Ah, This Island Earth. Perhaps no movie more adequately typifies the strengths and weaknesses of the 1950s genre film than this wonderful little gem from 1955, making it a perfect destination for our time traveling experiment. For a long time now, this has also been the movie that has been most closely linked to Mystery Science Theater 3000 because it was this movie that MST3K chose to lampoon for their own 1996 feature film debut. In fact, I bet most of my entire generation knows about this movie thanks to MST3K, which was a juggernaut during the mid-nineties. I know it was my first exposure to This Island Earth, and I know it was for my wife and several of my friends, as well. However, as with every movie that MST3K set in their sights, I recommend that you also watch the movie as intended, without people talking at the screen for 90 minutes. Furthermore, if you’ve only seen the MST3K version, you’ve missed 20 minutes of story, because the film was edited down for length. Don’t settle for less than the 86-minute theatrical cut of this movie because the extra minutes matter. I laughed until I hurt when I first saw Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie as a teenager. Now as a cinephile, when I watch MST3K and how they treat movies, I just hurt.
Because of the themes and relevancy to our current time, it’s tough to talk about this movie without spoiling it for anyone who hasn’t seen it, but I’ll try. Our protagonist in this movie is Cal Meacham (Rex Reason, The Creature Walks Among Us), a scientist and jet pilot who has a close call with disaster while testing an aircraft. He loses control and almost crashes when a mysterious green light takes control of the plane and lands him safely. Later, back in the control center, he receives an anonymous package that contains materials and instructions on how to build a device called an interocitor. This device puts him in communication with a funny looking dude named Exeter (Jeff Morrow, also from The Creature Walks Among Us), who enlists Cal to join his research group that wants to end all war through science. Upon arriving at Exeter’s facility, he meets a couple of other scientists, Dr. Ruth Adams (Faith Domergue, It Came from Beneath the Sea) and Dr. Steve Carlson (Russell Johnson, It Came from Outer Space and most notably The Professor on Gilligan’s Island). Together these three scientists decide that there’s something seriously fishy about Exeter and his colleagues, and they begin to investigate. What they find concerns the whole of humanity! *cue theremin music*
The acting is full of fifties bravado, but it’s fun. Rex Reason (we need more movie stars named Rex) is your typical fifties action hero, brave and quick to action, but also intelligent and not without reason or humanity. Faith Domergue gets to display an intelligence and confidence that was slowly becoming a feature of many fifties films, and she gets to do a lot besides run and scream, though things do ultimately end in a lot of running…and screaming. Jeff Morrow might be the real stand-out as the mysterious Exeter. He gets to play a character that is commanding yet kind, mysterious and potentially dangerous. All this is directed by Joseph M. Newman, a filmmaker with a workmanlike style who nevertheless brought some really good movies to the screen. He was behind a string of really good fifties westerns that starred guys like Tyrone Power and Joel McCrea. You can’t go wrong.
Where This Island Earth really wins me over is through its themes. We have a race of beings from the planet Metaluna who are being driven away from their home planet because of war. And not civil war, either, but hostile war from outsiders attempting to annihilate them. The Metalunans want to come to Earth so that they can survive and live peacefully among its citizens. In return, they have technology and culture and scientific knowledge that they’re willing to share. Whether they will succeed is actually what this movie is about, and why it needs to be seen free from satirical commentary. When you replace the word “Metalunans” with the word “refugees,” you begin to see that the story is as relevant today as it was in 1955. Strip away the fun stuff like rubber monsters, flying saucers, and intergalactic space shenanigans, and you’re left with a story about a group of people seeking survival in a hostile environment. The Metalunans are, in their own way, the last of the Mohicans. Like good science fiction is supposed to do, This Island Earth is really about us and how we treat the unknown, and maybe the unwanted. It manages to do all this without being preachy because the movie doesn’t choose a side. Anyway, I don’t think it’s as interested in presenting sides as it is showing us the situation and letting us relate to it in our own way. It challenges us to think about some heavier, real-world issues, and it throws in some monsters and spaceships just for fun.