Every now and then in the distant past when I was a lad, TV networks used to run seasons of classic science fiction films around 6pm in the evening. One of them was typically This Island Earth, a film that encapsulates pretty much everything there was to know about early 50s pulp SF. Which is to say that it’s actually quite staggeringly dreadful by any objective analysis.
But let’s at least start with the positives: it’s in colour, in an age when science fiction was firmly relegated to the black and white cheap B-movie scene. The effects (both photographic and model) are state of the art for their day and still rather good and stand up passably well even more than fifty years later. And the first half of the film is actually quite decent and solid, a sub-X Files conspiracy tale of Dr Cal Meacham (played by the delightfully named Rex Reason!) tracing back some unusual incidents to a mysterious scientific company that has unbelievably advanced technology. Meacham ends up recruited into the company’s ‘brains trust’ community situated in a distant part of the Georgia countryside headed by the very strange Exeter (Jeff Morrow) whose conspicuously odd cranial development practically shouts “Look at me, look at me, I have vastly superior mental capacity!”
Then it almost feels like there’s a reel missing, because suddenly Meacham goes from puzzled and unsettled to full-on making a run for it, and the hitherto benign aliens respond by wiping out their entire precious brains trust of painstakingly gathered world scientists with their laser weapons; all save for square-jawed Meacham and the equally photogenic Dr Ruth Adams (the quite beautiful Faith Domergue) that is, who they inexplicably instead decide to save and scoop up into the flying saucer that has emerged from a local hillside in timely fashion. The rest of the film depicts their journey to Exeter’s distant home world; and after no more than ten minutes and a couple of monorail rides at their destination, they promptly turn around and come all the way back again. Finally, Exeter declines a perfectly reasonably invitation to settle down incognito on Earth in preference for crashing his flaming ship into the ocean. The, err, end.
It’s amazing how much of a scrapbook of science fiction ideas this is, thrown together with virtually no overarching coherent intelligence. The first part has something of the paranoid feel of the likes of It Came from Outer Space or Invasion of the Body Snatchers (both of which are much better films, of course); there’s scientific gizmos and fashionable nuclear styling (the alien technology all has an atomic nucleus designed into it in some way to make it unimpeachably futuristic); and space ships and alien worlds that are strongly evocative of 1930s Flash Gordon. The way that Exeter’s enemies use their spaceships to shepherd meteors to bombard his world to rubble is straight out of Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers.
Of course, any self-respecting SF film of this era had to have its very own form of bug-eyed monster: so one duly appears in this film as well, and was inevitably used in all the publicity for the film’s theatrical release. It actually appears extremely late in the day and has virtually no purpose in the plot itself: the first time we see one it’s flattened by some convenient falling rubble within ten seconds of rearing its misshapen head. The second time it fares little better, immediately getting its head caved in by a crowbar-wielding Meacham. It then spends a few care-free minutes staggering around, pursuing a screaming Dr Ruth all over the main set, before finally succumbing to its injuries. Or maybe just finally done in by all the interminable shrieking that poor Faith Domergue has been reduced to.
What’s most amazing about the film, then, is how dreadfully dated it is in just about every narrative regard – more a product of the 1930s than anything more contemporary. And yet just the very next year, MGM would make Forbidden Planet: another all-colour science fiction film with impressive FX, but this one managing to be decades ahead of This Island Earth in terms of story and displaying a general level of intelligence not seen in a science fiction movies since Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. It would help usher in a decade of improvement in cinematic handling of science fiction that finally led to films like Fantastic Voyage, Planet of the Apes and of course 2001: A Space Odyssey.
That leaves This Island Earth as pretty much the last of its kind, an outpost of a different time. To appreciate its importance in that historical regard is not to be mistaken for an appreciation of the film itself, but it’s still perfectly possible to enjoy the movie on a scene-by-scene basis as long as one doesn’t think too hard or try and apply any thought to the overall story.
As atrocious as it is in so many ways, This Island Earth can actually be quite entertaining on a simple level and is full of some great unintended humour: from the way that supposed super-scientist Meacham manages to crash, explode or otherwise wreck every single piece of technical apparatus he touches in the course of the film, to some hilariously old school “heroic posturing and pointing off-camera acting” that the leads ostentatiously do in the background of a scene while others are delivering the exposition. But the best thing of all that made me both laugh out loud and groan in pain simultaneously was a line of dialogue that reveals just how much the writers truly understood about the astounding atomic scientific age that was at the heart of the film.
“It’s only Neutron,” says Dr Ruth without a trace of humour as the laboratory cat jumps up. “We call him that because he’s so positive.”
I kid you not.