This Island Earth (1955) – Dir. Joseph Newman (Part 1)

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Last time out in this section, I explained how much of a Science Fiction fan I am. I also explained how it pains me to have to peel back the dusty curtain of time and acknowledge that what lies behind is a nothing more than a rotten, broken carcass, and not the resplendent soft-focus beauty my mind has convinced me was waiting there. This is all true enough, but regardless, I’m going to largely ignore this sentiment entirely here and dive right back into some more of the dirtied waters of SF’s past; primarily because reviewing the shuddering, spluttering shambles that is When Worlds Collide was actually rather fun. In a very deranged and awkward way.

This time, we’re jumping ahead four years to 1955 (no, not that 1955, there’s no DeLorean or Doc Brown or anything that exciting ahead). No, we’re heading into real honest-to-goodness 1950s America: the Cold War is now roaring into top gear and so is the ‘American Dream’ machine. President Eisenhower’s USA is blooming into a hulking economic behemoth and mass consumerism is exploding throughout the nation. In this year, Ray Kroc would inaugurate the reign of one of the USA’s most enduring symbols of its economic and ideological reach – opening the world’s first McDonald’s in Des Plaines, Illinois. Elsewhere, another American icon extended its influence into American homes as Disney’s ‘The Mickey Mouse Club’ aired for the first time on television, whilst General Motors became the first American corporation to achieve profits of more than $1 billion.

So in a climate of a burgeoning, increasingly affluent middle-class population, America’s media industry was expanding rapidly, with cinema becoming an increasingly prevalent form of consumer culture for the prosperous masses. Genre film production in Hollywood was well up and running, and still in its immaturity as a genre, Science Fiction was very much the juvenile fodder of Saturday matinees: cheap, shallow and chock-full of over-the-top thrills. With a few notable exceptions (Robert Wise’s The Day the Earth Stood Still, for example), much of SF cinema at this time lacked the sombre tone and inventive storytelling of its literary counterparts. We saw last time in When Worlds Collide what happens when you try to tell a difficult, probing story without any conviction or courage, and much SF output around this time just didn’t bother at all to try and tell a meaningful tale, heading for straight-up light entertainment instead.

As a result of this modus operandi by Hollywood studios, during this period Science Fiction (in cinema and via ‘pulp’ short-story magazines at least) was readily fused with horror tropes in order to maximise its superficial impact: the order of the day was strange creatures, monsters and the like – designed to shock and scare rather than tell anything resembling a genuine ‘Science’ fiction story.

Given this ‘stock’ aspect of the genre, typical plot devices would find protagonists either invaded/attacked by aliens/atomic monsters, or would see protagonists venturing off to alien worlds in search of daring adventure. (Interestingly, When Worlds Collide fits neither of these generic formats, making it sadder still that it’s such a woeful failure).This Island Earth on the other hand, attempts to ambitiously straddle both of these two narrative frameworks, and this ungainly effort – which can be likened to an elephant attempting a back handspring – is one of the underpinning reasons that this Joseph F. Newman-directed film slips ungracefully onto its backside to a chorus of haughty jeers and raucous giggles.

So as a kick-off, here’s a brief plot overview to get us oriented. Skip this paragraph if you want to create a bit more suspense later on – Heaven knows, there’s not much in store from the film itself: the opening phase of the text focuses on Dr Cal Meacham, a nuclear expert who is mysteriously recruited by a man called Exeter to join an elite team of scientists in a remote location who are working on a project that will create world peace. That’s swell and all, but it transpires that Exeter and his colleagues are actually aliens from the planet Metaluna who have come to Earth seeking the help of its scientists in order to help save their own dying planet. When they are discovered, Exeter takes Cal and Dr Ruth Adams back to their home planet so they can continue their work there.

So, we get a bit of an ‘alien invasion’ narrative, chucked in a blender with a ‘space exploration’ narrative – all in the space of eighty minutes. Hmmm; remember how When Worlds Collide struggled with telling a big conceptual story in about eighty minutes? No, well, This Island Earth goes for two big conceptual ideas in the same duration. So let’s see how that works out (badly, obviously, or this wouldn’t be The Valley of the Damned now would it?)

As with the When Worlds Collide review, this one’s going to be a running commentary, so brace yourselves and get ready for a long, miserable haul.

Straight away, my pending ire is postponed as we begin with some sinister string-based scoring to accompany the opening credits – blinking star fields in the background and titles overlaid. This, as with WWC, is all very promising and allows me to believe fleetingly that this film is going to be brilliantly sinister and creepy SF, like the 1963 Czechoslovakian effort Ikarie XB-1 say….

Sigh.

