This Island Earth

Year: 1955

Production: Universal

Director: Joseph Newman

Starring: Jeff Morrow, Faith Domergue, Rex Reason

Screenwriter: Franklin Coen, Edward G. O'Callaghan

Based on This Island Earth (1938) by Raymond F. Jones

86 minutes; B/W


This Island Earth came closer than any film of its period to capturing the flamboyant essence of pulp-magazine sf stories. Unlike most other early-1950s sf films, which were monster movies, This Island Earth becomes a space opera halfway through; the high cost of special effects required in films of this type was one reason for their comparative rarity.

A nuclear physicist (Reason), having passed what turns out to have been an IQ test set by extraterrestrials - he builds an "interociter" from mysterious components that have arrived in the mail - is conscripted by them, along with other scientists. These include an old girlfriend (Domergue). Several adventures later the two are taken unwillingly by flying saucer through the "thermic barrier" to the alien's planet, Metaluna. The Metalunans hope that the scientists' expertise in the conversion of elements will provide the massive amounts of uranium required to keep their atomic shield functioning, so that it will continue to protect them from meteoritic bombardment by the sadistic Zahgons. Their arrival is too late; they witness the death of Metaluna and are returned to Earth by Exeter (Morrow), the arrogant but sympathetic alien who kidnapped them in the first place.

Newman was a run-of-the-mill director, but it is probable that Jack Arnold (uncredited) directed the Metaluna sequences with the help of Clifford Stine's extravagant special effects. The sequences are remarkable not for their realism but for their imaginativeness; they are the closest sf cinema ever to got to the style of Issac Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine's or Amazing Stories's 1930s magazine covers.

This Island Earth can hardly be called a good film, but it is an excellent bad film, a classic of sf cinema. Its almost obvious subtext (what would it feel like to be the colonized rather than the colonizers?) seems to point towards isolationism as the best strategy for Earth, but the exoticism of the offworld sequences, and Exeter's dying speech ("our Universe is vast, full of wonders ...") offer powerful propaganda for the contrary political position, the embrace of otherness.

The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction

On the surface a full-blooded space opera complete with interplanetary warfare and bug-eyed monsters, This Island Earth, like Forbidden Planet (1956) has a deeply disturbing undercurrent running through it. Though its narrative line is unclear at times, its basic plot is simple enough. Aliens from Metaluna, who are at war with the Zahgons, kidnap a group of Earth scientists and ask, then order, them to help repair the falling planetary shield that protects Metaluna. But, before they can do this, the Zahgons disintegrate the shield. The remaining scientists (Reason and Domergue), with the help of Morrow's friendly Metalunian, escape just in time.

Several elements make it unusual compared to most sf films of the period: the essentially friendly aliens; the idea that man's prowess with atomic power can be used beneficially, its vivid and imaginative use of color (it was one of the last films to be made in the three-strip Technicolor process) and its extravagant special effects. But more interesting is the fact that the film reflects the interests of sf writers of the time. Like Forbidden Planet (with which it also shares one of the best titles of any sf film), its premises and arguments are, in pulp form, real examples of speculative thinking. And indeed, (again with Forbidden Planet) it is one of the few sf films of the 50s to have been written seriously about at any length (notably by Raymond Durgnat in his long essay, "The Wedding of Poetry and Pulp" in Films and Feelings).

The direction and acting are bland but Cohen and O'Callaghan's script, though it's undeniably over-talkative, has a primitive grandeur about it that is reflected in Stine's glowing cinematography and marvellous special effects. The film's debates are complex, contrasting the intellectual but passive Metalunians with the limited but effective technological know-how of mankind as the scientists try to save Metaluna, for example. Accordingly, the film's space opera-tics are given a dreamlike quality (which Durgnat examines at length) and a moral dimension that makes the dramatic situation far more interesting. The result is a film rather like the vastly inferior Plan 9 from Outer Space (1956) that seems to work almost wholly at an unconscious level, a film that becomes more and more interesting as you dig into it and expose the contradictions its surface (like that of the planet Metaluna itself) can hardly contain.

The final sequences of the destruction of Metaluna were directed by Jack Arnold.

The Overlook Film Encyclopedia - Science Fiction

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