Saturday, March 21, 2015

Stubs – This Island Earth


This Island Earth (1955) Starring: Jeff Morrow, Faith Domergue, Rex Reason, Lance Fuller, Russell Johnson, Douglas Spencer, Robert Nichols, Karl L. Lindt, Regis Parton Directed by Joseph Newman.  Screenplay by Franklin Coen,  Edward G. O'Callaghan. Based on the novel This Island Earth by Raymond F. Jones (Chicago, 1952). Produced by William Alland. Run Time: 88 minutes. U.S.  Color, Horror, Science Fiction

For the sake of full disclosure, before I discuss This Island Earth, I want to go on record as saying I had not seen this film prior to seeing Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie (1996), which I think is one of the funniest movies I’ve ever seen. MST3K: The Movie spends a good portion riffing on this film. However, seeing MST3K prompted me to want to see This Island Earth for myself in its entirety. I promise I will refrain from making references to the riffing and concentrate on this film, as it deserves to be reviewed on its own. But we do have a separate review of Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie coming soon.

As we’ve discussed previously on Trophy Unlocked, the 1950’s seemed to be the heyday for a certain type of film genre, Science Fiction. Blame it on the A- bomb, the Red scare, the public’s interest in space travel or what have you, but there seemed to be a steady stream of classic sci-fi films, including The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), The Thing from Another World (1951), When Worlds Collide (1951), The War of the Worlds (1952), 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954),Forbidden Planet (1956), Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), The Curse of Frankenstein (1957), Journey to the Center of the Earth (1959) and On the Beach (1959).

With the popularity of these movies, it should come as little surprise that Universal Pictures, then called Universal – International, would be interested in the book property, This Island Earth, written by Raymond F.Jones, which dealt with aliens, Earth and intergalactic war. Originally serialized in Thrilling Wonder Stories magazine in 1949-50, it was published as a book by Shasta Publishers in 1952. Joseph Newman bought the rights to the book in 1953 and, upon becoming the president of Sabre Productions, transferred the rights to the company. In December 1953, Variety reported that Sabre had sold the script to Universal, with Newman attached as director.

The film opens with, Dr. Cal Meacham (Rex Reason), a noted scientist and electronics expert, who is on his way home from a nuclear power conference in Washington D.C. Before he leaves, in his own fighter jet, a group of reporters quiz him about the pseudo science he practices. This is a case where if you say enough big sounding scientific words it will make it sound important, though even the reporter (Olan Soule) can’t understand what Cal’s talking about.


Dr. Cal Meacham (Rex Reason) converses with reporters before flying home.

Back in California, on approach, Cal’s plane flames out and he is about to crash, when he is saved by a bright green light (and a high-pitched hum) that guides him safely down to earth. Cal is met by his overly eager assistant, Joe Wilson (Robert Nichols) who has seen the light and heard the hum, but happy Cal is all right.

In the lab, they jump into an experiment, which seemingly fails, though we’re never sure what it was supposed to accomplish in the first place. Joe then tells Cal about some odd electronic condensers he ordered from the normal supplier via teletype (this is the 1950’s) and received from an unknown company called Direct Electronic Services, which he assumed was a subsidiary of their supplier. Instead of being the size of a telephone transformer these condensers are smaller than a pen.


A mysterious catalog with metal pages arrives in the lab.

Soon they receive a catalog from Direct Electronics Service printed on a paper-like metal. Cal flips through, amazed at what the company is promising, some of which he doesn’t really understand himself. One of the items the catalog promotes is something called an interocitor and for which he has Joe order the parts via teletype.

Together, Cal and Joe assemble the parts according to the diagram. The result is a large machine with a triangular video screen. Not sure what to do next, a voice calls out to Cal from the machine telling him how to turn it on. When the screen turns on, a man with a large forehead and snow-white hair appears, calling himself Exeter (Jeff Morrow). He is familiar with Cal’s work and congratulates him on being able to build an interocitor. Exeter invites Cal to join an elite team of scientists he says are working on a peaceful use of nuclear energy. Intrigued, Cal agrees to meet the plane that will take him to Exeter's headquarters the next evening. But before he signs off, Exeter uses beams emitting from the interocitor to destroy the catalog and the blueprint Cal and Joe had followed.

Cal and Joe successfully build an interocitor and are congratulated by Exeter (Jeff Morrow).

Although the night is thick with fog, the pilot-less and window-less Douglas DC-3 aircraft arrives easily. Cal climbs aboard the empty jet even though Joe begs him to get off. The next morning, Cal wakes up just before the plane touches down at a remote airstrip in Georgia. As soon as he gets off the plane, Cal is greeted by fellow scientist Ruth Adams (Faith Domergue). Cal remembers Ruth from a summer seminar years earlier, hinting at a romance, but she pretends not to recognize him.

Cal gets aboard a pilot-less Douglas DC-3.

