Thursday, September 17, 2009

Random Movie Report #71: Battle in Outer Space

Poster and link to the Toho Collection DVD
And my inexplicably prolonged look at the 3-disc Toho Collection concludes with BATTLE IN OUTER SPACE, a surprisingly little-known epic that takes the Fifties space race to its logical conclusion of astronauts firing heat rays at flying saucers on the moon. It delivers what so many films of this era promised but welched on: genuine spectacle, wonder, and action, without any apparent compromise. It’s light on the “plot and character” side, to say the least, but those elements hold together just enough for the visuals to work their magic. It’s pretty much just pure Amazing Stories cover art porn, and if that’s not a legitimate use of the cinematic medium, then why the Hell do people make such a big deal over 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY?

The film starts with the destruction of satellite orbiting Earth by a fleet of flying saucers. The saucers go on to cause havoc on the planet, lifting bridges and boats into the air with destructive results. Earth’s scientists somehow figure out that the invaders, from a planet called Natal (nothing to do with Microsoft, I think), are using the moon as a base of operations from which to conquer humanity. To stop the invaders, the scientists develop heat rays and send two rockets to the moon, there to destroy the alien base. But one of their number has, as it happens, been placed under hypnotic mind control by the Natalians, and is determined to sabotage the mission.

It may not be the best sign when you can give a one-paragraph summary of a film without naming any of the characters. This is definitely the sort of picture where the human story is flattened under the epic spectacle, but not in a bad way. A few characters get some embellishment- the main young scientist and his secretary/lover have a nice romantic scene in a park looking at the stars, the aliens’ spy gets abducted when he heads into town for one last night of carousing before the mission, etc. The characters are never asked to carry more of the picture than they can; bits and pieces of characterization are sprinkled in various places, popping up briefly but not outstaying their welcome. Yes, strictly speaking, we want movies to feature well-rounded characters with rich personalities, but in some cases it is possible to get by without such things.

And let’s face it, spectacular visuals do make a difference, as often as we pretend they don’t. The imagery of the early space age was never realized quite as fully in live action as it is here; we have a space station with functioning lasers, two massive and not-at-all-Freudian rockets (called SPIPs), smaller rocket fighters, armed and hover-capable lunar rovers, flying saucers, a mothership, a glowing, colorful alien base, and mobs of spacesuited aliens. It actually takes a while for us to get into space, but once we do the film never lets up; the action is sharp and the effects are up to Eiji Tsubaraya’s usual meticulous standards. We don’t have any rubber-suited monsters this time, but the hardware more than makes up for it.

On paper, this all looks downright cynical- yet another case of a studio substituting special effects for substance and exploiting the public’s desire for pure eye candy. And yet the film, as it plays out, has not a cynical bone in its body. Its mood is relentlessly chipper, brightly embracing the vision of outer space as an exciting frontier to be conquered by science and human advancement. There are moments in this context that are outright beautiful, evoking the awe of outer space and the optimism that we can claim it.

For a film that’s rather poorly known, BATTLE IN OUTER SPACE apparently was quite influential. A number of shots anticipate STAR WARS, it’s allegedly directly referenced in INDEPENDENCE DAY (and the climactic scene definitely has a few echoes), and even though I’m not sure Michael Bay has seen a film made before 1977, scenes of alien torpedoes raining down on New York and San Francisco come off like lower-tech versions of similar destruction shots in the briefly-tolerable ARMAGEDDON.

Looking back, it seems that Toho in the late Fifties and Sixties had a golden age that is unappreciated by many film historians. Year after year, they had Ishiro Honda and Eiji Tsubaraya and a number of other regulars turn out one imaginative, colorful, keenly polished genre entertainment after another. BATTLE IN OUTER SPACE, for a few bloated scenes here and there, is a fine example of this tradition. The release of the Toho Collection should hopefully bring some more attention to this legacy.

Story by Jojiro Okami
Screenplay by Shinichi Sekizawa
Directed by Ishiro Honda

Grade: A-

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