(Note: I usually take the film description from the DVD/VHS case. However, in this instance, the DVD case is so full of inaccuracies that I thought I’d avoid confusion and use a plot synopsis from IMDb. – MM) Weird events in the life of atomic scientist Cal Meacham (Rex Reason) culminate in an invitation from the strange-looking Exeter (Jeff Morrow) to work at a secret lab in Georgia, supposedly for the cause of world peace. Other scientists are already there, including the gorgeous Ruth Adams (Faith Domergue). They quickly discover there’s more to Exeter than meets the eye. Is he benevolent? It may take an interstellar journey to find out.
This Island Earth is one of my favorite science fiction films of the 1950s. It has everything a B movie enthusiast could want, starting with a stellar cast.
Rex Reason (The Creature Walks Among Us) is Dr. Cal Meacham, a capable scientist with a sonorous voice that commands authority. This is my favorite role for Mr. Reason, and unquestionably the role for which he is most remembered. Faith Domergue (It Came from Beneath the Sea, Cult of the Cobra) plays fellow scientist and love interest, Ruth Adams. Ms. Domergue is ideal as the sensuous genius. Finally, Jeff Morrow (Kronos, The Giant Claw) is Exeter, the alien agent on mission from the distant planet, Metaluna. Ironically, Exeter exhibits more human qualities and pathos than our hero, Dr. Meacham. Morrow is a veteran of 1950s B movies, and though I’m not always impressed with his performances, he really shines here as a human sympathizer from outer space.
In smaller roles, Robert Nichols (The Thing from Another World) is Meacham’s assistant, Joe Wilson. Joe’s attitude towards his boss can be characterized as “adoring.” This aspect was picked up by Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie(1996), with some humorous results. Lance Fuller (The She-Creature, Voodoo Woman) is Brack, Exeter’s assistant, who is less than sympathetic to the human cause. The Monitor of Metaluna is played by Douglas Spencer, who I most fondly remember as Scotty in 1951’s The Thing from Another World. Rounding out the cast is Russell Johnson (Attack of the Crab Monsters, It Came from Outer Space) as Steve Carlson, one of the few people at the alien compound who has not been subjected to the Metalunan “Thought Transformer.”
Besides a great cast, This Island Earth features some stunning visuals and special effects, enhanced with vivid color created by the three-strip Technicolor process. Though simple by today’s standards, the creative matte paintings, colorful sets, and miniatures are some of the best of the era. We are also treated to a cool flying saucer and lots of impressive explosions. For me, the limited technology lends to a heightened sense of fantasy, and I would argue that these effects stand up even today.
Of course, a great cast and special effects mean little if the story is not good, and This Island Earth (based on the novel of the same name by Raymond F. Jones) has one of the most intelligent plotlines of the era. The story is told in essentially two parts. The first portion is a build up and mystery. Dr. Cal Meacham receives a mysterious catalog filled with electronic gadgets far beyond the technology of modern man. He later obtains parts for an “Interocitor” and successfully assembles it. Upon completion, he discovers the Interocitor, which looks something like a triangular television, is a communication device. Exeter appears on the screen and offers Dr. Meacham an opportunity to join a select team of scientist for a purpose not revealed. Exeter is suspiciously alien, with a tall forehead, white hair, and a skin color similar to that of an Oompa-Loompa. Cal is suspicious, but takes a ride in a “trick airplane” to a remote location in Georgia.
The intrigue deepens when Cal arrives at the compound to find that his guide is an old colleague and lover, Dr. Ruth Adams. Strangely, Ruth claims to have no romantic memory of Cal. The camp is filled with world famous scientists, all specialists in the fields of nuclear energy. There is a pervasive atmosphere of mistrust and Cal’s meeting with Exeter does little to ease his mind. Exeter claims to have assembled the scientist to put an end to war, but Cal notes that all efforts are focused on the production of nuclear energy, with no experts assembled to assist with the practical application of the energy.
Eventually an alliance forms between Cal, Ruth (who finally admits she remembers Cal romantically) and another scientist, Steve Carlson (Russell Johnson). As they come to trust one another, they share discoveries regarding Exeter and his project. One of the most disturbing discoveries is that the other scientists have been subjected to a Thought Transformer that deprives them of their freewill. Cal and company decide to gather as much information as possible and escape the compound.
Of course, nothing is easy, and as the trio attempt to make their escape, Exeter is given orders to return to Metaluna and to bring Drs. Meacham and Adams with him. As Cal and Ruth attempt to escape in a small aircraft, they are pulled into a Metalunan saucer and the second portion of the film begins.
The second half of the film is a space adventure. The Earthlings are transported to Metaluna and learn of the planet’s plight. Barely escaping a jaunt through the Thought Transformer, they flee the dying planet, with the aid of the benevolent Exeter, and return to Earth. This portion of the film resolves questions posed in the first half. Namely, we learn why the Metalunans enlisted the aid of Earthling scientists and what they planned to do with all the nuclear energy they hoped to produce. I won’t give away these secrets here, but I will tell you it has nothing to do with peace on Earth.
These final sequences not only feature the stunning visuals I mentioned earlier, but they also introduce us to the “monster” of the movie, a Metalunan Mutant bent on destroying our Earthling heroes. The Mutant’s head was actually a rejected design for the Xenomorph in It Came from Outer Space. It’s exposed brain and bulbous eyes helped it become an iconic figure in 1950s science fiction cinema. For the most part, though, the creature is rather silly. The extended, insect-like arms flopping about certainly do not add to the menace.
Though the first segment of the movie is more engaging, the second half is by no means anticlimactic. The film as a whole is a fun and satisfying piece of science fiction, and withstands repeated viewings. Believe me, I know.
This Island Earth is directed by Joseph M. Newman. The Metaluna scenes, however, were re-shot by Jack Arnold after Universal expressed their dissatisfaction with Newman’s work.
Scene to watch for: Exeter takes an oddly optimistic view concerning the destruction of his home planet.
Line to listen for: “In this place I wouldn’t believe my grandmother!”
Mark’s Rating: ! ! ! ! ½ out of 5.