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This Island Earth

by Glenn Erickson Jul 16, 2019

“The supreme excitement of our time! Challenging the unearthly furies of an outlaw planet!” Big-budget space opera finally came to movie screens, in Technicolor and widescreen, in this irresistible kid magnet of a sci-fi extravaganza. Viewers are split on its worth, as the screenplay caroms between mind-expanding visions and puerile dialogue. But it’s the first show to capture the thrills on those pulp sci-fi pocketbook covers, and its visual poetry plays out like an intergalactic fairy tale.

 

This Island Earth
Blu-ray
Scream Factory
1955 / Color / 1:85 widescreen + 1:37 Academy / 87 min. / Street Date July 9, 2019 / 29.99
Starring: Jeff Morrow, Faith Domergue, Rex Reason, Lance Fuller, Russell Johnson, Douglas Spencer, Robert Nichols.
Cinematography: Clifford Stine
Film Editor: Virgil Vogel
Special Effects: David S. Horsley, Clifford Stine, Cleo E. Baker
Original Music: Henry Mancini, Hans J. Salter, Herman Stein
Written by Franklin Coen, Edward G. O’Callaghan from a story by Raymond F. Jones
Produced by William Alland
Directed by
Joseph Newman

 

“The Supreme Excitement of Our Time!”

Even the Russians respected 1955’s This Island Earth: in the middle of their Sputnik-celebrating, Yankee slamming, Cold War sci-fi show Nebo Zoyvot, we’re shown a montage of decadent neon advertisements in New York City, where predatory capitalists have begun hawking vacation property on Mars, even though nobody’s landed there yet. There in the middle of the montage is a shot of a Manhattan movie marquee, and This Island Earth is playing. Somebody at Mosfilm had a sense of humor.

A core classic of 1950s Science Fiction, This Island Earth carries the decade’s most poetic title. The story for the first interstellar space opera in color 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. The terrific title is perhaps the only positive contribution from the film’s pulp-fiction source. I once 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. At the very end, they go to the home planet of the aliens (called the Llannan; or maybe it’s just a planet where the ruling council is at the moment. Cal pleads with the Llannan council to defend the Earth against their enemy the Guarra, who will destroy it knowing it had served as a Llanan base.

The Technicolor production was a considerable expense for Universal, which committed a sizeable budget for costly props, costumes and wall-to-wall optical effects. It was the high point of producer William Alland’s monster cycle, made just when the market for fantasy & Sci-fi was flooded with inexpensive shows with little to show besides gaudy poster art. With a couple of exceptions, fantastic subject matter at Universal was downgraded to the likes of The Mole People and The Deadly Mantis. The only classic-quality ’50s show to follow at Uni was the marvelous The Incredible Shrinking Man, a wonder film produced outside the Alland unit.

I did see This Island Earth once in all of its garish Technicolor 35mm glory, at the FILMEX science fiction marathon in 1975. But it has had a sad life on home video. An inferior Image DVD was released way back in 1997. Contributing to the show’s lack of status was its selection as the punching bag featured victim for the sarcasm-fest Mystery Science Theater movie. This Universal-International classic may have its amusing moments, but it is NOT a Zero Hour, waiting to be turned into a sarcastic comedy like Airplane!

 

The storyline is a strange combination of naïeve notions attached to a bizarre Cold War plot about a ‘Brain Drain’ from outer space. 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 called an Interociter, 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 assembly-kit Interociter serves as a kind of 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. Is this a big opportunity for science, or some foreign enemy’s attempt to snatch off America’s best nuclear engineers. Fellow invitee/kidnapee Dr. Steve Carlson (Russell Johnson) confesses that the national origin of Exeter and his sinister aide Brack (Lance Fuller) is difficult to suss out: their white hair and subtly ‘different’ foreheads may be a clue…

The print ads and posters for This Island Earth promised the heavens to Sci Fi fans. 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. By 1955, the expensive shows by Walt Disney and George Pal were the exception. Pictures by Columbia’s Sam Katzman cost a fraction of what Universal had been spending, and earned just as much. And American-International would soon be siphoning off the market with product that could almost be called no-budget.

 

In its dramatics, This Island Earth is just a few clicks 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 might be imagined by David Maclean of Invaders from Mars, a guy who knows his way around a do-it-yourself project like assembling an alien electronics kit. Cal would seem to be in the pocket of the Military Industrial Complex. He flies his own Air Force jet and hobnobs with ‘the big boys’ at the Pentagon. This inverted Oppenheimer and brainiac superstar is such a celebrity that he can dictate his own agenda. He has time for quickie romances at summer seminars in Vermont. Wholly independent, Cal can duck the responsibilities of his lab work, to volunteer to be ‘kidnapped’ by the amiably mysterious Exeter.

In short, Cal is a handsome, deep-voiced version of the too-cool-for-school cartoon scientist in Disney’s lampoon of ‘the typical space monster story,’ in the ‘Man in Space’ chapter of their TV edu-tainment science special Disney in Space. As embodied by the booming baritone Rex Reason, Cal mixes male hauteur with pacifist sensitivity. No wonder that babes like Ruth Adams all but swoon in his presence. 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 must 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: both Exeter and his creepy assistant Brack (Lance Fuller) have the same ‘subtle’ indentations in their foreheads … it’s the old ‘Metaluna Factor,’ a phenomenon in rushed productions with insufficient coordination between the director/writing team and the effects/design team. The script and dialogue mention easy-to-overlook differences in the head shape of the Metalunan characters, but 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.

Politically, the film is a silly mess, with America’s top scientists foolishly lending their talents to what looks like a blatant conspiracy 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 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. His superiors are fighting a losing war with the planet Zahgon, whose dart-shaped siege spaceships are blasting Metaluna to bits. With Metaluna’s ‘ionization shield’ about to give out, Exeter brings 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 Cruise Ship layover on 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. 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. You know, like what’s happening with The Internet.

Our Earth couple is on Metaluna barely long enough to see what’s going on, as it’s all about to be incinerated by Zahgonian missiles. 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. In cautionary Cold War parlance, we might be expected to conclude that Metaluna is an advanced but too passive 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 ungrateful pacifists 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 freedom fighters, avenging greater Metalunan war crimes.

 

The Durgnat Files: The Zahgons Are Out There

This Island Earth had the distinction of being the first ’50s Sci Fi opus to be given a thorough cinematic analysis, courtesy of Raymond Durgnat in his 1967 book Films and Feelings. Alongside brilliant chapters on Johnny Guitar and Psycho, Durgnat distilled 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 Brains is counterproductive: the Metaluna Mutant has a grossly overdeveloped Brain, yet is a moronic monster. Durgnat described this construction of contrary notions as ‘Paradox Cut Paradox.’

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 also works up the movie as an analogy for the Cold War: Earth scientists Meacham and Adams are caught between warring civilizations. To save themselves from the implacable, barbaric Zahgonians, the Metalunans are forced to adopt morally reprehensible methods — kidnapping, mind control. This moral bankruptcy is expressed in the planet’s strange geography — the damn orb is a crumbling shell instead of solid rock, and as hollow as a Whiffle Ball. No matter what Meacham and Adams believe, Earth can no longer be isolationist. We’re just an island amid many others in space, but in terms of morality, No Planet Is an Island.

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 robot airplane is a modern version of a gothic Ghost Coach. A cat that detects Neutrino Rays is an atomic-age ‘familiar.’ Every chapter has a revelation, such as a green hill that turns out to be a flying saucer hangar, or an airplane captured in the saucer’s belly. Durgnat calls it a ‘birth in reverse.’  I’m wondering if it is the first filmic ‘tractor beam.’

If Durgnat sees the visuals as poetry, he also admits that 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 future: “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: what’s the penalty for 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.

The visual knockout This Island Earth established a benchmark for space opera with special effects that were state-of-the-art for 1955. Yet it was greatly surpassed just one year later with the far more sophisticated MGM production values of Forbidden Planet, which itself wasn’t bested until 2001: A Space Odyssey and Star Wars. 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 fantasy ethos than any other ’50s sci fi film. Real rocketry science would soon make this romantic view of outer space obsolete.

