Like many 50s sci-fi movies, This Island Earth (TIE) has gotten a bad rap. It was lampooned in Mystery Science Theater 3000's movie, but it's really not a bad movie. Mockery isn't proof of fault. One can mock just about anything. TIE tried hard to be a grander epic about aliens and alien worlds. It must be admitted that it didn't quite reach its lofty goal. It's definitely a cut above the usual B movie, but not quite up to an A level. It is, however, a must see for a tour of 50s sci fi.
Quick Plot Synopsis
Dr. Cal Meecham sets out from Washington DC in his private military jet. He's on his way back to his California lab to resume work on turning common lead into fissionable uranium. As he comes in to land, his plane's controls go dead. A strange green glow takes over his plane and lands him safely. He decides not report it, as UFO sightings ruin careers. Back in his lab, he receives some miraculous small electrical parts from a mysterious Unit 16. He next receives an instruction manual from Unit 16 for a bizarre machine called an "Interociter." When completed, the Interociter receives a video message from a man with an unusually high forehead and white hair, named Exeter. He invites Meecham to join a group of scientists working on "world peace." The Interociter "kit" was the test to see if Meecham was worthy.
Flown to Exeter's estate by a pilotless plane, Meecham joins a collection of famous scientists, all of whom work in atomic research. The scientists are all cagy with each other, suspecting mind-control tricks by Exeter. Meecham, Carlson and Dr. Ruth Adams all decide to make a break for it. Carlson is killed by the Nutrino Beam. Meecham and Adams try to fly away in a small prop plane, but are pulled inside Exeter's flying saucer by a green beam. Exeter reveals that he's from the planet Metaluna. Meecham and Adams are being taken there to create uranium, which the Metalunars need for their planet's defensive Ion Shield. Another race, the Zahgons, are making war against Metaluna, steering asteroids and meteorites down onto the planet.
Once on Metaluna, it is clearly too late. The Ion Shield is failing and meteorites are raining down on the already ruined surface. Exeter takes pity on Meecham and Adams and helps them escape in his saucer. Before they get away, however, a worker drone (called Mu-tants) attacks and injures Exeter. It also gets aboard the saucer before they leave. While en route to Earth, the Mu-tant attacks Adams, but dies of his wounds. When the saucer gets to Earth, Exeter beams them down in the plane they had. He has no options, as his ship is out of energy. He crashes into the sea as a fireball. The end.
Why is this movie fun?
In TIE we have several tangents and twists to the advanced aliens story threads. These are fun to watch. The Metalunars are not quite evil and not quite good either.
The tale is sweeping in scope, with so many unresolved sub-plots that it gives the viewer plenty of stuff to ponder on, well after the movie is over.
Cold War Angle
The Cold War is quietly in the background in TIE, but it's there. All those scientists were working in atomic research. Exeter offers Meecham a chance to work toward world peace (instead?) Also, the war between the Zahgons and Metaluna, especially the devastation on Metaluna, serve as a warning preview of future war. Others have commented that Exeter's recruiting of top scientists for his uranium project, was reminiscent to America gathering up the "free world's" scientists for weapons research.
Aliens Among Us -- A subtle element in the first half of TIE is the notion of advanced aliens living secretly among us.
No Smart Zombies -- The Metalunars' "Plan A" (they actually called it that) was to use The Converter to remove the free will of nuclear scientists. The goal was to produce scientist drones who would unquestioningly work to solve Metaluna's problems. In this, there's a subtle commentary on the world of government research project work. Exeter finds that "converted" scientists lose their initiative. That spark of inquisitiveness, such as what Meecham exhibited at the Interociter kit, was gone. The Metalunars could not make smart zombies.
Plan B -- Exeter wanted to try being Mr. NiceGuy and coax the scientists into doing the needed research. This may have worked, but Metaluna did not have the luxury of time to find out. Hence, the need to simply abduct Meecham and Adams and force them to do their work on Metaluna.
A Creature's Second Chance -- The costume for the insectoid "Mu-tant" creatures on Metaluna was proposed for the 1953 movie It Came From Outer Space but was rejected by director Jack Arnold in favor of the cycloptic potato-things. Perhaps the big brain bug-man was too obviously menacing looking for the advanced-but-benign aliens in It came.... But, like many sci-fi props, it went into "inventory", not the dumpster. The "highly advanced" quality of the aliens in It came... explains the incongruity of the Mu-tants having such big brains for supposedly menial laborers on Metaluna.
The Noble Alien -- Exeter is an interesting twist on the potential invader. He has sympathy for the earthlings. He's torn between his desire to save his home world, yet respect for Earth. His cohort, Brack, is more of the typical invader alien. Brack would just as soon "convert" everyone, and blast with the Nutrino Beam any who step out of line. Metalunaa's leader, The Monitor, is smug about their superiority and intention to take over Earth as their new home. Exeter argues that they could live in peace among the earthlings. In the end, Exeter gives his life to return Meecham and Adams to the Earth.
Two and a Half Years? -- The promotional posters proudly state that TIE took 2 and a half years "in the making." The final result does not look like 2.5 years of continual effort. Since the Mutant alien costume was created in 1953, it's possible that the idea and even some initial shooting began then. The project may well have gone "back burner" a few times. There are three very distinct "acts" to TIE, which lend themselves to big breaks -- Act 1:The early jet / lab / Interociter, Act 2: The Exeter estate, Act 3: To Metaluna and back.
Old Home Coming -- Make note of the house used as Exeter's estate. It was on Universal Studios' back lot and so got used in many movies. We'll see it again in Tarantula ('55) and The Creature Walks Among Us ('56). There are more in other genre too, such as westerns, etc.
Bottom line? Definitely check out TIE, and not the MST3K version. It's not one of the memorable epics of '50s sci-fi, but neither is it the failure that MST3K fame implies. It is one of the milestones of '50s sci-fi.