Depending on how far back your cinema memories go, 1955’s This Island Earth is either a really cheesy “B”- grade sci-fi flick chock full of laughs or a genre classic that still has some compelling moments. Given that it took around 2 1/2 years to get from novel to screen (and it shows in some pretty solid production values and impressive for the era visual effects), the fact that a good chunk of younger movie fans may only know this from the on-target butchering it got in Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie is a wee bit annoying.
Hey, like many of you, I like MST3K a great deal. But I can still recall a few friends who were also fans of this gem thinking the folks behind that decision to rip this classic a new one were a bit out of their heads. I grew up watching this on TV a few too many times as kid and along with the stellar Forbidden Planet and heady, deep The Day the Earth Stood Still and the thrilling “B” Earth vs The Flying Saucers, it’s on my (too) long list of ‘Desert Island Disc’ sci-fi picks.
That’s not to say the film doesn’t have its share of intentionally and unintentionally funny moments, mind you. Clever viewers can mine this one for plenty of chuckles if they choose to go that route. That said, it’s best to look at it today as a product of dedicated over-exuberance of the filmmakers in delivering a space opera for the masses that was also a pretty darn good genre movie that holds up today when approached from the proper perspective.
Still, despite some wacky science (well, no one had traveled past the Earth at that point, so you have to have a certain amount of made up “facts” to drive your plot), some guy who’s blown up in a hilarious manner, a strange costume design decision on that bug-eyed Mutant, and some overacted bits of dialog here and there, this is a film that was made to activate and keep its audience’s sense of wonder buzzing for about an hour and a half. Taken as a “serious” film, the more heady parts work in making you think about a few things from environmental issues, politics, and even religion. Of course, all those have to be taken in the context of the 50’s, as applying modern brain work to some scenes would lead to a few off the path debates that have nothing to do with the messages presented.
After big shot electronics genius/scientist (and part-time pilot) Cal Meacham (Rex Reason) gets a strange condenser and stranger electronics parts catalog with paper-thin metal pages in the mail, he and his trusty assistant Joe Wilson (Robert Nichols) order and put together a funky looking dresser-sized device that’s part two-way TV, part remote controlled death ray (and a few other things we don’t get to see). Constructing that Interociter (and YES, I still want one!) is actually a test/job offer that basically (and literally) lands Meacham a position working with other esteemed science types on a top secret project for some very odd-looking gentlemen. Hosts Exeter (Jeff Morrow) and Brack (Lance Fuller) share the same unique look: high, bumpy foreheads and white hair that makes them stand out among the international group of brainiacs, all flown in after passing the Interociter job test.
Stranger still, everyone is working in a spacious mansion tucked away from prying eyes and almost no one questions this fancy hideaway as unusual. For such high-minded science geeks, the fact that it takes the good doctors Meacham, Ruth Adams (the pneumatic Faith Domergue) and Steve Carlson (a pre-Gilligan’s Island Russell Johnson) a few minutes too long to figure out that their high-cranium employers are really out of this world is pretty amusing at first. That is, until the trio does the math, figures out their big forehead sporting , Interociter spy cam using hosts aren’t quite as benevolent as they seem and tries to make good their escape. It’s here where the film gets serious with its subject matter.
Carlson is killed (as are the rest of the scientists in and around the mansion), but Cal and Ruth survive to escape in a small plane, only to get captured by a tractor beam from a flying saucer that was hidden away near the mansion. Captive earthlings in tow, Exeter, Brack and a small crew make a hasty escape back to their home world, the doomed planet Metaluna. While on the way there, Cal and Ruth find out the initial idea was to have the Earth science team cook up a way for the visiting Metalunans to retrieve some of Earth’s uranium and a borrow few brains full of knowledge in order to keep the planet’s defense shields in full working order. Of course, with only two of the brainy humans left, that plan needs to be altered significantly.
As the saucer lands on a Metaluna under heavy bombardment, the tonal shift to grimness takes over for the bulk of the remaining run time. The planet is under attack from another alien race from the warlike planet Zagon, and things aren’t going well at all for the home team. The Monitor (Douglas Spencer) Metaluna’s ruler and somewhat of a hard-ass jerk, decides to initiate Plan B – an invasion of earth with the intent on colonizing and eventual takeover of the *inferior* humans of that little blue ball. Let’s jut say… wellll… things don’t go according to anyone’s plan. The reason-seeking Exeter wants to try the friendly “human” approach to things, but his sensitive side isn’t at all appreciated by his cranky subordinate Brack or the even more stubborn Monitor.
