There is no human achievement more complex, daunting or inspirational than the “conquest” of outer space. I put “conquest” in sarcastic quotes because we really haven’t conquered jack shit. We’ve played golf on our nearest satellite and left a plaque for the cockroaches to find. By the standards of SF in the mid-60s, we’re way behind schedule.
We should’ve discovered our tenth planet by now. Instead we’re down one and the space shuttle’s been mothballed. Robots do all our exploring for us because it’s cheaper and “safer.” As if anyone said space would be “safe.” We’ve known there were monsters out there since before we knew how out there could really be. Martians invaded in 1898, 1938 and 1953. Earth itself faced off against (not just any ol flying saucers but) the Flying Saucers in ’56. The Mysterians came for our women in ’57, Krankor came for our rocket fuel in ’59, and in ’61 the Neptune Men came for…umm…yeah…something…I forget because that movie was so boring. King Ghidorah’s arrival in 64 was only the icing on the cake. And in 196X, we discovered Planet X.
No, really. The Japanese title crawl pegs this flick in 196X. The English version, released to us by Henry G. Saperstein in 1970, omits the years but preserves the gist:
A mysterious planet has been discovered beyond Jupiter and Earth has launched an exploratory space ship.
Now all we have to do is meet our astronauts, Glenn (Nick Adams) and Fuji (Akira Takarada, in his third Godzilla film). Through them, as one would expect from an Ishiro Honda movie, we meet Fuji’s sister, Haruno (Keiko Sawai), who’ll be the film’s Chick. Through Haruno we meet a down on his luck inventor she’s sweet on, Tetsuo (Akira Kubo), who’ll be our Younger Scientist for the remainder of his screen time.
So what if Tetsuo’s living with his mom? As Fuji and Glen’s rocket, P-1, nears Planet X, an international toy manufacturer calls Tetsuo up with a contract for his latest invention, the Lady Guard. You’ve heard of rape whistles? Well, ladies, fear the night no more! Tetsuo’s done you one better and invented the rape dog whistle, smoke detector and fire alarm all in one. I can almost see the tag lines in bold, drop-shadowed Hiragana: “Decimate the eardrums of your assailants with the Lady Guard Alarm! Ensure the acquisition of yours today!”
Ms. Namikawa “from the World Education Corporation” (Kumi Mizuno – Dr. Sueko from Frankenstein Conquers the World) hands Tetsuo a contract over dinner, giving Haruno a small case of the creeps by immediately identifying her, her place of work, and her famous brother the “space pilot.” English kids heard Namikawa say World Education Corporation is “following” Fuji’s “trip,” but Japanese-language Namikawa really pours on the foreshadowing: “We’re interested in how he deals with our current problem.”
Then again, maybe its just Kumi Mizuno’s tone of voice. I can live with crappy dubbing but, if I have a choice, give me the original actors every time. I don’t care what language you’re speaking, there’s no substitute for a human voice that’s in the scene, reacting to the other actors around him/her/them/it/zer/whatever.
Being a Monster Zero fan comes with its own peculiar brand of frustration. You Blade Runner, Brazil and Star Wars fans think you’ve got it bad? At least Harrison Ford, Jonathan Pryce and James Earl Jones all get to act in their native language, no matter which cut you’re watching. The version of this I saw as a child dubbed all the Japanese actors over with English dialogue, obviously. The Japanese release (originally titled Kaijû Daisensô, released to us as Invasion of the Astro-Monsters) dubs Token American Nick Adams’ lines over with Japanese dialogue. Someone with a lot of time and a Masters Degree in Editing they need to qualify for really should make a Final Cut of Godzilla vs. Monster Zero. Pretend you’re Ariel at the end of The Little Mermaid and give everybody their old voices back…and oh God, I just mentioned The Little Mermaid in a review of a Godzilla movie. Quick! I need a phallic symbol to prop up my Male Ego, stat!
Rocket P-1 lands with no problem and no danger of radiation. Despite being on the far side of Jupiter, Planet X’s surface is a balmy 15 degrees. Fuji climbs a ridge, plants the mission’s flag, discovers boot prints in the dust, turns around…and the ship’s gone. So’s Glenn. It’s a decade’s worth of space exploration horror condensed into one sequence. Monster Zero‘s encouraged all this continual fan love because its full of such things: summations of whole sub-genres, finally brought together by an all-star cast and crew of seasoned pros in a way that’s almost as awesome as its prequel.
