Friday, March 09, 2007

Random Movie Report #20: War In Space

WAR IN SPACE is the kind of movie you would expect to have to find on an import or even a bootleg, but no, it's a legit Region 1 DVD release with subtitles, a high quality transfer, special features, and everything. Which is good, even if I wasn't overwhelmed by the film itself; on principle, all movies deserve the "Special Edition" treatment. And WAR IN SPACE isn't really a bad movie; a colorful Japanese space opera, it delivers pretty much what it promises, with neat visuals and elaborate miniatures going boom. The problem is it doesn't provide much more than that, and manages to be almost completely generic in execution. I can't really recommend it to anyone who isn't a fan of the genre, but if you like this kind of movie, then this is the kind of movie you'd like.

Set in the near future (i.e. 1988), the film starts with Earth being attacked by aliens. Sphere-shaped Hell Fighters manage to destroy an orbiting space station, which prompts the UN Space Bureau to activate a plan for Earth's defense- a giant flying battleship named Gohten. Gohten's designer, Professor Takigawa (Ryo Ikebe), is reluctant at first, but agrees to finish the ship and lead it to attack the invaders' base on Venus. Gohten is completed right as the Hell Fighters begin blasting the, well, Hell out of Earth's major cities, but it launches just in time to drive off the invading fleet, then head to Venus, crewed by the Professor, his daughter Jun (Yuko Asano), pilots Miyoshi (Morita Kensaku) and Muroi (Masaya Oki), and random American Jimmy (David Perin), as well as countless others who are never named or given much development at all. They reach Venus, where the alien leader Commander Hell (I can't find his name in the credits, so it's anyone's guess who plays him) waits in the command ship, which resembles an ancient galleon. But with lasers.

Conceived as a sort of submarine movie in space, this 1977 production was Toho's last big special effects extravaganza for many years- the Japanese film industry in general was in a bad financial spot, and the Godzilla series had sputtered to a halt two years earlier. (Both director Jun Fukuda and effects supervisor Teruyoshi Nakano had worked on those movies before, under producer Tomoyuki Tanaka.) Some of the destruction footage in this film is lifted from earlier Toho spectaculars (a common practice for the studio in the seventies), though it's well concealed. A few important events have been shoved off screen, but overall the effects work is quite impressive. There's a lot of dogfighting action which is both shot and edited well, and though this film came out on the heels of another prominent picture about wars in space, amongst the stars if you will, and despite being fairly old-fashioned by comparison, it manages quite a few thrills. The film's visuals are also lush and hugely science fiction-y, blending styles from FLASH GORDON retro to 2001 not-as-retro. Much of the action takes place on the planet Venus, moodily rendered as a field of craggy rocks and caves with volcanoes and dust storms in the distance.

Unfortunately, the film doesn't manage to connect much beyond the visual level. One doesn't expect deep characterization from a movie like this, but even by the standards of a space adventure film this is unusually flat. Oh, there are attempts at character development. There's a love triangle between Jun, Miyoshi, and Muroi, there's a scene of Jimmy mourning his family that was killed in New York (offscreen, natch), and the Professor has a dark secret. But it's all executed flatly, joylessly, a mechanical run-through of war movie conventions with sacrifices you can see coming a mile away and no hooks to grab onto. There's a last-minute twist aimed at adding pathos, but it's so plainly derivative and frankly implausible even by genre standards that it doesn't work at all.

Also harming things is the fact that the alien menace seems underdeveloped. Commander Hell manages to do absolutely nothing of note on his own, and seems the bog standard "ultimate evil guy" who would go on to boringly menace every anime protagonist ever; he does have a neat minion who looks like a cross between Chewbacca and a minotaur, and there's some business with the aliens being able to possess dead bodies, but that never adds up to much. Their motivation is the same as every alien race- they're old and advanced and their planet is dead (I don't think any of these films has really explored the issue that, by defeating the invaders, the heroes are condemning a race to extinction).

Style over substance might be the best way to describe all this, though it's a label I rarely use due to how often it's misapplied. So, instead, I'll say that the film is just very slight. It's not dull, and for fans of the genre, the visual richness and the cool spaceship fights may be enough. I don't really dislike the film, and I regret neither watching it nor buying the DVD, but you can pretty much tell whether you're the kind of person who'll like this one.

Screenplay by Shuichi Nagahara, Ryuzo Nakanishi
Directed by Jun Fukuda

Grade: C+

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