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Thursday, October 29, 2015

HubrisWeen 3, Day 24: The X From Outer Space (1967)

Written by Moriyoshi Ishida, Eibi Motomochi and Kazui Nihonmatsu
Directed by Kazui Nihonmatsu

Eiji Okada:  Doctor Kato
Shun'ya Wazaki:  Captain Sano
Itoko Harada:  Michiko
Peggy Neal:  Lisa

It's not HubrisWeen without Vincent Price. It's also not really HubrisWeen without some poor suffering stuntman in a rubber monster suit kicking over models on a Japanese soundstage. I love giant monster movies. If you're reading this, you probably love them too, or at least tolerate them, or could potentially be convinced to give one a chance. Don't start with this one if you're new to the odd pleasures of the kaiju film, because it's kind of a mess in lots of different ways. That's what happens when you decide to ride on some coattails and make your own kaiju movie thirteen years after the 1954 film Godzilla was a massive hit, kick-starting an entire genre of films in Japan.

Godzilla (and Mothra and King Ghidorah and Destoroyah and Mechagodzilla and Megaguirus and Megalon and Titanosaurus and the burnt-shag-rug-suit take on King Kong and the Gargantuas) were the monsters whose films were made at Toho Studios. Rival studio Daei had Gamera (a completely original giant monster, in that he was a giant fire-breathing turtle instead of a giant fire-breathing lizard, and other bizarre yet endearing monsters that he fought like Barugon and Gyaos). Gamera made his first appearance in 1965, with Daei apparently believing in striking while the iron was a dull reddish tint at best (that's not entirely fair--there were several Godzilla sequels by this time as well as movies featuring new monsters like Rodan or Dogora). But that movie was a hit so Shochiku, another studio, thought they'd strike two years later when the iron was already cool. It's not a coincidence that this was Shochiku's first and only kaiju movie and that Guilala, the gigantic space reptile featured in it, faded almost completely out of the consciousness of cinemaphiles worldwide, even people like me who love this sort of indefensible garbage.

I mean, we got a really good American movie starring Godzilla last year, and a promised sequel for 2018 that I'm looking forward to. Gamera, always the well-regarded second stringer, got a very well-received trilogy of movies in the 1990s and will be getting a reboot movie of his own since Godzilla did so well in 2014. And Guilala vanished from the public consciousness almost completely, returning only for an out-and-out comedy about the G8 governments of earth trying to defeat him during a political summit in Japan. The only other thing he showed up in appears to be a commercial for a headhunting company in America and they almost certainly used him because Toho wouldn't let them make fun of any of their properties that way. Although that's not quite the full story, because the Criterion collection has a budget-minded subsidiary called Eclipse that releases movies that don't quite deserve the full remasters-and-extras treatment that they give classics like The Seven Samurai and Citizen Kane (and RoboCop), but still should be available for cinephiles who might have missed them in the original theatrical run. Hence the existence of today's film on DVD, though I watched print on YouTube for this particular review. Godzilla's debut film got the full Criterion treatment on blu-ray, though, and if you have even the slightest interest in this kind of film you should treat yourself to a viewing.

The opening credits show drawings of several constellations along with the Japanese-language credits and one of the most staggeringly misconceived scores for a monster movie I have ever heard. It's Les Baxter swingin' lounge instrumentals with a harpsichord. Can you think of an instrument less associated with science fiction than the harpsichord? I'm currently at a loss to do that. The score couldn't sound goofier unless someone was doing the whole main theme with armpit noises.

