Film: This Island Earth

He's not an alien!

This Island Earth is a science fiction novel by Raymond F. Jones first published in 1952. It involves a group of aliens using Earth as a pawn in an intergalactic war by recruiting Earthlings into a group known as the “Peace Engineers”. The better known 1955 film adaptation was one of the first sci-fi films to be made in glorious Technicolor and was critically acclaimed for its special effects and storytelling.

Dr. Cal Meacham, nuclear physicist, dashing pilot, and media darling, is flying to his lab in his personal jet when a sudden engine failure sends him hurtling towards the ground, only for him to be saved at the last minute when a green glow surrounds the vessel and helps it land safely. The weirdness continues at his lab, when Meacham and his assistant Joe ponder over a strange electrical capacitor they received that is obviously more advanced than any human technology. Placing another order from the mysterious company that sent it results in a huge shipment of arcane doodads and a complex set of instructions. With the help of a montage, the two successfully assemble an "interocitor," and receive a transmission from an orange-skinned, white-haired, dimple-foreheaded, definitely-not-an-alien named Exeter. He congratulates Meacham — apparently the interocitor is a test he and his colleagues use to recruit scientists for a special project — and invites Meacham to join him.

After a brief ride on a windowless, unmanned plane, Meacham joins Exeter and a host of other scientists at a stately mansion, where Meacham is reunited with Dr. Ruth Adams, who doesn't seem to remember the romantic time the two spent together despite Meacham's insistence (a brief line of dialog a minute or so later hints that she was actually testing him to see if he's on the level, but it's hard to catch; a later scene confirms this). Eventually Ruth and Meacham, along with colleague Steve Carlson, grow suspicious about the weird white-haired fellows running the place, and of the fact that all the scientists there are specialists in extracting nuclear power, but not utilizing it. The three of them make a break for it, only for their hosts to blow up the mansion, abduct Meacham and Ruth in a flying saucer, and kill Steve, making him a bit character probably not worth mentioning in a summary of the movie.

The Earthlings' suspicions confirmed, Exeter calls for a truce as they are en route to his homeworld of Metaluna. He explains that their planet is under siege from hostile aliens and uses an energy field to remain safe, but said shield requires gigantic quantities of nuclear power to operate, thus prompting their interest in Earth. Once on Metaluna, Exeter brings Meacham and Ruth before the Monitor who runs Metalunan society, who ignores Exeter's protests and sentences the Earthlings to the Thought Transference Chamber to make them more willing partners. But Exeter rebels and helps the Earthlings escape, though he is grievously injured by a rogue Mutant worker creature. The three of them hijack a saucer to return to Earth, only to be confronted by the same Mutant, who menaces Ruth for a bit before keeling over. Once back on Earth, a dying Exeter literally drops Meacham and Ruth off before sending his flaming saucer into the ocean.

This Island Earth returned to the big screen 41 years later when it was riffed by the Satellite of Love crew in Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie. It was also one of the inspirations for The Coneheads on Saturday Night Live as Dan Aykroyd and writer Tom Davis were fans of the movie and tickled by how nobody seemed to notice the enormous heads of Exeter and the other aliens. "Weird Al" Yankovic paid homage as well with the Interocitor appearing in his "Dare To Be Stupid" video and mention of the device in his film UHF.

This Island Earth provides examples of:

