Friday, January 10, 2020

This Island Earth

This Island Earth
Joseph Newman/Jack Arnold

Even though it was released a year prior, This Island Earth will forever live in the shadow of Forbidden Planet (1956). Both are grandiose 1950s SF epics, complete with monsters, spaceships, and brilliant technicolor. Where Forbidden Planet had the one-two punch of being based on  Shakespeare and featuring Robby the Robot to launch itself into popular culture, This Island Earth can only sport a mutant in trousers and a serialized story that never quite gels as a feature film. This is a shame because while Forbidden Planet uses its platform to have us consider the inner workings of the human psyche, This Island Earth approaches a more topical subject, nuclear war, and it isn’t afraid to reach a grim conclusion.

"Keep your hands in your own tube, OK pal?
The plot of This Island Earth is concerned with a series of mysteries put forth one at a time and initially it is very engaging. What is the strange green ray that saves Cal Mecham (Rex Reason)? What is the source of the advanced electronic components that show up in Mechamn’s lab? Who is Exeter and what is the purpose of his cadre of scientists? These are all interesting developments, but when we get to the final reveal at the start of the 3rd act, the movie isn’t exactly sure where to go. Exeter, Mecham, and fellow scientist, Ruth Adams (Faith Domergue) all head to the world of Metaluna, wander around for ten minutes and then leave again.

The 3rd act’s failure to deliver on the promise of the film is unfortunate because we are shown a protracted war between Metaluna and a neighboring world of Zagon. The Metalunans need uranium to protect themselves and they’ve run out. The parallels here to the cold war are obvious, but I really appreciate the willingness for the film to play this tragedy out. There is no hope, no winning a war like this. The only thing you can do is try and survive. Metaluna is wiped out, Exeter chooses death over hope, and our leads are left hanging. Sure they managed to stay alive, but what of it? What happens when Zargon aka nuclear annihilation comes for them in the future?

"I'm not staring!"
The look of the film is impressive, with big set designs, and bold colors. The landscape of Metaluna is rendered in a series of evocative matte paintings. Aside from the unfortunate pants, the Metaluna Mutant is a fun creation even if he never really gets to do much in the film. The soundtrack also is a mixture of traditional and electronic music. Although not quite as revolutionary as the score for Forbidden Planet, it none the less manages to create an alien overtone to permeates the film.

This Island Earth is possibly now more well known for being the subject of Mystery Science Theater: The Movie (1996) than anything else, and that’s not to say it doesn’t warrant some teasing, but underneath all that there is a serious heart beating at the core of this pulpy film and it is one that could use a little more exploration.

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