A helicopter lands at the "FAFC" (which stands for the Fuji Astro-Flying Center) and some jumpsuited laborers take a metal box out of it, then carefully load that thing in a car. Turns out the box contains a super-nuclear fuel that can explode when it's dropped, which does indeed sound like something to take a little extra care with. Some people who already know each other shake hands and fail to let us know precisely who they are. The FAFC is going to launch a space mission soon, and it's going to be amazing. Captain Sano is going to be in charge of a manned mission to Mars, where the objectives are loose enough that "orbit the planet and land if you can" is considered detailed enough for him to accomplish things. There's a snag, of course. The previous six missions going to Mars encountered a UFO of some kind and were destroyed, with the loss of all astronauts' lives. The FAFC believes, essentially, that the seventh mission is bound to be luckier than the other ones and sends Sano and his crew out to hopefully not die (I wonder if the screenwriters saw War of the Satellites before setting pen to paper on this one?). The newly constructed AAB Gamma rocketship is apparently better than the other ones, although the Dr. Kato, the head of FAFC, doesn't really explain why.

The crew is small--Captain Sano (head dude in charge), Lisa (a biologist sent to look for Martian life but explicitly ordered not to touch anything or collect samples without an okay from the captain), Shioda the medic and Miyamoto the radio operator. Sadly, Miyamoto is apparently from whatever part of Tokyo would correspond to Brooklyn so he'll be in charge of the comic relief as well as talking to FAFC Mission Control. The head of FAFC gives a brief pep talk, ending it with "This is definitely not going to be a one-way trip," which is probably not the morale booster he thinks it is. The crew doesn't sneak off and run away at the first opportunity, but rather goes to the AAB Gamma to get launched up and hopefully not blown to atoms by whatever is in space interfering with all the previous Mars launches. Miyamoto tries to be wacky by listening to Lisa's heartbeat by leaning against her chest, and everyone finds this charming instead of secretly plotting to throw him out an airlock at the earliest opportunity.

Random shots of dials and oscillators? There must be SCIENCE! going on! The pre-launch checklist is gone through in real time and the countdown starts. The rocket streaks into the air in a pretty cool model sequence that belies the film's low budget. But I do like that the tracking station at FAFC Central has a radar dish moving to track the AAB Gamma craft. Once the main rocket escapes the atmosphere the nose cone opens up and the AAB Gamma minicraft launches from it, then extends its landing gear / wing assembly because it's in a total vacuum and those things are going to be needed. Miyamoto loses control of a clipboard in zero-G until the captain flips the "gravity" switch and makes it fall to the deck (huh!?). Back at Mission Control, the flight director decides to take a smoke break and another FAFC staff member, Dr. Berman, rambles about the UFO that previous Mars shots reported seeing before they were destroyed (it only shows up when they launch rockets, which means it can't be an asteroid or comet). Berman and the Mission Control lead check out the horribly not-to-scale mission map that looks like a pinball machine back glass and try to call the ship.

Over on the AAB Gamma command module, all they're hearing over the radio is static. Then Lisa spots something out of one of the portholes--it's a blurry shot of the mystery UFO that has attacked and destroyed half a dozen other Mars launches. Whatever wack-ass energy field surrounds the UFO is screwing up the AAB Gamma's communications rig, so the four astronauts are completely on their own now. The ship's doctor apparently had some bad shellfish before taking off, and starts sweating profusely. Then the UFO gets close enough to take a look at it looks like a deep-fried cheeseburger. Apparently it came from a planet where state fair food evolved into sentient life.

The ship gets away from the flying pastry thing without further incident and lands on the Moon base that just sort of happens to be there. Everyone waves happily to communications officer Michiko on their Skype TV phone. Michiko hangs up on the captain and leaves her desk without telling the AAB Gamma crew that they need to slow down or they'll overshoot the landing pad and die (she eventually relents when another Moon base crew member reminds her that she's the only one who can operate the communications rig and warns the AAB Gamma astronauts about their imminent deaths). Meanwhile, because she's the woman on the craft, Lisa is serving coffee. At length the AAB Gamma module lands on the Moon base pad and Shioda gets taken away on a golf cart / ambulance thing. He gets diagnosed with "space sickness" and gets scrubbed from the Mars flight. Lisa has smuggled a pair of earrings up to the Moon as a gift for Michiko (apparently Michiko thought Lisa was making a move on Captain Sano earlier, I guess, which is why she hung up on their call earlier).

