Movie: This Island Earth (1955)

Many of the discs I own are partly for the special features.  Some titles I own are only for the special features.

I wouldn’t say I bought the Scream Factory blu-ray for 1955’s This Island Earth solely for the special features, but they helped me to better appreciate a film that’s best known for being the subject of Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie.  The MST3K movie was only way I had seen if before (twice actually), and I felt the source material provided ample fodder for mockery.

There’s flying saucers.  There’s a monster than looks like a humanoid prawn, with a large, exposed brain and which is wearing pants.  There are aliens with high foreheads that immediately brought to my mind the line from “We Want a Rock” by They Might Be Giants where “Everybody wants prosthetic foreheads on their real heads.”

Not that the movie does itself any favors with its advertising campaign focusing on how it was “2 ½ Years in the Making!”  Even looking at other films of the era, it is hard to believe that much time, money and effort went into this.  It’s the kind of movie where “fireballs” fly through space on highly visible supports.  It’s the kind of movie where the interiors of flying saucers are roomy enough to hold a ballroom dancing competition inside.  Which would be quite a spectacle, now that I think about it.

The plot concerns a war between two planets, one of which (Metaluna) has been secretly enlisting Earth’s best scientists in helping it restore a protective layer of its atmosphere, so as to withstand barrages of fireballs from the other planet.  I was never sure exactly what the scientists were supposed to accomplish since the aliens provide hardware and calculations beyond human comprehension. Why don’t the aliens just do the job themselves, if they have superior knowledge and all the equipment?

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the movie is the recruitment process by which aliens test scientists to determine if they are worthy.  In the case of the doctor played by Rex Reason (what a stage name, no?), his lab has been receiving electronic parts they have never seen or heard of before, such as a resistor that “held 30,000 volts with no leakage”.  To which my wife promptly said, “That sounds like a personal problem.”

Next, a massive parts catalog arrives, and the scientists order one of each part.  I like a bit where the various mysterious part are strewn across the lab, like a nightmare version of what any parent might find themselves in on a Christmas morning with facing something that has “some assembly required”. 

At least these items seem to serve some sort of purpose.  All we watched these bozos do on their own before this was inexplicably lowering a monolith into what looks like a giant toaster, only to have it burst into flames.  Good thing they didn’t try this experiment with the giant Pop Tart first.

The resulting object is basically a two-way video screen, which opens a channel of communication with the alien beings, letting them know another person has passed their test.  This device is called the “interociter”.  It has a triangular screen, in addition to a death ray, which the mysterious figure uses to incinerate the parts catalog where it sits on a desk.  Having seen this, I now want a death ray feature added to Zoom.  I have been on many conference calls where I wish I could remotely administer a deathly zap to one or more participants.

Most people witnessing such a spectacle wouldn’t pursue further contact with the aliens behind such technology.  But Reason acts, um, unreasonably, in my opinion.  He gladly boards a full-size, windowless plane that is controlled remotely by the aliens.  Pilot-less planes—great, now I know what the next idiotic tech revolution will be, if we can first survive the epoch of driverless cars.

The plane lands on a dirt airstrip outside a mansion in rural Georgia.  This is where the aliens have gathered brilliant minds from around the world.  Every human there appears to hold a doctorate, given an unintentionally hilarious little bit where various character all acknowledge each other with “Doctor”.  It’s like that bit in Spies Like Us, though it wasn’t as funny as this.

A couple of scientists at this facility are suspicious of the aliens’ true motives.  You have to admit, their stated goal of ending war is already a tad suspect when their teleconference device has a feature that can remotely kill a person.  Then again, if your plan is to completely obliterate your enemy, then I guess you have ended the war, at least.  As I write this, we are a month into a period of significantly heightened conflict between Israel and Palestine, and I hope both nations can survive this development.

