Universal Studios is far more famous--and deservedly so--for its classic monster films, but it is a shame science fiction fans often overlook it genre films of the 1950’s. Certainly, they are steeped in dated cold war paranoia and goofy flying saucers, ray guns, and rubber suit monsters, but there are some gems in there if you are in the right mindset for them. One of the best of the lot is This Island Earth.
This Island Earth introduces us to Dr. Cal Meacham, brilliant scientist and all around American hero. He receives some instructions on how to gather parts and put them together to create some unknown device. Being the curious sort, Meacham follows through. The device turns out to be a communicator in which Meacham can talk with an odd fellow name Exeter. Exeter has an enlarged forehead which gives him an obviously inhuman appearance, but Meacham appears to not notice as he agrees to join a secret laboratory In Georgia to work on a project for Exeter.
At the laboratory, he meets up again with an old flame named Dr. Ruth Adams. The two grow suspicious the laboratory is not being straight with them. When they have finally had enough, they try to escape, but are captured by Exeter. He destroys the facility and carts the pair off in his flying saucer for the planet Metaluna.
Everything I just described takes up the first half of the film. It is a lot of set up paced painfully slowly, but once Meacham and adams have been kidnapped, the fun begins. Exeter’s planet is at war with the Zagons. The Zagons have been throwing planetoids guided by spaceships at Metaluna. The attacks have been highly effective. Metaluna is on the verge of destruction. The need to build a shield to surround the planet as a defense, but they lsck the uranium to power. Meacham is tasked with creating uranium for them.
The plot of This Island Earth is not deep or impressive. There is not even a prominent anti-nuclear war message you might expect from a film from the heart of the Atomic Age even though the visual effects of the planetoids striking Mtaluna are clearly meant to resemble the mushroom clouds resulting from nuclear detonations. This Island Earth is far more escapism than a preachy message about man destroying itself.
Indeed, This Island Earth is unique for this era of science fiction in that humans are the superior beings. Exeter, though difficult to pin down early in the film, is a bad guy who is more than willing to kill Meacham’s colleagues and kidnap him to do his dirty work for him. There are no aliens lecturing humans about their evil ways, but the film also avoids the Gene Roddenberry staple that morally superior humans need to set the evil aliens unto the straight and narrow. Meacham and adams only have one priority--getting the heck out of Dodge.
If is famous for anything, it is the Metaluna mutant pictured above. You can sometimes see it thrown in there with the Universal Monsters in promotional items. The Metaluna mutant is probably the only science fiction critter you will see there. The Metaluna mutant still holds up today in every facet. While it is the typical man in suit monster, the manner in which it stalks our heroes is incredibly scary. The critter ought to be considered right up there with some of the reats of the genre, if you ask me.
Are there flaws? Most definitely. The most laughable is Meacham’s failure to think anything is od about Exeter. I woul not expect Meacham to automatically assume Exeter is an alien, but some comment on his deformed appearance for a normal human is in order. Exter has a forehead you could screen How the West Was Won upon. Another biggie is the character of Adams. She starts out as a strong, brilliant woman becomes the screaming amsel in distress in a snap once she and Meacham have been kidnapped. I understand the situation is jarring for her, but she makes too drastic a chance. These are small problems quickly overshadowed by the nifty elements of the latter half of the film’s exciting events on Metaluna.
This Island Earth ia not deep enough to be on anyone’s list of best science fiction films. It is no cautionary tale about nuclear war. It is standard humans v. aliens and monsters flick. But that is okay. Because it is a good umans v. aliens and monsters flick that has been forever relegated to the lower ecelons because it received the Mystery Science Theater 3000 treatment. If you can look passed the mocking and enjoy the film for what it is, you are going to have a good time.
Rating: *** (out of 5)