Monday, June 29, 2009

Random Movie Report #67: Monster From A Prehistoric Planet

Link to MONSTER FROM A PREHISTORIC PLANET on DVDWhen I reviewed GAMERA VS. MONSTER X, it was from a double feature DVD, so I’ve decided a week later to take a look at the back-end. MONSTER FROM A PREHISTORIC PLANET, also known as GAPPA, THE TRIPHIBIAN MONSTERS, is the only kaiju film made by Nikkatsu studios, and despite having fallen into obscurity it’s been put out on video and DVD several times now. If you’re wondering how a film can be both obscure and prolific, well, I can imagine that after Nikkatsu fell on hard times in the 70s they sold the rights at bargain basement prices and haven’t bothered to raise them since. It’s become sort of an off-brand monster movie, cheap but lacking the identification of a Godzilla or Gamera, and unfortunately this is an accurate reflection of the contents. MONSTER FROM A PREHISTORIC PLANET is one of the most generic entries ever in a genre that’s already dominated by formula.

The film opens on a scientific expedition traveling the South Seas to find exotic animals for “Playmate Land”, a lush tropical resort built by the manager of Playmate magazine (which I guess is supposed to be Playboy, but with a conspicuous lack of models, clothed or otherwise.) They happen upon a volcanic island beset by frequent tremors, which the unfortunately-made-up natives attribute to something called “Gappa”. The expedition finds a giant egg, out of which hatches a strange bird-like reptile or reptile-like bird. Over the natives’ objections, they take the Gappa creature with them to Japan, theorizing that the prehistoric egg was kept in suspended animation for millions of years and that the little fellow is alone in the world. Needless to say, they’re wrong, and both mama and papa Gappa emerge from the depths in search of their lost offspring, ultimately following its cries to the mainland.

The logical response to such a situation would be to set the creature free as quickly as you possibly can, and run, but naturally this can’t happen right away. The film’s major problem is that it can’t really convey why this can’t happen; usually it’s because the money men are evil selfish bastards, the kind you’d see foreclosing on orphanages in early talkies, but the Playmate manager is just kind of a curmudgeon, and the scientists just sort of overly ambitious, so it’s just the script preventing them from coming to their senses half an hour in. In the meantime, the Gappa parents destroy a whole bunch of stuff in some reasonably impressive destruction scenes, but that’s really all the film has to offer. The story is pretty much a straight line from beginning to end. If you’ve ever seen a giant monster movie, you will know what’s coming. If you haven’t- well, I’d suggest something else to start.

It’s not that this is a bad movie. The monster action is decent, the visuals are colorful, the execution is competent. But it’s too transparently put together from parts of other movies; the giant-monster-going-after-its-child plot is from the British epic GORGO, the jungle adventure stuff is KING KONG by way of Toho’s KING KONG VS. GODZILLA, the idea of two flying monsters as mates is from RODAN, the evil-capitalists stealing from humble native types is from MOTHRA, and so it goes. This is not a genre that requires original thinking, but the way these elements are conflated seems cheap and cynical; Nikkatsu saw the kaiju genre was making money and rushed out something that was just like everything else. It’s the definition of uninspired.

As I said, the actual monster scenes are not bad. The Gappa design is interesting, and the only really inspired part of the production, and the final scenes are almost touching. The miniatures work is decent, but the scenes start to lose interest after a while because, again, they’re just marking time until we get to the climax. On the human level, there’s some attempt at a love triangle that doesn’t quite work because it’s presented in a downright obtuse way, and there’s some business with the publisher being a widower looking after a young daughter, and in a nod to the Gamera movies, there’s one child from the island who understands the Gappas and tries to help get the baby released. Rather unfortunately, the child is in black face, and I was almost going to excuse this as being down to the lack of a diverse casting pool in 1960s Japan until I noticed that he was also wearing bright red lipstick. Yeah. (And don’t worry, there’s also a bit of old-school sexism to go alongside the racism- though it comes from the love subplot that makes no sense, so the effect is diluted.)

Now, if you enjoy watching giant monsters wreck shit up, the film does deliver on this basic element, and isn’t terrible at it. I didn’t really dislike this film, it just got old after a while. It’s a perfectly average entry in the genre by people who apparently thought that would be good enough, but that’s what you tend to find in the discount bin. Now, I will say that I’ve only seen the pan-and-scanned American edit, and maybe the original Japanese version makes more sense or is just better overall, but then again maybe it’s worse. So it events out.

(Also, MONSTER FROM A PREHISTORIC PLANET makes no sense as a title, except AIP distributed a movie called VOYAGE TO THE PREHISTORIC PLANET. GAPPA, THE TRIPHIBIAN MONSTERS makes a little more sense, but I’m not sure “Triphibian” is a word.)

Written by Ryozo Nakanishi and Gan Yamazaki
Directed by Haruyasu Noguchi

Grade: C

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