Aliens visiting Earth are rarely depicted as your typical friendly neighbours, for every E.T. the Extraterrestrial there are at least a dozen of the nasty Predators variety, but in 1955 we were treated to a group of aliens whose time on our Blue Planet was of a more complicated nature as it had a hidden and more sinister agenda than you typical alien invasion movie entails, but hey, they didn’t even blow up one national monument so that’s something.
Based on a story by science fiction author Raymond F. Jones, which was serialized in the pages of Thrilling Wonder Stories, this film quickly establishes our main character as the stock “science hero” that populated space adventure films of the 1950s and in the case of This Island Earth that comes in form of atomic scientist Dr. Cal Meacham (Rex Reason), who along with his assistant Joe Wilson (Robert Nichols) has been trying to move atomic power into the push button age, but their work is sidetracked when they receive directions and parts that lead them to construct something called “interocitor” that turns out to be an oversized communications device, one with a weird inverted triangle view screen, and that this whole bit was nothing more than an aptitude test to see if Cal was worthy of joining a group of world-renowned scientists. This offer is presented by an unusual-looking individual named Exeter (Jeff Morrow) and the chance of seeing more whiz-bang science stuff is too much for Cal to refuse.
Meacham is picked up at a fog-shrouded airport by an unmanned, computer-controlled aircraft and is taken on a long trip that eventually ends in a remote area of Georgia, where he finds an international group of top atomic scientists already present, including an old flame, Dr. Ruth Adams (Faith Domergue), who strangely acts as if she has never met Meacham before. After this odd introduction, Cal is informed by Exeter that this group of scientists has been assembled to work towards one purpose, an end to war, but it doesn’t take Cal long to figure out that something not quite on the level is going on, especially with Exeter’s creepy assistant Brack (Lance Fuller) skulking around, but when Cal is able to be alone with Ruth, and a third scientist named Steve Carlson (Russell Johnson), his suspicions are confirmed and something definitely sinister is going on.
With the threat of brainwashing and death rays, our heroes try and flee Exeter’s compound, sadly, one of those death rays blows up good ole Steve – he should have gone on that three-hour boat tour – and Cal and Ruth are drawn up by a bright green beam into a flying saucer and its there that Exeter explains to them the real purpose of the compound, that he and his men are from the planet Metaluna and are locked in a war with the Zagons and that they’d hope the scientists of Earth would help come up with a new energy source to power their quickly depleting energy shield, which is under constant bombardment by Zagon guided meteors. Sure, that sounds like an awesome plan, unfortunately, it’s all too late and Cal and Ruth arrive just in time to witness the last minutes of the planet, with the bombardment turning the into a molten mass and basically turning it into a new sun, and a dying and somewhat sympathetic Exeter – sympathetic because he was the one Metalunan who seemed ant-brainwashing – delivering them safely back to Earth, before taking his ship on a fiery crash dive into the sea.
The movie ends with Ruth sighing contentedly “Home” and Cal responding “Thank God it’s still here” but for how long? With Metaluna destroyed, will war with the Zagons eventually reach Earth? This abrupt ending may leave some viewers cold and the whole threat of the Zagon race is more than a little abstract as they are only seen via their attacking ships, in fact, most of the Metaluna people we meet, Exeter notwithstanding, seem a little callous when it comes to other races than their own may be the Zagons had a very good reason for wanting to destroy the Metaluna people, I’d certainly be against an alien race that has an enslaved alien mutant workforce and the willingness to brainwash those who oppose them. As to that alien mutant workforce, this creation by make-up artist Bud Westmore, which was based on discarded designs from the film It Came From Outer Space, is probably one of the most iconic aliens in the history of science fiction to the point where it is more well known than the movie it appeared in, which is impressive considering it has no more than a few minutes of screen time to make an impression.
• Carl Sagan would eventually take this idea of aliens sending us Earthlings a technological schematic for his own novel Contact, which would later be adapted into a film starring Jodie Foster.
• Science fiction stories love to depict aliens with larger heads as if an increased brain pan makes them smarter, but the largest brain on Earth is that of the sperm whale and you don’t see them developing space travel.
• Dr. Cal Meacham is a scientist and also a pilot, as was Dr. Clayton Forrester in George Pal’s War of the Worlds, and I must ask “Were all scientists in the 50s able to fly aircraft, did a pilot’s licence come with their degree?”
• Exeter has secretly collected a group of top atomic scientists from all over the world, all leaders in their fields, and one wonders how the authorities must be reacting to this “brain drain” and if the FBI and the CIA are looking for these “missing” scientists.
• The Supreme Council orders that the scientists be brought to Metaluna to finish the project but when our heroes attempt to escape Brack uses a laser to disintegrate them, which doesn’t seem all that productive as vaporized scientists are poor workers.
• To survive the different atmospheric conditions between Earth and Metaluna the crew must enter these compression tubes to prepare themselves for Metaluna’s atmosphere, yet we see members of the crew going through this process in shifts, which means those who have not gone through the process yet should not be able to hang around with those that have.
Watching this film, it’s clear that the serialized nature of Raymond F. Jones’s original story was carried over in the production of the movie as the events do seem to follow a very “chapteresque” nature as our hero seems to stumble from one event to the next as if in a Flash Gordon serial and due to the film’s relatively low budget the exciting chapters only take place during the last act of the story, with two-thirds of the events taking place here on Earth. This is a film with big ideas but not quite the budget to realize those ideas to their fullest, and the stock characters are basically pawns to move around until we eventually get into outer space and the real threat is revealed, and in that area, This Island Earth does as the matte paintings and model work, as well as the aforementioned Metaluna mutant, all go towards making a powerful impact, especially if like me you were nine years old the first time you saw this film.
One can only wonder what this film could have been if it had been given an “A” picture budget but the horror and science fiction pictures at this time were not something Universal Pictures considered to be “prestige” and the fact that this one got a beautiful technicolour outing, as well as a fantastic score by Joseph Gershenson, we should feel lucky. For whatever shortcomings this film has it cannot be denied that it influenced many science fiction films to come, and a year later MGM’s Forbidden Planet would show the studios what this genre could bring if not done on the cheap. Overall, this was a film with big ideas on a small budget and included one of the cinema’s best alien monsters.
This Island Earth (1955)
Movie Rank - 7/10
With the budget he had, director Joseph Newman did a remarkable job pulling off such an ambitious story, and if the film is a little front-heavy with boring exposition that was to be expected and it did eventually lead to some cool space stuff and an even cooler alien monster.