One book, one movie, our place in the universe: This Island Earth

In Keep Watching the Skies, Bill Warren’s landmark book on 1950s SF movies, Warren made an interesting point. Even when the aliens come in peace, the tone of the films is often that we’re better off if they don’t come here. His specific example was comparing the novel and film of This Island Earth.

The 1952 novel (which I’m about to spoil, so be warned) by Raymond F. Jones opens with radio engineer Cal Meachum discovering a vendor has sent some strange, glasslike beads instead of the condensers Cal ordered (I had to look it up — a condenser is another name for capacitors that store electricity). When Cal tests them, though, it turns out they are phenomenally effective condensers, way beyond anything on the market. But the vendor claims no knowledge of them.

Cal and his sidekick Joe get a catalog that offers even more amazing products, and the equipment for building something called an interocitor. Cal succumbs to temptation, orders the components and eventually puts it together. The interocitor immediately opens up a communications line to a group called the Peace Engineers. They invite Cal to quit his job and work for them; intrigued, he agrees.

When he arrives, he learns the Peace Engineers are scientists and engineers dedicated to seeing their creations and discoveries used peacefully, rather than militarized. One of them tells Cal that if not for them, WW I would have been nuclear; WW II would have left Earth a dead world. Cal, having lived through WW II and now the Korean War, loves the idea. But he can’t help feeling there’s more going on …

There is, of course. It turns out the Peace Engineers are just a front for the Llanna, an alien alliance fighting against the malevolent Guarra (think Allies vs. Axis). Their resources are strained to the point they can’t manufacture interocitors fast enough (it’s a powerful psi-weapon as well as a communicator), so they’ve outsourced it to Earth. One of the aliens compares it to WW II: if you need land cleared and a base built on some Pacific island, you hire the natives. You don’t explain the geopolitics or the ethics of the war, you simply pay them to help you.

This goes pear-shaped when the Guarra decide Earth is valuable enough to their enemies they should annihilate it. The Llanna computer projections show Earth is doomed, but Cal convinces them that’s why they’ve been losing: the Guarra have learned to periodically ignore the projections of their own machines and make random, unpredictable attacks. If the Llana do the same thing, acting against the computers to protect Earth, it’ll blindside the enemy.

Heading home to Earth, Cal feels he’s done the right thing. Even if most of Earth has no knowledge of the Llanna or the war, their destinies have become tied together; the progress of the war will affect Earth’s future. It’s good that an Earthman got to weigh in on it. The subtext is that connecting our island to the vast space civilization is a good thing: “Like it or not, Earth was a member of the community of worlds.”

The movie version is different from the start: Cal (Rex Reason) is a Tony Stark like techtrepreneur, lionized by the press. There’s no Peace Engineers, simply Exeter (Jeff Morrow), the alien front man for what turns out to be the planet of Metaluna. Where the aliens in the novel can pass for human, the Metalunans have huge heads that would seem to scream Not Our Kind (I’ve read that the Coneheads‘ original skits on Saturday Night Live were inspired by everyone ignoring Exeter’s giant cranium).

In the novel, cal meets Ruth, a psychiatrist helping the aliens deal with humans. Here, Ruth (Faith Domergue) is an old girlfriend who pretends they’ve never met. She and Steve (Russell Johnson) warn Cal that all is not well: the engineers working for Exeter are monitored constantly and some who ask too many questions change personalities overnight.

Finally Cal and Ruth make a break for it in Cal’s plane, only to be drawn up into Exeter’s ship. Like the novel, they’ve been working to build weapons for Metaluna; unlike the novel, it’s not good guys/bad guys. The Metalunans are losing the war and so their back up plan is to take over Earth.

Of course it all ends happily for Earth. Metaluna falls before its people can relocate; Exeter redeems himself by taking Cal and Ruth home, even though he’s dying. While the novel is more imaginative and interesting, the movie is good, though odd at the same time. Cal is much more swept along by events than steering them as most protagonist’s do; it works, but it makes it odd enough, I can see why MST3K picked it to mock some years back (they’re still wrong though).

The point here is that as Warren says, the movie takes the opposite view from the book. It’s good that we’re living on an isolated island. Space is scary, full of wars and unfriendly aliens who’ll exploit us for their own purposes. Better we stick to our own world.

This is not an isolated example. In Battleship, one character complains scientists should never be sending messages out into space: don’t they know any civilization advanced enough to respond and visit us will just treat us the way America treated the Native Americans? A stronger civilization will always oppress the weaker. Best we stay here on our own little island.

It’s very far removed from the optimism that made so many of us love Star Trek. And history shows some cultures have traded, negotiated and not immediately tried to destroy each other. So if we ever meet aliens, I’m hoping it’ll turn out Jones was right and the pessimists were wrong. Fingers crossed.

#SFWApro. All rights to images remain with current holder.

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