08 November 2008

Movie Review: Battle in Outer Space

Battle in Outer Space (1959)
Directed by Ishiro Honda. Starring Ryo Ikebe, Kyoko Anzai, Minoru Takada, Koreya Senda, Yoshio Tsuchiya, Len Stanford

Welcome to the next installment in my review of the Toho “Space Opera Trilogy” from director Ishiro Honda and effects designer Eiji Tsubaraya. After The Mysterians, an even more robust and epic alien invasion threatens all of Earth (although mostly a certain Pacific island nation and its largest city).

Uchu daisenso (“Great War in Space”) is pretty much the Independence Day of Japan—a slim plot and sketchy characters on which hangs a barrage of ceaseless special effects action. Except Battle in Outer Space is far better than Independence Day, and I can only imagine that director Roland Emmerich and producer Dean Devlin felt angry that Ishiro Honda’s twenty-seven-year earlier film was so superior that they got the rights to Godzilla and ruined it on purpose just to show him.

Okay, that’s a conspiracy theory I made up and I’m trying to spread around. Help out if you can.

Nevertheless, Battle in Outer Space is as big and action-packed as you could want in a science-fiction adventure. It’s only competition in its day for alien-invading coolness is Earth vs. the Flying Saucers, a much less pricery film shot in B&W, but with Harryhausen’s magical effects to make the destruction of Washington a killer of a finale. Battle in Outer Space, however, has the full-court press of Toho Studios’ money, color film, TohoScope, and brilliant effects team ready to blow you away. And they do.

Director Ishiro Honda is in here somewhere, but there isn’t much room for plot. I love the guy, as you probably can guess, but this doesn’t feel like much of a personal project for him. But we’ll never have a chance to get bored and notice it until we start writing blog entries about it. Never mind, bring on the Planet Smashers!

American distributors of Japanese science-fiction often complained about how slowly they started: conferences, scientists, mysterious occurrences, but no monster or big action for at least a half hour. But they could never complain about Battle in Outer Space, which immediately has alien flying saucers blow up an Earth space station (which, in one shot in particular, looks very much like Space Station One in a certain film that came along nine years later and has the word Odyssey in the title). The credits pop up with another rockin’ Akria Ifukube march, although this one has a more sinister undertone than the heroics of the music in The Mysterians. But we’ll get those heroics later. This music would also serve later as the main title music for the cheap Godzilla vs. Gigan.

Time for a break? Hell no. In the next scene, the naughty aliens lift up a suspension bridge (and some poor railroad worker’s hat and lantern) just to cause a train crash. Accidents are happening all over the world, such as in Italy and the U.S. (via some not-terribly convincing paintings). The world’s scientists convene in Tokyo to counter the menace.

You can already tell the huge difference between this movie and The Mysterians. The early film sets up characters, has a slight disaster (a forest fire), and then some speculation. Alien attacks starts, but not until the middle of the film does the world get together to develop plans. In Battle in Outer Space, we only get five minutes into the movie and the world is ready to go to war against those space bastards—and we haven’t had anything like main characters get in the way.

(Look, it’s Harold S. Conway, our favorite Caucasian non-actor, sitting in as the Canadian representative at the Space Research Center meeting!)

The scientists start to gather their new super-toys, like the SPIP rocket ship, to combat the alien threat. Then the Iranian representative at the meeting, Dr. Ahmed (Malcolm Pearce), appears to go insane and tries to sabotage the laser project. It turns out Ahmed is under the control of the “People of Natal,” the aliens who wish to control the Earth. A spaceship thanks Ahmed for his service by frying him once he manages to get away from the police.

But the scientists (still mostly a nameless bunch, with only handsome Ryo Ikebe as Katsumia standing out as an individual hero—hey, he has top-billing) now know that the aliens of Natal have a base on the moon where they plan a full assault on Earth. Dr. Hadachi (Koreya Senda) will lead the first ship on the voyage to the moon to recon the Natal base. Dr. Richardson (Len Stanford) will lead the second.

Hey, wait a minute—a character moment! Katsumia and his girl Etsuko (Kyoko Anzai) sit on a hillside and watch the Moon with some light piano music from Ifukube. This only propels us to a scene where their fellow scientist Iwamura (Yoshio Tsuchiya) falls under the control of the aliens in a creepy sequence with flashing gels lights that might fit into Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Tsuchiya could sell this sort of lunacy with ease; if you wanted someone to play madness—or the leader of an alien invasion, as in The Mysterians and Invasion of Astro-Monster—you hired Tsuchiya.