But enough of that shit, it's time for people to bounce around on the Moon set to simulate low gravity while more harpsichord lounge music dribbles out of the soundtrack. Lisa finds a geode or something on the moon, then Captain Sano and Miyamoto take a hot bath together in a tiny, tiny tub while the captain explains that the water they're soaking in is somehow synthesized from lunar rocks (I would have expected it to be recycled urine, honestly). Then it's time for Lisa and Michiko to take a shower in separate compartments--had this movie been made several years later, they would have probably upped the titillation factor by making them share a stall for conservation reasons. After everyone gets cleaned up it's time for a cocktail party on the Moon, because this is the swankest kaiju movie ever made.

Dr. Shioda has been taken off the crew roster for the Martian mission, so the chief lunar medical officer Dr. Stein gets press-ganged onto the AAB Gamma mission. He refuses, and then gets overruled. You're going to Mars and that's that, sucker. After one last cocktail for the Space Road, everyone gets back onto the AAB Gamma module and gets ready to go off to Mars. They probably should have closed the passenger ramp before they got out onto the airless surface of the Moon, I think. But nothing bad happens to them so obviously it wasn't that big a deal. Dr. Stein gripes about the food and sasses Lisa for being a terrible Space Cook. I kinda hope the rest of the crew slaps the living shit out of him, but before that can happen Captain Sano hears something odd (in the spacecraft), which turns out to be a meteorite shower. How he heard that when sound doesn't travel in a vacuum I don't know, but the ship gets holed and quick action is necessary to keep all the air from getting sucked out of the ship.

Back at FAFC, Dr. Berman says the AAB Gamma is getting to the spot where all the other ships were destroyed by the flying pastry craft. The head of FAFC says if this ship is destroyed, they're not sending any more out (apparently not believing that the eighth time is the charm). The pastry thing flies past the AAB Gamma's bow. It catches the Earth ship in a tractor beam and Dr. Stein flips out, taking over the controls and trying to fly away from the thing without any measurable success. Eventually the alien craft leaves and Lisa notices some crystals left on the hull of the AAB Gamma. Captain Sano goes outside to scrape some of them off the hull and Lisa follows along because she's worried about him. The crystals are blinking on in space, and there appear to be several hundred of them clustered over the rocket nozzle at the rear of the ship. The captain grabs one or two, storing them in a sample jar, and he and Lisa return to the ship (using a jetpack to make the journey instead of handholds or magnetic shoes).

The AAB Gamma has been crippled by the flying space pie's magnetic field, so a rescue vessel is launched from the Moon to rendevous with the Terran craft and drop off a new box of radioactive isotopes since they ran out of fuel trying to escape the UFO. Michiko isn't just the chief telephone operator on the Moon base, by the way--she's also a rescue rocket pilot. The new fuel gets dropped into place and the AAB Gamma returns to FAFC with Michiko on board so she can help during the eventual monster rampage that the movie has not so much as goddamned hinted at yet.

The blinking and beeping spore from space gets examined back at FAFC. Or at least it would be, if anyone was interested in checking it out the night they get back. Instead, at Miyamoto's suggestion, everyone just leaves it in the lab on what looks like a rather mod kitchen countertop and goes off for another cocktail party. You know, like scientists who found something utterly unprecedented in space would do. You know what I can't get enough of in my kaiju movies? People standing around drinking booze and chatting. Thank goodness there's yet another scene like that here. I'm also starting to wonder if this movie would have been a better match for the guys on Mad Men than the one they eventually went to see (which was Gamera, and I like to think white-collar alcoholics in the Sixties would have liked to see that one even if this is a better match for their proclivities).

Suddenly there is a phone call for Dr. Kato at the party and he's told that the lab has been damaged and the sample of Space Whatnot is gone. There's also a big hole in the floor. Lisa grabs some samples of spore-shell while Captain Sano finds a footprint that would match up to something like a four-foot-tall chicken on the floor. If the spore (which was the size of a golf ball) hatched and that thing came out of it, it's growing at an unprecedented rate. The FAFC power plant is experiencing a power loss at the same time, as revealed in a Coen Brothers-style intrusive drop-in scene. In lieu of investigating anything, the AAB Gamma crew goes to a hotel for more drinking when there's a power failure and they see weirdly colored lights in the distance.