There’s some stock helicopter footage of Washington D.C and then we cut to an airstrip where we meet the text’s protagonist Cal Meacham (Rex Reason). First observation: not only does Rex Reason have a brilliantly filmstarish name, he looks a lot like Billy Zane and has one of the most overtly-obvious stage voices imaginable (think of the Phil Hartman-voiced character Troy McCLure from The Simpsons and you get a decent idea). He’s only said a few lines in this scene but already it feels like we’re in a cigarette advertisement; the testosterone is palpable and it’s all very blokeish and backslappy (and there’s two made-up words in one sentence). Cal is standing in a jumpsuit next to a military aircraft talking to a group of reporters who seem desperate to just get down to it and tie the knot with Cal: he bats off a few questions about atomic energy with thigh-slapping joviality (providing our first batch of exposition in the film by-the-way) as the journalists giggle and coo in awe at just how downright awesome Cal is. I get the distinct impression that I’m being told to like this fellow, regardless of what he actually says or does.

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“Ahhh, that sweet, sweet Marlboro flavour…”

So Cal whizzes off in his plane looking all handsome and daring and stuff, and we see some stock footage of cities and the Grand Canyon, you know, so we know we’re travelling somewhere. Feels a bit montagey already all of this, which already worries me deeply about what’s to come.

An establishing shot tells us we’re at ‘Ryberg Electronics Airfield’ (how many electronics firms have designated airfields? Is this standard industry practice?) In case we weren’t entirely smitten with Cal already, some dialogue between some guy in the control tower and Cal’s assistant Joe Wilson does its best to make sure we are now. The two swoon over Cal’s reputation as a bit of a cad; tittering and shaking their heads disbelievingly just like the journalists about two minutes ago at just how bloody great he his, before Cal does some sort of dangerous flyby of the control tower to hammer the message further into the viewer’s brain. And I’m starting to tire of this already.

Suddenly though, Cal’s plane is taken hold of by a strange force (!). A green matte effect is applied to the shot of the plane, causing it to glow. Cal struggles about in the cockpit a bit and then we see the plane gliding in to land. Phew, that was close. It’s a good job our alpha-male protagonist and hero Cal – who has just had the first five minutes of the text devoted exclusively to establishing his character – didn’t bite the dust before things got underway! Joe runs out to Cal and says that he saw a green glow around the ship and Cal replies that it saved him from crashing when his plane lost power. Now I might be a complete idiot, but whilst watching this scene first time round, I read it as the green glow thingy was making the ship behave strangely. As it turns out, the plane was in trouble before the greenness rescued it. I’m getting a foreboding feeling about all this – a bit of a mess that sequence was to be honest, and that doesn’t bode well does it as we’re barely six minutes in?

With that little life-threatening episode all apparently forgotten immediately, Cal and Joe go about their vaguely scientific business of the day. Rather comically, they dart straight into a room marked “Research Lab” (ohhh, science!) and immediately begin tinkering with experiments. And I do mean immediately. They walk through the door in their coats and just get right on with it; no preparation, no planning, no discussion – nothing. This has to be one of the most rushed and poorly monitored scientific experiments in history. I’m not a scientist, but I’m fairly sure that world leading nuclear specialists – precisely the sort that it’s been implied Cal is – don’t just go crashing into their laboratories after jumping out of a plane and start messing about willy-nilly like they’re putting the kettle on after a long day in the coal pit. I’ve genuinely made sandwiches with a greater degree of precision and diligence than this pair have shown here in their nuclear experimentation.

So they start some reactor thingy up and we see some shots of a huge sheet of lead being dropped into something inside a glass tank. After a few minutes it bursts into flame and fizzles out and we then have five minutes of pointless, massively overcomplicated exposition designed to get us to the next plot point. Although I’ve recorded this in my notes, I’ll spare you the agony by simplifying the situation: Basically, a part of the reactor has broken and, looking for a replacement piece, they discover that they have a mysterious part that can handle levels of voltage which we’re told are unheard of. Checking some paperwork, they see it has arrived from somewhere called “Unit 16” rather than their usual supplier (which I’m guessing is Unit 15?). I like the idea that a mystery is being established to be explored and unravelled, but the way this whole segment plays is really quite dull; it’s literally two men watching a little condenser thing heat up, followed by them talking about voltage, equipment suppliers and other technical minutia, which is exactly what we’ve tuned in for from a film with explosions, flying saucers and a big alien creature on the promotional poster.

5
Larry had never seen an aubergine used that way before, but he wondered where Bill was getting these funny magazines from

Breaking away from this misery for a moment, Cal takes a call from Sam – a mechanic I presume – who has an update on his plane and its mysterious mid-air malfunction that was established and then dropped a few minutes ago. Being typically jocular, Cal, under questioning, confesses that he “may have had a few” before take-off and that may have been the cause of the problems. Brilliant. I know this is the mid 50s but seeing as this is meant to be our protagonist, that’s a pretty lousy attempt at humour. Then, almost immediately, Cal kind of reverses this little joke and rows all the way back to the proverbial boathouse via a comment to Joe, making this sequence… entirely pointless.

