domergue and Rex Reason in a Technicolor science-fiction epic directed by Joseph M. Newman. I’ve already noted Newman’s deficiencies as a director in my comments on Kiss of Fire, which he made the same year (a movie which also suffered from casting deficiencies — Jack Palance and Barbara Rush in roles which cried out for Tyrone Power and Rita Hayworth), but while This Island Earth wasn’t anywhere near as good as the other “serious” sci-fi movies of its period (The Thing, The Day the Earth Stood Still and the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers) — and certainly would have profited by the involvement of any of the auteurs of those films (Hawks, Wise or Siegel) — Newman was at least more in his element in this genre than he was in an historical costume romance. Morrow stars as Exeter, a scientist from the planet Metaluna, who seeks the intervention of Earth’s leading experts on atomic energy in order to restore the force-field that is protecting Metaluna from the attacks being launched, almost constantly, from a neighboring planet, Zagon. Reason and Domergue play two of the Earth scientists who are virtually kidnapped to work on Exeter’s project, recruited through a taste of Metalunan technology and the offer to work in a secret laboratory for an unnamed employer (given the 1950’s, and the fact that up until three-fifths of the way through the movie, the fact that Exeter is from another planet is kept carefully unspecified, one wonders why they don’t suspect they’re being recruited by the Soviets).

The main defect of this movie is the script by Franklin Coen and Edward G. O’Callaghan, which took an essentially interesting story (the basis was a novel by Raymond Jones, who presumably explained the title — something the movie never does) and managed to miss, or dramatize just at the most superficial level, all the potential conflicts that would have made it interesting. Still, the movie is absolutely ravishing to look at — thanks to the photography of Clifford Stine and the special-effects work (Stine and David Horsley were co-credited with the effects), as well as the uniquely 1950’s conception of what an alien planet would look like (art directors Alexander Golitzen and Richard Reidel — though Golitzen’s was probably just a department-head credit and it’s unlikely he did specific work on this film — and set decorators Russel Hausman and Julia Heron), dated but still visually appealing (it looks like one of the earlier “space rides” at Disneyland, actually). The cast is workmanlike — though, with all the advantages of Metalunan technology, it’s surprising that they couldn’t have come up with a more convincing wig for Morrow to wear as Exeter (and Lance Fuller, as another, more doctrinaire Metalunan who keeps pressuring Exeter to use the “thought transference” brainwashing machine on Our Hero and Heroine, despite Exeter’s protestations that it will make them less useful scientists, has to wear just as bad a wig as Morrow does) — and the color helps, though the story could stand a remake (maybe John Carpenter could do it — he’s done well by other 1950’s sci-fi classics in his underrated remake of The Thing from 1982 and his 1989 near-masterpiece, They Live, which made the powerful personal metaphor of the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers into a political one) which would actually dramatize all the potential story points evaded or worked “around” in this version. — 10/31/94


This Island Earth was a much better movie — a genuine, though flawed, sci-fi classic (and, at least judging from the excerpt published in the book They Came from Outer Space, a more exact transcription of Raymond F. Jones’ source novel than most sci-fi films of the time). The film could have done without that horrible mutant that emerges at the end, the makeups on the aliens from Metaluna could have been more convincing (“Why do aliens in sci-fi movies always have to wear really bad wigs?” Charles asked), and we could have been given some idea of what the war between Metaluna and its neighboring planet Zagon was all about — as it is, the ship bearing Exeter (the nice Metalunan) and the two scientists he’s brought back from Earth arrives just in time to witness the destruction of Metaluna and (in an interesting anticipation of Arthur C. Clarke) its conversion from a planet into a star (a special effect that remains convincing and incredibly beautiful), whereupon Exeter sacrifices his own life (a la The Last of the Mohicans — he’s the last of the Metalunans) to get Our Hero and Our Heroine back to earth. One could wish for a remake that would be more complex, more sensitively written and equipped with state-of-the-art effects, but the movie we have is moving and at times awesomely beautiful (as when we first see the skyline of Metaluna, a ravishingly colored matte painting, and realize how defenseless the planet really is against the ceaseless bombardment by the Zagonian energy weapons). — 6/6/97


I ran the science-fiction movie This Island Earth from 1955, which I’ve been curious about re-seeing since I recently read Raymond F. Jones’ source novel and found the first half of the movie tracked the novel surprisingly closely but the second half was radically different. Both book and film begin in the labs of Ryberg Electronics in Arizona, where principal scientist Dr. Cal Meacham (Rex Reason) is working on a machine to turn lead into uranium to create an inexhaustible source of atomic fuel for nuclear reactors. Only the capacitors available to him can’t take the sheer voltage level needed for the machine to work, so he orders new ones — but instead of what he was expecting he receives an envelope stating that he’s being sent a substitute which looks like a bunch of glass beads. He tests the beads along with his colleague Joe Wilson (Robert Nichols) and realizes they actually do work as condensers — and what’s more, they accommodate such high levels of voltage they’re clearly unlike any technology he’s ever heard of before. Then he gets a mysterious electronics catalog printed not on paper but on some sort of flexible metal, which offers a kit to manufacture a product called an “interocitor.” Naturally Meacham has no idea what an interocitor is or what it does, but he’s so curious he orders the kit (which comes with a solemn warning that if any part is lost, stolen or accidentally destroyed it will not be replaced — in the book Meacham and his crew actually do destroy a part by accident and the mystery firm that sent it to them sends back a note that they won’t replace it, which forces them to jury-rig something that will take its place), builds the interocitor and finds that the entire operation has been a recruitment and testing operation from a mysterious company that is recruiting engineers for a project in an underground lab. The catch is that the scientists working on it will have to live there and won’t be allowed contact with the outside world — though they will be given nice places to stay, fabulous meals and all the accoutrements they want. The project is run by a man named Exeter (Jeff Morrow), who looks like a normal human except for his shock of white hair, abnormally (for us, anyway) elongated head and crease in the middle of his forehead, and ultimately it turns out that he’s from another planet and he uses a spacecraft to fly Dr. Meacham and his assistant, Dr. Ruth Adams (Faith Domergue, who actually met and briefly dated Meacham three years earlier but can’t acknowledge him because their sinister employers want there to be no emotional contacts between their workers that might distract them from their tasks), to their home base for further work on the mysterious project. 

