Oh, those poor aliens!
Ever since the 1950s, intergalactic diplomats, soldiers, and explorers have come to Earth looking for help. Some of them have come from planets that orbit dying stars. Some represent civilizations that have been destroyed by war or pollution. Some of them have come here looking to inspire us to be more peaceful and less destructive. Others were just looking for something to eat.
What they all have in common is that they all came to Earth and things really didn’t work out that well. Occasionally, they ran into humans who, due to cynicism and skepticism, simply weren’t willing to help. Often, the aliens arrived just to discover that the humans had no interest in being conquered. Remember what Eros yelled at the Plan 9 From Outer Space? “Your stupid, stupid minds!” Oh yeah? Well, our menfolk kicked your ass and blew up your flying saucer. So there.
Consider the sad case of Exeter (Jeff Morrow), the alien at the center of 1955’s This Island Earth. Exeter has come to Earth with his associates and disguised himself as a human. Despite the fact that they all have remarkably high foreheads and a total inability to relate to actual humans, no one seems to suspect that Exeter and his friends are from outer space. Even when he starts recruiting leading scientists to come hang out at his isolated headquarters, it doesn’t seem to occur to anyone that they should be too concerned. Exeter’s just a little bit weird. Why worry?
Well, Dr. Carl Meacham (Rex Reason) is worried! He’s a pilot and a scientist and he’s got a square jaw and one of those deep, 1950s American male voices. Everything that Dr. Meacham says sounds authoritative. When you hear that confident, take-no-prisoners voice, you have no doubt that Eisenhower’s in the White House and everything’s going to be alright. Carl doesn’t trust Exeter and he suspicions are proven correct when he and Dr. Ruth Adams (Faith Domergue) are taken to Exeter’s war-ravaged planet. Not only is the planet on the verge of blowing up but the whole place is crawling with mutants!
Unfortunately, it takes a while for Carl, Ruth, and Exeter to reach the planet. This Island Earth is an oddly structured film. The first third of the film deals with Carl and his squirmy associate, Joe (Robert Nichols), building something called an interocitor. Once Carl has shown that he can follow the alien instruction booklet, Carl is allowed to meet Exeter. (For some reason Joe is left behind.) Once Carl arrives at Exeter HQ, it’s another lengthy wait before he, Ruth, and Exeter are launched into space.
Still, on the plus side, one of the scientists gets to drive this really cool car:
(Unfortunately, the car doesn’t make it to the end of the movie.)
The movie gets a lot better once the action moves to Exeter’s home planet. The planet was a gloriously realized world, a pop art masterpiece:
And then there were the mutants! Look at this thing:
Anyway, despite the slow start, This Island Earth is a classic of 1950s science fiction, one that manages to maintain a perfect balance between the sublime and the ludicrous. Rex Reason and Faith Domergue are inoffensively bland as Carl and Ruth but Jeff Morrow brings a weary and even tragic dignity to the role of Exeter. If nothing else, it lives up to its title by suggesting that Earth actually is just one insignificant island in the vast ocean of the universe and that both humans and aliens are mere slaves to fate. For all of his deep-voiced authority, Carl really doesn’t accomplish much over the course of the film. By that same token, for all of his efforts and his integrity, there’s little that Exeter can do to alter the destiny of his planet. At times, This Island Earth is almost existential in its portrayal of both human and extraterrestrial inability to alter the whims of fate. Of course, it’s also a frequently silly film that will be a lot of fun for anyone who appreciates a good B-movie.
On Saturday night, I watched This Island Earth with my friends in the Late Night Movie Gang. After last week’s experience with Disco Beaver From Outer Space, I decided to play it safe this week. We had a lot of fun with This Island Earth. In case you want to learn how to make an interocitor of your very own, the film is available on YouTube.