Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Random Movie Report #43: The X From Outer Space

Image from
(Starting today I'm also going to be crossposting stuff to the Film & Discussion blog some friends of mine started up. Enjoy that.)

Whoever’s scheduling obscure monster movies on TCM’s late night lineup needs to keep it up; seeing something as shiny and groovy as THE X FROM OUTER SPACE pop up out of nowhere Sunday night was an unexpected joy. It wasn’t my first time seeing the film- I have an unusually strong memory from my childhood of renting it from Blockbuster (back before I knew it was evil), waiting through the rest of the family’s choice of the inexcusably long CHITTY CHITTY BANG BANG (a children’s movie with an INTERMISSION? The HELL?) before I was able to see- well, part of it before it was finally too late to be allowed to stay up. I finished the rest tomorrow, but it was a surreal viewing experience. I obviously wondered whether the film would begin to live up to my memories of it, but it’s just as insane today as it was back then. I honestly suspect the best way to describe it would be to point out that it’s a movie about a giant space monster that starts with a peppy, up-tempo song about how the universe belongs to mankind.

It’s the near future- never quite caught the year- and the FAFC (which stands for, um, I forget, but they’re an international space program) launches a voyage to Mars with the express purpose of finding out what happened to the other ships they sent. The crew- the gruff-yet-handsome Captain Sano (Toshiya Wazaki), the comical techie Miyamoto (Shinichi Yanagisawa), the spacesick Dr. Shioda (Keisuke Sonoi), and hot blonde possibly-German scientist Lisa (Peggy Neal)- are strangely optimistic and laid-back about their mission, and after jetting off (to more jazz music) in their snazzy-looking space boat, they quickly encounter the apparent root of the problem. A UFO shows up and starts futzing with the ship’s systems, and the crew are forced to make a brief stopover on the FAFC’s moonbase, where Sano runs into old flame Michiko (Itoko Harada) causing a minor love triangle to form between her, him, and Lisa. After cocktails and dancing (you think I’m joking) the crew head off to Mars again, but the UFO returns and sprays the ship with mysterious spores. Everyone barely makes it back to Earth, with a sample of one of the spores in tow. It escapes its vacuum chamber, as spores are wont to do, and quickly grows into a giant alien creature who roams across Japan, smashing buildings and sucking up power.

First things first, let’s have a look at that monster- I chose a good shot of him specifically for this purpose. Again, you can sort of tell whether this is the kind of movie you’d enjoy based on looking at this critter, who’s been called a giant space chicken, but if anything that doesn’t do justice to the sheer conceptual oddness of this thing. As bizarre and not terribly threatening as Guilala looks, I think of him as iconic- he is the classic retro alien monster, complete with antennae, glowing multifaceted eyes, and a weird warbling cry. His look signifies “alien” because it’s tossed together from wildly unrelated parts of the animal kingdom, resembling nothing on Earth as a result. The effects here aren’t up to what Toho was doing over in the Godzilla series, and the Guilala suit suffers from a certain stiffness (as well as chubby arms which make him look even smaller than a man in a suit.) Still, they do their job, and some shots are fairly elaborate. The spaceship our heroes use is a great example of 60’s swank design triumphing over practicality- we never quite figure out what the craft needs ski treads for, but they’re a change from the standard rocketship fins. The entire film has this same aesthetic, similar to the bold contours of the 50’s space race but with a more relaxed, more jazzy feel. It’s very colorful and the people seem to be having fun.

Now, as a monster movie, THE X FROM OUTER SPACE suffers from the fact that it takes a substantial amount of time for the monster to actually show up- around the first half of the movie is simply concerned with the voyage into space and all the shenanigans it entails. Maybe it was just that I knew it this time and was prepared, but it didn’t bother me at all. The space action is fun in itself, even when it gets into something as obligatory as the random meteor swarm. It helps that the characters are reasonably likable, even if they’re not developed that much.

THE X FROM OUTER SPACE is more obscure than it should be; it was the first monster film produced by Shochiku, who didn’t produce many, and so Guilala never returned to fight other beasties. That is, until now; the company has decided to make a brand new Guilala picture after a little over fourty years, which is nice. The film is still unavailable on DVD in the US (and the Region 2 version costs about $120), which is odd seeing how many of these monster pictures have found their way into release; there may be rights confusion. But if you do happen across a VHS copy (there's a link in the picture above and on the sidebar), well, you know what you’re in for. Personally I’d snatch it up in a heartbeat. There’s something so damn perky about this film and so stylishly weird that you have to forgive its other flaws.

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

Grade: B

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