Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
A core classic 1950s Science Fiction film with the decade's most poetic title, This Island Earth was the first interstellar space opera in color. Its story comes right out of the pulp magazines, featuring a two-fisted scientist playboy hero who matches wits with extraterrestrials and sexy Faith Domergue. As with Star Wars twenty-two years later, we're lifted from the mundane cares of a complacent world into the middle of an interplanetary war. 3
The Technicolor production was a huge expense for Universal, which committed a sizeable budget to a story requiring costly props, costumes and wall-to-wall optical effects. It was the high point of William Alland's monster cycle and the cost may have broken the studio's commitment to Science Fiction: After This Island Earth fantastic subject matter at Universal tapered off -- with the exception of the marvelous The Incredible Shrinking Man, a wonder film produced outside the Alland unit.
This Island Earth appeared in the first months of DVD in an inferior Image Entertainment disc that has become a collector's item. The feature had already suffered a humiliating roasting in the theatrical Mystery Science Theater movie. Perhaps this DVD will help restore it to its deserved place near the top ranks of 50s Sci Fi.
Scientist, playboy and pilot Dr. Cal Meacham (Rex Reason) returns to the Ryberg Lab in California from Washington D.C. to find an impressive invitation waiting for him, in a weird form: A catalog for an unassembled piece of space-age electronic hardware, with no instructions for its construction. Cal and his trusty sidekick Joe Wilson (Robert Nichols) build the strange piece of machinery, which when complete proves to be a communication device sent by Exeter (Jeff Morrow) a confident man with white hair and an unnaturally high forehead. The machine is an Interociter and its assembly is sort of an entry exam for Cal -- Exeter sends a mystery DC-3 airplane to spirit him to a research center at an undisclosed location. Cal is too curious not to accept, tempted by Exeter's promise of even more sophisticated technology -- knowledge almost too advanced to have originated on Earth. On the way Cal meets up with fellow invitee Dr. Ruth Adams (Faith Domergue), with whom he had a 'summer fling' a few seasons back. Only Ruth now denies it ever happened.
The print ads and posters for This Island Earth promised the heavens to Sci Fi fans. In 1955 the realm of fantastic films was beginning to taper off into low-budget production, and save for the infrequent George Pal extravaganza, space movies had given way to more economical monster thrillers. Ad art for the Universal release showed a vast alien landscape and hordes of bug-brained mutated extraterrestrials, plus the added pulp thrill of warring space armadas clashing in the skies.
In its dramatics, This Island Earth is barely above the level of 'space cadet' television programming. Its conception of science and scientists is naïve. Cal Meachum is the kind of nuclear physicist that David Maclean of Invaders from Mars might imagine, a guy who knows his way around a do-it-yourself project like assembling an alien electronics kit. Deeply invested in military research, Cal flies his own Air Force jet, hobnobs with 'the big boys' at the Pentagon (no Oppenheimer he) and goes in for quickie romances at summer seminars in Vermont. The wholly independent Cal is able to determine his own agenda, even if it means ducking his responsibilities to volunteer to be 'kidnapped' by the benevolently brainy Exeter.
One of the film's genuinely warm touches is its sympathetic farewell to Cal's assistant Joe Wilson (Robert Nichols of The Thing from Another World). Exciting space adventures and sexy partners are the exclusive domain of handsome heroes. Poor Joe watches his boss disappear, and has to walk away alone in the fog.
Once installed in Exeter's secret lab (in the state of Georgia!), Cal finds himself with a group of international scientists working to synthesize new sources of atomic power. Incredibly trusting, Cal, Ruth and Steve Carlson go along with the mysterious mission until they decide that (duh) there's a lot about Exeter and his odd associates that they don't understand: Exeter and his creepy assistant Brack (Lance Fuller) both have the same "subtle" indentations in their foreheads ... 2
Politically, the film is a silly mess, with America's top scientists foolishly lending their talents to what looks like a blatant conspiracy of 'foreigners' to steal our top tech secrets -- a 'brain drain.' The scientists determine that they're really coddled prisoners and decide to escape. That's when the real poetry of This Island Earth kicks in. The space-age trappings catch up to the kiddie plot, and Cal & Ruth are "hurtled into an adventure beyond the stars" to "challenge the unearthly furies of an outlaw planet gone mad." (spoiler) Exeter is really an enlistment agent for his home planet of Metaluna, which is desperate for outside technical assistance. Exeter's superiors are fighting a losing war with the planet Zahgon, whose dart-shaped siege spaceships are blasting Metaluna to bits. With their 'ionization shield' about to give out, Metaluna has Exeter bring Cal and Ruth with him across the galaxy, to help formulate a last-ditch defense.