A chance encounter with a well-placed Zagon meteor (or Deus Ex Rock-ina?) takes care of the negative creeps, and a chance encounter with an engineered Metalunan Mutant almost takes out the remaining cast. But an escape is made and a return to Earth is undertaken. Oh, that big exposed brain and hideous face on that Mutant? SCARY. The baggy 50’s pants it’s wearing that are tapered down and mutated into clawed feet? Not so scary and in fact, too funny once you notice them in stills. Anyway, there’s a sort of bittersweet ending as Cal and Ruth return home safely and a wounded Exeter guides his spacecraft not so gracefully to its final landing spot. The survivors are left with tales to tell, but no evidence at all that they were even kidnapped in the first place! I didn’t think about this until many years after later, as the film closes with a thankful Cal and Ruth still in their freed plane flying to the nearest landing strip.
I’ve heard the film called “slow” by some, but I think those people are frankly, nuts. Director Joseph M. Newman deliberately generates suspense early on with Cal and Joe testing out the strange resistor, then piecing together the Interociter and testing it, contacting Exeter in the process. After that, things get fun and strange with windowless one seat planes, green levitating rays, a radiation-sensing cat named Neutron, a few explosions and a great flying saucer reveal, a space battle of sorts and more. The initially placid pacing goes away itself once the ship is revealed and whisks away the two frightened humans. On Metaluna, the pace slows slightly, but picks up again as things fall apart before winding down to the final, dramatic scene that closes the film. If anything, the Metaluna portion of the film comes up “short” because we get not enough scenes on the devastated planet before the remaining cast is back on that silver saucer headed back to earth.
The visual effects in the film, particularly the space scenes, are spectacular for 1955. Sure, there are some briefly noticeable wires on the zooming Zagon ships and fiery meteorites, but Exeter’s saucer (which has an almost hat-like shape) gets some great screen time and even an obviously expensive to shoot shot where it banks out of the way of danger. The Metalunan landscape is a masterpiece of model work, a massive painted backdrop and a nice shot of that saucer moored at the Monitor’s headquarters as all hell is breaking loose. I’ve read a few times over the years that this film could be called the Star Wars of its day and while it’s a tricky call to make a direct comparison.
As noted, there are some unintentionally goofy lines here and there and in fact, back in the early 80’s some friends and I had seen the film so many times and even tape recorded dialog just to be able to recreate scenes from the film in random public places. Yeah, we were flash-mobbing before there were flash mobs, I guess. In any event, while I think MST3K: TM may have unintentionally hurt this classic’s reputation among younger sci-fi fans and hipsters with no sense of cinema history, at least Weird Al Yankovic was able to parody the film correctly and respectfully by briefly using an Interociter in the cult classic UHF and his “Dare to Be Stupid” video (a song which ended up used fairly stupidly in that 1986 Transformers movie which I still can’t believe I paid to see. Yeah, I’m not a fan of that hot animated mess – but at least I tried to like it a few times).
In terms of the soundtrack, three composers contributed to the film with some great and appropriately cosmic music. Herman Stein did the bulk of the score with additional cues by Hans Salter and Henry Mancini (!). Universal had Mancini re-purpose one track he contributed to another sci-fi film released that year, Jack Arnold’s classic “B”, Tarantula. While Herman Stein seems to have done his usual solid job, it’s Mancini’s main title theme that draws you into that black and white web this “B” spins.
While I’m also not a big remake fan at all, it would actually be quite interesting to see what Steven Spielberg (another fan of this film) could do if he were to go back into Close Encounters of the Third Kind mode, keep it a period piece (you can’t build a dresser-sized device in the age of microprocessors and tiny streaming video boxes) and get a cast that can play each part flawlessly without any modern scenery chewing. Of course, if there’s no remake at all, that’s just fine with me provided MORE people see this gem for what it was instead of what it was turned into a few decades later. Both the original and the parody should exist on equal ground, perhaps some day on a remastered disc of some sort? That’s called RESPECT, folks.
Hey! This post is a stupidly early part of the Keep Watching the Skies Blogathon hosted by The Cinematic Frontier from September 26 – 28, 2016. “Why so early?” you ask? Well, (*beet!*) I’d actually forgotten I’d written this review in a shorter form three years ago and the film popped into my head as soon as I saw the blogathon announcement.I started poking around for a poster, felt a sense of deja vu and yep, DUH, I had a review already written. However, I also noted a few typos and there were no visual elements outside the poster and trailer.
The review has been nicely expanded with photos swiped gently from IMDB, a little video aid from Sci-Fi Steve (check out his YouTube Channel for some cool 1950’s sci-fi spaceship schematic vids!), and even the good old Internet Archive. So, it’s less an “old” review and more a new take on one with more information. SO, there! Actually, this rewriting and researching has put me in the mood to do another post for that blogathon. But I’m going to wait and see if my choice gets nabbed before committing.