Mar 142012
 

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HCF REWIND NO.43. BATTLE IN OUTER SPACE AKA UCHI DAISENSO [1959]

AVAILABLE ON R1 DVD

RUNNING TIME: 93 mins

REVIEWED BY:Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic

 

It is 1965, and mankind’s first space station is attacked and destroyed by flying saucers. Elsewhere, saucers lift a rail bridge into the air causing a train to crash into the chasm below, and it is then reported that disasters have been happening all over the world. Delegates from the world’s nations meet in Tokyo to discuss the crisis, but the Indian ambassador Dr. Achmed is possessed by some alien force which makes him attempt to steal a new ray gun which is being demonstrated by Major Ichiro Katsumiya. When he is caught, a death ray kills him. It is discovered that his brain was implanted with a controlling device. Radio transmissions have been detected coming from the Moon, so two rocketships, which have been recently built by scientists from various countries, are sent to investigate, the crew including Ichiro. The night before launch though, one of the astronauts, Iwamura, is also possessed….

 

Both versions of The War Of The Worlds. Mars Attacks. Perhaps even Independence Day if you’re feeling generous. The list of really good, full-on, alien invasion epics [I’m not counting the more subtle invasions of films like Invasion Of The Body Snatchers, many of which are very good indeed] is quite small, and we have had some especially dire examples in cinemas really, with films with Their Darkest Hour, Battlefield: Los Angeles and Skyline being distinctly unimpressive. Perhaps some of these filmmakers should turn for inspiration to Japan and this wonderful 1959 effort from Toho Studios. Laugh if you will, but I have no bones about claiming it as the best of the lot, though of course there is a case for it being as much as a  ‘people on a mission’ movie as an alien invasion movie. I don’t really care, for it is an extremely thrilling, endlessly imaginative ride that is a technical marvel for its time.  It’s such a great shame that it is not very well known at all; even Toho’s previous movie along similar lines, The Mysterians [reviewed earlier!]  despite being inferior, is more widely seen.

It was actually originally intended as a direct sequel to that film but only one of the original cast members were available so continuity became increasingly ignored and we ended up with something that is in part a sequel and in part isn’t. Three characters from The Mysterians appear, albeit two played by different people, the aliens have the same flying saucers and the space station at the end of the film makes an appearance, while folk on Earth show no surprise at evidence of deadly aliens. However, the aliens themselves hail from a different planet called Natal, and their small size renders them different to the visitors from Mysteroid. I suppose you could surmise that Natal was one of the asteroids that initially made up part of Mysteroid, or that the Natalians are slaves to the Mysterions, but honestly, one could go mad trying to work out the continuity in Toho movies! It was released in the US by Columbia on a double bill with the mediocre Twelve To The Moon. Some difference in quality there! I would imagine that many people, after watching Battle In Outer Space which was the first film on the program, would have sat through ten minutes of Twelve To The Moon and gone home.  The movie was left almost unedited by Columbia though they tampered with Akira Ifikube’s music, replacing the main theme with stock music which really hurt the rhythm of the final battle. US distributors often had a strange problem with Ifukube’s music, especially his often rousing marches. Despite being reasonably successful, Battle In Outer Space seemed to pass into something bordering on obscurity, which I just cannot understand, because it’s just so entertaining. You’ve probably guessed by now that I love this movie.

We open straight away with some action, with flying saucers destroying the space station. Actually, come to think of it, they’re not really flying saucers, they’re more like flying horseshoes, so kudos for the designers for thinking up something slightly different. We switch to Earth, and the really cool scene where a saucer lifts up a railway bridge causing a train to crash. Then we have the obligatory Big Meeting about the situation, and the film’s only really bad moment. We are shown two other disasters, a ship ripped in half in the Panama Canal and Venice being flooded, by way of really bad matte paintings that look like the work of an hour’s sketching. Supposedly the scenes were originally scripted to be shown in full and then they ran out of money, but the shoddy compromise we ended up with is just laughable, and it would have been better if the events had just been mentioned.  Never mind, the movie is really good from here on, honestly! After a bit of action with people being possessed by the Natalians to do their work for them, we take off into outer space and have a rather poignant moment where our two rocketships pass the remains of the destroyed space station, replete with the sight of a dead body floating in space. In so many science fiction films, space ships are destroyed and that’s it, no debris or nothing. The brief scene is eerie and also touching when the crew of the two rocketships pay their respects to the dead. The movie continues to progress at a steady pace as our heroic astronauts land on the Moon and head for where the alien signals have come from. There is a lengthy sequence of them just walking [director Inoshiro Honda was a rock climber which may explain why he often put in long scenes of people walking, and often on and around rocks], and all we have is this and the music, but it builds the suspense very well. It may have been a while since we’ve had any action [action-wise The Mysterians outdoes this movie, but seems far slower paced], but it doesn’t matter.

