A Look Back in Context: The Fantastic Amazement of ‘This Island Earth’

Here’s a revisit to a cover article I wrote for Famous Monsters #277, which can only be found in print. If you like it, support the fine folks at FM and buy a back-issue copy!

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For the Baby Boomer generation, THIS ISLAND EARTH is their equivalent of STAR WARS, while most Generation Xers and Millennials laugh it off as an adorable relic from the ’50s. Who’s right?

By David Weiner

It’s easy to dismiss THIS ISLAND EARTH as pure camp — there’s pretty much no turning back after MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000 skewers you to death. But one generation’s punchline may well be another generation’s STAR WARS, and the influential ’50s Sci-Fi classic straddles both of those categories. As THIS ISLAND EARTH enters the orbit of its 60th anniversary, Famous Monsters takes a loving look at the atomic-pulp stylings of the Technicolor triumph that pushed the envelope of visual effects for its time, delivered more than its share of unintentional laughs, and launched a hundred thousand Metaluna Mutant masks! 277-Metaluna__42039.1481337157

“Trapped amid the mysteries of outer space… challenging the unearthly furies of a planet gone mad!” screamed the tagline on the film’s colorful poster, which made a point to emphasize the spectacle of it all: “2 1/2 years in the making! … to bring you sights of fantastic amazement never before possible on the motion picture screen!” THIS ISLAND EARTH landed in theaters on the first day of June in 1955, much to the delight of young moviegoers looking for colorful gee-whiz technology, outer-space action, flying saucers, and horrifying monsters. But its middling reception in terms of critical acclaim and box-office return pretty much dashed the lofty ambitions of Universal and the film’s producers, who were looking to hit it out of the park. 

From a pop-culture standpoint, THIS ISLAND EARTH inhabits the top ranks of the Sci-Fi cinema food chain, primarily for introducing the world to one of the most iconic monsters of the’50s. The horrific, exposed-brain Metaluna Mutant with killer pinchers — and comfy slacks — is indelibly memorable to film fans and appreciators of kitsch from a bygone era. It has been plastered on every item imaginable from posters, t-shirts, and lunchboxes to electric guitars, gallery canvases, and devoted fans’ body art. Kind of like that ever-present Tor Johnson mask, the infamous Metaluna Mutant Don Post mask surfaces every Halloween (for years, FM would regularly advertise it alongside The Creature from the Black Lagoon, Dracula, Frankenstein, and other classic monsters). More people these days recognize the Mutant as a prototypical monster from the ’50s than as an insectoid alien ambassador from the planet Metaluna.

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Ironically, the monster that THIS ISLAND EARTH is arguably now most famous for was almost cut out of the movie. Back in the early ’50s, Universal was looking to capitalize on the Sci-Fi movie craze, which saw great success in such movies as THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL (1951) and INVADERS FROM MARS (1953) at 20th Century Fox, WHEN WORLDS COLLIDE (1951) and WAR OF THE WORLDS (1953) at Paramount, and THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD (1951) at RKO. Sci-Fi was big business, and so was the advent of color; many films in the ’50s were still produced in less-expensive black and white. Universal, now partnered with International Pictures, wanted to cash in while also delivering an important motion picture — their first genre feature in color — that would allow the B-movie studio to be taken more seriously.

Adapted from a serial in the pulp magazine Thrilling Wonder Stories by Raymond F. Jones — a writer represented by none other than our own Forrest J. Ackerman — the story of THIS ISLAND EARTH follows celebrated scientist/pilot/playboy Cal Meacham (played by Rex Reason — what a name!), who receives strange machinery at his laboratory along with a set of detailed instructions from an unknown source. He assembles what turns out to be an “Interocitor,” putting him in direct communication with the mysterious-yet-charming Exeter (acted with aplomb by Jeff Morrow), who invites Cal to take part in a special research project with his old flame Dr. Ruth Adams (a sultry, no-nonsense Faith Adams). The skeptical scientists soon realize that the shock-white haired, conspicuously large-foreheaded Exeter and his comrades are actually aliens (ya think?!) from the planet Metaluna, looking for help from the Earth’s brightest to put an end to their long war with the dreaded Zahgons — and to provide more uranium to fuel their atomic-powered planetary defense shield, which endures constant bombardment from the enemy. After trying to escape, Cal and Ruth experience a first-class trip to the shell-shocked Metaluna aboard Exeter’s streamlined, Zephyr-like flying saucer, and are dropped right into the middle of the chaos on the distant planet. Russell Johnson, who later found broader fame playing the Professor on GILLIGAN’S ISLAND, is also among the supporting players.

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Packed with memorable, second-tier performers as square-suited protagonists, nifty ’50s lingo (words and phrases like “push-button age,” “booby hatch,” “sissy,” and “the whole thing smells to high heaven” pervade the dialogue), swirled Atom symbols plastered all over the place, and effects and sets clearly inspired by FLASH GORDON, THIS ISLAND EARTH is very much a product of its time — and thoroughly enjoyable for that very reason.

