Wednesday, 8 September 2010

This Island Earth (1955)

Country: USA

In the 1950’s Universal International Pictures were the major Hollywood players in science-fiction films. But despite a very broad canvas for conceptual experimentation most science-fiction films of the early 1950’s were quite conservative in their approach to visual effects. The majority of the films were black and white and earth bound, and adhered to a sense of reality which was ill at ease with the notion of a spectacle that was fundamental to the genre. As the decade wore on however science-fiction began to develop a more daring attitude to visual effects, and a willingness to venture further in search of screen images that could persuade audiences to leave their television sets and embark on a trip to the cinema. One such film is This Island Earth, which is easily Universal International’s most ambitious science-fiction project, and one of a select band of films produced in the 1950’s that escaped the confines of planet Earth. The most successful and recognisable would probably be Forbidden Planet (1956) but for me the most enjoyable is the nonsensically titled This Island Earth.

To give Forbidden Planet its due, it does spend its entire running time in Outer Space or on the beautifully realised planet of the title, and This Island Earth spends a good hour of its length on Earth. The expository elements that lead our intrepid scientists to board an alien spacecraft are admittedly a little slow in reaching the boil. But the film somehow manages to overcome this by possession of a genuine sense of mystery (although it does become somewhat obvious as the film goes on) and a delicate performance of towering subtlety and charm by Jeff Morrow as the alien scientist Exeter. The same cannot be said for the rest of the cast, who have more to fear from woodworm than the mutated insectoid creatures of Metaluna. The performance by Rex Reason as nuclear physicist Dr. Cal Meacham is a particular affront to my taste. His rugged square jawed machismo is totally inappropriate for a scientific expert, and he has an assuredness and confidence that borders on arrogance - a thoroughly repulsive and damagingly miscast protagonist. The love interest is the equally bland and unbelievable Dr. Ruth Adams (Faith Domergue).

Despite these abominated performances the central conceit of the film is too strong for a pair of dullards to spoil. Exeter is able to lure Meacham and a number of other scientific experts in atomic fusion to a secret compound in rural Georgia. Using the rhetorical device of world peace Exeter and his assistant Brack (Lance Fuller) are in fact using the earth scientists in a bid to save their home planet which is under constant bombardment from the neighbouring planet of Zagon. Forced to curtail their operations Exeter abducts Meacham and Adams and pretty soon the uncharismatic duo are heading into Outer Space. The flight to Metaluna is excellent, the filmmakers creating a colourful starscape through which the flying saucer gracefully glides. It is of course no surprise that Meacham and Adams are the chosen ones, and the other nationalities we glimpse at Exeter’s plush science retreat are left to perish. It is not possible for other cultures and races to grasp and understand Metaluna’s predicament. Metaluna is a planet beset by a slow atomic death, so it does seem somewhat appropriate that the nation who used atomic weapons on fellow human beings should be there advising them.

The scarred and devastated surface of Metaluna is brought vividly to life by some beautiful matte painted backdrops, and the planet interiors by some impressive art direction. Metaluna is one of the true triumphs of 1950’s science-fiction. Unfortunately we aren’t their for very long. After discovering that the plan is ultimately to take over and colonise the earth Meacham finally gets around to the action that Rex Reason has clearly been itching to get on with. This Island Earth was based on a pulp science-fiction novel by Raymond F. Jones called The Alien Machine, and thankfully the screenplay by Franklin Coen and Edward G. O’Callaghan retains the pulpy feel. The overall theme of the film is the lingering paranoia about atomic destruction, but the film also celebrates the brilliance of scientific expertise. The film is essentially pacifist in nature, and a warning about the uses of atomic materials. Were it not for Jeff Morrow who also appeared in The Creature Walks Among Us (1956), Kronos (1957) and The Giant Claw (1957) this film might well have been an empty hearted and hollow themed disaster. But the pathos and benevolence he brings to his role emerges as the most memorable aspect of this impressive but flawed sci-fi spectacle.

© Shaun Anderson - 2010

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