Then--FINALLY--the monster movie's movie monster, Guilala, shows up. And watching Guilala tear up a hill as he rises up is actually pretty cool. The monster suit itself, though...well, take another look at the poster up there. It's a chubby bipedal reptile thing with a head that has light-up eyes, two deelybobber antennae and a Shrek horn pointing forward from the top of its head, as well as rather adorable pudgy cheeks. Lots of kaiju fans have called it a "space chicken" but I don't really see that. Oh, and he's got a lobster claw appendage on the end of his tail that he never uses to attack anything. Boo. The flaws of never having made a giant monster movie before become apparent when Guilala finally makes the scene. In nearly every other kaiju film the monster is shot from a low angle to make it look more massive and the camera is sped up while filming so that during playback things appear slower. That makes the monsters look more massive when they move or attack things. The crack team of filmmakers who had never done this before don't remember (or never figured out) to use either technique to make Guilala look more menacing.

The next morning, the AAB Gamma guys and Michiko check out the huge smoldering crater that Guilala rose out of and decide it was probably the really bigger version of the thing that walked out of their lab. Whatever else the filmmakers didn't know about the finer points of Japanese monster cinema, they did remember that Guilala had to destroy Tokyo or all the other monsters are going to laugh at him. Civilians flee his wrath and the military response is useless (which we're told about but don't see). During a FAFC meeting Lisa shows off the cosmic spore and some of the crud they've scraped off the AAB Gamma rocket in order to tell everyone that if there's any hope of controlling or defeating Guilala it will probably come from analyzing the alien goop.

Then it's time for the suit performer to have some fun breaking model buildings while toy tanks fire at him uselessly. Guilala, like his inspirations Godzilla and Gamera, has a distance weapon (he can cough fireballs at enemies at will) and he shows that off a few times before getting up close and personal, stepping on the tanks instead. To give the JSDF lots of credit, they really do try to hurt Guilala with everything they've got but even steering a jet fighter directly into his head doesn't even slow the monster down or irritate it. And those fireballs work perfectly against passenger jets, so Guilala causes even more casualties in Japan while wrecking up the place.

The model-building destruction is rather well-handled, to be fair, and after fifty minutes of no monster in the movie it's very welcome. Too bad Guilala's roar is just some dude yelling RAAAAARRRRR! with a little bit of electronic distortion on it. Godzilla's roar it ain't. Too much of a good thing does get a little dull, though, as Guilala continues smashing stuff (including the obligatory "oil tanks at the docks on fire" sequence that all kaiju tend to carry out at some point in their rampages.

I shouldn't have wished for something else, because now a sedated-sounding Lisa back at FAFC headquarters talks about going to the Moon base to synthesize an anti-Guilala weapon using science and the leftover spore scrapings from the sample that hatched into the kaiju that's stomping Tokyo at the moment. Everyone who took the AAB Gamma back to Earth from the aborted Mars mission volunteers to go back into space (where, I hasten to add, there are no giant monsters that could kill them) and try to build a weapon. I was delighted to see a cutout of Guilala being moved around on a map to show where he'd been sighted in this scene, and even happier to imagine that someone on the base was ordered to make one so they could put it on the map.

Meanwhile, back on Earth, Guilala has been rampaging so long that it's night now (an admittedly cool touch). He's getting tired after damaging an entire city and is losing energy according to the scientists observing him, but the next morning he's still bright eyed and scaly tailed, smashing down power lines and getting shot by jet fighters to no apparent effect. Back on the moon, Michiko announces that they've produced a new element they're calling Guilalanium (and she pronounces it about as well as Inspector Clouseau probably would). Guilalanium will cut the rampaging monster off from any of its energy sources if they can make enough of it to cover Guilala, and deliver it without getting killed. The other military option (one that is not favored by either of the heads of FAFC) is to nuke the monster from orbit--the military thinks that's the only way to be sure. But the scientists think dropping an atomic weapon on a monster that eats energy won't do anything but make it massively stronger.

