Sunday, October 23, 2016

Battle in Outer Space (Toho Studios, 1959)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

After Earth vs. the Flying Saucers the next film on the program was a 1959 Japanese movie called Battle in Outer Space, which basically had all the bad qualities of Earth vs. the Flying Saucers and none of its good ones. The screening proprietor scheduled it because he had much fonder memories of it than it seemed to deserve this go-round, and said it was the first time he had fallen asleep during one of his screenings. It’s directed by Ishirô Honda, the effects person behind most of Toho Studios’ big monsters, from a story by Jôjirô Okami and a script by Shin’ichi Sekizawa, not exactly names that loom large in the history of Japanese film. It’s a thoroughly dull story about alien invaders from the planet Natal, who have taken over the moon and intend to use it as a base from which to attack, conquer and colonize Earth. They also have the power to take over human beings and turn them into their slaves with mind control, though for some reason they either can’t or won’t do this to more than one person at a time. At first the Natalians content themselves with wrecking trains (there’s a nicely chilling sequence straight out of the 1933 The Invisible Man) and wreaking minor-league havoc, but when the nations of the world come together and launch a pair of spaceships to fly to the moon and attack the alien base there, the Natalians take over one of the crew members, Iwamura (Yoshio Tsuchiya) — spells the character name “Iwomura” but it’s “Iwamura” on the subtitles of the Japanese-language print we were watching (as with Earth vs. the Flying Saucers, the proprietor had two versions available, one in Japanese with subtitles and one dubbed into English, but he chose the Japanese version because it was letterboxed and the English wasn’t) — and use him first to disable the ship’s ray guns (needed to defend themselves against both meteors and Natalian fighters) and then, once they make it to the moon, to blow up one of the ships so the astronauts are going to have a hard time getting back even if they defeat the Natalians. Battle in Outer Space is one of the dullest movies ever made — while previous Toho entries in the alien-invasion genre, including The Mysterians (a 1957 production I haven’t seen since the 1970’s but I remember as fun even though it was basically just destruction-porn), had had enough of a budget actually to dramatize a war of the worlds, this one didn’t. Nor were the actors especially appealing — except for Kyôko Ansai, the one woman in the cast and quite capable in the unfortunately minor role of one of the crew members (you’d see her in passing and do a double-take — “There is a woman in this film?”), who alas got married and decided to be a good little Japanese wife instead of continuing her career. (If she’d stayed in films she could certainly have given Yoko Tani — notorious in the early 1960’s as “Japan’s Scream Queen” and undoubtedly the world’s most famous person named “Yoko” until John Lennon took up with Yoko Ono — a run for her money.) Battle in Outer Space might have made a good target for Mystery Science Theatre 3000, but au naturel it’s just an hour-and-a-half waste of time and a cinematic burp, one of those frustrating movies that’s not bad enough to be camp and not good enough to be enjoyable as anything else.