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Thursday, April 24, 2008

This Island Earth

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.

Notes
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.

11 comments:

Beer said...

Wow, thank you four your great site. Thanks to you, I found this motion picture again (The Island Earth) which I saw many many years ago but forgot the name.
Now, I am only looking for one film, with which you might help me as well? I did not find it on your page, though. The only thing I really remember was the protagonists used hooks to pull the control tapes out of some black robots. There was a "good" robot which looked like Robby from Forbidden Planet.

Nightowl said...

Hi Beer,
Thanks for the kind words. Sounds like you're describing the movie "Invisible Boy" which I've not gotten to yet, since it was released in October 1957. (I'm only up to June '57 at this point).
"Invisible Boy" features Robby the Robot with a vague reference to having come from the future (i.e. Altair 4), but the story goes on its own from there.
If you can wait, I'll be writing up that movie in a month or two. If you just can't wait, let me know. I could send you a quicker synopsis.

Beer said...

Thank you very much for your reply!
I obtained a copy of the motion picture "Invisible Boy", which was quite entertaining by the way, but not the one which I was searching for.
I'll keep visiting your site as you proceed through the years, I bet you will eventually come across the one I am searching for.
Thank you.

Nightowl said...

Hey Beer,
You're right. After re-viewing "Invisible Boy", I can see it's not the movie you're remembering. It has Robby a protagonist, but no black robots or pulling of tapes. Robby did 'star' in some other productions -- mostly TV shows in the 60s. The more famous episodes were two Twilight Zones and two Lost In Space episodes. The two Twilight Zones don't fit your black robots clue. I'd have to watch the Lost In Space episodes (it's been far too long), but I don't recall black robots there either.
Maybe you could tell me a bit more about what you remember. Sounds like it's an interesting one.

crowmagnumman said...

The two Lost in Space episodes with Robby the Robot are War of the Robots and Prisoners of Space. I don't think either of those are what Beer's thinking of. Hope you find it Beer.

Anonymous said...

I am looking for a film where scientists go through a screen on a wall to another planet. When they get there there are creatures such ad those seen in This island earth. Please help

Randall Landers said...

My problem with the Metalunars is how little they hold mankind in regard. They think nothing of their brainwashing and, aside from Exeter, even less about blowing up the estate and killing them. They even take a great deal of effort to fry poor ol' Russell Johnson and his car. I can only conclude they're not worth saving; that they're a basically evil race who have allowed their intellect at creating slaves to progress while the same cannot be said for their ability to engage in science to come up with the energy solution they require.

But Exeter I guess disobeys orders and tractors beams the airplane aboard his ship. He appears to be a good person, but sadly, his own people think his compassion to be a weakness they cannot afford.

Maybe it's a good thing that they get bombed out of existence.

Nightowl said...

Randall,
I agree, the Metalunars were primarily of the heartless-invaders mold. They definitely saw earthlings as inferior creatures to be 'farmed' and/or killed as they saw fit.

Yet they needed a bright human to solve something they couldn't. A bit like a life-long KKK leader who needs an vital operation only a black surgeon could perform. Makes them kind of conflicted. Only Exeter seems to have had the lightbulb go on.

Darci said...

I'd have liked TIE a lot better if they'd left out every bit of the Mu-Tants.

Anonymous said...

'This Island Earth' has stood the test of time a lot better than 'MST3K'.

thingmaker said...

In defense of the Metalunans... Aside from Exeter and a couple of operatives we encounter only the leadership of a race far gone on the losing side of a genocidal war. It always bugs me when people dismiss an entire species based on a few individuals often in unique circumstances. It's an outlook in pop-SF (warrior race, scientist race, cowardly race) that's analogous to the old business (seen in Star Wars often enough) of the "desert planet", "jungle planet", "forest planet" etc... Not impossible but simpleminded once you start finding that EVERY planet has only one worldwide defining climate/terrain feature. I mean, what sort of planet is Earth?
Oh, and I'm surprised you didn't mention: Based on the Book... Actually, the book, (a fix-up novel of three stories circa 1949) explains the title and provides an interesting perspective. The situation is described as being like WWII, with the Earth being like a Pacific island caught up in a vast war, beyond the comprehension of its "simple natives". The natives are still capable of helping one side or the other... In this case by building interociters.