Every once in a while, the stars line up just right. It’s not like I despaired or anything, but I didn’t think that I’d get to feature the remarkably dumb Toho sci-fi borefest The War in Space for our blog. It was out of print when we did our season of Star Wars Cash-Ins almost – gosh – five years ago, but the indispensable DVD Beaver noted that a German outfit called White Pearl actually released it in late 2019. Well, I just couldn’t resist this. I’d be doing you good readers a terrible disservice not telling you about it.
See, among all those cash-ins in the late seventies and early 1980s, The War in Space holds a special distinction. It may not be the worst of them, but it was the very first. All the Starcrashs and Shapes of Things to Come are following in this stinker’s footprints.
The story is a much better one than the movie itself. The special effects technician grapevine had been buzzing all through 1976 that some guy named Lucas and a startup concern that would become Industrial Light and Magic were going to revolutionize the way these space movies were made. So when Star Wars premiered in California the following May, Toho Studios made sure that some of their people were in one of the first audiences. 20th Century Fox hadn’t arranged international distribution yet – they were even hesitant about a coast to coast rollout in those strange days of yesteryear when global blockbusters didn’t exist yet – and so the fellows who flew to America to see it were able to make some suggestions and swipe some ideas for a feature that was in pre-production, and actually beat Star Wars to Japanese movie theaters.
Jun Fukuda had been a go-to director for Toho’s sci-fi movies for a while. He’d been in charge of the Godzilla films for several years, navigating the movies through progressively smaller budgets. So with a story about a flying battleship saving Earth from enemy invasion already in the early stages, they added some things that look like X-Wings and TIEs having dogfights, and a Death Star trench, and light saber knives, and Chewbacca with a big hatchet – yep, it’s Karvanista from “Flux” – and a Vader Villain. Their world is far from here. They can go all over the immensity of the galactic system, but they use Venus as their base of operations and blow up American cities in repurposed footage from Toho’s 1959 movie Battle in Outer Space.
But the big problem with The War in Space is there’s not nearly enough pilfering going on. This is a long, long 88 minutes of nothing happening until miniature spaceships start shooting at each other. We meet some characters on Earth in the far-flung future of 1988, and it’s people in suits and ties having shootouts with imposters wearing rubber masks. Shōji Nakayama, who had played the commander character in Ultraseven, is here, briefly, as the UN debates what to do next, and whether to launch the Gohten. This is sort of the same ship previously featured in 1963’s Atragon, which is a much, much better movie.
What’s weird is that this film is full of characters and they get little hints of backstory here and there, and they get killed off left and right without comment. Even if we were watching this subtitled, it would be impossible to sympathize with the characters because the movie keeps the audience at a huge distance. Sadly, the only English language option is dubbed, and it’s a notoriously hilarious dub, from that school of “say anything – anything at all – as long as the original actor’s mouth is moving” that very low-rent localization companies used to employ. A couple of weeks ago, bizarrely, I was watching a naughty Jess Franco film, naughty even by Franco standards, made the same year as this, with exactly the same style of dubbing. Never wanted words on the bottom of the screen so badly in my life.
The target audience in our home was less than impressed, although he did enjoy the climax, in which Earth’s flying battleship and the enemy’s big “galleon” start blasting each other with increasingly unlikely hidden weapons. But as I say, the problem is that there is far too little of the Star Wars stuff and far too much of men parachuting onto island bases in the Pacific. The movie has a big axe-wielding Chewbacca dog with horns and absolutely no idea what to do with him. Maybe they should’ve stayed in California another week and watched Star Wars six or seven more times before making this dull, silly thing.