Faith Domergue is one of those scientists.  I was happy to see a woman as one of the world’s leading scientists.  Admittedly, we never see her doing any actual work.  She will largely serve as a damsel in distress and a love interest for Reason.  Russell Johnson, the Professor from Gilligan’s Island, is there as well, I guess in case the aliens need an interociter built from a coconut.

Whatever the humans were meant to achieve, they apparently accomplish it, since the aliens take off in a flying saucer they have concealed within a hillside.  They blow up the mansion once they’re in the air, killing nearly all of the world’s most brilliant minds in the process.  I don’t mind that, but that explosion also doubtlessly killed the cat that was the facility’s mascot, and that I cannot forgive.

When I say “almost” all of the scientists, that’s because Reason and Domergue had narrowly escaped beforehand.  Instead of staying on the ground, they proceed to take off in a single-prop plane.  I was amazed Reason did that, as he seemed to forget the aliens took control of the jet he was flying in the opening of the film.  So the saucer captures their plane via a tractor beam and it’s off to Metaluma.

Jeff Marrow plays Exeter, the alien most sympathetic to the humans, telling Reason and Domergue, “I assure you we mean you no harm”.  Guess that doesn’t include the group of brilliant scientists he helped obliterate.  Oh, and the cat.  I am not going to let them live down the cat.

There is an element of the voyage that is deeply ludicrous, and this in a movie many have defended as “intelligent”.  You see, the air pressure on Metaluna is like that of the Earth’s deepest oceans, so aliens and humans alike must go through a special process administered by standing in giant glass tubes for a while.  Imagine this: in the same room, you have people who have yet to undergo the process and those who have gone through it.  So, the room has the same air pressure throughout, and yet you have those who are acclimated to Earth’s air pressure side-by-side with those adjusted to that of thousands of atmospheres.

The destination proves to be more interesting.  It is all miniatures and matte paintings, but they’re well-done. Besides, I love those kinds of effects.  The matte paintings are far from realistic, even for conveying an alien world.  Instead, they are more impressionistic, and surprisingly beautiful.

Admittedly, how those mattes are worked into most shots is a bit unusual.  For the most part, there will be an area at the bottom of the screen with doorways on each side, so the characters will walk a short distance from an exit to another entrance.  That said, the exposed area between those points is under constant bombardment from giant, flaming rocks.  I found it curious such an advanced civilization would fail to cover these vulnerable stretches.

Anywho…battle between the planets, giant mutant monster, fleeing back to Earth.  Yada yada yada.  I don’t feel like really going into it.  One thing I found especially interesting in the Metaluna sequence is an unrecognizable Douglas Spencer as the leader of the aliens.  This is the guy who played the reporter in The Thing from Another World who concluded that picture with the immortal line, “Keep watching the skies!”  Here, he somehow keeps a straight face when Reason conveys the importance of humanity as “Our true size is the size of our God.”  I have no idea what means, and I’m not sure the author of that line does, either.

Overall, the movie is mildly amusing, largely for its naivete.  It is also greatly unintentionally amusing.  I dare any contemporary viewer not to chuckle in the first major scene, when Reason loses control of the jet he’s flying and a guy in the control tower says, “Jerking around must have caused a flameout.”  Wow, and I always thought they told kids back then it would make them go blind.

This Island Earth occupies a strange place in the pantheon of 1950’s sci-fi films.  It is so deeply absurd that it provides ample fodder for mockery, such as from MST3K.  I mean, this is a movie insistent on telling us a planet was somehow once a comet, an impossibility communicated to the scientists for no reason.  And, yet, as Joe Dante says in the accompanying documentary, this was a wonder to a nine-year-old like him in 1955.  In retrospect, it would be completely overshadowed the next year by Forbidden Planet.  If that movie was the Star Wars of the 50’s, This Island Earth is its Logan’s Run.

Dir: Joseph M. Newman

Starring Rex Reason, Faith Domergue, Jeff Morrow

Watched on Shout Factory blu-ray