With the narrative’s mysteries intensified further by that gripping scene (!) we jump ahead into the future via a little transition and we’re back in the lab – where we’ve sadly been for most of the film so far. Cal and Joe have now received some sort of catalogue from the mysterious “Unit 16” (I know I’m using the word ‘mysterious’ a lot here, but that’s really what the subtext is screaming at me). They leaf though it and Cal comments that its pages aren’t made from paper, rather, some kind of metal (that’s one for those who are lagging behind and haven’t already figured out that there’s something extra-terrestrial going on here). Joe and Cal – in an exchange that’s akin to opening a stale, festering time capsule – crack wise about building something to do the housework, Joe’s wife and her gaining weight; in that order. Hmmm; an awkward cough, a quick glance around and move on I think, just like when you trip on a paving slab and hope nobody has noticed. So Cal and Joe order a bunch of stuff from the catalogue and start building; and that can only mean one thing… it’s our first bone-fide montage of the film, and, unsurprisingly, it is of Joe and Cal opening boxes, looking at plans and generally being busy, with a suitably upbeat, jostling score for accompaniment.

So at nearly seventeen minutes into this eighty minute effort, with speed of diegesis that would come second in a footrace against continental drift, Cal and Joe have actually done something actual, tangible and quite possibly meaningful. Specifically, they’ve built some sort of a big box machine with a triangular panel on top of it, which we’re told is called an “Interocitor”. I bet someone was really pleased with themselves when they came up with that little ripper of a name. Remarkably, given that this thing looks appropriately futuristic and ‘alien’, the duo have done a spot-on job of assembling it: there’s not a panel misaligned or a stray wire to be seen. So maybe Cal, despite looking more suited to hanging out in linen trousers on Miami Beach sipping something with a giant umbrella sticking out of it, is one of the world’s most agile minds after all. Almost immediately (coz we need to keep things rumbling along you understand) the machine starts talking. Then, a face appears on the triangle panel – which is obviously some sort of view-screen. Introducing himself as “Exeter”, this guy looks absolutely great: he has orange skin, a disproportionally high forehead and white hair, including big comical bushy eyebrows. You know, as the next twenty or-so minutes of this film unfurl, it is, looking back on this initial encounter with Exeter, dumbfoundingly ridiculous that none of the supposedly super-intelligent scientific minds assembled by Exeter ever properly cottoned on to the fact that this guy and his cronies were not human.

1
‘Skidmark’ Steve didn’t think much to Baz’s new flatscreen T.V. Come to mention it, he thought it was utter shit

So anyway, Exeter tells Cal that he wants him to ditch Joe and his current research and join him and a crack team of scientists who are working on a secretive project. Then, the interocitor sort of explodes, causing Cal and Joe to clamour for cover. Not perturbed by any of this undeniably extraordinary five minutes with this mysterious orange-faced guest and his powerful, volatile machinery, Cal tells Joe he’s off to join Exeter! Joe, rather pragmatically, thinks this all sounds rather barmy. Whilst I’m right onside with Joe on this one, I have to say that I find Robert Nichols’ performance quite grating – not just here but throughout this entire act. He annunciates every line in a heavy, obvious way like he’s calling a football match for a television broadcast. Although not the actor’s fault entirely (his lines are very poor), his character has no depth or purpose other than to give Cal someone to talk at. He’s about as subtle as the huge sheet of lead they’ve got hanging in the adjacent room, and frankly, I’ll be glad when we’re shot of him.

Cut to the next scene. Cal and Joe are walking through some fog in medium close-up. Exposition tells us they’re waiting for a plane to come and collect Cal. The fog here (and the upward-angle, medium close-up shot) serves only two purposes. Firstly, it saves the director having to shoot a more difficult and expensive scene and secondly, it enables us to be informed yet again about how amazing Exeter’s technology is. Slim-lined, here’s what transpires: Joe says that Cal should think again about taking up Exeter’s offer (you know, coz it’s a really bad idea what with the bizarre exploding machine and orangeness and all that) and adding that the fog is way too dense for any plane to possibly land in. Unless you have just suffered a massive head injury, you don’t need me to tell you that immediately we hear the sound of plane! Cue the incredulity! Wow: this Exeter really is a mysterious and remarkable chap; I wonder who (or what) he could be?!!

So with this heavy-handed foreshadowing, we see Cal clamber on board the plane. There’s no pilot, just two empty pilots’ chairs and one passenger seat. Again, this unusualness is meant to reinforce how amazing and strange Exeter is etc etc. You know, this could be quite an interesting premise to pursue. The idea of a mysterious benefactor enticing our protagonist into the unknown could be a really solid core to construct the narrative upon, but it’s all just kind of sprinted past, like a kid darting past a shop window because there’s a weird clown mannequin in there that scares the shit out of them: there’s no lingering or stalling to create suspense or any sense of mystique or threat established. Thinking about it, the pacing is totally broken in this film so far. We’re spending way too long on the uninteresting granular elements of the story (testing those fucking fuse things for example), and skipping negligently past aspects which could be milked to forge tension or conflict. Anyway, Joe appeals to Cal once more not to go (look Joe, we know where you stand on the whole weird orange-man thing, now just piss off). Fortunately for us, Cal is keen to get this stuttering farce moving and he casts Joe a look that indeed does come very close to outright saying “Joe, just piss off mate” and jumps on board. The doors close, Exeter’s voice provides some utterly redundant exposition about the plane having autopilot or something, and we’re off!

That’s us for part one. If you can bear it, tune back in for part two very soon.

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