[box cover]

This Island Earth

The June 11, 1955 edition of the New York Times noted that the "technical effects of 'This Island Earth,' Universal's first science-fiction excursion in color, are so superlatively bizarre and beautiful that some serious shortcomings can be excused, if not overlooked." More than fifty years later, that's still a fair appraisal. Today This Island Earth remains recognized as a classic of "serious" 1950s space opera. Its "superlatively bizarre and beautiful" special effects — the scenes every 10-year-old remembered for life — display the purest evocation of the lurid and alluring gosh-wow from the pulp magazines of the 1930s and '40s.

The screenplay was, in fact, adapted from Raymond F. Jones' novel first serialized as "The Alien Machine" in Thrilling Wonder Stories magazine. For that readership especially, this big-budget Technicolor thriller from an A-list studio really packed in the groceries — a square-jawed scientist-hero with a newscaster baritone, his busty yet equally brainy love interest, super-smart aliens with high-domed noggins, spaceships that grab airplanes with tractor beams, two-way 3-D TV screens with built-in neutrino rays, robot planes, grotesque bug-eyed monsters, "thermal barriers," meteor warfare pummeling an exotic alien world, "conversion tubes" that momentarily reveal the insides of the Hero and the Pretty Damsel like those "Visible Man" models we had in science class, and — extra resonant with Atomic Age audiences for whom nuclear energy (or annihilation) seemed just around the corner — the nearly mystical possibilities of atomic power.

On the other hand, those "serious shortcomings" included a plodding, stilted, and often nonsensical script, stiff performances of one-dimensional characters, and the staid directing of a flat story that gave its forgettable protagonists little to do except react to the gee-wizardry surrounding them.

After passing an applied I.Q. test by building an "Interociter" kit sent to him by a mysterious agency, nuclear electronics expert Dr. Cal Meacham (Rex Reason) finds himself recruited into a secret research team housed in a stately Georgia mansion. Among the international team of top nuclear scientists is a former flame, Dr. Ruth Adams (Faith Domergue, a Howard Hughes dalliance who also screamed and filled out blouses that year in It Came from Beneath the Sea). She, Cal, and a third expert (Russell Johnson before his Gilligan's Island years) are the only ones not yet subjected to a brainwashing administered by their hosts, bulging-browed alien scientists led by the sophisticated and singularly benevolent Exeter (Jeff Morrow). Exeter selected the humans to aid his home planet Metaluna, which needs more atomic energy to rebuild its weakened space defense shields against the attacking enemy Zahgon warships. After an attempted escape — a car chase involving death rays from the sky — and the (inexplicable) destruction of the research house, Cal and Ruth's airplane gets pulled into Exeter's flying saucer bound for Metaluna. There, in a spectacle-rich climax above and beneath Metaluna, they encounter a ravaged alien landscape sheltering a dying super-civilization devastated by storms of Zahgon meteor-missiles.

It's the closing 33 of its 87 minutes that make This Island Earth memorable. Every frame could be the cover of a sci-fi pulp magazine c. 1939, from the alien decor (now retro-quaint down to the '50s-vintage glass bricks of Exeter's spaceship command chair) and space fighter battles, to the extravagant alien vistas and the man-in-suit monster — the giant bug-like "Mute-Ant" with lobster claws, huge exposed brain, and empty dog-dish eyes — menacing the Earth woman. The lumbering Mutant has since become an icon of '50s sci-fi cinema even though it's onscreen for only a couple minutes, tops. It was shoehorned into the script at the eleventh hour, but the terrific costume is betrayed only when Cal clubs its balloon brain, which responds like so much bicycle tire rubber.

The screenplay is often lauded for its intelligence and sober earnestness, but really it's mostly a simplistic mash of boys'-adventure plot hokum and "Interociter incorporating an electron sorter" blather. Precious little within it stands up under adult eyesight. Presumably we're to feel sorrow for Exeter's ultimate fate and the destruction of his world. Yet given the supercilious hostility toward the humans from the Metalunan leader (who also threatens an invasion of Earth), and the casualness with which Exeter and his men destroy a house filled with Earth scientists, there's reason enough to thank the unseen Zahgons for actually doing the universe a favor by wiping out the Metalunan menace.

However, This Island Earth stands as a rare example of the more high-minded pulp-era themes manifested onscreen. For once it's Earth humans who are the superior species, for reasons transcending mere technological advancement. ("Our true size is the size of our God!" Cal intones in defiance of the doomed Metalunan leader, and probably in appeasement to nervous studio execs.) It almost uniquely depicts human know-how as a worthy contributor to universal good. Then that's given a somber Cold War subtext in the understanding that no amount of super-science could end an all-consuming war when the combatants are dead set on annihilating one another.

Critic David Kehr said that This Island Earth "remains among the most poetic and dreamlike of 50's fantasies." Its loopy grandeur does have more in common with the hallucinatory child's-eye-view of Invaders from Mars than with, say, the cool steel and baseball caps of The Day the Earth Stood Still and Forbidden Planet. All the same, and even though its increasingly camp elements have aged poorly, it deserves respect as one of the more ambitious, grandiose, and important science fiction adventures of its time.

*          *          *

Universal Home Entertainment's 2006 DVD edition is a routine getting-by release. The film's original aspect ratio is a matter of some controversy among the devoted genre cognoscenti, with general consensus leaning toward 2:00.1. Perhaps to bypass the argument altogether, Universal gives us a full-frame open-matte transfer that one push of the zoom button can reframe to 1.85. In terms of image quality, this disc is a noticeable improvement over Image Entertainment's long out-of-print DVD and the Laserdisc edition before that, but it's still a long way from a definitive restoration the film's champions deserve. Color, contrast, and definition are merely okay in a speckly, grainy print. The Dolby Digital monaural audio is fine. The basic menu offers no chapter stops, and the sole extra is the overstimulated theatrical trailer. Keep-case.

—Mark Bourne

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