In space, Miyamoto keeps trying to call FAFC from the ship and can't get through. He thinks the space pastry is coming back to destroy them and if they don't get back to Earth in time to cover the monster with goop the world could be doomed. It turns out that the Guilalanium in the ship is absorbing energy from them and could wind up killing everyone by making the ship shut down (life support is important in these situations). Back at FAFC there's the usual predictions of doom if the monster isn't stopped and the acknowledgement that Earth's only hope lies with the AAB Gamma crew. The last-ditch attempt to seal the Guilalanium away is made, putting it in their shielded nuclear fuel chamber (which works, because duh).

Back on Earth, Guilala smashes a nuclear power plant and supercharges himself on the radioactive fuel, then turns into a big spore and flies away in a sequence that kinda rips off Rodan because he just flies over cities and destroys them. Up in space, the AAB Gamma gets attacked by the pastry again and tries to outrun it since they have no weapons. If you're not inwardly screaming for the movie to end by the time the AAB Gamma makes its way to Earth you're a stronger man than I. Eventually it's decided that the Guilalanium will be loaded into jets and used as a weapon while the super atomic rocket fuel will get put in a Jeep and driven around as kaiju bait--when Guilala follows the poor saps driving away from it, the JSDF Air Force can coat it with the new element and starve it. But before that can happen, Lisa needs to go back into the office for paperwork and get trapped under wreckage so more time can be eaten up getting her out from under it. Guilala is actually in sight of the FAFC complex by the time Captain Sano and Miyamoto get in the Jeep and drive off with the portable reactor (which they open up so Guilala can sense it, which probably means they're either going to have superpowers or be dead in a week).

For some reason Miyamoto doesn't drive as fast as he possibly can with Guilala in pursuit but the Jeep gets away from the monster's clutches. The bluescreen wok of the monster's hand is particularly bad in this scene as it reaches for the fuel. It eventually gets its hands on it but both Sano and Miyamoto escape the Jeep crash with their lives. Then it's time for the air force to attack, covering the monster with Guilalanium, which winds up looking like shaving cream or melted ice cream running over the suit (or something else from Japan, but if you don't know what that is I'm not even going to hint at it here). Guilala still manages to fireball a plane or two as he shrinks down, the Guilalanium reducing him to the spore he originally came from. Lisa picks the spore up and drops it in a shielded container (which won't even work as a temporary solution because it's just going to hatch again in a few days). It is decided that another real quick rocket launch is the only possible solution, throwing the spore back into space where it won't be able to become a giant monster and trash Japan again. The FAFC sure does look like it can launch rockets on about ten minutes' notice in this movie.

The heroes walk into the sunset as more harpsichord music plays, and Michiko and Captain Sano talk about Guilala's endless journey into space, since the rocket is just supposed to keep going until it leaves the solar system (which makes sense to me, but I hope the Gorn don't wind up having to deal with him in another 400 years or so).

Man, I can understand why nobody at Shochiku Studios wanted to do this again after they gave it a try the first time. At 88 minutes, it feels endless and the screenplay takes forever to get going (with the AAB Gamma going from Earth to space to the Moon to space and back to Earth before the embryonic form of the monster is even introduced). Sure, it's the swankest possible future for middle-aged hepcats to imagine and I do like the idea of a cocktail lounge on the Moon, but when you burn the first three-fifths of your monster movie without even hinting at the monster's existence you are doing something really, really wrong. I imagine with a big enough crowd it would be more fun, but there's absolutely a reason that Guilala never captured the hearts and minds of generations of monster-movie fans. This is exactly the wrong thing to watch as movie 24 of 26 in a marathon, but what can you do? There just aren't that many horror of science fiction movies that start with X.

This has been another review for HubrisWeen, the five-member blogathon where reviewers watch 26 October-appropriate movies in alphabetical order. Click on that banner up there to see what the other reviewers thought of their movies that begin with the most science-fictiony of letters.

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