I haven’t done one of these in a long while, but when I came across a Japanese space movie I’d never seen before, I just knew I had to cover it.
PLAY BY PLAY
In the not-too-distant future – I dunno, the 1970s, I guess, or maybe the late ‘60s – Japan has a vigorous space program that has its own large space station that looks a lot like a roulette wheel, complete with the little spinny bit at the tip. The station – which is armed for no good reason – is attacked by flying saucers, and destroyed.
Roll opening titles!
UFOs cause several acts of wonton destruction (Which is a great Chinese punk cover band that used to play in…oh, wait, I already used that gag in another review) involving wrecking a train, the Panama Canal, and Venice. Japan got off light. You knew the train was going to get destroyed, though, since it was obviously a miniature rather than stock footage. That’s how you can always tell when something is about to explode in these films: if they use miniatures for something they could have simply gone outdoors and shot for real, it’s gonna’ die.
Anyway, a UN conference is called at the Japanese Space Center to discuss the loss of the space station, the miniature train, and the two poorly painted pictures that are alleged to be photographs of Panama and Italy. They conclude that the earth is under attack by aliens from the planet Natal. How they know this isn’t made clear, and in fact there’s really no way they could.
Meanwhile, the Iranian delegate to the UN Science Thingie wanders off by himself (Always stay with the group! Always!) and gets Zombified by the aliens. He’s now their slave. Why’d they pick an Iranian? I’m assuming either it was the whole “Hostages” thing, which wouldn’t happen for another 19 years, or it might be that he wore a turban, which hid the surgery scars. So anyway, he runs amok breaking stuff ineffectually until he’s outed by a random gaggle of UN delegates who chase him around (If you’ve got sound editing equipment, remove the soundtrack during these scenes, and replace them with “Help” by the Beatles and some girly screams. It’s hilarious!) so he escapes smirkingly, and is disintegrated by his alien overlords.
Scooping up some of the red dust that remains, and putting it under the microscope, they conclude that there was a tiny machine or something in his head that made him act all goofy. The UN re-convenes, and declares that the aliens from the planet they’ve never heard of and shouldn’t know the name of, have set up a base on the moon and are planning to invade, which they also shouldn’t really know. Ok, the invasion is a no-brainer, but the moon thing? What, was it written on the mind control device in really tiny print or something?
In less time than it takes to say ‘jumpcut’ the nations of the world are working together building two large spacecraft (Who’s size is really inconsistent) to go the moon to do recon or possibly to kick butt (Also rather inconsistent). Rather than simply go, however, they decide to pad out the film a bit with the most unromantic romantic subplot of all time:
Protagonist and Chick (The characters are all ciphers and fairly interchangeable ones at that, so let’s not even keep the pretense that they have names) go out for a skrog in the park. They lay down. Chick looks up at the moon and says, “You know, when I look at the moon, I keep imagining there’s a prince up there who’ll come down and swoop me off my feet.” I don’t know where you come from, but around here (Florida), if a girl starts mooning about some guy other than you to take her away, you’re pretty much not gonna get any.
Meanwhile, Protagonist says “I think as we move further into the future, our sense of beauty will fade.” What the frack? What are you, a French existential nihilist? Dude, seriously, that kinda’ crap wouldn’t even get you laid in Paris in the ‘50s. Yikes!
I should mention that the girl is reeeeeeealy pretty. Her name was Koyoko Anzai. I can’t find any pictures of her, but believe you me, she’s way prettier than the chicks you generally see in movies of this caliber and period. While watching this, I remembered a scene in the movie “The Mysterians” that was almost identical, and wondered if clueless people not making out was just the zeitgeist of the time. In looking it up, I found that this movie is actually a sequel to The Mysterians, so it was probably an in-joke. Turns out this was a trilogy: The Mysterians (Which I’ve seen a zillion times, but not in 30 years), this movie, and a third one that I’ve never heard of.