Almost. But the last movie (with all its intrigue, all its paranormal overtones, and its Cop Drama) was a bit complicated. On the surface, Monster Zero is so deceptively simple I’m going to summarize its plot in the next five sentences. The inhabitants of Planet X live under ground and under constant threat of King Ghidorah, who’s made surface dwelling pretty hazardous to the Xian’s health (we’re told). They ask to borrow Godzilla and Rodan in hopes of driving Ghidorah away. Earth agrees but – surprise, surprise – it’s all a trick. And since the Xians have the power to mentally control living things with “magnetic waves” (indeed, this may be the entire basis of their society), they’ve now got three neigh-invulnerable giant monsters in their stable. Will the Earth survive?
As with every Godzilla movie, there are certain things I’m supposed to talk about. Like the infamous victory dance that concludes Godzilla, Rodan and Ghidorah’s first fight on the surface of Planet X. Which isn’t at all as silly as it looks today, because Glenn quite clearly states Planet X has two-thirds Earth’s gravity. Meaning this – the only off-world fight in the Godzilla series as of September, 2011 – would have to be one hell of an experience for both Godzilla and Rodan. Imagine loosing a third of your weight in the space of a quick nap. You’d probably jump for joy too.
Legend has it director Ishiro Honda wanted to cut that out, but special effects director Eiji Tsuburaya convinced him to keep it in “for the kids.” That demographic shift we’ve been hinting at for three movie reviews had, by 1965, captured the hearts and minds of Godzilla’s creators, just as their creation captured the hearts and minds of post-War babies the world over.
The writing was on the wall. Once television became the ubiquitous Thing in Japan that it’d already become in America (see King Kong vs. Godzilla for a farcical look at the effects of that little social trend) adults found themselves content to stay home. Them crazy kids became the backbone of a lot of people’s movie business, so their image of Godzilla grew to eclipse his original metaphorical significance.
See, Godzilla began life as representation of the atomic bomb – specifically, America’s atomic bomb…and beyond that, the entire Military Industrial Complex that leveled Tokyo so effectively. Compared to Godzilla, the Air Force made firebombing a city look easy. But none of the kids who clamored into Kaijû daisensô‘s first run shows would necessarily know that. The under-twenty crowd were all zygotes when it last happened. Thirty year-olds might’ve remembered something of it…but, for the sake of their collective mental health, I sincerely hope they didn’t. Even if they did, I’ll bet you current events were much closer to the forefront of everyone’s minds, regardless of their age.
Which brings us to the Xians and their sneaky, underhanded plot to (what else?) try and take over the world. If Godzilla is a U.S. bomb, we could see Ghidorah as China’s first successful nuclear test, code named “596” and carried out on October 16, 1964…two months before Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster hit theaters.
In fact, the Xians are so damn Maoist it’s hilarious. Their entire planet is a technocratic theocracy, worshiping the supposedly-infallible calculations of their all-powerful computers. Planet X’s Controller (Yoshio Tsuchiya) tells Our Heroic astronauts “everything is numbered here.” King Ghidorah is Monster Zero. Godzilla and Rodan are Monsters Zero-One and Zero-Two. The order to invade Earth is Plan Two, Item Four, of Schedule Five. Every male Xian (and maybe some of the women – its honestly hard to tell) wears wraparound shades like any wannabe gangster, be they Blood, Crip, or Triad. One of the Xians tells Glenn “Our actions are dictated by computers, not emotions. When that is violated, the offender is destroyed.” (Nothing like our modern world. No. Nothing at all.) I haven’t seen such a transparent metaphorical indictment of a socio-economic system since the last time I read an Ayn Rand “novel.”
Because of this new player on the atomic stage (with that test China made itself the fifth member of the “nuclear family of nations”), Godzilla and Rodan had to metaphorically morph into precious natural resources a dastardly foreign power seeks to co-opt to its own nefarious ends…with mind control rays. Rodan already had a wing up on his more famous older brother in this, having been born from a mineshaft. Godzilla’s subtly shifted for a while though, bursting out of an ice burg at the beginning of King Kong vs. and bursting up from the ground like a radioactive death ray geyser in the middle of Mothra vs.
Mothra beats them both because she’s been clearly positioned as a natural resource since the start of her own self-titled adventure. That’s why she took Ghidorah on in the last movie, the rest of Earth’s monsters be damned. Her actions reflect how Japan’s often represented itself in its fiction: the lone underdog, fighting a doomed fight against impossible odds. Mothra was supposed to appear in this film but – with three monsters, an alien invasion, and all the space stuff in the opening – the budget quickly reached what Toho considered at the time to be low earth orbit.
