FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *sociological, metaphysical, cosmological*
THIS ISLAND EARTH presents a tough puzzle to the would-be solver of cinematic mysteries. On one hand, ISLAND is one of the seminal films to emerge from the 1950s, when Hollywood formed its first enduring investment in the science-fiction genre. Yet, in contrast to some of the other “A-level” films that preceded it, such as 1951’s WHEN WORLDS COLLIDE and 1953’s THE WAR OF THE WORLDS (both produced by George Pal), ISLAND’s theme is hard to read, and its narrative lurches erratically from incident to incident, as one might expect of a cheaper B-film.
Some of the film’s narrative eccentricities may be explained by its attempt to transform its source material, a series of SF-novelettes by Raymond F. Jones. This series, which I have not read, took a rather Wellsian tack on the politics of the World War II conflict. In Wells’ WAR OF THE WORLDS, Earth is invaded by technologically superior Martians in the same way that technologically superior Europeans invaded Third World countries. Jones goes further by imagining Earth in the position of a Pacific island being fought over by two technologically superior alien races. The conclusion of Jones’ narrative gives his Earthmen a little more agency than Wells does: Jones’ story ends with its main characters Cal Meacham and Ruth Adams convincing the more benign alien power to defend Earth against its enemy.
ISLAND keeps the source work’s basic setup. insofar as having the benign aliens approach several Earth-scientists and try to enlist their research against the malign aliens. However, ISLAND’s latter half takes a darker, possibly even more Wellsian turn than the Jones narrative. From my point of view, this would seem to be the influence of the film’s producer William Alland.
Neither the scripters that adapted the Jones story nor director Joseph M. Newman had previously attempted SF-themed material, but ISLAND’s producer had already delved into the genre successfully with 1953’s IT CAME FROM OUTER SPACE and the first two “Creature from the Black Lagoon” films. All three of these films kept their action centered upon Earth, as modern mortals are forced to contend with stranded aliens in OUTER SPACE and with a primeval fish-humanoid in the “Creature” flicks.. Thus ISLAND marks Alland’s attempt to delve into the more apocalyptic terrains exploited by the aforementioned George Pal. No one can state with certainty that Alland consciously sought to emulate Pal. However, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that ISLAND’s script includes various tropes of religiosity similar to those evoked in the Pal productions. It may also be significant that such tropes are not abundant in Alland’s previous three SF-films.
That said, ISLAND overlays the sociological theme of the Jones story with a quasi-metaphysical pattern, in which aliens assume the role of forbidding “angels” who dispense forbidden knowledge and threaten to subvert Earth’s dominion with their heavenly, albeit hardly divine, powers. It’s a pattern that diverges from Pal’s unequivocal Christian religiosity, and suggests in part that the aliens’ advancement into higher technology may portend dire consequences for those humans who follow their example.
Whatever the film’s divergences from the Jones novel, it keeps the same names for the story’s viewpoint characters, Cal Meacham and Ruth Adams. The film begins by focusing on Cal, depicting him as a combination brain-boy and daredevil. He’s first seen being interviewed by reporters on the scientific conference he’s just attended. However, less anyone think that the life of the mind might be unmanly, Cal gives the interview while he gets ready to fly his own jet plane back to his research laboratory. A reporter avers that Cal’s specialty is electronics, and he talks like an engineer who hopes to make possible the “pushbutton age,” by finding ways to channel atomic energy into practical use. However, later he will sound less like an engineer and more like a physicist—or even an alchemist—since his current project is to find a way to transform lead into uranium.
Cal flies back to his research lab, where he’s apparently the only one in authority, since his assistant Joe calls him “boss” and no other supervisor is seen. Indeed, only Joe and one other man are present at the lab’s landing field when Joe flies overhead. His jet conks out after he buzzes the landing-tower, but he doesn’t crash because he’s upheld by a strange green light that lowers him safely to the ground. Joe and the other fellow witness the event, and Joe fearfully invokes both “flying saucers” and the fear of being taken to the “booby hatch.” Cal apparently doesn’t want to be tagged as a saucer-spotter, for he tells his subordinates to remain “blind” to the miracle.
Cal takes the miracle in his stride and tries to go back to his more mundane, if potentially world-transforming, project. But the same power that saved his life contacts him in an equally mundane manner: sending Cal technology through the U.S. mail. Cal is intrigued enough to use that technology to assemble a futuristic viewing-scope. Through this device he first sees the face of Exeter, a high-domed humanoid who invites Cal to join a fraternity of scientists devoted to the “end of war.” Though Cal hasn’t expressed any opinions on the subject of war thus far, he is, unlike Joe, highly motivated by curiosity. Later in the film, Exeter will appeal explicitly to curiosity as a vital human trait. However, even while Exeter voices an opposition to warlike violence, he demonstrates a destructive power by automatically reducing the communication device to slag, so that Cal and his assistant can’t make further use of the advanced technology.
