The Infinite Matrix | Howard Waldrop | Installment 23
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01.07.06

You Are What You See

3. "Like one of your insects, only larger."

I didn't look forward to any movie in 1955 more than This Island Earth. It was the most eye-gouging film of the 1950s, at least before the next year's out-of-left-field MGM Forbidden Planet.

The movie was made from (about the first half of) Raymond F. Jones' This Island, Earth of 1953.

Cal Meacham (Rex Reason), a research engineer, is out flying is his own P-80 Shooting Star twin-engine jet when it flames out — a green ray surrounds him and lands the plane safely.

Then he receives a catalog of electronic parts he knows is full of too much advanced stuff, and sends off for plans on how to build your own Interociter.

He and his assistant build one. (It looks like a control panel with an inverted triangular TV screen over it.) They crank it up, and a guy named Exeter (Jeff Morrow) who has a head shaped like a light bulb appears on the screen. He says Meacham has passed the test and asks him to place the Interociter plans on a table. Meacham does, and Exeter disintegrates them with rays from the three corners of the screen. Exeter says a plane will come for Meacham the next day and take him to a super-duper research project.

Next day the plane lands, and Meacham gets in. There's no pilot; just automatic controls and Exeter's voice speaking to him over a radio.

Meacham is flown to a place in Georgia with a house that looks like Tara or the one on Selznick's studio symbol which is full of science-types, plus Morrow and another double-dome, Brack (Lance Fuller). Also there is Ruth Adams (Faith Domergue) an old flame of Cal's and Steve Carlson (Russell Johnson, the Professor on Gilligan's Island). There's some talk that the Georgia hill the house is on is hollow and part of it is covered with canvas. Cal, Ruth and Steve make their escape in a woodie; giant versions of the rays from the Interociter follow it, blowing up various roadside scenery; Steve makes Ruth and Cal get out, and makes about one more curve up the road before the rays get the woodie (and him): Cal and Ruth get in a Piper Cub and take off from a nearby airfield; the green ray surrounds them, and, in Wonder Scene #1 of the movie, the Piper is pulled up into the Mother of All Flying Saucers, flown of course by Exeter and Brack. (Piloting here consists of staring at a glass globe within which an atomic symbol moves like a gyroscope.) (There are these things like giant clear plastic tooth brush holders which Cal and Ruth get in — which makes first their clothes, skin, muscles and internal organs transparent, which prepares them for hyperspace, or something.)

Then we get to Wonder Scenes #2 and 3: #2 — The Zahgons — a race at war with Exeter's planet Metaluna — come in with their ships — a sort of mortar-trowel triangle with a white ray coming from it: the ray is holding what looks like a magnesium flare in action — the flare-thing is launched at Exeter's saucer — they're supposedly captive meteors, but already flaring in interstellar space? and then W.S. #3 — Metaluna itself, undergoing bombardment by the Zahgon's meteors, the surface already blasted and caved in from the intense meteorite bombardment. The saucer goes down through one of the blasted-out places to the underground city below — already glimpsed when the saucer flew above the planet. It's a scene really full of sense o' wonder (mostly accomplished by the large scale of the miniatures and the lighting). Cal and Ruth are taken to the Monitor (Douglas Spencer, Scotty the reporter in The Thing) the head honcho, who orders Exeter to brainwash Cal and Ruth into working for Metaluna.

Instead, Exeter takes them back to the ship while more Zahgon stuff punches more holes in Metaluna. One of the Mutants (big, grey-green, exposed-brain, pincer-clawed workers — "Like your insects, only larger") with two elbows on each arm is wounded and climbs on board behind them. They make their getaway just as Metaluna's secret science stuff fails and it blows itself apart. They're in the toothbrush tubes when the wounded Mutant comes in, fiddles with the controls, and seems intent on doing Something Nasty with Ruth before Exeter fights it (getting a nasty pincer-grip from the Mutant) before the worker succumbs to the pressures of hyperspace and disintegrates. They make it back to Earth; Cal and Ruth get back in their plane and, after trying to convince Exeter to come with them — we've seen him earlier doing Earth-stuff like listening to Mozart back at the Science House) he gives a dandy little speech beginning "Our Universe is vast —
full of wonders —", talking about searching for other forms of life elsewhere. Cal knows they've used up all the Moxie getting back to Terra and that Exeter is dying, but he won't come with them. They fly away from the saucer in the plane; the saucer, at terrific speed in the atmosphere, starts flaming over the Pacific above some fishing boats and crashes into the sea. The End.

