Thursday, June 21, 2007

Random Movie Report #29: Invasion of Astro Monster (aka Godzilla vs. Monster Zero)

We come now to another one of my favorites of the Godzilla saga, albeit one released under a bad title. Toho seemed to come up with the default English title for this one out of a hat (complete with the lack of articles), and GODZILLA VS. MONSTER ZERO Is much better, but Classic Media’s going with the “official” titles and so here we are. Anyway, this is another classic monster romp from Toho, with a number of interesting distinctions, the biggest one being its emphasis on its human protagonists. Godzilla’s still the star, but he shares the spotlight more than usual.

A new planet has been discovered in the solar system, somewhere in Jupiter’s shadow. After creatively naming it “Planet X”, the World Space Authority sends two astronauts, Glenn (Nick Adams) and Fuji (Akira Takarada) to explore the strange new world. They soon meet the planet’s inhabitants, who ask for the Earthlings’ help in driving off the attacks of Monster Zero, a.k.a. King Ghidorah. The Xians ask for Earth’s permission to borrow Godzilla and Rodan to drive off the menace, in exchange for a drug that will cure either all known diseases or cancer (depending on whether you watch the US or Japanese version, respectively.) Earth gladly agrees, but the aliens seem to be hiding something, something relating to Glenn’s girlfriend Namikawa (Kumi Mizuno), who is a representative of a toy company that has bought the rights to a new invention by Tetsuo Teri (Akira Kubo), who wants to marry Fuji’s sister Haruno (Keiko Sawai), but Fuji doesn’t approve. In the end, I suppose it’s not spoiling anything to say that the aliens are indeed up to no good, and once they have Godzilla and Rodan they embark on a plan to invade the Earth using all three monsters. It’s up to our heroes to find a way to defeat the invaders, or at least break the control they have over Earth’s critters.

INVASION OF ASTRO MONSTER represents a high point of sorts for the collaboration between Toho Studios and Henry G. Saperstein, the man responsible for the distribution of many of Toho’s Godzilla and other sci-fi/fantasy films during this period. Saperstein served as an executive producer on this entry alongside Reuben Bercovitch, and at least a few creative decisions were made with an eye towards the American market; Nick Adams, an Oscar nominee and prolific B-list actor was placed in the lead for international appeal (an approach that Toho would also take for FRANKENSTEIN CONQUERS THE WORLD and WAR OF THE GARGANTUAS), and Saperstein persuaded the filmmakers to cut a long opening expository scene he believed would bore American audiences. Though cuts to the films by American distributors have long been the bane of U.S. Godzilla fans, this more collaborative approach results in a film that is nicely attuned to tastes in both cultures; the “Americanization”, as such, is subtle and doesn’t intrude on the distinct atmosphere that Inoshiro Honda helped create for Toho’s 60s monster outings.

This may actually be the most character-driven of the Godzilla movies; the monsters are used as pawns in the aliens’ game, and it falls to Glenn, Fuji, Tetsuo, and Haruno to find a way to fix things. Even when the monsters are fighting, the humans aren’t reduced to Greek chorus as they sometimes are in these movies. For once, we get a number of notable performances; Adams (whose mysterious death in 1968 from an overdose of prescription drugs has become one of those weird Hollywood stories movie buffs love) contributes a lot of gusto and charm, making lines such as “You stinkin’ rats!” and “We’ll fight to the last man, baby” rather memorable in their cheesiness. (His voice is dubbed in the Japanese version by Tadashi Okabe, and his dialogue is sadly much less creative.) Takarada holds his own, as does Akira Kubo in a nice geeky turn. As the Controller of Planet X, Yoshio Tsuchiya brings a deliberate stiffness to his performance, as well as some oddly precise hand gestures, playing nicely into the idea of the Xians as mechanized, soulless beings who live their lives under computer guidance. Kumi Mizuno is also affecting as the sultry and mysterious Miss Namikawa.

One shortcoming the film has in comparison to other Godzilla movies is that, with all the story action given to the humans, the monsters get a bit shortchanged. Godzilla, Rodan, and Ghidorah get an entertaining fight on Planet X as well as a nice marathon of property destruction on Earth, but the final battle is tragically short and anticlimactic. (This also appears to be one of the first films in which Toho recycled monster and other effects footage from earlier movies, in this case a few bits and pieces from RODAN.) Godzilla continues his move towards heroism, with a friendlier look and more playful attitude; in the Planet X battle, he engages in a Western-style “shootout” with Ghidorah and does a little dance when he wins (a move improvised by suit actor Haruo Nakajima, kept in the film despite much debate.) Eiji Tsubaraya’s FX remain wonderfully elaborate and impressive, and the visual design of the film is elegant and colorful, with Planet X looking pretty much like you’d expect a place called “Planet X” to look. The theme music is one of Akira Ifukube’s peppier marches, used to great effect.

INVASION OF ASTRO MONSTER has a sophisticated kind of craziness to it, one in which banter about mutual trust and brotherly overprotectiveness shares screen time with Godzilla smashing houses and aliens watching dots on computer monitors. It’s slick, hip, urbane, and very fun; if not the best Godzilla film, one of the most endearing. The series was on a roll, achieving a surrealistic zen of monster action and creative plotting and visual splendor that was unlike anything American films could offer. One of the reasons reviewing these films is so fun is that they’re almost time capsules; no other culture, in no other decade, could produce something like INVASION OF ASTRO MONSTER, and more’s the pity.

Written by Shinichi Sekizawa
Directed by Inoshiro Honda

Grade: A-

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