This Island Earth

Tagged: Film

Film (1955). Universal. Directed by Joseph Newman. Written by Franklin Coen, Edward G O'Callaghan, based on This Island Earth (stories June 1949-February 1950 Thrilling Wonder; fixup 1952) by Raymond F Jones. Cast includes Faith Domergue, Jeff Morrow and Rex Reason. 86 minutes. Colour.

This Island Earth came closer than any film of its period to capturing the flamboyant essence of Pulp-magazine sf stories. Unlike most other early-1950s sf films, which were Monster Movies, This Island Earth becomes a Space Opera halfway through; the high cost of special effects required in films of this type was one reason for their comparative rarity.

A nuclear physicist (Reason), having passed what turns out to have been an IQ test set by extraterrestrials – he builds an "interocitor" from mysterious components that have arrived in the mail – is conscripted by them, along with other Scientists. These include an old girlfriend (Domergue). Several adventures later the two are taken unwillingly by flying saucer through the "thermic barrier" to the aliens' planet, Metaluna. The Metalunans hope that the scientists' expertise in the conversion of elements will provide the massive amounts of uranium required to keep their atomic shield functioning, so that it will continue to protect them from meteorite bombardment by the sadistic Zahgons. Their arrival is too late; they witness the death of Metaluna and are returned to Earth by Exeter (Morrow), the arrogant but sympathetic alien who kidnapped them in the first place.

Newman was a run-of-the-mill director, but it is probable that Jack Arnold (uncredited) directed the Metaluna sequences with the help of Clifford Stine's extravagant special effects. The sequences are remarkable not for their realism but for their imaginativeness; they are the closest twentieth century sf cinema ever got to the style of Astounding's or Amazing's 1930s magazine covers.

This Island Earth can hardly be called a good film, but it is an excellent bad film, a classic of sf cinema. Its most obvious subtext (what would it feel like to be the colonized rather than the colonizers?) seems to point towards isolationism as the best strategy for Earth, but the exoticism of the offworld sequences, and Exeter's dying speech ("our Universe is vast, full of wonders ...") offer powerful propaganda for the contrary political position, the embrace of otherness. [PN]

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