Something about the movie bothered me, even when I was a nine-year-old kid with my eyes bugged out, just like the Metaluna Mutant. Later I realized what it was — It's this: here's the analysis, putting the Zahgon/Metaluna conflict on a Cold-War basis.

Russia and the US are in a tactical nuclear exchange, blowing the countries up piece by piece. They run out of human scientists, and can't train them fast enough. So they go to Africa, and give chimpanzees IQ tests; the brightest ones they bring back to the US (or Russia) and brainwash into making more tactical nuclear missiles to lob at the other guys.

Wouldn't it be easier to train your own people, raised at least within the level of the technology, rather than depending on a lower species to do the job? That's the exact analogy to the film, and it leaves a plot-hole at the center of the movie. I've asked this question on panels at SF conventions dealing with 50s SF movies, and people are looking at me like I've gone clear 'round the Oojar on them when I bring up the chimpanzee analogue.

But that's the exact narrative engine of the film, and everything flows from it.

In 1955 I didn't really care, though. It had Flying Saucers and Interociters; it had P-80 Shooting Stars and DC-6s that flew themselves; it had dying worlds and Big Ass Bug-Men and guys who bombarded planets with meteors. It had Faith Domergue. It had Jeff Morrow's best screen performance — and even Rex Reason looked a little more lifelike than usual. It was directed by Joseph Newman, with some pick-up scenes done by the old maestro Jack Arnold, who should have directed the whole thing, beginning to end, but Universal had bumped him up to doing high-tone dramas like The Tattered Dress instead of letting him play in the SF gutter, where he belonged. The script was by Franklin Coen and Edward G. O'Callaghan, and since the script diverts completely from Jones' novel at the halfway point, I assume they're responsible for the high-octane chimp analogies. And the Mutants.

The last thirty minutes of the film are eye-punishing spectacle that has a melancholy feel like no other SF Film of the time — or ever, for that matter. There is a grandeur about the dying planet Metaluna. And Exeter's last scenes carry that mood through. If it didn't have such a dumb idea at its center, it would be the SF classic I thought it was in 1955 when I first saw it, rather than the pretty-spectacular weak film it seems now.

There may or may not be more of these things in my and your future. It's been a hell of a lot of hard work, but it's been rigorous fun, too. Send the editor lots of money so she can keep buying these things from me. This is the only blog I know written on an Adler manual portable typewriter, and priority-mailed to the website...

 


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I C London, I C France, which may be the Web's most technologically primitive blog, is brought to you through the typing, proofreading, editorial, and coding efforts of Team Waldrop, also known as Mary Kay Kare (proudly reality-based) and L. Blunt Jackson (Seattle, Philadelphia, Tau Ceti), and via the steadfast couriers of the United States Postal Service. Much thanks to all involved!

about howard

Locus Magazine is offering a special deal on the issue with the superb Heart-of-Waldrop photo and interview. Che'ekidaou'ut.

Howard Waldrop is a legend in his own time. He writes, he fishes, he builds bookcases. He does not have a cellphone, a computer, or an email account.

For someone who is about as wired as an echidna, Howard has a pretty substantial online career. He has had a website since 1997. You can read The Ugly Chickens, The Other Real World, Winter Quarters, D = R x T, and his collaboration with Leigh Kennedy, One Horse Town, on SciFiction. Mary Margaret Roadgrader is available on the excellent Strange Horizons. He has an occasional column, Crimea River, on Electric Story. And now he has a blog. Go figure.

For additional embellishments of the Waldrop legend, see Who Is Howard Waldrop, Anyway? For extravagant lies about Howard, see Alternate Waldrops, on Strange Horizons. Howard's most recent books are Custer's Last Jump and Other Collaborations and Dream Factories and Radio Pictures. Buy 'em.

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