The project was brought to Universal by Joseph M. Newman, a producer and director known for westerns and noir, who optioned the tale. Already late to the Sci-Fi party, the studio rushed the film into production. The project’s deal came together on December 2, 1953, and shooting began less than two months later during the last week of January, forcing the prop, costume, and production design departments to scramble. Coupled with a changing script (in-house producer William Alland was not satisfied with Edward G. O’Callaghan’s final draft and brought in new writer Franklin Coen to punch up character development), the pre-production of THIS ISLAND EARTH was decidedly hectic. Alland also wanted to drop the Metaluna Mutant, which had been added to the action to create more jeopardy for the characters. Calling the creature “ridiculous” and feeling it to be incongruous to the storyline, he really fought to have it removed, but the studio insisted that the film must have a “monster” in it. Ultimately, with little time to spare, an unused concept from Alland’s previously produced hit IT CAME FROM OUTER SPACE became the inspiration for the fan-favorite creature.

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With a barrage of bright set lights on the soundstage to aid the Technicolor process doubled with a heat wave hitting Hollywood as they filmed, actor Regis Parton was sweating buckets under that unwieldy rubber mask — so much so that between takes, the crew would remove the monster’s eye lenses so the sweat could literally be poured out. In the final film, keen observers can see pooled sweat rolling back and forth on the eye “pane” when the Mutant falls to the floor. Top-heavy and difficult to see out of, the costume was such a monstrosity in its own right that Parton declared that the only comfortable part were those silly slacks. Still, Universal’s publicity department played up the idea that the costume was cutting-edge and cost more than $20,000 to make, distinguishing the Metaluna Mutant as the most expensive movie monster to date.

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The special-effects wizards at Universal — including former KING KONG effects man/miniatures expert Clifford Stine, who replaced Stanley Horsley midway through production — really had an opportunity to shine with their work on the film. With the THIS ISLAND EARTH storyline saving the majority of the spectacle for the last half hour of the film, craftsmen employed blue-screen effects, plates, and matte paintings for various shots. For other incredible moments, including a wide shot of Metaluna close-up, they constructed a massive miniature of the planet surface, close to 200 feet wide, that showcased the landing of Exeter’s flying saucer (an 18-pound aluminum model requiring calculated wirework), raining meteorites (sliding down on piano wire), and a blitz of explosions, with the effects department setting off live pyrotechnics to sell the realism.

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While THIS ISLAND EARTH was a major hit with the kids, who lapped up the special-effects spectacle and relished in the monster thrills, the critics were not so kind to the picture. The New York Times called the special effects of the film “so superlatively bizarre and beautiful that some serious shortcomings can be excused, if not overlooked,” and the “panoramic vista of the doomed planet Metaluna should leave anyone bug-eyed.” But the Times critic also admonished, “It sorely needs a pair of shears, a less conventional musical score, and a director of considerably more drive and less awe toward his subject than Joseph Newman.” Variety, on the other hand, lauded the film, writing, “One of the most thrilling sequences occurs as huge meteors attack the space ship as it is working its way to Metaluna. Ingeniously-constructed props and equipment, together with strange sound effects, also are responsible for furthering interest, which is of the edge-of-the-seat variety during the latter half of the film. For an added fillip there’s a Mutant, half-human, half-insect, which boards the ship as it escapes from Metaluna.”

Ultimately, Universal’s investment in the Technicolor blockbuster yielded such mixed results that the studio retreated back to producing low-budget, black-and-white B-movie fare over the next couple of years, including TARANTULA, THE MOLE PEOPLE, THE CREATURE WALKS AMONG US, THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN, and THE DEADLY MANTIS.

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Four decades later, whatever adoration and accolades THIS ISLAND EARTH may have achieved in its day were dashed in one fell swoop when MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000 chose to shred apart the film for its bigscreen theatrical premiere in 1996. For the uninitiated, the long-running late ’80s/’90s series created by Joel Hodgson (which ran on Comedy Central, then later on The Sci-Fi Channel, now SyFy), features hilariously witty and acerbic funnymen riffing on B-movies, taking pot-shots and making quips as seated silhouettes at the bottom of the screen while the film unspools. Like the show’s premise, MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000: THE MOVIE is framed by a plot device that has comedian Mike Nelson trapped on a space station by an evil scientist, forced to watch bad movies as part of a psychological experiment alongside his robot/puppet companions Crow T. Robot, Tom Servo, and Gypsy. Cheesy dialogue, painful special effects and ridiculous plot points are targeted, and they have a field day with the myriad dated elements of THIS ISLAND EARTH, which turns the Technicolor triumph into a flat-out turkey.

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But the virtues of THIS ISLAND EARTH cannot be ignored. An anti-war, pro-science, and pro-technology motion picture, it was the first Sci-Fi movie to depict interstellar travel and interplanetary war. It featured a sympathetic, humanized alien character caught between his own dying world and the ethical dilemma of exploiting the inhabitants of a new world — a conceit that was wholly unique in its day. Emblazoned with a poetic title, the plot eschewed the typical alien invaders concept for a first-person trip to the extra-terrestrial’s home planet itself. It was a cautionary Cold War allegory in a time when our paranoid populace believed the enemy could drop an atomic bomb on our heads at any minute.

One of the finest-looking films of the ’50s from a technical standpoint, THIS ISLAND EARTH was a major influence on many future filmmakers, with famous genre fans including Joe Dante, John Carpenter, Tim Burton, and George Lucas — who was reportedly so impressed with the explosions in the picture that, in 1976, he obtained the film’s original special effects dailies from the Universal vaults in order to show them to SFX maestro John Dykstra as an example for his own in-development Sci-Fi movie — a then-unknown flick, originally titled THE STAR WARS.

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You made it to the end of the piece! You are a true Sci-Fi film fan. Now, please take a moment to “like” IT CAME FROM… on Facebook and “follow” on Instagram and on Twitter and/or Tumblr for more great retro content.

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