Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Space Wages War on Earth!

Battle in Outer Space
(Uchu Daisenso, 1959)
DVD Description:
Released by Sony/Columbia Pictures; additional material: Japanese and U.S. versions, commentaries, trailers

Directed by Ishiro Honda

Starring Ryu Ikebe, Koreya Senda, Kyoko Anzai, Yoshio Tsuchiya, Minoru Takada, Leonard Stanford, Harold Conway, Hisaya Ito, Malcolm Pearce

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

This release of Battle in Outer Space is part of Sony/Columbia Pictures' Toho Collection three-pack that also features The H-Man and Mothra, all of which were originally released domestically by Columbia in the late 50s/early 60s. The DVD includes both the U.S. and Japanese versions of the film, along with commentary by Ed Godziszewski and Steve Ryfle. The prints for both U.S. and Japanese versions are fairly good, if not excellent. The packaging, unfortunately, is severely lacking, with the discs all being crammed into one side of a single-width case. To remedy this, I just put the discs in separate cases and fixed them up with reproductions of the original Japanese one-sheets.

If Battle in Outer Space is not a direct sequel to The Mysterians (Chikiyu Boeigun, 1957), it certainly shares common characters and plot elements. It's unclear whether Dr. Adachi, played by Koreya Senda, and Etsuko, played by Kyoko Anzai, are intended to be the same characters from The Mysterians (played by Takashi Shimura and Momoko Kochi, respectively), but Dr. Immelman, played by Harold Conway in both films, is obviously meant to be the same individual. More as a result of budget limitations than creative intent, the alien spaceships are slightly modified holdovers from the former film, and the same sound effects are used while they are in flight.

Whereas The Mysterians built slowly, setting up a grim, brooding atmosphere before introducing the giant robot Mogera and then progressing to a massive artillery/aerial battle, Battle in Outer Space opens with an alien attack on a space station, immediately followed by several other violent assaults on the earth. The film moves at a fairly brisk pace for the duration, with two Earth rockets, called the SPIPs, making a journey to the moon to combat invaders from the planet Natal, concluding with a major battle as the Natalians make a desperate final attempt to conquer Earth.

Though technically not a daikaiju film, Battle in Outer Space features many of the trappings that would eventually come to permeate the Godzilla series—invading space aliens, high-tech spaceships and aircraft engaged in spectacular battles, and the graphic destruction of major miniature cities. Eiji Tsuburaya's special effects certainly take a front seat in this film, mostly involving battles between spacecraft. The effects work succeeds to varying degrees, with the best taking place on the surface of the moon. The design of the SPIP rockets is typical of those from the 50s and 60s—tapering, needle-like fuselages with large base fins—and they appear quite convincing, especially during launches and landings. For the most part, the lunar surface miniatures and sets work exceedingly well, and the ground cars used by the SPIP astronauts appear functional; cuts between miniatures and full-size mock-ups are oftentimes flawless.

While anything resembling respect for the laws of physics might be rare in outer space movies—whether then or now—Battle in Outer Space makes only a few token nods to the concepts of weightlessness, effects of acceleration in gravity, et. al., and these are particularly odd at that. Most of the time, under said weightless conditions, the characters carry on as if they're in normal Earth gravity, except that—from time to time—one of them might rise unexpectedly in the air and then joke "he forgot." And one line, uttered quite ironically, is "Doesn't this weightless feeling feel odd?" even as the characters are hoofing through the spaceship's corridor as if they're on a sidewalk in downtown Tokyo.

Because the story is so fast-paced and plot-driven, none of the characters are very well-drawn or memorable, though Yoshio Tsuchiya plays a fairly tragic character who succumbs to the Natalians' mind control—the kind of role for which he came to be well-known in numerous Toho films, such as Dr. Otani in Destroy All Monsters and Masafumi Kasai in Matango. The romance between handsome leading actor Ryo Ikebe and Kyoko Anzai is understated—almost to the point of superfluousness—but further development would needlessly slow the pace of the picture.

Most fans of Toho science fiction films tend to rate Battle in Outer Space as inferior to The Mytserians—as do I—but also find it exciting and engaging. Despite the packaging, which hardly does justice to these DVDs, a decent presenation of both the Japanese and U.S. versions of the film—with very perceptive commentary by Messrs. Godziszewski and Ryfle—is a most welcome thing.

No comments: