Review:
Battle in Outer Space (1959) [Columbia Pictures]
(2/5)
Author:
Nicholas Driscoll
Published:
December 17, 2009
Note: review may contain spoilers


Toho sure loves its alien invasion stories. Godzilla has played inhospitable host to sundry extraterrestrial malcontents, in one form or another, at least ten times in his films alone. Outside of the G-series, aliens have also invaded in such planet-clashing notables such as Dogora (1964), The Mysterians (1957), The War in Space (1977) and Returner (2002). These examples don't even include the many animated films Toho has distributed, such as the infamously hard-to-find (but critically extolled) Super Dimension Fortress Macross: Do You Remember Love? All great cinematic trends, however, must have a beginning—even trends with as dubious a track record as this one. One of the earliest alien invasion flicks to come out of Japan was the pseudo-sequel to The Mysterians (1957), Battle in Outer Space (or BIOS). Neither movie reached Godzilla-level fame, but while The Mysterians (1957) is fondly remembered (mostly due to the popular inclusion of Moguera), the more ambitious BIOS has been largely forgotten, reaching an obscurity in America roughly equal to that of say, Gorath (1962). This is the price a Toho classic sci-fi pays when it doesn't toss in a giant kaiju—enormous edited-out walruses notwithstanding.

Oh, yeah. And Battle in Outer Space is seriously bad.

Not to say it isn't entertaining. Our story begins with a series of attacks across the world, as aliens from the planet Natarl destroy a manned satellite, then levitate a bridge, smash a boat, and flood a city by utilizing an absolute zero freeze ray, which somehow negates gravity(!). Earth responds by building two super spaceships called SPIPs (pronounced “speeps,” so that it sounds extra stupid) within the space of a scene transition, and pretty soon a Japanese team and an American team jump inside and jet off to the moon to find the Natarlians' not-so-secret base. Our heroes face off against UFOs, blinking meteors, a boisterous gang of midget aliens, and even a mutinous, alien-controlled crewmember as they fight to blow up everything on their “reconnaissance” mission. Even after blasting a bunch of stuff into confetti, however, the earthlings still aren't safe—for, lo! Yet more and more Natarlian spacecraft descend, causing untold carnage across the globe. No really, it pretty much goes untold, because no one seems to care all that much. Can the earth survive? Which characters are we supposed to care about again?

For the first ten to fifteen minutes of BIOS, I was seriously wondering who the main characters were. Throughout the first part of the movie, we are given nothing but a series of attacks, news reports, global meetings, and technology demonstrations, which are finally interrupted by an alien-controlled Iranian representative going ballistic in a confusing, absurd, unintentionally hilarious sequence made even worse by flagrantly awful dubbing. After all of this is accomplished, finally there is a brief sequence in which a couple is given a brief few minutes to establish a contender for the most throwaway romantic subplot in cinematic history. When I first saw the scene, I couldn't even figure out who they were in the plot, and I certainly didn't possess the wherewithal to disregard their spectacularly lame flirting in order to work up sympathy for their relationship.

Not that the movie gives much reason to care about their love; their relationship really only plays into one other scene, wherein our heroine mindlessly wanders off by herself into a dank lunar moon cave so that she could be assaulted by a babbling gaggle of blinker-faced aliens with voices borrowed from the Meganulons of Rodan (1956) fame. While the audience is supposed to buy that these little guys somehow are the genius masterminds behind the Natarlian invasion, inventors of fantastic weaponry and interstellar travel, they come across as nigh-brainless buffoons. How they even manage to hold on to the hapless lady is unclear, since they seem far more apt to chatter on and bump into each other. Finally, our manly-man hero thunders into the scene with his zap-ray gun, effortlessly pulls the limp-wristed female from the evil Natarlians' grasp, and then mows down the whole lot of them in just a couple shots. So much for intimidating antagonists.

