Is there a genre more prone to dating horribly than Sci-fi? As the passage of time inexorably grinds on, no matter how good your set design or props may be at the time, at some point down the line, some uncultured punk is going to point and laugh at the clunky nature of your film, dismissing it instantly as “old”.
Sure, I’ll admit there’s a few old tropes that make me chuckle too, such as the image of a barrel chested, lantern-jawed adonis pulling on a lab coat and explaining science to a slack jawed nerd or endless scenes of rubbery alien costumes that’s supposed to evoke fear from audiences raised on H.G. Giger or James Cameron.
And yet I feel it’s our duty as film lovers to look beyond the limited visual effects and stilted dialogue to see the true potential within and one film that certainly benefits from this is 1955’s This Island Earth.
Cal Meacham isn’t your usual scientist, especially considering that we meet him as he’s about to bounce over to his laboratory in a borrowed Lockheed jet after a quick chinwag with the press – but when his showing off almost causes him to crash, an eerie green light envelopes the plane and sets it down safely. Bizarrely shrugging it off as just weird, Cal and his assistant Joe experience even more strange happenings when someone sends them replacement electronic condensers that can’t possibly exist – this eventually leads to Cal receiving a strange catalogue that allows him to order the parts to build something called an Interocitor. Seeing absolutely no problems whatsoever with building a strange device from what’s essentially an intergalactic Avon catalogue, the assembled device allows him to communicate with a fellow scientist named Exeter who reveals that this all was a test to gather boffins for a super secret research project. Hopping onto an unmanned, windowless plane to take him to a secret location (obviously the fact that the Cold War was currently ongoing didn’t occur to him once) Cal eventually gets to the scientific retreat and meets an international group of top brains all gathered by Exeter. However, suspicions are aroused (among other things) when he bumps into old flame Dr. Ruth Adams who claims never to have met him and after a surprisingly small amount of digging, finds out that Exeter and his staff are all aliens who are desperate for help to save their war torn planet. Whisked away to the distant planet of Metaluna, Cal and Ruth are exposed to an advanced alien culture on the verge of being utterly wiped out by their meteor flinging foes, the Zagons, but are the people of Metaluna any better? The fact that they keep giant brained bug people called Mutants around to do their menial tasks probably suggests “no”, but can Cal and Ruth convince Exeter that his people are dicks before everyone is killed?
Despite my impassioned plea at the beginning of this review, I do have to admit that there’s a whole bunch of clunky stuff in This Island Earth that I should probably address that means that the movie is a cornucopia of massive plot holes. The most glaring one is that not one of these super smart Earth scientists seem to clock that Exeter and his men are blatantly aliens despite them all owning foreheads roughly the size of a loaf of bread. Unintentional chuckles are abound when blithely oblivious humans merely write them off as there being “something different about them” when its hilariously obvious that they all have epic spams that could comfortably keep the rain off their shoes. Elsewhere we’re supposed to believe that a super intelligent alien race would happily keep the hulking creatures known as Metaluna Mutants (sounds like a kickass cocktail) around in order to do menial tasks even though they’re nothing more than bulgingly brained killing machines and obviously not bred to unclog a toilet or do some wall papering.
Things like this aside, the main obstacle that This Island Earth has to overcome is very… slow… pace… where everyone feels the need to describe various science-y things in that patronising 50’s tone and nothing happens for long periods of time. Even when we get to an alien planet ravaged by the devastation of war, we only spend time in two or three rooms and we never even get to see the villainous Zagons at all – even the movie’s most iconic image, that of the misshapen, clawed Mutants, is somewhat underutilised as the ones we see are incapacitated usually without the humans having to lift a finger.
So why does This Island Earth have such a good rep? Well, for a start it was Universal Studios first sci-fi movie film in colour and so the filmmakers took the opportunity to unleash a retina searing onslaught of bright, vibrant hues that mean the teal and red Mutants and the surface of Metaluna pop like you wouldn’t believe. Also, the movie is endearingly dedicated to man’s dedication to learning shit, no matter where the hell it means they’ll end up and if the Metalunians weren’t wandering around with heads that would put Frankenstein’s Monster to shame, the reveal would be a far more poignant one.
There’s still some great set pieces though, with Faith Domergue trapped in a rapidly opening tube as a bloodied Mutant staggers toward her and climatic shot involving a spaceship bursting into flames as it streaks across the ocean, being highly memorable.
As it stands, the movie, helmed by Joseph Newman and Jack Arnold, is prime, technicolor pulp that features memorable performance by Jeff Morrow as the endlessly reasonable Exeter and the ludicrously baritone voice of the fabulously named Rex Reason (both of whom clashed clashed again a year later in The Creature Walks Among Us).
Yes, its dated and yes, its accidently silly – but a quick glance deeper reveals a thoughtful film that takes time to set up its premise and deliver a movie that still captures the wonder (and apprehension) of the time.