This last third of the film goes rather quickly and consists mostly of an intergalactic Cook's Tour to Exeter's doomed home world. Some effects are expressive shorthand for more bizarre literary sci-fi concepts. In the same way that the space soldiers in Forbidden Planet need to be dematerialized while their ship slips into "Hyperdrive," the passengers on Exeter's palatial spaceship must have their molecules reconfigured to exist in the altered conditions on Metaluna. Cal and Ruth enter narrow tubes and are electronically disintegrated and reconstructed before our eyes, almost like Claude Rains in the Invisible Man movies. The simple matte effect is a startling expression of Science Fiction's 'fear of the unknown": To exist in the unnatural future, we'll have to be transformed by our own technology.
Our Earth couple stays on Metaluna barely long enough to see what's going on, as it's all about to be incinerated by Zahgonian missiles. We get the idea that Metaluna was an advanced but perhaps too cultured society that didn't properly prioritize planetary defense, and is now suffering annihilation at the hands of a barbaric enemy. We see no ordinary citizens, just ruins. "That was an educational complex," wails Exeter, letting all of us Earthly intellectuals know that our right to higher thinking has been secured only through military vigilance. The sympathetic Exeter has little stomach for expedient brutality, and rebels when the sinister Monitor (Douglas Spencer) orders that Cal and Ruth be immediately brainwashed.
When Exeter's humanitarian sentiments turn out to be contrary to general Metalunan policies, we're no longer certain that Metaluna can still call itself "the good guys." The Monitor behaves like Hitler in his bunker, desperate to hold off implacable invaders. For all we know, the Zahgonians may actually be avenging greater Metalunan war crimes.
This Island Earth has the distinction of being the first 50s Sci Fi picture to be given a thorough genre analysis, courtesy of Raymond Durgnat in his 1967 book Films and Feelings. Alongside brilliant chapters on Johnny Guitar and Psycho, Durgnat broke down the space movie into its component themes, such as "Brains." Cal Meacham is smart, and is therefore an attractive, Brainy guy. The Metalunans have a 'Brain shortage' and therefore must enlist and even kidnap Brains to save themselves. They're so 'Brainy' that their heads have apparently expanded. But too much Brain is not a good thing. The Metaluna Mutant has a grossly overdeveloped Brain, and it is an unintelligent monster.
Durgnat's other stated themes are 2. Remote control, 3. Penetration, 4. Crescendo of voyages, 5. Unusual landings, 6. Crescendo of altruistic suicides, 7. Tension of malevolence. Durgnat even works up the movie as an analogy for the Cold War: Earth scientists Meacham and Adams are caught between two warring civilizations. The 'bad' Zahgonians are implacable and barbaric, and to save themselves the 'good' Metalunans are 'forced' to adopt morally reprehensible methods -- kidnapping, mind control. No matter what Meacham and Adams believe, Earth can no longer be 'isolationist.' We're just an island amid many others in space.
Durgnat used This Island Earth as a major argument in the part of his book devoted to the junction of art and exploitation in the commercial mainstream -- "The Wedding of Poetry and Pulp." The film is a visual knockout, using special effects that are state-of-the-art for 1955. The concepts of a robot plane as a modern version of a "ghost coach" and a cat that detects Neutrino Rays mix well with outrageous ideas such as an entire green hill revealed to be a hidden flying saucer, or an airplane captured in the belly of a gigantic spaceship. The planet Metaluna is surrounded by a crumbling outer shell dotted with 'Swiss cheese' craters. This outside barrier is scarred by Zahgonian bombs that have penetrated an artificial force field, which is itself giving way to constant bombardment.
