by Steve Habrat
I really wish that more people out there were familiar with Universal Studio’s atomic age science-fiction film This Island Earth. It may not be the best science-fiction film from the 50’s but it sure is a cool and minor drive-in classic. Served with a heaping glob of cheese, This Island Earth overcomes its unintentionally hilarious moments with some seriously crisp color, icky monsters, and an egghead script that science-fiction fanatics will happily gobble up. A cult classic in its own right, you may be familiar with the grotesque aliens that inhabit this picture, as you will often see them included in collages of the other more famous Universal Studios monsters (Dracula, Frankenstein’s Monster, The Bride of Frankenstein, The Creature from the Black Lagoon, and The Wolf-Man). This Island Earth also found itself released on June 1st, 1955, proving that even before the rise of the summer blockbuster in the late 70’s, there were still spectacles released to entertain kids who were on summer vacation. This Island Earth, however, does prove to be a smart spectacle.
This Island Earth introduces us to Dr. Cal Meacham (Played by Rex Reason), a well-known scientist who receives instructions and parts to build a mysterious device called an interocitor. Along with his colleague, Joe Wilson (Played by Robert Nichols), the duo puts the interocitor together and suddenly receives a video transmission from a man who calls himself Exeter (Played by Jeff Morrow). Exeter tells Cal that building the interocitor was all a test and that he wants Cal to join him in special research project. Cal reluctantly accepts and is soon ushered off to a secluded research facility in a remote area of Georgia. Cal is reunited with an old love interest, Ruth Adams (Played by Faith Domergue), and together they begin to snoop around the facility, suspicious that they are not being told truth. After trying to escape, Cal and Ruth are abducted by a UFO and taken off to the war-torn planet of Metaluna. It is on Metaluna that Cal and Ruth learn why Exeter recruited them to work for him and after meeting the sinister head of the planet, they have to quickly devise a way to get back to earth.
This Island Earth is one of the rare science fiction films that doesn’t have the human race portrayed as the inferior beings. The alien race within the film wants to work directly with us and is in need of uranium deposits to aid Metaluna in their fight against the relentless Zagons, who attack with planetoids that are guided by spaceships. Heavy with nuclear willies and brimming with mentions of UFO sightings up in the clouds, This Island Earth is certainly and shamelessly a product of the Cold War. The film applies paranoia at its core, our protagonists convinced that they are not being told everything they need to know, suspiciously peaking around every corner they come to. When Cal boards an unmanned airplane, Joe begins pleading with Cal to not make the journey to Georgia, exclaiming that something stinks about the entire operation. With its use of color, the film is able to slip into pulp territory, resembling something that would have been printed on the pages of an EC Comic. The color also alleviates some of the heavier subtexts, allowing moments of This Island Earth to feel more like hot-weather escapism rather than chilling mushroom cloud reflection.
This Island Earth ends up being a slower moving film, one that takes its good old time getting to the staggering world of Metaluna. Director Joseph M. Newman uses the slower moments to allow us to get to know our protagonists and also send us into confusion over the character of Exeter. Cal quickly is established as the All-American guy, a brainy and thoughtful hero right up to the last frame. At first, Ruth sidesteps being the usual damsel in distress and she dashes right alongside Cal as they flee from destructive lasers being shot at them. Sadly, once Cal and Ruth are abducted and whisked off to Metaluna, she crumbles into a hysterical heap, one that cries out at incoming planetoids and shrieks in horror as one of the monstrous Mutants stalks her around a spaceship. Exeter is a guy who we can’t fully classify up until the very end of the film. At times, he seems villainous but he will the quickly say that his alien race is a peaceful group. My one complaint is that Cal and Ruth at first overlook Exeter’s bizarre physical appearance. His forehead is quite unlike a regular forehead—something that you would assume would jump out at the two scientists.
There are moments of This Island Earth where the atmosphere is so tense, it could be cut with a laser beam. Just check out the scene where Cal, Ruth, and Exeter arrive on Metaluna, an eerie place with explosions that look suspiciously like nuclear blasts in the background. It becomes mushroom cloud after mushroom cloud as our heroes dodge attacks by the lumbering Mutants, who swipe their claws after the terrified humans. It’s a shame that This Island Earth has been waved off by many science-fiction/horror gurus (The film was featured in Mystery Science Theater 3000, forever ruing its reputation.), as there is plenty to appreciate in this science fiction extravaganza, both visually and intellectually. The films trippy final half-hour more than makes up for the droning and uneventful first half. Yet director Newman keeps the humanity that is shrewdly established in tact and it never becomes a cynical vision of nuclear destruction. It never looses faith in the human race and it proudly stands by the fact that we are capable of making the right decisions when it comes down to it. Overall, if you have the patience and you enjoy this sort of thing, open your windows, allow the summer evening air to creep in, fix yourself a big buttery bowl of popcorn, grab an extra large soda, find a date, and loose yourself in the world of This Island Earth. There are plenty of thrills, chills, and sights to behold in this slightly flawed Cold War drive-in classic. Make it a double feature with another Cold War science fiction classic!
This Island Earth is available on DVD.