So anyway, Protagonist and Koyoko see a flying saucer and beat it back to the base. Meanwhile, their fellow-astronaut friend – let’s call him “Imomura”* – decides to drive into town before the mission to “Kiss the girls.” He’s abducted by the aliens, who plant yet another Zombification device in his head.
The next morning, the two ships – cleverly named “One” and “Two” – are launched. As they fly to the moon, they have no gravity. One third-class yokel – exactly one, and nobody else, despite there being like thirty people on the mission – gets out of his seat, floats up, and bangs his head on the ceiling. The skipper reminds him that they’re weightless, you need to be careful.
“Oh, that’s right, I remember you saying that.”
You’d think this stuff was covered in Astronaut training, but nope, it’s just “Everyone can be an Astronaut day” down at the Japanese Space Center. First fifty people get to go on a suicide mission to the moon. The first hundred get snow cones!
So they pull the guy down. Let’s let that sink in a moment.
He’s floating ‘cuz he’s weightless, they’re weightless too, but they pull him down, when in fact they should go Peter Panning their way up there, too. Evidently, however, you don’t float in zero G as long as you walk carefully.
Seriously: They never explain this. I’d have expected some exposition about “Magnetic Boots” or what have you , but no, just take light steps. Then the officers head into the control room.
Wait – shouldn’t they have been in the control room for liftoff? Wasn’t that where they’ve been all this time?
Evidently not, no.
So they go into the large, submarine-like control room. Evidently the ship was launched on autopilot. Well, really, all rockets are, so I guess they didn’t need to be up there, but it still seems like wasted floor space to me. Ah well.
They pass the floating ruins of the space station, and say a prayer for the dead. This is a really nice scene. Then, en rout to the moon, they get attacked by flying saucers shooting “Space Torpedoes.” (Wouldn’t that mean ‘missiles?’ No matter, they look like rocks anyway.)
Using the super-zap heatray guns that I forgot to mention earlier, but which were invented during a jumpcut in an earlier scene in the film, they manage to fight their way through this and take out a few saucers. Meanwhile, acting under alien influence, Imomura attempts to sabotage and destroy one of their own ships, and disables it’s super-ray gun. He’s caught and ineffectually tied up.
While landing on the moon, the spooky alien baritone warns them to go home, or die. They actually briefly discuss going home.
They then lower some ridiculously over-designed moon rovers to the surface. Seriously: they’ve got tractor treads, and then above these, never touching the ground, they’ve got big car wheels sticking out to the sides. And the things can fly. And they can bend in the middle, but they never do. Impressively enough, they actually built a full-size mockup of the front of one of these! No sooner are they there, then Yokel Third Class (Same guy) manages to bound over the lander by accident. He’s again chided for not being careful.
So they tool around a bit, in boring fashion, and eventually find a cave. Going through the cave, they find the alien base, which is kinda’ boring. They discuss going in to attack it, but decide to get the big portable heat ray machine gun. They send Koyoko back to get the gun, and she’s ambushed by a whole bunch of the aliens in an effectively creepy scene. She’s then rescued by her “Eventually our sense of beauty will fade” boyfriend who’s so forgettable that I actually honestly did forget he was in the movie. And he’s the protagonist!
Why is this scene effective? It’s shot and thought out well. It’s a cave already, so it’s dark and spooky. The aliens are wearing space suits, which saves money on monster costume costs, and allows our imaginations to fill in the blanks. They’re humanoid, but short, child sized, and there’s a lot of them capering about, with helmets that aren’t designed for human heads, making creepy gibbering noises. Protagonist kills them, the they both get back to the cave opening overlooking the alien base.
Meanwhile, Imomura frees himself and blows up one of the moon rockets, then makes his way to the second one.
Humans and aliens shoot at each other a bit, until the alien base blows up, but it disgorges several saucers before it does. On ship two, Imomura loses the voice in his head. In a neat, though brief scene, his face goes from heartless cold to confusion as the signal ceases, and he tries to figure out his last instruction. Then awareness of what he was doing. It’s well played. He sets things right.
The expedition returns to the landing site to find one ship blown up. They assume the saucers did it, but Imomura confesses, begs forgiveness, and stays behind to hold off the saucers with his ray gun while the ship blasts off.