If the visuals are poetry, the script is at least half pulp junk, much of it klunky exposition inconsistent with what we're seeing on screen. Scientist Cal 'protects' the suddenly cowering Ruth and when things get tough comes up with stalwart Hero-speak. The craziest line reads as if it were inserted to assure church groups that Faith still rules the moral fabric of futurism: "Our true size is the size of our God." When Cal says that, we really expect the entire cast -- Exteter, The Monitor, and even the Mutant -- to stare at each other in search of an explanation. At the finale, Exeter under-reacts to the obliteration of an entire planet with the trite 'feel good' observation that maybe it will become a new star and provide sunshine for 'some other world.' That sounds similar to the Fascist sentiment that the best use for 'unfortunate races' is to become the fertilzer for a more deserving society.
None of the dialogue has much gravity and the characters aren't very well defined, except perhaps for Jeff Morrow's Exeter, the Alien Without A Country who tries to remain a moral being amid all the interplanetary double-crossing. Exeter is interesting because, unlike the faultless (and somewhat clueless) leads, his integrity is heavily compromised: Transporting Atomic Scientists across State Lines to Build Weapons of Mass Destruction? This Island Earth is hobbled by its split between high pulp art and artless dime-store scripting, but its juvenile surface hides a fascinating interior.
This Island Earth established a benchmark for space opera not surpassed until the far more sophisticated MGM production values of the next year's Forbidden Planet. Universal's special effects have a gaudy Technicolor sheen yet are lacking in depth and detail. The flying saucer model actually looks smaller than it is, while too much of Metaluna is created through matte paintings with faulty perspectives. Just the same, the general look of Metaluna comes closer to the pulp-novel ethos than any other 50s sci fi film. Real rocketry science would soon make this romantic view of outer space obsolete.
The movie was almost too big a project for Universal International, which had just finished spending a small fortune on rubber suits for its Creature monster and wasn't interested in repeating the experience. Both the Metaluna Mutant from this film and the upcoming Mole People wear substantial clothing to simplify their design. Over the course of filming the studio cancelled a number of planned shots, so the supervising optical wizard David S. Horsley quit and was never hired back. The studio had no intention of making expensive effects pictures an ongoing habit. 1
Some sources state that the film was shot in 3-Strip Technicolor, which author/researcher Robert Skotak confirms is partly true. Live action without effects was done 3-Strip but material needing optical effects was not. Behind-the-scenes stills show ordinary Mitchell cameras being used on the special effects stage. Technicolor printing made possible some jarringly photogenic effects tricks, as when Neutrino ray explosions are rendered in contrasting primary colors.
Universal's DVD of This Island Earth is a welcome release for fans of 50s Science Fiction, even for those of us who have memorized its dialogue and can remember the pitch and tone of its individual sound effects. Until Star Wars came along, this space fantasy and Forbidden Planet had no rivals.
For those of us who remember 35mm Technicolor prints no video transfer is going to compare, but this encoding is not the wonderful restoration we've hoped for. Much better than the old DVD and Laserdisc, the new transfer is still rather grainy and flat. Universal shows its lack of appreciation for the film with a plain-wrap presentation that has chapters but no chapter stops. We also get a no-effort cover design and insultingly wrong liner notes on the back. "Evil" Metalunans are not scheming to take over the Earth, and they don't blame Cal and Ruth for the destruction of their home planet.
The only extra is the film's hysteria-driven trailer, that shouts "2½ YEARS IN THE MAKING!" That's a shame, because This Island Earth's colorful ad campaign boasted reams of exciting and imaginative artwork and poster concepts.
The transfer is flat, which weakens This Island Earth's compositions and makes some sets, like the Metalunan interiors, look unnecessarily empty. Reframed on a widescreen television, the correct compositional tension is recovered, but the enlargement of the flat transfer weakens the image.
