Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Movie Turn-Ons, Part 4.3 (Cheesy Sci-Fi: This Island Earth)

These entries, much like chapters in books on programming techniques, may be read in any order. Except for the first two posts - especially the second one, which sets the tone, has disclaimers, spoiler alerts, and also a link back to the first one - you may skip all the other entries in between.

I realise that, this being the third entry, the previous paragraph wouldn't have made much sense - there being no entries in between to skip. Still, since that is a header intended for all posts in this series, I feel obliged to include it here too, if only to appease the Gods of Consistency and OCD. You'll feel more at home with it at the start of the next post, you'll go "hmm..." on it when the fifth one makes its entry; and so on and so forth, until, by the 11th post, it should be a huge load off of anyone who wanders in here for the first time. 

This Island Earth (1955)

The title first. This Island Earth. Wonderfully evocative. Admittedly, I can't figure out how it relates to anything that goes on in the movie; but then again, I'm not known for being particularly perceptive. In any case, let's not quibble over irrelevancies. Titles are art too, and as Leo tells us before a Tom and Jerry episode, "Art for art's sake." Will Shakespeare shall have the final word with, "Good title."

It starts off with this strapping young scientist who pilots a military jet (that the Air Force has generously loaned him) into his research facility somewhere in LA. While horsing around with flybys over the control tower (sadly deficient in Admirals' daughters), his jet develops a technical glitch. If it were you or me, the fiery end would be about 30 seconds later, with bits of us strewn all over the Californian desert.

But since this is sci-fi, aliens (Metalunians, from now on) bath the whole jet in a fluorescent-green light that blinks in harmony to gratifyingly unbearable background noises (to paraphrase a quote I can't find anywhere now, just because a civilisation is technologically advanced, it doesn't mean they've made similar progress in matters of subtlety: you should see Metaluna; but wait, we'll get to that).

To cut a fairly short story shorter, the controls start operating all on their own, and the jet is safely on the runway. Since the Metalunians haven't yet made their big appearance, the characters aren't allowed to go jumping around with excitement, screaming, "Aliens! Aliens!" They instead do a lot of chin scratching with suitably puzzled expressions, and attribute the whole chapter to the unsolvable mysteries of life.

More mysteries are to follow. The scientist, Meacham, is working on the industrial applications of nuclear energy. The Metalunians, under the pseudonym "Electronics Service, Unit No. 16",  have taken sufficient interest in his work to give him a helping hand now and then - such as send him high-quality alien spare parts, when he blows up his stuff once too often.

And then they send him their version of a train set, complete with instructions; the word "interocitor" pops up quite a bit. Meacham informs us that, according to the manual, there are no limits to what an interocitor can do: "a complete line of interocitor parts, incorporating greater advances than hitherto known in the field of electronics."

Meacham and his assistant treat all this with a remarkable calm and stoicism that I find endearing. No undue excitement or paranoia. No breast beating on Our Place In The Universe. The closest they get to philosophy is when Meacham's assistant reflects that "an interocitor, incorporating an electron sorter" is something his wife could use around the house. Just how men of science should be. Calm, methodical, inquisitive.

They set about assembling the 2500-odd cross-referenced, irreplaceable parts with geeky confidence. This chapter though, in the end, educates us on the cultural differences that await us, should we ever make contact. For instance, if we humans wanted to conference with someone half-way across the globe, we'd send a meeting request. The Metalunians, apparently, just send a room full of parts, and a giant of an instruction manual to assemble what finally turns out to be a glorified web-cam (albeit one equipped with a destructive laser; I would've liked to meet the business analyst on that project).

Ah, wait. I knew I was forgetting something! Rewind. It's also a test, a recruitment drive. Those who build the interocitor successfully are invited to join Exeter's (Metalunian VP, Earth subsection) project. Meacham accepts, and is flown in to Exeter's facility. The way Exeter looks, he might as well have "alien from Metaluna" stamped on his forehead. Given the size of the forehead, you could easily fit in the sports-banner-sized font, too.

