Yeah, yeah, Invasion of Astro-Monster, I know, but screw that, it’s a stupid name.
This is such a strange experience. I had been so looking forward to Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster and it let me down so badly. This one I had no real fondness for at all, but I decided to watch it with our son both out of a sense of obligation for the important ones and also to see the incredibly fun scene where Nick Adams tells his space girlfriend that they’re not robots, and I enjoyed the daylights out of it. It’s really entertaining!
Of course it’s dumb in the way that monster movies are always dumb. My favorite example is one by no means limited to just the Japanese monster movies: it starts by following all the human characters that will ever matter in the movie, and keeps giving them additional reasons to be part of the narrative when it really should have left them behind for new experts. There are a few special effects letdowns this time, too. Wires are visible all through the film, and while Eiji Tsubaraya’s effects team did their usual amazing job with miniatures for the moments that matter, basic establishing shots are obvious giveaways. I chuckled at a convoy of military trucks and jeeps all following along a track with whacking great pins connecting the vehicle to the metal track underneath.
But there’s also a wonderful moment where the movie wrong-foots the audience into thinking they’re seeing an error when they’re not. If you’ve picked up Criterion’s big Godzilla set – and if you haven’t, you should – then skip to chapter 2 and you’ll see a fine little shot of a rocket flying through space. The camera follows it for a second and then cuts to a shot of the stars and the blue-blackness behind them, revealed to be fake by folds in the fabric. But the camera continues panning and the joke is on the skeptics in the audience. The cut took us out from space and to Earth. We’re not looking at a special effect, we’re looking at the starry-night backdrop of a fancy restaurant. I loved that.
In the mid-sixties, Toho decided to try boosting American interest in their monster movies by hiring familiar actors. Russ Tamblyn and Cesar Romero both headlined films for them, but I think Nick Adams was the first. It didn’t work in the short run; this movie sat on the shelf and didn’t get released in the United States until 1970, under the far better name of Godzilla vs. Monster Zero. Adams is terrific fun to watch. He’s an all-fists dese-dem-dose action star, all cigarettes and sixties, capable of whatever odd demands the plot has for him.
When I last saw this film as a teenager, I was too serious to enjoy it. I was unreasonably annoyed that the people of Earth called this new planet on the other side of Jupiter “Planet X,” and then they land on it and strike me pink, that’s what the natives call it as well! But the Planet X people – they’re called Xillians, delightfully – are effortlessly cool in an only-in-the-sixties way, with their grey-and-black leather uniforms and thin sunglasses. I’d watch Nick Adams rally the people of Earth against these dudes even without Godzilla and Rodan beating up Ghidorah in the background, especially if he’s going to overact opposite the beautiful Kumi Mizuno, who was in a lot of these movies back then.
And did the kid like it? He made “Go Godzilla” signs. He got disillusioned when he thought Godzilla was going to rise up from a big lake and it turns out to be a flying saucer instead, lowering his signs with a scowl, but at one point Godzilla does a victory hop and at another point he tells Rodan to wake up by smacking the big bird in the chest with his tail and he was in heaven. A small city gets demolished and the Xillians get crippled by sound waves before they can, err, “escape into the future,” and their UFOs explode. Maybe the hilarious brilliance of Nick Adams is lost on him as yet, but there’s plenty otherwise to enjoy.