The argument about the correct Aspect Ratio for the Universal Science Fiction films of these years (1953-57) has been renewed by a just-announced Classic Sci Fi Ultimate Edition set to be released in September. Universal has foolishly put out a press release claiming that 1:33 is the correct AR for these films. That's simply not the case; the studio just wants to avoid the extra expense of creating multiple transfers for older library titles. I've seen most of these films under original conditions and even prepared some for projection. Let me try to outline the facts.
The years 1953 through 1955 saw an exhibition transition brought on by CinemaScope. Flat films originally shown 1:37 were matted to 1:66 and finally as wide as 1:85 and called "widescreen." The Universal handouts for It Came from Outer Space say that it is in 'widescreen', which indicates at least 1:66.
In practice, all of these films were exhibited at different ARs depending on whether or not individual theater screens had been updated. There's a wide discrepancy between: 1) The Aspect Ratio intended by the director of photography (which could be superceded by the studio), 2) The studio's records, 3) Projection instructions accompanying the prints themselves and 4) The information handed out in suspect publicity announcements. Often negating all the above, the exhibitors showed the films in whatever way they felt like showing them, anyway!
I've found that the best rule of thumb to determine a film's intended aspect ratio is to look at the credit blocks in the film's main titles. All of the Universal productions from 1954 on have relatively wide title blocks, enabling them to be screened as wide as 1:85 if desired, although most look best at 1:66 or 1:75. The underwater 3D scenes in The Creature from the Black Lagoon aren't very attractive when cropped wider than 1:66.
For a few months in 1954 and the early part of '55 Daily Variety reviews spelled out official aspect ratios for individual releases: The Atomic Kid is listed as 1:85, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea: 2:55, Revenge of the Creature, This Island Earth: 2:1, Conquest of Space, It Came from Beneath the Sea, Creature with the Atom Brain: 1:85. Then the magazine breaks off its reportage, probably deciding they were adding to the confusion rather than making things clearer.
An official, 100% authoritative Aspect Ratio for This Island Earth is hard to come by. In my opinion the film would be rather tight at its official AR of 2-1, but the title blocks certainly support 1:85. In any case, Universal Home Video's 'official' announcement that the original AR of these films was 1:33 is hooey. Their fallback justification for the claim is probably that the image on the film prints fills out the entire 1:37 Academy frame. If a studio person actually gives that as a reason, we'll know for sure that they don't know what they're talking about. Until then, we always have the ability to enlarge and mask off flat transfers on our widescreen monitors. They just won't look as good.
Thanks to Jim Peavy and others at the Classic Horror Board for corrections on this review.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
This Island Earth rates:
Movie: Very Good
Video: Good -
Sound: Very Good
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: August 25, 2006
1. The go-to authority on all things This Island Earth is author and effects man Robert Skotak, who contributed most of the content in a highly collectible 1989 Universal Filmscripts Series publication. Robert's research into classic 50s science fiction movies is both unending and unequalled.
Skotak mentions the fact that a more credible brownish appearance for the Mutant was scuttled in favor of a rather lame candy-colored blue-and-red scheme that Universal felt was demanded by Technicolor. No wonder that the Metaluna Mutant looks twice as impressive in B&W stills; one would think a kindergarten class was in charge of its color scheme in the finished film. Not fully integrated into the script (Skotak says that the writers resisted its inclusion at all), the Mutant is still the film's most memorable visual.
2. This Island Earth is a key example of what happens in rushed productions with insufficient coordination between the director/writing team and the effects/design team. The script and dialogue mention 'subtle' differences in the head shape of the Metalunan characters. When we see the aliens their foreheads are almost laughably exaggerated, like the ConeHeads from Saturday Night Live. Cal, Ruth and Steve look foolish discussing their vague suspicion that Exeter may be 'foreign' in origin, as he and his minion Brack are obvious aliens from the get-go.
3. The terrific title is perhaps the only positive contribution from the film's pulp-fiction source. Savant was delighted to find a reprint of the original compiled Raymond F. Jones novel. It turned out to be a muddled, juvenile mess about intergalactic agents and secret factories, with (if I remember correctly) no trip into outer space.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson