This Island Earth

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Shout! Factory;
Sci-fi;
$26.99 Blu-ray;
Not rated.
Stars Jeff Morrow, Faith Domergue, Rex Reason.

To borrow the parlance that my third-grade colleagues would have used at the time, This Island Earth is quite “neat” for its day yet remains wounded by the same cardboard dramatics that have always plagued it. But this said, Scream Factory’s unexpectedly lavish new Blu-ray is still the definitive presentation of a ’50s sci-fi biggie that entranced a lot of kids at the time — not only because it was in Technicolor but because it had a larger than expected budget all around, though probably not one as large as it needed.

Just as the replicated art ad still says on the Blu-ray box, Earth was “2 1/2 Years in the Making” after director Joseph M. Newman found the property himself — though I always figured that maybe a year-and-a-half of this went toward fitting and pasting on those distinctive skull caps that gave lead Jeff Morrow and his lackeys sky-high foreheads, to say nothing of those that adorn the movie’s villainous mutants whose corresponding skulls resemble exposed brains. No one who’s ever seen them has ever forgotten them, and this is one thing no one will ever be able to take away from a film that works at least fitfully in spite of itself.

In other words, the picture takes a long time to get rolling, and it’s not exactly an actor’s paradise — aside, perhaps, from the pathos Morrow brings to his role as a friendly alien caught between the hardline sentiments of rulers on his own planet (Metaluna) and the affection he feels for Earthlings, with whom he’s spent considerable time. Not so sure of this benevolence is a hunk-ish scientist/electronics whiz (Rex Reason), who can also pilot a jet — an authoritative guy all around who is always savvily asking the right questions. On one of the myriad bonus commentaries/interviews here (the sheer number of them dazzle), someone gives Reason’s performance a little credit; beyond having a great voice, he was handled a stiff role and pretty well filling this bill with the poor hand he was handed. Unfortunately, femme lead Faith Domergue doesn’t fare as well on this count (and ’55 was the actress’s big boomer-kid year, given that Cult of the Cobra and Ray Harryhausen’s irresistible cheese slice It Came from Beneath the Sea were two of the four other Domergue films that had recently preceded Earth in theaters).

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Though Metaluna eventually turns out to be in big trouble (which is why it needs Earth’s help due to an energy shortage), the alien planet wields the standard supernatural powers we came to expect in ’50s sci-fi cinema. It can take over the piloting of Reason’s jet to make an impression, which is why later — when it entices him to board a Metaluna craft to journey to God-knows-where — he lands and is picked up by Domergue in … a woodie station wagon. Turns out that after all this arduous and presumed major star trekking he’s ended up in Georgia with other recruited U.S. scientists that include one played by Russell Johnson (later The Professor on “Gilligan’s Island”). For suspicious reasons, they come off as mum and intimidated — so much so that Domergue denies that she and Reason had a brief relationship swimming in Vermont a few years earlier. Which, in ’50s censorship code, probably means they did it.

Putting aide the drearily obligatory “sidekick” comedy relief early in the picture, there’s all kinds of talk throughout at the expense of action. And yet, it’s also true that the backdrop to all this yakking is mighty easy on the eye because Earth got under the wire enough to have been shot in three-strip Technicolor during the format’s waning days (those hot lights turned the wearing of mutant makeup and costumes into something pretty close to a miracle diet). This wasn’t the first ’50s color sci-fi (Destination Moon, When Worlds Collide and The War of the Worlds were all Technicolor, while Invaders From Mars was in notably expressive “Supercinecolor”). But it was the first time Universal-International took the plunge, and for the intended demographic, this was a big deal.

One of the bonus highlights is what’s billed as an “extended” 47-minute documentary on the film’s production and reception where New Jersey-bred director Joe Dante (who would know) said his circle of buds knew Earth was a big picture because it played alone on a single bill. As for my town, Earth rated a downtown booking but in the least of its four first-run theaters — one that played a lot of Universals, a lot of Republics and a lot of Westerns. In this case, it did have a co-feature — United Artists’ Sabaka, with Boris Karloff and Victor Jory; no turnstile buster it — and this package lasted a week.

Reviews generally were unkind (1955 was a really strong and competitive movie year), though there was also probable prejudice against the genre when at least the art direction should have gotten mention. The payoff climactic scenes — whose volume of explosions make you wonder if someone trucked over to steal a caravan of munitions from the U-I lot where Audie Murphy’s To Hell and Back was shooting — look crude today but still remain imaginatively crude once all hell breaks loose on poor Metaluna. The general consensus among commentators here is that the studio’s sci-fi Main Man Jack Arnold did not shoot these or any other scenes, despite frequent reportage to the contrary.

Despite the ballyhooed length-of-production, Earth was kind of rushed into shooting, which means that it was photographed close enough to the dividing line between 1.37:1 and wider-screen renderings that two versions exist; both are included here, and the 1.85:1 version definitely the way to go. One of my favorite bonus features is a long printed history of Perspecta Stereophonic Sound, which offered something like stereo to exhibitors for less money and effort and which lasted from roughly 1954 through 1957. The history’s pages are fairly easy to read off a big screen, and I spent quite a long time with this extra, though the material is elaborate enough to eat up most of a day. A restored Perspecta soundtrack is one of two included on the disc, and uilizing it did a lot to keep me near-fully engaged despite the script’s dramatic shortcomings.

Still, it was really a miscalculated 1996 exercise for Universal to employ Earth as the target when it made Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie — though I grant that the studio had to have something close to an A-picture to lampoon because audiences weren’t going to shell out theatrical admission prices to see Eegah or its like taking lumps. Despite my love for “MST3K,” it really was a cheap shot, starting with the fact that the original movie ended up being butchered so badly that the entire ’96 release ran significantly shorter than the full-length Earth by itself — even with the all the additional screen time devoted to the barbs tossed its way by Mike Nelson & crew. Dante also points out that Earth’s color intensity got badly degraded as part of the techno process of superimposing the “MST3K” jesters over the bottom of the image.

There was always something about actor Morrow that registered positively with boomer male kids even when he played a heavy — as he did in both the Martin & Lewis Western Pardners and The Creature Walks Among Us, both of which I saw twice theatrically in their original ’56 releases. I, at least, always picked up on a possible twinkle-eyed hint that he knew how outlandish a lot of his big-screen situations were (one exception is his played-straight performance in Douglas Sirk’s Captain Lightfoot, a movie I really like).

With his impossible hair-forehead combo, Morrow plows his way through Earth fairly successfully in a manner that’s difficult not to acknowledge. But his dexterity ran out a couple years later with producer Sam Katzman’s impossibly and hilariously cheap (even for him) The Giant Claw, which was directed by the prolific Fred Sears (dead of a heart attack the same year at 44, and you have to wonder). As others have previously mentioned, it is Claw that would have been a foolproof “MST3K” target. Morrow’s account of the premiere is on IMDb.com, and it’s worth reading if you’re into mortification.

Mike’s Picks: ‘A Patch of Blue’ and ‘This Island Earth’

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