Tuesday, 18 August 2020

Invasion Of The Astro-Monster

Crouching Eiga,
Hidden Dragging

Invasion Of The Astro-Monster
(aka Godzilla VS Monster Zero
aka Kaijû daisensô)

Japan/USA 1965 Directed by Ishirô Honda
Toho/Criterion Collection Blu Ray Zone B

Warning: Some spoilers in this one.

So the next in my watch through of the newish Criterion Spine 1000, Godzilla - The Showa Era, is one of my all time favourites of this period... Invasion Of The Astro-Monster. It’s also a direct follow on, in some ways, to the previous film in the series, Ghidorah, The Three Headed Monster (reviewed here).

Once again directed by original Godzilla director Ishirô Honda, this film displays one of what I will more often than not describe as one of the strengths of this particular director working on the franchise (although sometimes also a weakness, as I have concluded in another of these reviews previously), that of having the monsters manifesting quite selectively, perhaps even at their most minimalistic in terms of screen time and only used as a way to fulfil the needs of the underlying story, rather than be an all out monster slug fest as many of the later ones could be considered.

So, for example, the film starts off with some absolutely brilliant music by classic Godzilla composer Akira Ifukube, taken from my favourite, secondary march from the very first film in the series, accompanying a sequence of still images from the movie which very much push the ‘astro’ part of the title... so the rocket that the astronauts fly, a flying saucer and shots of a giant radar dish (all of which are models) and absolutely no monsters here at all. Despite the trailer for the movie probably showing off that three of the main monsters from the franchise were back in action in this one, Honda is playing it real cool and not giving away his hand at this point that this is, indeed, a Godzilla movie.

In fact, it takes a while for the monster aspect to emerge as the story follows, like King Kong VS Godzilla, two plots... one involving the main action and one involving an invention which will eventually help save the day.

For the main part of the plot, we have two astronauts flying into space to check out a mysterious new moon of Jupiter named, perhaps demonstrating somewhat less imagination than one might hope for... Planet X. The two space aces are Fuji, played by Akira Takarada (who, like some of his co-stars in this movie, starred in many Godzilla films in different roles as well as films by Akira Kurosawa) and Glenn, the American played by Nick Adams. Presumably named Glenn to give a nod to real life space hero John Glenn, Nick Adams was good friends with both James Dean and Elvis Presley but his downwardly spiralling career in films like this and some of AIP's features (before all this stuff was re-evaluated by modern cineastes and nostalgia driven contemporaries) may well have contributed, among other things, to his probable suicide by drug overdose three years later.

One element about this film which is truly awesome is the special effects created by series regular Eiji Tsuburaya and his crew and, in particular, in the outer space settings. The rocket miniatures are awesome and there’s some really beautiful and very colourful stuff when the rocket lands on the brightly hued, textured surface of Planet X. There, in a plot far more convoluted than any of the previous films in the series, the ‘commandant’ (if the subtitles are to be trusted) of the Xiliens, the alien race native to the planet, offer up our species a cure for cancer in exchange for us allowing them to ‘borrow’ Godzilla and Rodan to fight the scourge of their own planet, Monster Zero... who it turns out, is King Ghidorah, fled there from the last movie (or recalled there, perhaps).

Meanwhile, Fuji’s sister Haruno, played by Keiko Sawai, also works for the Japanese equivalent of NASA... but Fuji doesn’t trust her new fiance. Her new fiance, Tetsu (played by Akira Kubo) is the other part of the ‘good guys’ plot, as he has invented a portable alarm system which nobody wants until a lady called Miss Namikawa (played by Kumi Mizuno), who also winds up as Glenn’s new girlfriend, buys it for her shady organisation.

And then, after a brief but entertaining interlude where Godzilla and Rodan defeat Ghidorah on Planet X (including a little victory dance by The Big G), the convoluted plot twists start to come as it turns out the Xiliens really just wanted to conquer the Earth, with the help of Godzilla, Rodan and King Ghidorah, so they can rule us and use our water. But luckily, before we are destroyed by the aliens, Fuji and his scientist friend construct weapons which will nullify the effects of the aliens... sorry, Xiliens... evil, electromagnetic control over Godzilla and Rodan.

Meanwhile, the other plot twist is gradually revealed as it turns out the organisation that bought Tetsu’s new personal alarm invention were just doing so to keep it off the market. The sound it emits completely sends the Xiliens into paroxysms of agony (and also short circuits a lot of their technology, somehow, it seems to me). So Tetsu and Glenn, after escaping from the Xiliens Earth, base, construct a super duper version to broadcast to radios and amplify around the world. You can’t blame them for being captured earlier on in the film though... after all, the aliens usually have a dark strip of a visor in front of their eyes and a radio antenna coming out of their head... which makes them all look a little like Alfalfa from Our Gang/The Little Rascals. When they’re undercover on Earth though, they dress just like us. Not easy to spot when you’re used to their regular look, I suppose.

The film brings in the usual monster showdown at the end, starting with all three kaiju stomping the country until the signals from the saucers are jammed and Godzilla and Rodan then re-team up to defeat King Ghidorah. Godzilla even tries some ‘float like a butterfly, sting like a bee’ boxing moves out on the three headed monster. And it’s an entertaining movie with some interesting moments and, given the amount of really good looking effects and beautiful sets, some obvious cost cutting exercises in other areas. Such as the various riots internationally following on from the Xilien’s ‘ultimatum’ announcement taking the form of documentary style black and white stills montaged together to try to hide the fact that... well... this was the cheaper way to do it.

For me, though, Invasion Of The Astro-Monster is one of the very best in the series... part of that is because the sequences on Planet X are quite bright and well composed... and partly because Ifikube’s score for this one is just so much fun that my toes tend to tap along most of the way through it. Not my absolute favourite but, certainly a runner up for me. Criterion’s new Blu Ray transfer is awesome when it can be but there are some fairly blurry moments too (possibly due to some of the stock footage from previous films in a couple of places). Either way, this was always one of the selling points of their new box set and it’s a great addition to any cineaste’s shelves... or even the casual viewer like me.

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