Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Scott's Pick: Invasion of Astro Monster (1965)



The hybrid child of Toho (Japan) and UPA (United States), Invasion of Astro Monster is a Godzilla movie that has, quite literally, everything. Romantic subplot, star-crossed lovers, hive-minded aliens bent on conquering Earth, science mumbo jumbo, dancing, space exploration, American and Japanese actors for respective international audiences, New Age banter, non-fascist global unity, giant monsters socking each other – it’s all there.

In Invasion of Astro Monster, Director Ishiro Honda, the man who can be credited as helping to invent Godzilla, weaves a tale indicative of the science fiction boom of the times. A new planet, Planet X, is discovered behind Jupiter. The denizens of this planet are under attack from a beast they dub Monster Zero (King Ghidorah), the villainous space dragon from Godzilla’s previous bout in Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster. Planet X pleads with the people of Earth to lend them Godzilla and Rodan, so that these monsters may fight and end Monster Zero’s reign of terror.

As the plot unfolds, astronauts Glenn (played by Nick Adams) and Fuji (played by Akira Takarada) sense dirty pool, leading them to discover that the aliens of Planet X are really after control of Godzilla and Rodan, utilizing the same magnetic wave technology they currently wield to control Monster Zero. It’s a ruse all along, and our heroes are against the clock to free the monsters and halt the machine-centric, hive-minded denizens of Planet X from conquering Earth. Insert a couple romantic subplots, some whiz-bang radio frequency that kills the aliens, and some scenic destruction, and voila! We get a film that accomplishes two things.

One – it’s this cohesive blending of two different styles of science fiction/fantasy filmmaking at the time, a bridging between traditional Japanese Kaiju (giant monster) flicks and good old American exceptionalism.

Two – The Godzilla franchise was forever altered. Humanoid aliens were introduced, and from this point, they would become a frequent outside threat, compelled to conquer Earth with their own armadas of monsters at every turn. And this film, Invasion of Astro Monster, was the first Godzilla flick to truly define this franchise staple. What children know and love about Godzilla across the globe, what they dream about, stemmed from this production.

However, what’s really interesting to think about is this – Godzilla was born out of response to the devastation of nuclear weapons in World War II. This monster was an external threat embodying the onslaught of destruction wrought by the United States less than ten years before its original silver screen appearance in 1954. In a nutshell, the original film was a coping mechanism, a way to try and comprehend the horrors and atrocities of such devastation. And yet, 11 years after 1954’s Gojira, Invasion of Astro Monster enters the franchise – a joint production of two studios across the Pacific working together and re-imagining where Godzilla could go.


Is this movie cheesy? Yes. Is this movie filled with all the cliché science fiction tropes of the era? You bet. But could it represent something greater than its parts? Could it symbolize the union of two nations at war with each other not some 20 years before? Could it represent the quest for building marketable dreams together, dreams that could enrapture the populations of more than one nation?

After all, at their franchise core, Godzilla movies are the nostalgic dreams of the future. They’re the realms of childhood captured on film, the sweeping HO scale landscapes of a world where dull humans strive to advance the cause of humanity, where poorly dressed enemies are the gray-scaled outsiders we can sniff out from a mile away. In Godzilla films, there are higher powers – entities that oversee our actions. If we’re productive, they aid us in bettering the world. If we’re destructive, these higher powers smack us down, grinding our faces into the collective muck with one mighty stomp. But if we’re good, they give us hope. If we’re good, they give us unity.

Consider this – many of the mega Hollywood productions are ever shifting to reach outside the U.S. demographic. While this practice has never been uncommon, Summer blockbusters are no longer content with appealing solely to American audiences – they’re after the world. These gargantuan pictures exist to share a modern-day dream with a variety of people across a variety of languages and barriers. Mega movies like Iron Man 3 film multiple scenes and sequences, not all of which are intended for one audience. In China, for example, Iron Man 3 featured a separate character written into the plot to engage Chinese audiences. This character did not appear in the U.S. release.  Something similar will probably be said of the most recent Godzilla film, an American production with Toho’s blessing.


The question remains, will this new Godzilla continue the precedent defined by movies like Invasion of Astro Monster?
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BRIGHID: I’ve always felt daikaiju (‘big strange creature’) films are to cinema what M&Ms are to food; utterly insubstantial and probably not all that good for you, but colorful, sugary excitement that’s fun to binge on every now and then. While some films in this genre have gained cultural importance or demand political consideration, Invasion of Astro Monster is not one of them. In a way that’s refreshing, as I won’t get mired in arcane subtextual implications concerning Japan’s relation to the western military industrial complex or weird discussions about how neoliberalism affects increasingly global markets. On the other hand, I’m left without a whole hell of a lot to say about this movie.

It’s very tempting to go full-on snark here, asking questions like “Why in God’s name is Nick Adams in this film, and why is he doing those things he’s doing?!” But the “Inserted For Your American Viewing Pleasure” archetype has already been ripped to pieces, and I don’t want to give the impression that I have anything in common with Pauline Kael*.

One of the most charming aspects of this kind of entertainment is the miniature set pieces. It would still be a few years before models and cameras were good enough to successfully pull off this kind of diminutive scenery, but the idea behind the (oft flawed) execution is way rad. The coolest shot in the whole film is around 57:30, when we see the silly rocket ship touching down on a landing pad in the distance. The set is a miniature mock-up of a military base, and out of the foreground come wind-up cars, hurtling down the road to pick up the freshly returned astronauts. It’s an easy shot to miss in a film filled with absurd space invaders and the horrifying undulations of King Ghidorah’s necks, but it was a serendipitous little snippet that reminded me of something one would expect from the original (unspoiled) Star Wars trilogy.

This was not a good film by any definition I’m willing to run with, and it tested my patience enough to make me hesitate declaring it a fun film. Preexisting fans of the genre will probably find stuff to like here, as this is one of those Godzilla films that blurs the lines between making the big guy a hero or a villain. For the casual viewer, I’d recommend screening it on silent while you don a bowling shirt and crank a Man Or Astro-Man? album during one of your trashy-ironic 1960’s parties. C-

*Aside from the fact that we are both very dead inside

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EVAN:
Despite being a total nerd, I never got into the Godzilla franchise while growing up. The movies always looked cheap to me, the portions of the films I did see never held my attention, and I could never tell if they were supposed to be scary or funny or… something.

I’m grateful this blog entry finally forced me to watch my first Godzilla movie in its entirety. However, that’s about all I appreciated about this experience. I will give Godzilla: Invasion of Astro-Monster credit for subverting my admittedly low expectations about its plot, but overall I still found it to be pretty terrible. Yeah, it looks cheap, but that wasn’t my issue; I have no problem with campy sci-fi or campy monster movies, as long as I’m given a reason to care. My problems with it have to do more with its muddled tone and the way its characters, including its monsters, behave.

For one, is that a victory dance Godzilla performs after he and Rodan defeat King Ghidorah on the moon? Does Godzilla always do that? Is this creature supposed to be scary? Two, why are the people of Earth so stupid as to surrender their only defense against King Ghidorah based purely on the word of alien invaders? It seems pretty reckless to stake the entire fate of everyone on Earth on nothing more than shrugging your shoulders and saying, “eh, they seem like nice enough guys.” It’s not like the aliens’ plan is that great, either; they just get lucky the earthlings are so gullible.

I like that Godzilla: Invasion of Astro-Monster isn’t completely straightforward, but I can’t find much else to like in this turd. It feels like one of those bad episodes of The Twilight Zone, only expanded to feature length to exacerbate the shame you feel for wasting your time by watching it.