  • Anti-Villain: Exeter, at the worst, is this. He later performs a full Heel-Face Turn.
    Exeter: What happened back there [the death of all the scientists] was beyond my control.
    Meecham: What happened was mass murder!
    Exeter: We're not all masters of our souls, Meecham.
    Meecham: That's a nice phrase, coming from you.
    Exeter: I learned it on Earth.
  • Artistic License – Physics: Lots of it. Some examples:
    • The laboratory cat is called Neutron "because he's so positive". These people are meant to be nuclear physicists and yet they can't tell the difference between a neutron, which has no electric charge, and a positively-charged proton.
    • The Earth is surrounded by a "heat barrier" which causes the saucer's hull to glow red-hot, flame and smoke. Note this is well after they have left Earth's atmosphere, and only occurs when leaving Earth.
      • A similar effect occurs before Exeter crashes into the sea, but again, this is well after re-entry since Cal and Ruth have already disembarked.
    • Magnetic clamps hold flesh and blood fast.
    • The Zahgon planet used to be a comet.
    • The planet Metaluna is transformed into a sun by meteorite bombardment. Exeter claims that this new sun may warm other worlds some day, though it's not clear where he expects them to come from in defiance of the laws of orbital mechanics.
      • As mentioned below, a radioactive sun.
    • Conversion is a process necessary to allow a human or alien to transition from Earth to Metaluna air pressure and back. Yet converted and unconverted crew are exposed to the same ship air pressure without ill effect. The mutant does not fare so well.
    • Cal's research is into how to turn lead into uranium.
    • Cal is introduced as an electronics expert, but by the time he joins Exeter's team he's a nuclear physicist, and finds it odd that Exeter isn't recruiting electronics experts.
  • Attack Its Weak Point: The big-brained Mutants are unsurprisingly vulnerable to blunt trauma to the head.
  • Awesome McCoolname: Rex Reason. And that's his actual birth name, too.
  • Cataclysm Climax: Exeter and the humans escape Metaluna just in time to watch it go ker-blooey.
  • Chewing the Scenery: Exeter's unnecessarily-dramatic commands to the Mutant. Possibly justified as this particular Mu-tant was malfunctioning.
    Exeter: Stand back! I command you, STAND BACK!
  • Colony Drop: Metaluna's enemies direct a fierce bombardment of meteorites at it, eventually turning it into a "radioactive sun"...somehow.
  • Cool Chair: Averted and played straight. The captain has a cool chair that bears some resemblance to a tricked-out chrome toilet, but in other ways Metalunan furniture technology is light-years behind Earth's. The "chairs" Cal and Ruth use are basically upright slabs with arm rests and a small ledge for the butt.
    • The lead actress revealed that their jumpsuits were so impossibly restricting that the chairs were the only way they could comfortably sit for extended periods.
  • Computer Equals Tapedrive: Completely justified. This was made in the 50's, remember.
  • Crapsack World: Thanks to the constant bombardment of Metaluna.note 
  • Does This Remind You of Anything?: During Cal's near-crash sequence, the camera shows a close view of the doctor frantically pulling on his joystick.
  • Dragon-in-Chief: Brack, due to Exeter's Anti-Villain status.
  • Forehead of Doom
  • Green Rocks: Interocitors can be used as communication devices, viewscreens, autopilots, road-layers, and of course, death rays.
  • Hard Work Montage: When assembling the interocitor.
  • Hemisphere Bias: North America is quite prominent as the interstellar travelers return home.
  • Heroic Sacrifice: Steve Carlson bought Cal and Ruth time by making the aliens think they blew up the car killing all three.
    • It's possible that was his intention, but it's also likely the aliens waited for Cal and Ruth to leave the car before killing the expendable Carlson. Cal and Ruth were then allowed to reach the aircraft, in which they were easily abducted.
  • Hollywood Darkness: Our heroes attempt to sneak away from the aliens "under cover of afternoon."
  • Homage: This Island Earth has popped up in the background of works from E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial to Watchmen, while the interocitor makes cameos in works as diverse as UHF and Ciaphas Cain. Joe Dante loved the film, so it appears in Explorers, too. The Mutant also appears in Looney Tunes: Back in Action and in the opening credits for Ernest Scared Stupid.
  • Hugh Mann: During dinner, Exeter refers to Mozart as "your composer".
  • Hyper Competent Sidekick: Joe Wilson is a highly competent assistant. Yes, he's already ordered replacement condensers, AND tested one of the weird beads that came in their place AND set up another bead ready for Cal to test himself.
  • It Is Pronounced Tro-PAY: The big-brained bug people the Metalunans benevolently use as laborers aren't mutants, they're Mutants ("myu-TAHNT"). It's funny, in a way, because they have bug heads like ants and don't talk. Mute-Ants.
  • It Runs on Nonsensoleum: Pretty much that Exeter says when he attempts to explain anything sciencey. Particularly the Mutant "Similar to your Earth insects, but larger of course," ignoring all the other clear differences. He also says that the clamps are magnetized and hold flesh and blood fast.
  • Jerkass: Cal Meacham comes off as a bit of a smug jerk. He jokingly tells the reporters he "hopes you taxpayers don't mind" paying for his plane, says his lab assistant's wife would gain twenty pounds if she had access to the tools in the alien catalog, and keeps reminding Love Interest Ruth about how much of a sissy she is.
  • Mind Control: The Thought Transformer is planned to be used when the Metalunans relocate to Earth.
  • Monster Misogyny: The Mutant's last appearance has it lumbering after Ruth while Cal and Exeter watch helplessly from The Tubes.
  • Mundane Made Awesome: The dramatic score accompanying the alien viewscreen returning to normal view.
    • Accompanying vocals in lovely tune courtesy of the MST3K crew:
  • My Brain Is Big: The oddly-skulled Metalunans probably qualify, as do the Mutants, whose heads are at least 50% exposed brains.
  • Non-Action Guy: Cal Meacham's most dramatic action is socking Exeter as they try to escape Metaluna. For the rest of the movie he's either being led around by aliens or trying to flee them.
    • He also bonks an alien mutant on the head with a fire extinguisher, thus saving Exeter.
  • Planet Looters: Initially, the Metalunans want our uranium so they can maintain the forcefield protecting their planet. But when their enemies attack before this is completed, they decide to relocate to Earth.
  • Rubber-Forehead Aliens: Really obvious ones.
  • Same Language Dub: during the approach to Metaluna, a deep voice reports as if over a powerful speaker system. It is disconcerting to realise that the voice is apparently coming from the pilot who's sat right behind the lead characters, and who's lip movements do not remotely sync with the announcements.
  • Selective Magnetism: The grips used by those handles for The Tubes are magnetized to keep occupants still...
  • Small Universe After All: The book has the friendly aliens agreeing to pull their forces out of "this galaxy."
  • Space Is an Ocean: At least when it comes to picking a title.
  • Video Phone: The interocitor.