Thursday, September 17, 2009

Now Playing: Battle in Outer Space

1959's Battle in Outer Space sprints out of the gate with an awesomely realized outer space ambush, establishing that this film intends to be a special effects extravaganza. The opening credits roll to a booming Ifukube march (one of my favorites, which would be recycled for use in Godzilla vs. Gigan), and that is followed immediately by an atmospheric scene in which a flying saucer levitates a bridge, casuing a trian to plummet to the chasm below. What a start!

Inevitably, the pace slows as we meet the principal characters and they decide on an approach to warding off the extraterrestrial attack. However, the aliens from Natal are already a presence on earth, as demonstrated by the mind control of Dr. Ahmed, and the abduction and control of astronaut Iwomura (in an entertaining bit of acting by Yoshio Tsuchiya).

Soon, two Earth rockets are ready to launch, and the effects shots never really let up from that point. The pre-launch scenes are excellent in detail and composition, as are the shots of the rockets leaving Earth behind. The saucers and space torpedoes look fantastic throughout, glowing and pulsing eeriliy from within. The sound effects round out the presentation, with "classic" Toho sound signatures for saucers, laser beams, and general alien weirdness.

There are a few elements of Battle that are lackluster, and unfortunately they are fairly significant. The first shortcoming is the appearance of the Natal aliens. For most of the movie, they are unseen, hiding in their saucers or their moon base. When we finally do see these marauding invaders in a moon cavern, they look like...well, they look like children wearing stormtrooper helmets. Which is worse--a faceless, impersonal enemy, or one that looks like a trick-or-treater? Battle doesn't make you choose--it has both! The Natal aliens are a far cry from the colorful, manipulative Mysterians, and as a result, there's really no one to root against.

Secondly, the whole moon set piece seems to drag on too long, because the attack on the Natal moon base lacks any real dramatic tension. The earthlings land on the moon, travel in their rovers, and hike to a strategic vantage point, all so that they can stand at a distance and fire their heat ray weapon until a big puff of smoke rolls out of the Natal base. When someone volunteers to sneak into the base (Oh boy! Let's go!) he's told by the lead scientist, "It's out of the question" (Awwww!) Too bad.

In fairness, there is a memorable scene on the moon. When the mind-controlled Iwomura blows up one of the earth rockets, there is a genuine sense of peril, as in "how are they going to get back home--especially if Iwomura gets to Rocket #2?" Iwomura's repentant sacrifice on the moon is somewhat stirring, but it also robs us of Yoshio Tsuchiya for Act III of the movie, which is a shame. He is easily the most compelling cast member, and really makes the most of his screen time. Though he doesn't even recieve top billing, it seems to me that this is Tsuchiya's movie--he emerges as the star of Battle.

Well, the human star, anyway--the true star is the special effects department. Their work is mind-boggling at times. The standout scene occurs when the mothership saucer unleashes its vacuum ray on the city below. That image has come to define Battle among fans, and rightly so: forty years later, it is still astounding viewing.

Battle in Outer Space falls short of being a perfect sci-fi classic--the underwhelming cast (who admittedly are not given much to do), by-the-numbers alien invasion plot and a few too many visible wires keep it from reaching its potential--but it still sports some ingenious visuals, an intense performance from Yoshio Tsuchiya, and it gives full expression to director Ishiro Honda's vision of international cooperation in the face of a common enemy.

Eighteen years before Star Wars stormed the silver screen, Battle in Outer Space conjured up dreamlike scenes of space dogfights, laser battles, and interstellar travel. It may not be the reason to pick up the "Icons of Sci-Fi: Toho Collection," but fans of the Toho team responsible for Godzilla will be glad this diverting, ambitious film is included.

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