REMEDIAL SF 101: This Island Earth

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Mankind has long wondered whether or not we're alone in the universe.  Science fiction has often sought to provide an opinion on that question.  Among the most critically-acclaimed efforts was 1955's This Island Earth.

 

Adapted from a novel by Raymond F. Jones, and making brilliant use of Technicolor to enhance its effects, This Island Earth tells the story of Dr. Cal Meacham, an impossibly good-looking nuclear scientist with a baritone that could wake up the cheap seats, who finds himself working for some pretty unusual customers. 

 

After testifying before Congress in Washington DC, Cal flies his own jet airplane back to his lab in California.  When he tries to land, however, he loses all power and control of the plane; just when it looks certain that he's going to crash, an eerie green light envelops the aircraft and lands it safely.  Shortly afterwards, Cal learns from his lab assistant that the capacitors they'd ordered did not arrive, replaced instead by some strange-looking beadlike fuses which are harder than diamonds and can withstand almost 35,000 volts.

 

The next day, a deliveryman shows up and hands them a catalog for a mysterious device called an "interocitor."  Cal is intrigued, and against the better judgement of his assistant, orders one.  Shortly thereafter, a large number of crates arrive, full of "irreplaceable" components for an interocitor, which the two men immediately set about building.

 

Once the device is complete--and it looks kind of like an entertainment center with a triangular flat-screen TV--Cal and Joe are addressed by a strangely hypercephalic, avuncular gentleman calling himself Exeter.  Exeter informs them that the interocitor was a kind of test, and that by successfully constructing one, Cal has qualified for inclusion in a secret research project being run by Exeter at an undisclosed location.  If Cal chooses to accept the position, an airplane will pick him up the following morning.  It will wait exactly five minutes before taking off.  Then Exeter causes the blueprints and the interocitor catalog to be incinerated by a laser beam from the device, which itself bursts into flames and melts to an innocuous pile of molten goo.Joe is completely weirded out by this and urges Cal not to accept, but Cal is far too intrigued, and even the fact that the windowless plane arrives in a thick fog without any pilots at the controls doesn't deter him from going to meet Exeter.

 

Meacham is picked up at the airstrip by the lovely Dr. Ruth Adams, who demures that no, she doesn't remember having once been romantically involved with him (but you can guess by her sidelong glances that she's lying.)  She does tell him that they are in Georgia, and that Exeter has assembled a team of top scientists to do research for him.  That research is taking place in an elegant mansion, helped along by several other white-haired men with unusually large foreheads. These guys kind of look like elderly Oompa-Loompas.  Oddly, nobody seems to make an issue out of this.

 

Upon meeting Exeter in the flesh, Cal is told that the purpose of the research project is to find ways to make war obsolete.  He seems quite kind and friendly--until an incoming call on his personal interocitor causes him to brusquely eject Cal and Ruth from his office.

 

Cal's suspicions are increased by Exeter's assistant Brack, who spends a lot of his time skulking around the mansion.  His suspicions are confirmed by a covert conversation in the scientists' laboratory, when he confronts his colleagues Dr. Adams and Dr. Carlson (played by Gilligan's Island Professor Russell Johnson) regarding why everyone at the mansion seems to be afraid to say anything to anyone.  It turns out that Exeter and his "staff" have some sort of tanning lamp which puts those exposed to it into a more tractable frame of mind--by removing the victim's independent will.  The trio make a pact to try to discover more of what Exeter is up to.

 

Meanwhile, Exeter is trying to convince his superior, The Monitor, into allowing the scientists to remain in control of their own wills, as the humans he's exposed to the device have lost the ability to be as creative as needed.  Exeter likes humans, as it turns out, and he begs for more time to accomplish the task set to him by The Monitor; it doesn't help that his major-d'omo, Brack, thinks all the humans--and maybe Exeter--should be put into the "transformer."  This is when you really get the notion that these guys may not be from "around here" at all.

 

Exeter tries to persuade Cal not to go poking around where he doesn't belong in a manner which is at once kindly and sinister, by demonstrating the power of an interocitor to effortlessly blow a hole through six inches of solid lead sheilding.  Cal gives Exeter his promise to do whatever Exeter asks; then he meets secretly with Ruth and Steve to plot their escape from the estate.

 

This goes rather badly when Brack discovers their plans, and uses the interocitor to shoot death rays at their car.  Carlson has Cal and Ruth bail out, then drives away to draw Brack's fire and ends up taking one for the team.

 

The surviving two scientists manage to reach a small airplane that fortunately is left with the keys in the ignition, and take off--just as a giant silver flying saucer rises up from the hill behind the estate.  The Monitor has ordered the research project terminated and all personnel back to the home planet.  The estate is destroyed in a fireball to erase any trace of the facility.

 

Cal and Ruth's plane is caught in the same sort of green beam that Cal encountered in the beginning of the film, and drawn up into the space ship, where they are brought to the main control room.  As you can imagine, the two Earth people are rather angry with Exeter over the murder of all their colleagues, but Exeter pleads with them to realize that he had no choice, and was only following orders.

 

He tells them that he comes from a planet called Metaluna, and that after fighting an exhaustive war with the Zagons, who have been bombarding Metaluna with meteors, their ionization layer shield is almost exhausted because they are out of uranium.  This is why they were recruiting nuclear scientists from Earth, in an effort to devise new and more efficient means of generating atomic energy.

 

There follows some seriously hokey science and bad special effects as the saucer flies from Earth to Metaluna, which lies "far from your world, in outer space."  They arrive to find Metaluna on the verge of collapse.  The civilization has moved underground to escape the relentless bombardment, and there seems to be a paralel between Metaluna and London during the Blitz, as meteors fall with incessant screams and explosions. 

 

Exeter brings his guests before The Monitor, who regards the "earth creatures" with dismissive arrogance, tells Exeter he's been wasting their time, and orders Cal and Ruth to undergo the mind suppression process.  Exeter tries to talk The Monitor out of it, but he is overruled, and regretfully asks them to come along quietly.

 

Ruth rebels, and tries to run, but a weird-looking insectoid creature with long arms and an oversized, exposed brain steps out of the shadows to block her way.  Exeter tells them that this is a mutant, bred for centuries to serve as menial labor on Metaluna.  As he orders the bug away, Cal takes the distraction to gut-punch Exeter and try to run back to the saucer.

 

Exeter catches up with them, and convinces them he's going to try to help them escape.  The ionization layer has failed completely and Metaluna is doomed, so they return to the ship--only to have their way blocked by an injured mutant bug guard, which catches Exeter in its pincers.  Cal grabs something suitably heavy from the airplane still in the ship's hold and beats the bug off Exeter, but of course the insectoid manages to crawl inside just before the hatch closes on it.

 

Ruth and Cal assist Exeter in reaching the bridge, and they succeed in escaping from Metaluna shortly before the victorious Zagons turn it into a sun.  (I did mention the science was pretty hokey, right?)  As they fly back to Earth, they need to undergo a pressure acclimatization procedure, during which the mutant bug tries to attack Ruth, but it succumbs to the difference in pressure between Earth and Metaluna and dies.

 

As the ship enters Earth atmosphere, he tells Ruth and Cal to take the plane and return home, and that he's probably going to go exploring the cosmos.  Cal knows he's lying since the ship is out of fuel.  Ruth pleads with Exeter to come with them, but he declines, and after the plane is dropped from the hold, he causes the ship to crash into the ocean, destroying the saucer.

 

This Island Earth is widely considered to be a seminal film in the science-fiction genre, despite having been lampooned in Mystery Science Theatre 3000: The Movie. It seems like almost two different movies--before the flying saucer appears, and afterwards.  Frankly, I would have preferred if there had been less of the first part, and more depth to the second part on Metaluna.

 

I've noticed that in a lot of science fiction films, the characters have a strange lack of emotion, especially in sequences when they really should be emoting up the wazoo.  Perhaps the Metalunans are an emotionless species, but I also would have liked a little more reaction from the crew of the ship as they returned home. Exeter's mild, kindly manner, which is both reassuring and sinister, works pretty well, except when he sees the ruin that Metaluna has become--only for a moment does his voice seem to break, as he points out the piles of rubble which were once schools and a recreation center.

 

Exeter seems to be a noble and kind character, sort of like the farmer who weeps before he slits the lamb's throat so that his children can eat.  He's doing what he's been ordered to do, but he doesn't like it, primarily because he's come to sympathise with the Earthlings.  Maybe on Metaluna, Exeter's story is their version of Avatar.

 

He tries to soft-pedal the desperate plans of the Metalunans, which involves either getting Earth scientists to devise a new way of protecting their planet from bombardment, or moving the surviving Metalunans to Earth, where the superior space beings would subject the Earthlings to the mind-control procedure.  He says they'd really just live in harmony, in spite of what The Monitor says, and later he tries to convince Ruth that if she and Cal willingly submit to the thought transference chamber, they not only won't be harmed, but nobody will try to change their minds. It leaves the viewer wondering exactly what Exeter himself believes, as his world is literally bursting into flames around him. 

 

The lead-up to the arrival on Metaluna makes the actual time spent there seem anti-climactic.  Maybe one doesn't really need to spend a lot of time on a bombed-out cinder to "get" that this place is dying and Exeter's arrived too late to be of any use.  I kept thinking about how much the bombardment resembled the London Blitz, and how this film was released only ten years after WW II.  From the screaming meteors that continually fall, to Exeter explaining that the Metalunans had to go underground to protect themselves, this was perhaps the most interesting part of the film for me, and I wish there had been more of it.

 

While this film's effects were probably eye-popping at the time it was first released, by today's standards they look on par with community theatre, which is due in large part to the movie's limited budget. The Earth, for example, was the same model used for the producer Universal's logo shots  The mutant bug monster costume was a rejected design from It Came From Outer Space, and since they didn't have the money to make a whole costume, they had the insectoid wearing pants with clawed feet coming out the legs.  Mainly, this film makes great use of the Technicolor process, going so far as to have rainbow-pattered explosions and multiple monochromatic filters in The Monitor's palace which tints everyone blue or purple, for no well-explained reason.  The sequence where Ruth and Cal are subjected to the "conversion tubes" in order to acclimate them to Metaluna's pressure is kinda cool, because they momentarily look like the old Visible Man model I had as a kid, with their veins and bones showing.

 

While this film is undeniably a classic of the genre, it has a certain cold, dispassionate feel to it.  Perhaps its makers chose to do this to make its wild premise seem more realistic, more plausible, but I was left feeling that just when it got going, it ended.

 

Would Conservatives like this movie?  I'm not sure.  I didn't find anything overt to dislike about it, philosophically, and Exeter is an interesting example of a character who can be both "saint and devil," to use his own words--and one who seems powerful, only to prove to be little more than a pawn in a greater game.

 

If there are aliens out there, one would hope they would be like Exeter.

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