Saturday, June 07, 2014

“What exactly is an interocitor?”

1955's This Island Earth is famous/infamous for being the subject of MST3K: The Movie. Which is fair. It is a dated 50's Sci-Fi movie, after all. It was also a hit in its day, and one of the better regarded Sci-Fi movies from that era. Let's pretend that I haven't seen MST3K: The Movie umpteen times and look at this for its own merits.

American scientist assembles a mysterious piece of technology. A mysterious man Skype calls him through said device and recruits him into a mysterious science think tank project, he is transported by a mysterious automated plane to mysterious Georgia, where everyone acts mysteriously. Surprise! His benefactor is an alien scientist who's outsourcing nuclear research in the hope of saving his planet from destruction. Then they go to space.

Dr. Cal Meacham: The awesomely named Rex Reason is our manly-voiced, square-jawed 50's Science Hero. Handsome, a leading physiscist in the field of atomic energy, and able to own and operate a Lockheed T-33 Shooting Star/F-94 Starfire (not sure if its the trainer or fighter) for his own private use. Aside from building the interocitor and piecing together that its no ordinary think tank that he joins, he doesn't really DO much besides bear witness to strange events and then get all grumpy and uncooperative on Metaluna. Maybe its because he got third billing?

Dr. Ruth Adams: Faith Domergue is the pretty young physicist who is second best at atomic research (behind Meacham). She and Cal have some history together and their romance rekindles as they get drawn into the web of mystery. Unfortunately, once they get to space, she turns into a standard 50's leading lady, where most of what she does is scream, fearfully grab onto Cal for support, and get chased around by alien monsters. Such were the times.

Exeter: Jeff Morrow plays the actual hero of the movie because he actually does proactive things. Exeter is a brilliant scientist from the planet Metaluna (a world of big foreheads and white hair). In charge of researching ways to create atomic energy, he sends instructions and parts for an interocitor to prospective scientists as a test. If they can assemble it, he calls them up and recruits them. He does this because Metaluna is under attack by a hostile alien race called the Zagons (we never see any actual Zagons) who are bombarding Metaluna's planetary shields. Exeter is benevolent, charming, and a solid guy. Only problem is the rest of the Metalunans (including his assistant Brack and his boss the Monitor) aren't, and are happy to use mind control to ensure cooperation. He's a man torn beteween his duty to his planet, and his fondness for humans, and is by far the most interesting character.

The Metaluna MuTant: God I love this guy. A giant bug monster, the product of selective breeding and genetic engineering by Metalunans to create a servitor creature out of insects. “He” only shows up near the end of the movie as an obstacle to our heroes as they flee Metaluna. He's blue, he's red, he's got crab claws, and he's got a big ol' noggin. It's a fantastic design, hampered only by limitations of the costume, such as giving him baggy pants, and that giant head probably didn't do the actor's center of gravity any favors.

And according to Wikipedia, that bastion of accurate information, there's Coleman Francis in a small role in the film. Francis is infamous for directing a trilogy of incompetent films that include The Beast of Yucca Flats, but that's a tale for another time.

Directed by Joseph M. Newman and Jack Arnold (for reshoots). The first thing that pops out is the Technicolor. It's vibrant and beautiful. The second thing that pops out is the special effects. Those are, generally speaking, less beautiful. Rear projection stuff, flying saucer models, the rubber forehead Metalunans, the MuTant, that sort of thing. It all works, but its also got “1950's Special Effects with a modest budget” written all over it. It all never *quite* looks as good as the visual design wants it to look. The technology, Metaluna's alien landscape, all of these are pretty great, actually. Still, the effects are serviceable, and to laugh them off outright is blaming the past for being the past. For 2014, the effects are hokey. For 1955, they're one of the better examples.

Screenplay by Franklin Coen and Edward G. O'Callaghan, and based on “The Alien Machine” by Raymond F. Jones. The dialogue can be frequently hokey, but its serviceable. The first part of the movie feels more like a thriller with the constant air of mystery that is only spoiled by the knowledge that this is a sci-fi movie, and by Exeter and company's giant inhuman foreheads.

What's more interesting (from a Sci-Fi standpoint) are the ideas. The interocitor is a goofy piece of technology, but nowadays we can literally make video calls over a computer and webcam anywhere in the world (and into orbit). We all have interocitors. It is an everyday thing now. We. All. Have. Interocitors. They just can't shoot deadly beams of energy yet, but its my understanding that Google is working on that problem. There's other neat stuff too, like how Metaluna uses atomic energy to power its planetary shield, and so on. Some really out there concepts. Questionable scientifically, but leading to fun ideas in a visual medium. Also, then ending's a downer.

The Sounds
Music by uncredited Henry Mancini, Hans J. Salter, and Herman Stein. That is a solid pedigree of Sci-Fi music, and it shows. Well, not “shows,” you can't see the soundtrack, but you know what I mean. Its not JUST Theremin. Bombastic orchestral tracks accompany the Theremin, though its hard not to go NORMAL VIEW! NORMAL VIEW! NORMAL VIEEEEEWWWWWWWWW!! at the right moment.

The Verdict

This Island Earth is not an outright bad movie, which is a shame, since MST3K gives it that rap. Within the context of its time, it is considerably better than many of its contemporaries. It moves at a sharp clip, is competently shot, has a good visual style, and its not just people in lab coats sitting around a set and talking for 40 minutes.

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