This Island Earth is high in ’50s science fiction camp appeal, but also an excellent example of what happens when standard narrative isn’t thought through adequately. Unintentional humor aside, the film is probably most interesting for its failures.
Start with the problems of the genre. Science fiction has always been criticized for its story and character failings. Both are perhaps inevitable, since the point of the genre is to create a figurative and often literal “other world” in which the rules of everyday reality are not reliable and the threat is not unknown but the Unknown. The cardboard characters result from that other-worldly attention, since much of the creative energy is focused on making the surrounding environment and ruptures to normal expectation believable.
As a consequence, the average science fiction film is burdened with excessive exposition, as the “rules” of the situation have to be made clear. Every widget must be foregrounded, named and explained before anyone can use it. Island, for example, has a lengthy first act built around bizarre technologies that arrive out of nowhere, which then have to be assembled before functioning in the plot. And of course, we have to be able to see that other world. Even the lowest-budget science fiction film must include the occasional unfamiliar something or visual effect that seems to violate the laws of physics. Island’s sets, costumes and intergalactic travel effects deliver that visual display, but are not enough to make the situation compelling without a cohesive story.
In fact, despite the somewhat comical makeup and the appearance of some threatening creatures that are half-insect, half-human and wholly gratuitous, the biggest problem with Island is that after building up the narrative world and introducing a potential dramatic conflict, the action jumps to a whole new situation. While the main characters suspect something is going on, there is no investigation or discovery, no gradual build up of suspense as the truth is uncovered. Instead, emphasis suddenly shifts to an interplanetary war that barely involves the human characters (or earth, for that matter). It is as if the second act was excised to speed up production to move from the pedantic technological introduction to a hastily thrown together concluding sequence.
Worse, the third act requires even more pseudo-scientific exposition to explain what is going on. An obligatory “love interest” between hot-shot engineer, Dr. Cal Meacham (Rex Reason) and Dr. Ruth Adams (Faith Domergue), gets thrown in, but it goes nowhere. To the extent we have any emotional involvement, our sympathy shifts to the leader of the aliens, “Exeter” (Jeff Morrow), who tries to reconcile good intentions with the orders of his superiors back on the planet Metaluna. Nothing in the story really works, but Exeter’s earnest efforts make us want it to do so for his sake, even as we snicker at some of the loonier bits. Like Exeter’s attempted intergalactic cooperation, This Island Earth is more about potential than realization.