Posts Tagged ‘This Island Earth’

Not that long ago I was writing about the seminal giant mutant ant movie Them! and took the opportunity to declare that it is, basically, not cricket to knock old pieces of SF on the grounds that their special effects are not up to scratch by modern standards. The thing about films like Them! and The Thing From Another World is that, generally, their makers were fully aware of the shortcomings of their effects budgets and engaged in all kinds of sleight-of-hand to tell the story with minimum use of monster suits and props and so on.

As we progress through the 1950s, however, we begin to encounter a new breed of SF movie, which in its own way has much more in common with the modern variety. A very good example of what I’m talking about is This Island Earth, made in 1955 and one of the first colour SF films.

The improbable Rex Reason plays Cal Meacham, an expert on nuclear electronics who finds a mysterious force beginning to affect his life – a strange alien energy saves him from a plane crash, and an unknown agency sends him inexplicably whizzy electronic components and instructions on how to assemble them. The finished result is an interociter, which for all Meacham’s declarations of wondrous omnipotence is basically just a videophone with a built-in death-ray feature. Via this device Meacham is lured into joining a secret scientific thinktank run by the mysterious Exeter (Jeff Morrow).

At the thinktank Meacham meets an old girlfriend (Faith Domergue) and learns that Exeter and his assistants are not above a spot of brainwashing to ensure the assembled boffins play ball in their quest to develop unlimited atomic energy for purposes unknown. Meacham and his girlfriend decide to do a runner, not unreasonably, only to discover the fairly obvious truth: Exeter and his friends are aliens, using human geniuses for their own ends. Exeter abducts the fleeing earthlings and whisks them off back home with him…

Hmmm. The thing about This Island Earth is that it isn’t really an alien invasion movie or a monster movie, though it contains elements of both. If anything, it is a close cousin to the modern blockbuster event movie, in that it’s all about the visuals and the effects and the gosh-wow factor. And the movie is packed with them, in garish, eye-popping technicolour: flying saucers sweep across the screen, comets streak by, spacecraft swoop low over the devastated and war-torn surface of the planet Metaluna, and so on.

The initial stages, concerned with the mystery of who Exeter is and what he’s up to, are moderately engaging. The problem is that, once the cosmic odyssey begins, the plot goes into a total flatline. Meacham and his squeeze make the spectacular voyage to another world, fall out with Exeter’s boss, decide they don’t like the place, and go straight home – all in a relatively short length of screentime. It all looks very pretty but at the end you’re left with a vague sense of so what? Spectacular as they are, all the visual effects are there telling an extremely scanty and actually rather uninvolving story.

Rex Reason is clearly a jock at heart and fully deserves to be third billed in the cast list. Doing his best in a part that’s still underwritten is Jeff Morrow as the initially rather ambiguous Exeter – Morrow clearly has a lot to offer this role but doesn’t get dialogue anything like as good as, say, Michael Rennie’s in The Day The Earth Stood Still.

If you dig for it there’s an anti-nuclear message at the centre of this film, with the destruction of Metaluna a vision of Earth’s own future – ‘thank God it’s still here!’ cries Reason upon returning to his home planet – but it’s very much implied. Also somewhat of interest to me are the signs that This Island Earth was a key influence on the relaunch of the comic book Green Lantern in the late 50s – the image of the jet influenced by a strange green ray, the concept of humans acting as the servants of enigmatic aliens, even the appearance of the Metalunans in one key scene – all of these, and the movie’s general sense of being an exhilarating cosmic romance, seem to me to recur in the version of Green Lantern which was launched only a year or two after this film’s release.

Either way, This Island Earth is striking enough to stay watchable, on the first encounter at least. It doesn’t have depth or wit or much to say for itself, but in this it surely has a vast amount in common with so many SF movies of the last thirty years. It’s wrong to knock old movies simply for being made when special effects were rather more primitive – but I don’t have any kind of problem with criticising films that attempt to use special effects and visuals in the place of a decent story and characterisation, no matter when they were made: and it’s in this category that This Island Earth really belongs.

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