On arriving at the facility, Meacham is delighted to meet an old flame, Dr Ruth Adams. But she, in a fairly furtive manner, disavows knowing him. It later turns out that the other scientists at the facility (nuclear scientists from all over the world), have been subjected to some form of brainwashing, whereby they lose all free will. Losing free will, apparently, makes us behave oddly. I didn't see enough of them to make a judgment  myself (except that one of them can't stand Mozart; classical-music fans may drop me a line to tell me if this is clinching evidence); but Meacham informs us that they're behaving oddly, and I take him at his word.

The Metalunians believe lack of free will makes us easier to control, which probably was the subject of an award-winning thesis in Metaluna. Exeter, though, is something of a rebel, and doesn't agree with everything High Command tells him. He believes humans are more productive with free will. Therefore, he spares from this "thought transference" his brightest wards Ruth, Meacham, and another bloke - I would normally introduce him to you, but he dies a short while later without significantly adding to the plot.

In the meanwhile, Metalunian Mission Control calls in to inform Exeter that time is running out for whatever it is they're doing, and that he's to report to the home planet with Meacham and Ruth, to complete the project there. Exeter, being a gentle soul, leaves the evidence-removal bit to his sadistic assistant, who kills everyone in the facility with a series of badly-aimed-and-timed explosions; but no matter, he gets the job done. Ruth and Meacham are bundled into a flying saucer for the inter-galactic trip.

On the saucer, we get our long-awaited exposition. Meacham, justifiably outraged over the mass murder (he didn't know the other blokes too well, but is still a decent enough human being to feel for them) confronts Exeter, who replies mournfully, "We're not all masters of our souls." "I won't ask you to condone what we've done. All I ask is that when you understand the plight of my people, you'll try to have more sympathy for our deeds," he adds.

He also appeals to the scientist in Meacham, and to the woman in Ruth (she's just as much scientist as Meacham; evidence of sexism in Metaluna?). On that subject, I'd be grateful if someone could explain this line here, "Ruth, don't tell me that as a woman, you're not curious about our destination?" What is it about women that makes them more curious than men about their destinations, when kidnapped on alien flying saucers?

As an aside for the Trekkies here, the captain's bridge and the converter tubes (never mind what they are) look like predecessors to Star Trek. Anyway, the plight of the Metalunians is that they're at war with another planet named Zagon. They've tried to reason with Zagon, but to no avail. Zagon keeps bombarding their planet with meteors, forcing them to live underground. The only thing keeping them alive is an "ionisation layer" around the planet, keeping out most of the meteors. It needs large amounts of nuclear energy to keep running, though, and the Metalunians are running out of uranium. Aha, the penny drops! That's why they need the scientists.

The special effects on this movie were two-and-a-half years in the making, claims the DVD case, and it certainly seems to have paid off. Metaluna from space is just beautiful. But that's nothing compared to the visuals of the surface of the planet: it has me going through the latter part of the movie in freeze frame - several times. Considering the age of the film, awe-inspiring work.

On Metaluna, we finally get to meet El Presidente. He informs Meacham and Ruth that Metaluna is now beyond saving, and that they intend to relocate to Earth. "Peacefully," Exeter chips in. But Head Honcho does not have quite so high an opinion of earthlings.

"Our knowledge and weapons would make us your superiors, naturally."

Stung, Meacham comes back with, "Then why haven't your superior brains solved the problem of synthesising uranium?"

Big Chief is dismissive, "Most of our scientists are dead, our major laboratories destroyed. The war has reduced our population to a mere handful. It is indeed typical that you Earth people refuse to believe in the superiority of any world but your own. Children looking into a magnifying glass imagining the image you see is the image of your true size."

Meacham, never at a loss for words, draws himself up to his full height, and lets loose, "Our true size is the size of our god." Whatever that means.