In the end, budget concerns took top priority. Universal-International 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 clothing to simplify their design. The show was begun just as 3-Strip Technicolor was abandoned, and behind-the-scenes stills show ordinary Mitchell cameras being used on the special effects stage. Technicolor printing made possible some gaudy effects tricks, as when Neutrino ray explosions are rendered in contrasting primary colors. Being transparent, these quickly lose their appeal, as does a space view of a retreating Earth, which lacks both clouds and color in the oceans. A few years later, Japan would give us fabulous orbital views of our planet in color and Tohoscope, with oversized paintings and better spaceships on wires.

Only briefly does This Island Earth generate real suspense.  I’m a big fan of the film’s ‘on the run montage’, when Cal and Ruth stumble across a sunset landscape as strange noises begin to howl in the background. The opening titles are also pretty wonderful, evoking a new kind of adventure in space. And the scene were Cal’s jet glows green is nicely handled, with a sound effect that seems a variation on the spider sizzle in the same year’s Tarantula. The somewhat dense dialogue scenes are more than offset by the frequent visual set pieces. The show is in many ways conventional and unchallenging, but when it’s good, it’s great.


 

Scream Factory’s Blu-ray of This Island Earth clearly takes extra pains to ‘get this one right.’ The die-hard sci-fi faithful customer base can be counted on to howl loudly when their favorites aren’t treated well. And the Blu-ray debut of this show has been delayed so long that its first-run fans are beginning to die off (gulp).

We naturally worry about how Technicolor productions fare on home video, because only the most marketable classics rate full digital restorations, re-combining the 3-strip elements. For most movies, the quality depends on how well the Eastmancolor composite negative was made. Even Universal’s popular James Stewart westerns can display registration problems, especially in optical sections.

Happily, the new 4K restoration does very well by this show. Colors are good, and not as ‘ruddy’ or exaggerated as indicated by some online sources; the values are much like I remember them, with darker effects scenes. The grain does get a little thick now and then, but the only scene that seems to suffer is the Earthlings’ audience with The Monitor. The slimy purplish colors are correct, but the excess granularity makes them look like a mistake, not something done on purpose. Robert Skotak confirms that earlier home video transfers tended to brighten everything too much. The darker color balance enhances the look of the Metaluna Mutant, who no longer seems a big hunk of blue rubber.

Aware of the controversy among fans about the proper aspect ratios for these picture, Scream includes both a widescreen and a flat Academy scan. And here’s the irony: because the (preferred by me) widescreen enlarges the image considerably, the grain is enlarged as well. Almost everything looks better in the flat version. So Tom Weaver can have the last laugh at me with this one — ‘Glenn, you’re losing picture, don’t you understand?’

Extras-wise, Scream doesn’t need to strain to best the earlier 2006 DVD, which contained only a trailer. I’ve always liked the score and the audio on this show; this time around David Schecter gets a separate audio piece to talk about music. Italo director Luigi Cozzi contributes an enthusiastic appreciation as well. Even more interesting, Greg Kintz of the 3D Film Archive has engineered an authentic Perspecta stereo track for the show. Island was one of many ’50s movies encoded to be playable through a patented setup that split a mono optical track into three channels.  Another extra explains the Perspecta process using scans of magazine articles. Bob Furmanek wrote to say that Scream Factory mistakenly skipped an important page of the explanatory article, and instead repeated a page. But we get the idea, even if the technical schematics go over our heads.

 

The main audio commentary is by the effects expert/film researcher Robert Skotak, who wrote a highly collectible 1989 Universal Filmscripts Series publication on the show — and we get the benefit of his expertise here.

Although not as detailed as we had hoped, Robert’s talk uses information gleaned from many who worked on the film, including its director. We learn that it was a budget-conscious effort, despite the considerable outlay for Technicolor. The mansion set was a hand-me-down, and the film’s two laboratories are the same set slightly redressed. The same goes for the saucer’s bridge and The Monitor’s headquarters. Robert doesn’t mention it, but the Metalunans use garden-store glass bricks as decor accents, just as seen in the previous year’s GOG.

The preproduction was rushed, as the ‘two 1/2 years in the making’ included time the project spent being considered by other filmmakers. Not only were scenes simply skipped at the last minute (no Metalunan brainwashing lab), the too-brief visit to the faraway planet is the result of entire sequences jettisoned in preproduction. The isolation of Universal’s various departments (domains?) may indeed be responsible for a lack of technical coordination here and there. Seemingly essential shots for the launch of the saucer, we are told, were scheduled only after an early screening showed how badly they were needed. The budget and time allotted for complex optical scenes was chopped off in the middle of production, which left the Zahgon attacks without rotoscoping work to remove wires and harness rigs. (No, I don’t think they should be digitally removed.)