It’s at this point that Jones’ novel and the script by Franklin Coen and George Callahan diverge: in the book Exeter (who, if I recall correctly, is actually called something else) is the representative of a federation of planets that’s fighting an ongoing war against another federation, an evil one — the Cold War parallels between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, and the satellite countries on both sides, is quite obvious — and the reason for the title, which isn’t explained in the film, is that just like U.S. companies have outsourced much of their industrial production to Third World countries, many of them located on islands, because the labor is cheaper, so his federation has outsourced both production and R&D to “island” planets, located far away in the galaxy from the ones that are warring with each other, where labor and other costs will be cheaper. Only in Jones’ novel the existence of factories on Earth turning out goods to maintain the good federation’s military machine has been noticed by the bad federation, which determines to destroy Earth just to handicap the good federation’s war production — and in the end Meacham and Adams have to trick the representatives of both federations into leaving Earth alone and carrying out their battle somewhere else. Screenwriters Coen and Callahan changed much of that: in their version Exeter is the representative of a planet called Metaluna that has been fighting an extended war with a rival planet, Zagon. The reason they need Meacham and Adams is that they’ve shielded themselves from Zagon’s interstellar missiles by means of a force field powered by nuclear energy — only they’ve depleted their total supply of uranium and need someone who can supply them a new way to make atomic fuel. The problem is that by the time Exeter’s spacecraft arrives on his home planet, it’s too late: the Zagonite energy missiles are already breaching the Metalunan force field and it’s only a matter of time before the planet is utterly destroyed. 

Exeter, who in previous scenes has been depicted as a real S.O.B. whose only saving grace is that the other Metalunans we see — Exeter’s sidekick Brack (Lance Fuller) and “The Monitor” (Douglas Spencer), president of Metaluna’s governing council — are even worse (Exeter casually has two of the scientists he’s recruited to the project, Dr. Steve Carlson [Russell Johnson] and German-speaking Dr. Adolph Engelbord [Karl L. Lindt], killed for attempting to escape the Metalunan campus on earth) — becomes a tragic figure as he flees Metaluna in the spacecraft, taking Meacham and Adams with him, then essentially sacrifices his own life to make sure they get home safely. This Island Earth has acquired a bad reputation because the makers of Mystery Science Theatre 3000 chose it as their “target” when they decided to do a feature-film version of their TV show mocking old movies, and it does have its silly aspects: the high-tech gizmos and especially the spacecraft, no doubt impressive to 1955 audiences, look pretty fake today, and the writers couldn’t resist writing in a bug-eyed monster (a sort of mutant supposedly created by the Zagonite energy weapons tweaking Metalunan DNA, or whatever their genetic material is, in a tacky-looking costume under which is all-purpose Universal-International stunt double Edwin Parker, who’d previously filled in for Boris Karloff and Lon Chaney, Jr. in their later Universal horror pics) to menace Our Heroes both on Metaluna and when it stows away on the spaceship. (Meacham and Adams are in large plastic cylinders that are supposed to adjust their bodies to the differences in air pressure between Earth and Metaluna when it starts menacing them from outside, and I couldn’t help but think that Coen and Callahan had seen the 1932 film Doctor “X” — though unlike the people in Doctor “X” Meacham and Adams are able to escape their plastic confinements and wait until the injuries Mr. Mutant suffered back on Metaluna do him in aboard the spaceship). It also doesn’t help that, like The Day the Earth Stood Still, This Island Earth has a line of abysmally clunky religious dialogue obviously put there to appease the Jesuits who were still in charge at the Production Code Administration, when Meacham tells his Metalunan captors, “Our true size is the size of our God!”

But all in all, This Island Earth is one of the better science-fiction movies of the 1950’s, at or just below the level of The Day the Earth Stood Still, the first Invasion of the Body Snatchers and Forbidden Planet (whose makers actually borrowed some sets and props from This Island Earth). Its morals and especially its politics are considerably more ambiguous than the straight Cold War propaganda of the source novel: one can read the conflict between Metaluna and Zagon as a Cold War metaphor (Zagon as the Soviet Union or the Communist bloc as a whole, Metaluna as the U.S. and its allies who thought they could handle the outside danger by “containing” it), or one can give it a more radical reading as a statement on the futility and wanton destructiveness of all war (especially since it came from the studio that had produced the anti-war classic All Quiet on the Western Front a quarter-century earlier). Exeter’s emergence as a tragic figure and his well-wrought philosophical reaction to the destruction of his planet (one could make a case that This Island Earth essentially ends where the Superman mythos begins) alone gives This Island Earth more philosophical depth than the common run of 1950’s science-fiction movies and brings it closer to the sophistication of the best sci-fi writers of the time — which is a real surprise when one reads the novel, because Raymond F. Jones was not one of the best sci-fi writers of the time and the book is straightforward with virtually none of the hints of psychological or ethical complexity of the movie. This time I liked This Island Earth the film a good deal better than I had when I’d seen it before — though I still think it deserves a modern-day remake that would make explicit what the writers and director (Joseph M. Newman, a Universal-International contractee with a hacky reputation who acquits himself quite well here) could only hint at in 1955, with the Production Code Administration as well as the studio “suits” breathing down their necks. — 9/24/17