Oh, I didn't mention any character names yet, did I? In my own defense, I would argue that their names hardly matter; most of the parts in the script are blander than vanilla-flavored cardboard. Our heroes, by and large, just have meetings, go and shoot baddies, and celebrate when things go well, all the while delivering granite-dumb lines like “The only thing is, we have to find out where it is” with all the thespian sensitivity of a besotted gorilla—at least in the dub. I watched a portion of the subbed version, in which the performances were much, much better—but it wasn't long before I noticed that the Japanese version was coupled with that bane of foreign DVD releases—“dubtitles.” There were sequences in which nothing was said on screen, but subtitles based on the dubbed version popped up randomly and bewilderingly below—or, with little rhyme or reason, at the top of the screen. It makes for a briefly diverting experience to try to identify when the dubtitles are completely wrong based on the Japanese dialogue, but such entertainment only lasts for so long, only to be replaced by a mildly simmering annoyance. Who wants to read the dubbed version of a movie while watching the Japanese? This may seem like the mildest of irritations, but translation methods for dubs vs. subs are usually very different, with subs skewing far closer to literal interpretations, while dubs frequently play fast and loose, sometimes changing lines altogether, or even adding in further explanations of cultural points that would be too obvious for a Japanese viewer. It really does make a difference, and BIOS misses this entirely.

Nevertheless, it is only fair to the performers that they be acknowledged. The main characters were probably Major Katsumiya, played as a stoic man of strength by Ryo Ikebe (The War in Space); Etsuko, Katsumiya's love interest, played by Kyoko Anzai; and, more than either of the others, Iwamura, an honorable astronaut who becomes possessed by the aliens—he is played by frequent villain-actor Yoshio Tsuchiya. His is a tragic character, loyal to his friends, but forced to work against them. This struggle could have been quite interesting, with Iwamura battling the aliens' attempts to control him. Unfortunately, he never really fights the controls at all, and Tsuchiya tends to portray Iwamura's mind-controlled scenes as a sort of robot, with artificial movements signaling when the aliens switch on their remote manipulations. (SPOILERS!) Iwamura never frees himself; instead, his friends destroy the alien moon base, which releases him from Natarlian control. Realizing his horrible deeds under extraterrestrial influence, Iwamura sacrifices himself by staying behind on the moon, taking pot shots at passing saucers while his friends make their escape. This scene contains the most pathos in the entire movie—this isn't a fate that Iwamura deserves, and his heroic effort becomes tragic. That sacrifice would have been a great ending, with our heroes looking back in regret, thankful for their lives, while the last few aliens are blasted out of the sky. Unfortunately, the movie goes on for another 10-20 minutes of pointless (albeit pretty cool) scenes of mass destruction, and Iwamura is completely forgotten—as is just about everyone else. (END SPOILERS)

Bolstering the sci-fi elements of the plot, Eiji Tsuburaya, as usual, provides some great visuals—which isn't to say they are realistic. The model work pretty consistently looks exactly like models, but there is a level of simple fun imagination that injects pure enjoyment into the film. Jets soar, blinking saucers whoosh, meteor-torpedoes flash through inky black space, and the moon all-terrain vehicles crawl across the dusty landscape—or fly over the jagged mountains. All of the high-tech gadgetry and vehicles reminded me of Thunderbirds, and there is definitely a similar feel. The most impressive effects are saved for last, when buildings are essentially vacuumed into the air. Even these sequences are undermined, however, because there is no human element. Sure, presumably countless masses of humanity are killed, but there is no time to lament—even the characters in the movie don't appear to give a rip, so long as the baddies are aced.

Music is provided by the ever distinctive Akira Ifukube, and while the prevalent brass-heavy military themes will be instantly recognizable to Godzilla viewers, most fans will likely count that to the movie's credit. I would say the score is fine, quite fitting for the action, although somewhat repetitive.

Battle in Outer Space is no great film, but with most epic sci-fi/fantasy popcorn munchers of its ilk, there is fun to be had for fans of the genre. Nevertheless, the characters are mix-&-match dull, the dub is laughable, the subs are only transcripts of the rotten dub script, the plot is nonsensical and goes on too long, and the aliens are uninteresting. Whatever the outcome of Natarlians vs. earthlings, the battle for intelligent filmmaking was lost before the film even began.