Robert Skotak says that director Joseph Newman intended for Reason, Domergue and Russell to under-react to the weird goings-on in Exeter’s mansion, because the characters are supposed to be hiding their suspicions. If so, it’s just poor direction — our Earth scientists just seem unaccountably passive and clueless. Perhaps rushed editing did away with indications to the contrary, but Newman’s direction overall is markedly disengaged.

Skotak drops other hints as well. He says that director Jack Arnold admitted to him that he had little or nothing to do with This Island Earth; yet rumors persist that Arnold directed the entire Metaluna sequence. Skotak mentions optical expert David Horsley’s exit from Universal during production, but I believe elsewhere he explained that it was something of a protest move that backfired — Horsley found out that he could be replaced. Skotak also helps squelch rumors that the uncredited Millicent Patrick designed everything worthwhile in the Universal makeup department, by handing most credit for the impressive Metaluna Mutant to the (equally uncredited) Jack Kevan. We don’t learn much new about the creation of the Mutant; Robert elsewhere wrote that the monster’s original brownish appearance was scuttled in favor of a blue-and-red scheme that looked more exciting in Technicolor. That jibes with his mention that Universal wanted the effects to at all times show off the Technicolor, as with the fancy multi-hued explosions.

For the record, I was long ago corrected for wrongly pronouncing the name Faith Domergue — Alain Silver told me that it’s “Duh-myoor,” as in the word ‘demure.’ Maybe that’s just for the French, as everything I hear here is ‘DOH-merg,’ or ‘Doh-MERG,’ the way Robert Skotak says it. As a kid, I remember saying ‘Dommer-gyoo.”

An okay docu-lite on This Island Earth is an extended cut of one produced in 2013; it’s good for generalized facts and whiz-bang graphics. The trailer is included along with three photo and art galleries. German lobby cards for the picture confirm Forry Ackerman’s info back in 1964, that the West German title was Metaluna 4 Antwortet Nicht. Joe Dante gives the movie his blessing on his Trailers from Hell trailer presentation.

Finally, we’re left with the movie itself. In 1955 there was nothing like This Island Earth. It is revered by nostalgic fans that can remember what a treat it was to catch matinees about rocketships and dinosaurs and giant blobs — things that really mattered to us but were hard to find anywhere else. It’s not difficult to poke fun at the picture now, as it will likely not impress young kids that are accustomed to new movies that jam more ‘good stuff’ into one minute than this show has in eighty. Just the same, poetry is where one finds it, even the unconscious kind. Mute out the prosaic klunker dialogue, and Island becomes an exercise in surreal imagery. Raymond Durgnat even risked comparing it to Orpheus by Jean Cocteau.

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Help and corrections from Gary Teetzel


This Island Earth
Blu-ray
rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Very Good + plus Two Aspect Ratios: 1.85:1 And 1.37:1
Sound: Excellent plus Perspecta Stereophonic Sound restored by 3-D Film Archive
Supplements (from Shout): Longform docu This Island Earth – Two And A Half Years In The Making: The Extended Documentary; Audio Commentary with Robert Skotak; Audio interviews with film music expert David Schecter and filmmaker Luigi Cozzi; featurette Facts About Perspecta Stereophonic Sound By Bob Furmanek; 8mm condensed versions; Trailers From Hell trailer with Joe Dante; Theatrical Trailer; still galleries.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly?
YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
Reviewed:
July 14, 2019
(6041this)
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Here’s Joe Dante on the beloved Sci-Fi classic –

About Glenn Erickson

Screen Shot 2015-08-24 at 6.51.08 PM

Glenn Erickson left a small town for UCLA film school, where his spooky student movie about a haunted window landed him a job on the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS effects crew. He’s a writer and a film editor experienced in features, TV commercials, Cannon movie trailers, special montages and disc docus. But he’s most proud of finding the lost ending for a famous film noir, that few people knew was missing. Glenn is grateful for Trailers From Hell’s generous offer of a guest reviewing haven for CineSavant.