Cal keeps a rendezvous with a robotically operated plane that takes him down south, to a sumptuous estate in Georgia. As he debarks the plane, he remarks to the person he meets that he half expected to end up on Neptune or Mars. Together with Joe’s “flying saucer” comment, these are the only direct allusions to matters extraterrestrial in the film’s first half. At first Cal doesn’t recognize the woman who meets him at the Georgia airfield, but he belatedly recollects that she is Ruth Adams, who was, like him, an attendee of another scientific conference four or five years ago. Ruth admits that she was at the conference but doesn’t admit having made Cal’s acquaintance, particularly since he says that they went swimming together. This seems to have been less than a date but a little more than a casual interaction: later the tentative nature of their first meeting is described by Cal as “holding hands.” Cal can’t figure out any good reason for Ruth’s feminine reticence but it casts the first of many clouds upon his new place of employment. The second appears when Cal and Ruth arrive at the Georgia estate. Cal meets many cheery scientists of diverse disciplines, but he also sees a sullen fellow named Brack, another high-domed fellow who is apparently second in command to Exeter.
It’s at the point that Cal arrives that this rather leisurely film accelerates. Hitherto, Cal’s alien patrons were apparently content to play a long con: giving Cal plenty of time to order parts, build the communications device, etc. But mere moments after Exeter gives Cal the welcoming speech, Exeter’s own boss calls Exeter on the carpet. Speaking through another future-scope, an arrogant fellow called “the Monitor” reams Exeter out for not having finished the necessary research. Through this conversation we learn that the Monitor expects Exeter to subject all of the scientists to brainwashing, and that Exeter has not done so. Exeter, like many a middle-management employee saddled with an arrogant boss, tries to explain that human beings need free will in order to make the deductive leaps that the project requires. The Monitor won’t have it and demands that Exeter follow through with “Plan A,” which is basically the same as Cal’s own project: seeking to mass-manufacture uranium.
Cal meets privately with Ruth and another scientist, Carlson, who are two of the technicians whom Exeter chose not to brainwash. Ruth confesses that she does remember him, but that she wasn’t sure that he might not have already been subjected to the mental conditioning. The three of them lay plans to escape the installation. Meanwhile, Brack and Exeter confer, and while Brack, like the Monitor, believes in total control of the inferior human breed, Exeter again argues that it defeats their purpose. Then the Monitor contacts them, announcing that they must abandon “Plan A” and proceed to the “alternate plan.” This involves destroying the whole installation and all of its brainwashed scientists, and bringing back to the aliens’ homeworld the only two scientists who seemed capable of unlocking the secret of mass-produced uranium: Cal and Ruth.
It’s night-time when Cal, Ruth, and Carlson steal a car and try to escape the estate, so apparently all of this rapid-fire shuffling of plans has transpired in one day; before Cal has had time to touch a capacitor. Brack gets the chance to show what he really thinks of inferior Earthlings: firing remote-controlled rays at the fleeing car. Lest anyone think this goes against the plan of keeping Cal and Ruth alive, Cal yells, “He’s playing with us,” so that members of the audience won’t get the wrong idea. Carlson doesn’t apprehend that there’s safety in unity, though, for he adjures Cal and Ruth to get out of the car; then drives on, giving Brack the perfect excuse to annihilate him. For good measure, Brack also uses the ray to zap one of the scientists who’s wandering about on the estate. Then the aliens—“Metalunans,” as they’ll soon be dubbed—ascend into the sky via a flying saucer and the whole installation blows up.
Cal and Ruth get to the estate’s airfield and try to escape in a plane, but the saucer simply beams them aboard in a scene that may’ve influenced STAR TREK’s transporter-beam. Then, and only then, does Exeter reveal to the stunned humans that they are pawns in an armed conflict between the Metalunans and their enemies, the Zagons. Cal rebukes Exeter for the slaughter of the scientists. Exeter regretfully protests that “we’re not all masters of our souls,” and he adds insult to injury by claiming that he learned that phrase on Earth.
As the saucer zooms off to Metaluna in “another solar system,” the script tells the audience nothing about how this “war in heaven” came about, though Exeter claims that his people did try to make peace with the Zagons. The Zagons are never seen; all the audience knows of them is that they somehow take control of space-meteors and use them to bombard the surface of Metaluna, which can only repel these attacks with its nuclear-powered “ionization layer.” The Zagons seem less like sentient beings than forces of nature inimical to life, and Exeter’s only allusion to their origins is that “their planet was once a comet.” This declaration makes for astoundingly bad science, but it’s just possible that the scripters, consciously or subconsciously seeking religious metaphors, were aligning the Zagons with the phenomena of “shooting stars”—i.e., comets and meteors—because such phenomena are mythically associated with devils through the Biblical phrase, “How art thou fallen, O Lucifer son of morning.” Curiously, during the flight to Metaluna Exeter protests that it doesn’t matter whether the humans consider him “a devil or a saint,” suggesting that such religion-based metaphors occupied the scripters’ minds more as they ventured into the space “beyond the moon.”