And there you’d think the movie end, but no, there’s an entirely superfluous fourth act.
Back on earth, they decide there’s really nothing to stop the aliens from attacking again, so they decide to build a massive fleet of the “One man scout rockets” they’ve been using, and convert them to fighters. We see several scenes of construction, the aliens attack, and the fighters are launched. These are, no question about it, X-15s with a different paint job. Seriously, they’re just toy model kits.
Then there’s the titular ‘battle in outer space’ which involves none of our characters. Well, they’re in it, but they’re largely interchangeable anyway, and they’re all on the ground gawking at monitors while the fighting goes on. For a while I thought Protagonist was one of the fighter pilots, but, no, I was wrong. He wasn’t. He was just a gawker, too.
So this is pretty dull. Imagine the last 15 minutes of Star Wars if Luke and Han stayed on Yavin, and the whole fight was left up to Porkins and Biggs. Yeah.
The aliens blow up a very substandard model of NYC, and they take out a mediocre model of the Golden Gate bridge. The alien mothership attacks Tokyo. Big ray guns on the ground destroy it. Everyone congratulates each other.
Then an American who hasn’t been in the movie at all up to the battle stands up, and a woman and kid come in, and they make a point of introducing his family, and then he leaves. What the heck was that all about?
They never specifically say it, but it appears there are only three manned space programs in the world in this movie: The American one, the Soviet one, and the Japanese one. It’s sort of taken for granted that the Japanese had the only space station.
Since it’s illegal to use the UN logo for profit, or without written permission, the producers of this film made a near-exact duplicate, only the earth is turned 90 degrees to the right. Clever! And they never actually say “United Nations” in the movie.
There’s no getting around it: this is a lavish production. George Pal would have killed to have this kind of money. Take, for instance, the space station in the opening scene: it’s shaped like a wheel, and the interior sets stretch off into the distance and curve up, just like “Space Station V” from 2001. That movie was filmed 9 years later. They built half of the moon rover. The interior sets of the space ships were not particularly awe-inspiring, but they were competent and pretty big. They had at least a dozen full space suits for the adults, and at least another dozen for the aliens, and at least 24 helmets, they had a fighter cockpit set, they had a pretty large cast, some of whom, I gather, were minor names at the time. This was a sequel to “The Mysterians,” and it clearly had a lot more money behind it than the first film did.
Wanna’ know how to tell if one of these old productions had any money? Space suits. They’re expensive, especially the helmets. If you’ve got a bunch of ‘em, this is a pricey proposition.
The special effects are your typical LB Abbot/Howard Lydecker thing: models on wires. That said, the quality of the shots is really good, and a couple of the scenes – the wreckage of the space station, or the rockets tumbling towards the moon in slow motion – are really pretty. And everything looks good in lurid Technicolor Oh, sorry, “Tohoscope.” When The model building in this movie is surprisingly sub-par, however.
One neat touch: you know how in these old SF films, fire is belching out of the back of the rocket, and the flames kind of bend in some other direction than straight down? And it looks fake? It’s because heat rises, and the flame will find ‘up’ regardless of the position of the model. In this film, to get around it, they built all the launch pad sets upside down, put the camera upside down, lit the fuse, and then dropped the rocket into a net out of shot. The flames don’t look all bendy, and best of all the clouds of smoke gradually appear to rise. They used the same trick for when the aliens are destroying buildings in Tokyo with their anti-gravity guns: the models and camera were upside down. When the explosions start, all the debris falls up, or appears to.
Man, the science in this film is hokey, even by the standards of the time! We’re told that gravity and temperature are related. The alien anti-gravity weapon works by freezing things so cold that they become lighter, and are thrown into the air by the earth’s own centrifugal force. Uhm…..whaaaat?
And…uhm…I guess that’s about it. Now I remember why I haven’t done one of these in a year or so: they take forever to write. I’m tired.
*- That’s actually the character’s real name, I just wanted to see if you’d look down here.