She drives Cal to the southern mansion Exeter is using for his research project. Ruth appears nervous and has a brief, coded exchange with physicist Steve Carlson (Russell Johnson). Exeter explains to Cal that he has assembled the planet's best scientific minds to find a quick way to produce nuclear power and that Cal and Ruth are working down the same line of research.

While they are in his office, Exeter receives a message from his superior called The Monitor (Douglas Spencer). He ushers Cal and Ruth out so he can have the conversation in private. The Monitor insists Exeter finish his task immediately.

After dinner, Steve Carlson (Russell Johnson) and Ruth Adams
(Faith Domergue) fill Cal in on what they know about Exeter.

After dinner with other scientists on the project, Ruth and Steve take Cal on a tour of the labs, where Cal confronts them about what is going on. Attempting to block the interocitor screen with a sheet of lead, he asks why they are so nervous about talking. Ruth and Steve reveal they are the only scientists who have not been brainwashed by Exeter. Meanwhile, Exeter's assistant, Brack (Lance Fuller), who also has a large forehead and white hair, is still able to spy on them. He urges Exeter to brainwash them, but Exeter replies that the machine takes away its subjects' initiative and they need that quality to complete their research project.


Exeter and his assitant Brack (Lance Fuller) observe the humans. Brack is more of a hardliner than Exeter.

The next day, Exeter demonstrates a "neutrino" ray to Cal that blows a hole in the lead sheet in his lab. Exeter asks Cal not to meet again with Ruth and Steve. But even though Call agrees, later that week, the three make an escape attempt in a station wagon, just as The Monitor instructs Exeter to shut down the project and bring Ruth and Cal with him back to their planet, Metaluna.

Exeter boards his spaceship while Brack attacks the station wagon with neutrino rays. Steve stops the car to let Cal and Ruth run to safety, but then drives away and is quickly killed by the ray. Another scientist, Dr. Adolph Engelborg (Karl L. Lindt) shows up on foot and is, too, disintegrated by the ray.

Cal and Ruth's plane is pulled onto the spaceship by a tractor beam.

As they take off in a propeller plane, Cal and Ruth watch as the facility and all its inhabitants are incinerated. Their plane is drawn by a bright green tractor beam (similar to the one that saved Cal earlier) into the belly of the saucer. Onboard, they learn that Exeter and his group are from the planet Metaluna, having come to Earth seeking nuclear energy they could use to defend their planet in a war against the Zaghons. He tells them that the shield around Metaluna is powered by atomic energy, but they are running out of fuel and must find a replacement process immediately. Cal and Ruth must don space travel silver suits and stand in a tube that will condition them for atmospheric pressure changes. They are reluctant to trust Exeter, but the procedure works as he has promised.  

Approaching Metaluna, the spaceship is attacked by the same Zaghonian guided meteors that are currently pummeling Exeter's planet. While the ship avoids danger, they can see on the ship's screen that Metaluna is sustaining great damage. They land on the war-ravaged planet, who's inhabitants have moved underground to avoid the attack.  But that doesn’t work anymore. On the way to The Monitor’s headquarters, Exeter points out the destroyed schools and recreation centers.

The planet Metaluna is under attack by the Zaghonian guided meteors.

At his headquarters, The Monitor reveals to Cal and Ruth that the Metalunans are planning to relocate to the Earth. While Exeter speaks of a peaceful co-existence, The Monitor talks about the Metalunan’s superiority. When Cal blanches at his claim to be superior in intelligence, The Monitor scorns his arrogant belief that Earthlings must be the most advanced peoples of the universe, and Cal replies that Earth's true size is the size of its God. The Monitor insists Exeter take Cal and Ruth immediately to the Thought Transference Chamber in order to subjugate their free will so they cannot object. But Exeter believes this is immoral and misguided since it impedes their ability to help the Metalunans and defies his superior’s orders.

Before they can escape, a Mutant (Eddie Parker and Regis Parton) arrives to stop them. Mutants, Exeter tells them are not unlike insects on earth, only they are bigger with more intelligence, bred to do menial tasks. But Cal won’t take any chances and strikes Exeter and out maneuvers the Mutant. But there is another one blocking their way onboard the saucer. Exeter arrives and tries to command the Mutant to leave them alone, but the Mutant attacks and badly injures Exeter.

The three escape from Metaluna, just before it is destroyed and turned into a sun. Unbeknownst to them, as they get into the chambers to re-pressurize themselves, a Mutant has boarded the spaceship. He attacks Ruth, who is the first out of the tubes, but the Mutant dies as a result of the pressure change.

The Mutant gets onboard the space ship and threatens Ruth.

Soon, they reach the Earth's atmosphere and Exeter sends Cal and Ruth on their way in the small plane still on board. He, himself is dying and the ship's energy is nearly depleted. With no other options, Exeter flies out to sea and crashes and, we assume, dies.

Returning to Earth.

It is interesting that when looking up the cast, this film is usually mentioned as their best known film. None of the main stars are really household names (and I’m not counting Russell Johnson who was the professor on Gilligan’s Island, since he was only a supporting actor in this film).