Once Cal and Ruth are taken to Metaluna, they get more nasty shocks. Not only does the ruling Monitor intend to brainwash them so that they’ll cook up the uranium he needs, there’s no longer the implication that the Metalunans only want to defend themselves or defeat the Zagons. Rather, the Monitor decrees that the remaining populace of his planet will soon relocate to Earth. Exeter weakly protests that it will be a “peaceful relocation,” but even he doesn’t believe it. The Monitor sneers at humans for believing themselves superior to all other life-forms, and compares them to “children looking through a magnifying glass”—presumably at themselves, though the metaphor is pretty strained. In his only direct religious reference, Cal portentously states that “Our size is the size of our God.” The Monitor is not impressed and orders Exeter to take the humans away for re-programming.
Exeter does as he’s ordered, but he protests that he’ll try to find some way around the command. Cal and Ruth try to make a break and are corralled by the Metaluna Mutant, an unintelligent humanoid insect-creature who has apparently been assigned to back up the Monitor’s orders. However, before Cal and Ruth can be brainwashed, a Zagon bombardment smashes into their corridor. The blast injures the Mutant and possibly Exeter, and kills the Monitor on his cosmic throne. Cal and Ruth flee again. The blast apparently shakes Exeter out of his belief that he can work around his superiors’ evil dictates. He finally convinces the humans to return to the saucer, so that he can take them back home.
However, while the saucer is in progress back to Earth, the Metaluna Mutant refuses to say die, having somehow followed the threesome onto the ship. He only lives long enough to threaten the life of Ruth, who fulfills her function as “defenseless female” by screaming a lot. But the ship’s change in pressure kills the Mutant, and from there it’s smooth sailing back to Earth. Cal and Ruth try to persuade Exeter to return with them, but he demurs. It’s not clear whether he’s wounded unto death or simply doesn’t want to live apart from his people, but while the humans fly to safety in their airplane, Exeter sends the saucer into a death-dive.
In a structural sense ISLAND is deeply flawed: its leisurely beginning makes all the later events seem rushed and helter-skelter. The fact that Cal and Ruth travel all the way to an alien world and then flee it almost as quickly flies in the face of the audience’s desire to see more of this fantastic setting. Although Exeter’s change of heart is the core of the film’s emotional arc, and actor Rex Reason has a few strong moments, the script doesn’t devote enough time to make the changeover seem inevitable.
Yet, even though the script doesn’t make the most of its weighty symbolic discourse, the potential is plainly evident. The Metalunans possess the very “pushbutton age” that Earthmen strive after, but as a consequence the Metalunans have become indifferent to the suffering of others, like the Monitor, or even borderline-sadistic, like Brack. Given that in the 1950s it was the Americans who consistently pitched the idea of the highly-automated “pushbutton age,” then it follows that the Metalunans stand as a negative image of what Americans in particular might become. They are the alien version of “ugly Americans” who make grand promises to less technologically advanced people but are truly defined by a desire to make all others conform to their will. They believe that their own ends justify anything, and it may not be coincidence that the Metalunans are strongly associated with tropes of slavery: the aliens make their headquarters on a Georgian estate, where Exeter speaks of “cracking the whip” when Cal begins to work under them, while on Metaluna the planet’s denizens have specifically bred a race of beings to be servants.
The religious references suggest another line of inquiry. Since none of the characters are ostensibly religious, in contrast to the devoted Christians of the George Pal films, what does it mean when Cal tells the Monitor, “Our size is the size of our God?” On one level he could be simply stating that the Metalunans are so devoid of ethics that this makes them a godless people who deserve their destruction. But then, I’ve suggested that Americans and Metalunans are symbolically covalent. So one might interpret Cal’s statement as an unintentional proof of the Monitor’s statement: that Earthmen/Americans consider themselves superior to all others due to their belief in a supreme deity, just as the Metalunans believe that only their own destiny can matter. But because ISLAND is not as thematically unified as the previous WAR OF THE WORLDS, or the far superior FORBIDDENPLANET, this theory remains at the level of pure conjecture.
The movie isn't helped by the flatness of its two viewpoint characters, though it's dubious as to whether Jeff Morrow or Faith Domergue could have done much better with more complex characters. Rex Reason's character of Exeter has the greatest potential for a good character arc, but the tendency of the plot to jerk the characters about willy-nilly doesn't allow Exeter to progress credibly from his Metalunan arrogance to a greater empathy for other forms of life.