Always happens with sequels. Pour all the money you want into the franchise – sooner or later, your returns will start to diminish. Fearing that might happen, the makers of Monster Zero resorted to something we’ll see a lot more of in this series: stock footage. Mostly special effects shots from previous films in the franchise. Rodan‘s the most obvious victim since the difference between 1956’s Rodan suit and the one Masaki Shinohara wears here is painfully obvious. As is the difference in film grain these days. Thanks, digital conversion.
Thanks to Tsuburaya, the original monster action is beautifully staged and executed against the dramatic backdrop of Mt. Fuji. Tokyo does not suffer as much as it might’ve were the budget a little higher, but the daylight setting, multiple monsters, and smaller size of the buildings destroyed all lend themselves to some of the most striking monster vs. military combat since Mothra vs. All capped off by some of the best monster wrasslin’ in the series. Unlike the three-on-one last time around, this fight’s never cluttered up, and at a brisk three minutes, it’s exactly as long as it needs to be. Most of you probably could’ve stood for a bit more but that’s how you know it was a good fight: it left you wanting more instead of wearing out its welcome.
Kinda like Ghidorah, who’s sent packing once Our Human Heroes free Our Monstrous Heroes from Xian mind control, leaving the monsters free to fight while Fuji and his boss, Dr. Sakurai (Jun Tazaki) watch from Minimum Safe Distance. And while their story is well-plotted, the humans are this movie’s weakest link, since well-plotted does not necessarily mean “well-written.”
Plenty goes on – so much so that spoiling it would make this review twice as long and I’m already staring down my deadline – but that’s the problem. Things stop being scenes and start becoming events, things that have to happen for the plot to move forward. I have to praise the actors, Honda Repertory Company Vets and Token Anglos alike, for treating this whole thing with the appropriate level of seriousness. Between the Xian’s costumes (complete with the cutest little curly-toed boots you’ve ever seen on an alien invasion force) and Nick Adams over-acting, one misplaced smirk would’ve shattered this whole silly, cliched story. Everyone carries through, keeping the film strong, and if anything, they get off too damn easy.
As actors, they don’t have nearly enough to do in this story. Sure, our Flyboys have to planet-hop, Tetsuo has to run around figuring out World Education Corporation is an Xian beachhead, and Haruno has to pine for him while serving Dr. Sakurai coffee. All the pieces of their Heroic plan to thwart the Alien Invaders are well established…until the very end, when Dr. Sakurai literally pulls the solution (in the form of some design specs that have suddenly become the only thing standing between humanity and annihilation) out of a nearby filing cabinet.
Everything in this movie is either too easy on the characters (like that) or too easy on the storytellers. Tetsuo gets himself captured by the Xian advance force, so we can forget about him for half the film. Haruno more or less vanishes once he does, reduced to office decoration. Glenn enters into a relationship with Namikawa that mostly occurs off-screen, making it come off like a forced bit of Love Interest that would undoubtedly be Obligatory, were this an all-American production.
The contrast is especially sharp when compared to Ghidorah. We never get to know these people the way we got to know Shindo, Naoko, Her Highness Princess Selina (the hottest thing to come from Venus since Queen of Outer Space) and the Professor. There’s no time to know Fuji, Glenn, Haruno and Tetsuo. Their story’s too contrived. Ghidorah‘s story was a four-star meal of brilliantly-paced daikaiju storytelling. Monster Zero’s story is a chain restaurant’s happy hour special version of the same dish. Characters flit from place to place as the narrative skips ahead of them, attempting to suggest their story’s worldwide scope.
When your alien invasion force consists of exactly three saucers, that’s not gonna be possible. Without that three-headed, lightning-spitting dragon, these Xians are bush league. They should come back after a few years of intensive Alien Invasion training. Except a line of dialogue about Glenn becoming Earth’s first “official ambassador” makes me think the Godzilla universe’s version of humanity carried the fight back to Planet X, making every last one of those Devo-looking motherfuckers pay for all the carnage they caused…
Every time I think the movie’s lost me it does something (like that) to win me back. Sure its characters are flat and the pacing is a big slack in the start, but once it gets going everything builds up to a near-perfect climax. Humanity once again unites to defeat a neigh-invulnerable foe with Science. And Godzilla, of course. Who can’t get behind that?