 

The encounter with the diminutive aliens will seem familiar to some though, as it was repeated verbatim three year later in From The Earth To The Moon, and don’t those helmets look identical to ones seen in Return Of The Jedi? The rest of the film delivers the action we have been building up to in spades, being basically two battles, one on the Moon and one on the Earth, but increasing in spectacle and imagination. The climactic sequences of Earth aircraft, which are now equipped to leave the atmosphere, having dog fights with the Natalian flying saucers, are incredibly exciting and I reckon must have influenced a certain George Lucas. Of course Star Wars did this kind of thing better but it was almost twenty years later and Lucas had a far bigger budget. Just think how thrilling it must have seemed at the time! Even better, we have some mass destruction [and not just of Japan], climaxing in the incredible image of Tokyo being sucked up into the air. For 1959, Eiji Tsuburaya’s special effects are simply outstanding. Perhaps some of the matting looks a little unconvincing – this is something Toho often had trouble with – but you’ll be amazed how good everything else looks and how well things have been thought through, from the lunar-scapes to the spaceships to the Moon craft which is strikingly similar to the two in Armageddon [in fact, I see influences from this movie turning up everywhere]. Some of the most impressive bits are those which don’t draw much attention to themselves, such as a stunning shot of the two rocketships turning in space to land backwards on the Moon, the Moon in the background and the ships in the foreground. The composition here truly is first class. Interestingly, ten years later, whilst watching the Apollo 11 Moon landing, Tsuburaya telephoned his cinematographer Sadamasa Arikawa and told him:

“Our special effects team did a good job, we were right.  Now we can hold our heads up before the public”.

There is just a bit of room for the occasional touching moment [typical for a Honda film], such as a young boy saying goodbye to his father – note the way the father goes to embrace the son and the son just shakes his hand instead. Honda’s direction, as usual, gives proceedings an almost documentary feel and rarely goes for the obvious, for example avoiding any shock cuts to the aliens, but does use close ups most effectively when he feels they are required. Ryo Ikebe is a little bland as the lead, and overall Battle In Outer Space doesn’t have quite a top drawer Toho cast, except for Yoshio Tsuchiya, throwing himself into the part of the astronaut possessed by aliens, a part he would play again. One of the movie’s truly outstanding elements is Akira Ifukube’s score. From the dark, sinister opening march, to the ominous repeated melody of the music of the astronauts exploring the Moon, to the awesome battle march, a lengthy tour de force of a theme which had bits and pieces crop up in later Toho films. If you don’t feel like cheering during the final battle when this theme comes on you may as well give up on Toho science fiction movies, which I am well aware are not for all tastes!  Another striking piece is played during the film’s one ‘romantic ‘scene, when a tender but unresolved theme is played over Ichiro looking at the night sky with his girlfriend.

There is just a bit of room for the occasional touching moment, such as a young boy saying goodbye to his father; note the way the father goes to embrace the son and the son just shakes his hand instead. Honda’s films are full of these great little touches which you may only notice after several viewings. I must warn you that the R1 DVD of Battle In Outer Space suffers from ‘dubtitles’, meaning that the subtitles are of the American dub rather than translations of the original Japanese track. This means that the film comes across a little awkward dialogue-wise.  Overall though, it is awesome stuff, with a childlike sense of wonder that is quite beautiful. Naive, simple and unrealistic it may seem now, but what’s wrong with that?  You can give me this movie over any American alien attack movie six out of seven days of the week!

Rating: ★★★★★★★★★☆

 

Dr Lenera

Dr LeneraI'm a huge film fan and will watch pretty much any type of film, from Martial Arts to Westerns, from Romances [though I don't really like Romcoms!]] to Historical Epics. Though I most certainly 'have a life', I tend to go to the cinema twice a week! However,ever since I was a kid, sneaking downstairs when my parents had gone to bed to watch old Universal and Hammer horror movies, I've always been especially fascinated by horror, and though I enjoy all types of horror films, those Golden Oldies with people like Boris Karloff and Christopher Lee probably remain my favourites. That's not to say I don't enjoy a bit of blood and gore every now and again though, and am also a huge fan of Italian horror, I just love the style.

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