Welcome to Part I of the fight against Natal: The Moon is a Damn Harsh Mistress. Most of the vague scientist and astronaut characters we’ve met so far pile into the two SPIP spaceships, funky fin-designs in the classic 1950s style, and have model-master Eiji Tsubaraya give them a beautiful lift-off. The zero-gravity ends up selective, however: after one astronaut drifts to the ceiling and the low-gravity of the Moon is noted, it never seems to affect anyone else again.

An amusing aspect of seeing these films in Japanese is the the occasional mumbling of English in the background patter from the Caucasians. Oh those wacky “international casts.”

The travel to the Moon features beautiful backdrop paintings and models, prefiguring the even more extensive work in Gorath. The real battle begins with the SPIPs blasting away radio-controlled meteoroids the Natal hurl at them, featuring spectacular optical effects.

The rocket ships now make a choreographed landing on the Moon. I’m not exaggerating when I say these are the best Moon-footage scenes pre-2001: A Space Odyssey. Tsubaraya usurps himself here, and all the lunar sequences are filled with an aesthetic beauty that makes the visuals works of art. Yes, movie special effects should be considered artwork—realism be damned.

Dramatically, the whole Moon section hinges on when and how Iwamura will crack and betray everyone. This is the center of what human drama the film has. I must repeat, Tsuchiya is great in the part of a man gradually going mad.

The Earth teams use cool rovers capable of brief hovering jumps in the low lunar gravity to close in on the Natal base, while Iwamura tries to fight off the orders from the disembodied voice channeled into his head to blow up the two Earth rockets.

Etsuko has a run-in with the Natal aliens in our only look at them. They’re played by short actors in full environmental suits, and when they try to swam Etsuko, it’s a squirmy moment David Lynch would appreciate. Katsumia comes to her rescue against the hordes of meeping mini-imperial stormtroopers. Weird stuff—Japanese science fiction had started to change with the dawn of the 1960s, moving away from the docu-drama American model.

The laser and explosion-filled end of the Moon sequence, with Iwamura’s heroic redemption and Ifukube pouring on one of his most exciting marches, would normally fill up any science-fiction movie and bring it to a close.

But hold on! The Natal may have lost their base, but their saucers still roam the skies and are ready to inflict revenge on Earth’s cities. So now we move into Act II: Dogfights and Vacuum Cleaners. (Do dogfights hate vacuum cleaners?) The world stands even more united than before (director Honda peeking through), and special scout ships that can fight outside Earth’s atmosphere are constructed with international aid.

The true “Battle in Outer Space” starts, and Eiji Tsubaraya leaves it all on the road. The scouts engaging the saucers hits at the same excitement level of X-wings vs. TIE-fighters. Laser blasts crisscross the screen. The Natal aliens launch their planet-smashers, those radio-guided meteoroids, at Earth and nail downtown New York and the Golden Gate Bridge. The alien mothership flies to Tokyo and proceeds to—oh wow, oh wow, oh wow—de-gravitize the city and suck buildings, cars, and people into the air like an enormous Rug Doctor! This scene alone is worth the price of admission and is one of Eiji Tsubaraya’s VFX masterpieces.

At this point, I’m just going to break down and cry. This is beautiful. This is just all the holidays wrapped into one.

Deep breath. The movie’s over. Back to the normal world and my blog.

With the exception of Iwamura, I could fit what I know about the other characters onto the back of my 2008 election voter stub. Battle in Outer Space fails as human drama. And I do not care. The whole move is a space-opera adrenaline rush from start to finish. If I cannot feel the true strength of director Ishiro Honda here (I’ll get that in Gorath) and the story is as simplistic as a fourth grader’s idea of what a totally killer alien invasion flick would look like, I’ll let that slide and allow the combined forces of Eiji Tsubaraya and maestro Akira Ifukube to rock the house and leave nothing standing. Battle in Outer Space is the definition of “fun.”

The film is now available on Region 1 DVD from Sony, a three-pack that also contains Mothra and The H-Man. Helluva deal.

Stick around next week for Gorath, third and best of the Honda-Tsubaraya “Space Opera Trilogy.”