Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Random Movie Report #94: Gamera Vs. Viras

DVD cover and Amazon link

Inspired by the nigh-miraculous release of the Gamera episodes of Mystery Science Theater 3000 recently, I've decided to restart my look at the giant turtle's original hits. Gamera vs. Viras avoided the gaze of the Satellite of Love, but it's worth noting for the shift it marks in the series. This is when the goofiness really started to set in, and though it's weird to talk about the Gamera movies of all things getting "more childish", the filmmakers have toned down the darker parts of earlier movies. Not that this is a problem; the film's only major flaw comes down to cheapness rather than kiddie appeal. That flaws kind of a big one, but there's still some fun to be had here.

The movie starts off with a bang as Gamera, flying through space as is his wont, destroys a spaceship from the Viras system which is preparing to invade Earth. Now realizing that Earth is protected, Viras sends another ship, with orders to target Gamera and see how he can be disposed of. The ship manages to snare Gamera and, after probing his mind, realizes his great weakness is that he is the friend to Earth's children. And so the aliens kidnap two boy scouts, Masao (Toru Takatsuka) and Jim (Kurl Crane), and inform Gamera via telepathy that they will kill the children if he doesn't obey them. While Masao and Jim explore the alien ship and try to evade their captors, the aliens plant a mind control device on Gamera, forcing him to go back to his old city-destroying ways.

While there is an actual enemy monster Gamera ends up fighting, the film deviates from the formula a little by not focusing on him until the final battle. Before then, the emphasis is on the Viras spaceship and its attempts to kill or control Gamera, and the kids' attempts to stop the aliens. The aliens and their ship owe a lot to the same colorful, jazzy 60s aesthetic that pervaded Toho's Invasion of Astro-Monster, and the film never steps into outright horror the way the previous installment threatened to. You never get the sense that the kids are truly in danger, and they have a surprising amount of autonomy so long as they don't threaten the ship or its inhabitants. This isn't a bad thing, but it's a bit of kiddie movie logic that you have to accept.

Unfortunately, the series' low budget was felt rather strongly in this film, and it struggles to reach a proper feature length. Seemingly ten to twenty minutes are spent on the spaceship's mind-probe of Gamera, which translates into a lengthy montage of the monster's exploits from three previous movies. It's kaiju action, and I shouldn't complain, but it's clearly padding. It gets worse, though, when Gamera goes on his alien-ordered rampage, which consists entirely of stock footage from the first and second films, the first still in glorious black and white with only traces of color tinting. It's really shameless, even in comparison to what some 70s kaiju films would end up doing to save money.

While all this very nearly ruins the picture, it's saved by a nice atmosphere and an entertaining finish. The climax hinges on a particularly contrived bit of kiddie movie logic, but then, this is a kiddie movie. The main event is a good one- though Viras the monster doesn't have as many tricks as Gamera's other foes, he can still pack a wallop, and there's some truly disturbing kaiju violence, including one particular scene that Gamera by all rights shouldn't survive. But then, he is Gamera.

Gamera vs. Viras (sometimes circulated under the title Destroy All Planets) is a weaker entry than its predecessors, but still delivers some quality entertainment. The film takes the series on a turn towards the stars and towards bright, fun adventure, and it's hard to find much fault with that approach, at least as it relates to a giant jet-powered turtle who breathes fire. I think we can all agree that that's really neat.

Written by Nisan Takahashi
Directed by Noriaki Yuasa

Grade: B-

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