The late Bill Warren (who I interviewed for my film) called This Island Earth “the best and most significant science fiction movie of 1955.” I will defer to his judgment on that, but I will say that it’s probably the best movie ever to be spoofed by MST3K. Here, you can see it in all its glory:
But why review this movie? It’s not a Contactee film at all.
The last time I saw TIE, I took it for what it was probably intended to be: an entertaining sci-fi film capitalizing on the popularity of flying saucers. Since working on my own film, I’ve noticed a few Contactee-eque elements in TIE that make me suspect the filmmakers had at least a passing familiarity with the stories of Adamski et al. Or I would think that, were it not for one inconvenient fact: The story predates the Contactees.
Though the movie came out in 1955, well into the Contactee craze, it was based on a novel by Raymond F. Jones that was originally published in serial form in the late 1940s, only a couple years after the modern era of flying saucers began. There are many differences between the novel and the finished film, so is this an example of life (being the Contactees) imitating art, or were the filmmakers perhaps influenced to adjust things from the source material to make it a little more similar to Contactee tales?
In the film, Dr. Cal Meachum (Rex Reason) is a renowned scientist with a square jaw and clearly overdubbed superhero voice. He’s also an experienced pilot who casually flies jets like going for a Sunday stroll. On one of his flights, when his instrumentation goes out, his jet is in the process of crashing, only to be saved by a mysterious green glow which gently sets his plane on the ground.
Dr. Meachum is then given mysterious instructions for creating an “interociter”, which proves to be a fantastically powerful and rather nonspecific machine. Is it a communications device or weapon or tractor beam or spy machine? Or all of the above? With the interociter, he makes contact with Exeter (Jeff Morrow), a friendly-faced and giant-foreheaded fellow who invites him to a scientific retreat called “The Club”. Once there, Meachum finds himself surrounded by the best and brightest scientists of earth, and grows suspicious of Exeter’s motives.
It turns out that — SPOILER — Exeter and his fellows are actually aliens from the planet Metaluna, involved in an interestellar war with the Zahgons. Their planet is on the brink of destruction, and they need our nuclear technology to save themselves. Exeter takes Meachum and another scientist named Ruth Adams (Faith Domergue) to Metaluna, where he encounters a Mutant (pronounced “mute ant”), an insect-like being (“larger of course, with a higher degree of intelligence”) that acts as a security guard. Meachum discovers that the Metalunans intend to invade and take over the Earth, and it is only the intercession of Exeter and the timely explosion of the entire planet that stops them. Meachum and Adams are returned to Earth, and Exeter dies a noble death as his flying saucer runs out of gas, becoming a fireball somewhere over the Pacific.
While the Metalunans are far from the peace-loving Space Brothers (they do, after all, intend to conquer the Earth), the Space Brother “feeling” is personified in Exeter, who defies orders from his superiors in order to save two human beings. His actions earlier in the film showed him to be a rather ineffective middle manager, but near the end, he is redeemed when he says “Our universe is vast–full of wonders. I shall explore, perhaps find another Metaluna, a place inhabited by beings not unlike myself.”
There are a number of further correlations with Contactee lore. Dr. Meachum wasn’t just some random Joe who got abducted; he was sought out by the aliens and given special access. “I don’t remember applying for a job,” Meachum says to Exeter. “You didn’t,” says Exeter, suggesting they’ve been watching him for some time. “We’d like you to join our…team, you might say, at once.” Being “chosen” is a core element of Contactee lore; the people chosen by the Space Brothers are chosen because, they’re told, they will be able to carry out a mission effectively. (One could argue that the Space Brothers really need better sampling practices).
When they come to pick up Dr. Meachum, they do so by sending a self-flying airplane. He is the only occupant, and it takes him to their secret hideout in the middle of nowhere. This sequence echoes a scene described by Orfeo Angelucci, in which an egg-shaped craft descended in an empty field and shuttled him up to the mothership in orbit.
Once chosen, the Space Brothers give their contacts a mission; usually this means to spread the word of the Space Brothers, but in some cases, it means to build machines that will change our world. Much like how the Metalunans gave Dr. Meachum instructions for building the interociter, which would potentially advance human technology immensely. This is not unlike George Van Tassel constructing the Integratron at the bidding of the Space Brothers, and has the added bonus of having a similarly cool sounding name.
Dr. Meachum was taken aboard the Metalunan craft and given a brief tour, much like in many a Contactee tale. The detail I found interesting is that Meachum and Adams had to enter “conversion tubes” that adjusted their physiology to withstand the Metalunan atmosphere. In his book From Outer Space to You, Howard Menger describes an incident in which he was first invited into a flying saucer. His guide fired a beam at him, which caused him to feel a warm tingling sensation over his entire body.
When Howard asked what this was for, the man said:
“We projected the beam on you to condition and process your body quickly so you could enter the craft. What actually happened was that the beam changed your body frequency to equal that of the craft. Thus you felt entirely comfortable inside the craft and suffered no ill effects.”
Then This Island Earth puts a new twist on the typical Contactee tale: it is the aliens who need help from the Earth, rather than the other way around. Their planet is dying, not ours. They are the ones who need nuclear energy to save their world. The fact that nuclear energy enters into the equation and it is not something to be feared, but rather a savior technology is unique in many ways. And how would it be a savior technology? By creating an impenetrable shield that the cold, calculating Zahgons cannot pierce. Could Metaluna be a symbolic version of peace-loving America, beset upon by monstrous Soviets, forced to use nuclear energy to save the planet?
Also worth mentioning is the Mutant: a lumbering insect-like being with an exposed cerebrum and giant, staring eyes. It appears to be a brainless automaton slaved to the will of the humanoid Metalunans. While its presence in the film is jarring, there is a cultural significance to it. Most Contactees described only human-looking extraterrestrials; but later Experiencer tales feature alien crews composed of both the human-like and the more “alien” aliens, such as Grays, Reptilians, or Insectoids. The Mutant is a nice blend of all three: the eyes and roboticism of the Grays, the bulk and power of the Reptilians, and the physical appearance of the Insectoids.
Whether the makers of This Island Earth had any familiarity with Contactee tales is unclear, and certainly the Metalunans are not Space Brothers. The Contactees told of Space Brothers coming to Earth in friendship and with our best interests at heart. But in the movies, as Bill Warren says in his book Keep Watching the Skies!:
Benign visitors from space are few in the 1950s; the best we can hope for is indifference (It Came from Outer Space) or well-intentioned but stern policemen (The Day the Earth Stood Still). The choices we are presented with aren’t between invasion and friendship, but between invasion and exploitation, and invasion and indifference. The wonders of the universe seem to be for those other than human beings. This Island Earth reverses the message of the novel, which is that we must be admitted to the congress of the planets, and instead seems to be claiming that we should just be left alone. Everyone out there is fighting, and too much intelligence isn’t good for you.