Jeff Morrow, who plays Exeter, was a stage and radio actor before he was cast in 1953’s The Robe, but on film he is best remembered for a string of science fiction monster films he made in the mid-1950’s: This Island Earth, The Creature Walks Among Us (1957), The Giant Claw (1957), and Kronos (1957). He would later turn to television, making guest appearances in Bonanza, My Friend Flicka, The Deputy, Daniel Boone, Perry Mason, Police Story and the second incarnation of The Twilight Zone. His last acting job was as the voice of Palmy in the 1994 VeggieTales film, God Wants Me to Forgive Them?!.

Faith Domergue was a Howard Hughes discovery who never quite made it big in Hollywood. While still attending high school, she was signed by Warner Bros. and appeared in Blues in the Night (1941), but a near fatal accident put her acting career on hold. While still recuperating, she met Hughes at a party on his yacht. Taken by her, Hughes bought out her contract with Warner Bros. and signed her to a three picture deal at RKO. After she discovered Hughes was also seeing Ava Gardner, Rita Hayworth and Lana Turner, the couple broke up.

Faith Domergue was a Howard Hughes discovery.

She next appeared in third-billing in the Jane Russell film Young Widow (1946). Prior to This Island Earth, Faith’s best known film may have been the film noir Where Danger Lives (1950) opposite Robert Mitchum. Like Morrow, Faith made a series of sci-fi monster films in the 50’s: It Came from Beneath the Sea (1955), This Island Earth and Cult of the Cobra (1955). She appeared only sparingly in films in the 1960’s and 70’s. She also appeared on television, guesting on such shows as Sugarfoot (1959), Cheyenne (1959), 77 Sunset Strip (1961), Perry Mason, Bonanza, Have Gun - Will Travel and Garrison’s Gorillas.

Rex Reason definitely had leading man looks and a baritone voice, but if this film is any indication, he’s not very expressive. Like Morrow and Domergue, Reason made his share of monster Sci-fi films, This Island Earth and the The Creature Walks Among Us, the third and final installment of the Creature from the Black Lagoon series from Universal Pictures. He also did his fair share of television starring in a couple of series, the syndicated western Man Without a Gun (1957 - 1959) and in the drama The Roaring Twenties (1960 – 1962). On the subject of what might have been, Reason was once considered for the role played by Laurence Harvey in The Manchurian Candidate (1962).

Director, Joseph Newman was originally an Assistant Director, twice nominated for Academy Awards for that role in David Copperfield (1935) and San Francisco (1936). As a director, Newman worked in the sub-genre of film noir, including such films as Abandoned (1949) and Dangerous Crossing (1953). This Island Earth, however, would turn out to be his best known film.

While the film has been generally well thought of since its release, This Island Earth is not without its own problems. The pacing is slow, dragging in places, the acting is wooden, especially by lead actor, Rex Reason, and the story seems to be without a point. The film’s ending differs from the book’s in that in the book the American scientists are enslaved to build arms for Metaluna, and Cal is forced to convince an interplanetary peacekeeping coalition that the Earthlings are intelligent beings and should be freed. This ending is much meatier than what we’re left with. In our ending, Meacham and Adams appear to make it back to earth without suffering the fate of their colleagues.

When first released, the film was highly praised by critics, and is recognized by many as one of the more morally complex and structurally sound science-fiction films of the 1950s. According to an article in the November 1954 issue of Popular Science, special effects cinematographer David S. Horsley said he watched films of atomic blasts and consulted with Mt. Wilson astronomers before creating the film's effects. The article also cites that the Metaluna-Zaghon war, which took up only 16 minutes of screen time, took 26 days to shoot, using minatures and matte paintings to create the planet of Metaluna. Newman also shot the Metalunan scenes with a muted color palette instead of Technicolor, to differentiate it from Earth. Sadly, though, the effects have not aged well. The film’s green lights, red death rays, white wigs, prosthetic foreheads and mutants now come across as campy. But I’m not as concerned about the special effects as I am the story.

High concept: extra-terrestrials working with humans to develop cheap nuclear energy for both to use. This was before we were all aware of radiation and the half-life of plutonium. Science fiction and actual science don’t have a lot to do with each other in the 1950’s. Somewhere the plot gets muddled and in the end nothing gets resolved. Exeter’s project never comes to fruition, Metaluna is lost and several of the world’s greatest minds die needlessly. For that matter, we’re not even one hundred percent sure Cal and Ruth get home safely. There is a lot of potential that I don’t think gets fully realized.

Still, this is supposed to be one of the great sci-fi films of its time and if you’re inclined to see it, as part of your own survey of the genre, then by all means do. And if you decide to watch This Island Earth, I would highly recommend seeing it before seeing Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie (which I would also encourage you to watch if you like to laugh.) You’ll probably enjoy both movies better if you do watch them in that order.

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