No matter; he has a much better line a few minutes later, as he and Ruth are lead to the thought-transference chamber. Zagon has just begun an all-out attack, reducing the Metalunian population from the earlier handful to only Exeter and a few mutant thingies (similar to insects on Earth, but larger and more intelligent - they appear literally out of thin air; I suspect someone in the art department spent a lot of time on them, and the film makers felt morally obliged to bung them in at the end).

The mutants are apparently ordered to see to it that the thought transference for the earthlings goes ahead, but they're not smart enough to figure out that their masters are now dead. Exeter pleads with Meacham, asking him to believe that he's already defied his orders, and will not let the thought transference go through. "In this place, I wouldn't believe my grandmother," thunders Meacham, before punching Exeter in the stomach, stepping smartly around the mutant, and making off for the spaceship, with the planet disintegrating around him and Ruth.

Exeter, having got his wind back, follows them, and has his day turned from bad to worse when he's mortally wounded by the mutant; nevertheless, he offers to pilot them back to Earth. On the journey back, while they're still in the converter tubes (I said, never mind what they are) the same mutant, who apparently had smuggled himself on board, appears out of nowhere again and attacks Ruth. These mutants aren't the most sprightly of creatures, and this one is injured, to boot, but Ruth still manages to get caught by him. Not that it matters. Just when he's about to kill her, he falls down all of a sudden, and... evaporates. I'm not sure what the purpose of that scene was. Building tension, perhaps?

Having dropped them off on Earth, Exeter then takes a nice cooling dip in the ocean. The last few shots of the camera tracking the saucer into the ocean are extraordinary. Gives the same sensation of speed that the drivers'-eye camera on a racing car gives. But I felt sad for him, really. Easily the most interesting character in the movie.

On the whole, a riveting film. The pacing (though perhaps a bit rushed at the end), the visuals of Metaluna, keeping the story fairly consistent with no obvious contradictions, the fact that the Metalunians are sympathetically handled (in that they have a good reason for doing what they are), plus the character of Exeter, all get a thumbs up from me. Also, I like the way the whole alien intro is handled - there is none; it's just assumed right from the start that the characters know that these chaps are alien. Ever so matter of fact. Perhaps an indication that we believed back in those days that contact was imminent?

I like to read an anti-war message into films I like, whenever possible. Unfortunately, try as I might, I keep getting the reverse result for this one. Zagon is portrayed as an enemy that cannot be reasoned with. The only way to stop Zagon would've been to destroy them before they destroyed Metaluna, or hope for stalemate through mutual assured destruction.


Remember the brain-washing bit? Isn't this what the Americans thought the communists did? - I'm admittedly basing the assertion solely on watching The Manchurian Candidate (I hope you read the disclaimer post). Which would make the Metalunians the Soviets, and that leaves Zagon as America. And the movie seems to side with the Metalunians (at least to the extent that it's told from their point of view, and Zagon is portrayed as a ruthless, relentless war machine). Sci-fi as subversive political comment? I think I like this one enough to stick to it as my interpretation of the deeper meaning of the film.

That was little more than a plot summary, but I promise you rather more with the next one - a film that, in a manner only good sci-fi can, points the camera right back at us: "It Came From Outer Space"


missjane said...

Heh... I take it from your Shakespeare ref you haven't bought any of his texts yet?

And while that plot summary conveniently allows me to pretend to know the story, it also makes me want to watch the film. Most inconvenient, considering the backlog of 'films I should watch' I already have.

Rohan said...

I just happen to prefer the shorter quotes. :D

You should just buy that set I linked to in the last post. 7 movies for under 10 pounds is an excellent deal.

PkS said...

I know why Zagon attacked Metaluna. Metaluna had Meacham and Ruth. The Zagonians on the other hand were "ruth"less.

Get it? Get it? You can thank me later for clearing it up for you.

Rohan said...

I was about to put in something stingingly sarcastic, but then realised that your theory is just as plausible as my own pet theory: the Metalunian foreheads just made for very good target practice.