In the latter half of the 1950s, it seemed like every alien race with a saucer was high-tailing it to Earth with dreams of conquest, colonization, and a little lovin’ with the locals. The invaders of the 1950s came in many shapes and sizes. Some were blobs. Others were giant insects. A few were house plants. And a lot of them were very fond of wearing strange helmets. Toho Studios and director Ishiro Honda specialized in destroying the Earth, and in the 1950s, they were as happy as everyone else to pit Earth against menacing aliens from space. Whether it was man’s own folly or the fault of strange beings from another galaxy, it seemed as if guys like Honda and special effects pioneer Eiji Tsubaraya couldn’t go one week without creating a scale model of apocalypse. Honda, best known for creating Godzilla, was an impressive, happy-go-lucky man with a keen respect for the environment, for Earth, and for his fellow inhabitants of the place. His Shinto-influenced philosophy is evident in his body of work. From the original Godzilla to more offbeat films like Attack of the Mushroom People, Honda is constantly examining both man’s impact on the natural world and humanity’s ability — or inability — to work with other members of their own race for the betterment of society.
Although his films often play as cautionary tales, exploring the ramifications of human idiocy, Ishiro Honda was generally hopeful about our ability to one day unite and get along. He also often portrayed technology as both the cause of our trouble and the potential solution. Godzilla was created by the atomic bomb, but the same science that created him devised a way to destroy him. A theme Honda kept returning to throughout his career was that of humanity banding together in the face of a greater threat, of working not as nations or religions, but as a planet. Honda delved into it with such films as The Mysterians and Battle in Outer Space, pretty typical sci-fi thrillers elevated both by Honda’s humanist disposition and special effects wizard Eiji Tsubaraya’s astounding work with miniatures.
My exposure to Honda’s film came at an early age, as it did for many people of my generation. I remember being in 3rd grade and getting a series of books about movie monsters. It was the whole Troll book order thing, which gave us those glorious days when you would walk into the classroom and see that big box of books you knew contained your Empire Strikes Back storybook and your humorous posters of chimpanzees saying things like “Go Bananas!” That was great stuff, rivaled in adult life only by the rare arrival of a box from UPS. Anyway, it was a four book set. One book was all about the Wolfman, the other all about vampires, the third about the woefully underused mummy, and the fourth sort of a free-for-all celebration of on-screen space aliens.
I’d become a horror and sci-fi fan by age five, and even at that early age, I was staying up past midnight in order to catch a glimpse of the Wolfman or any other monster on WHAS-11’s Memories of Monsters show. And Sunday afternoon was Japanese monster day, of course, and I sat back with a bowl full of Count Chocula and watched Godzilla kick a little butt. It was in that fourth book, which had a fair amount of material on Godzilla, that I first saw a photo from The Mysterians. It was a collage of the Mysterian invaders, lasers, tanks, and the giant Mogera robot. I didn’t know much about it, but from the promotional still, it looked like the greatest movie ever made, at least through my eight year old eyes. It would be many, many years before I finally had the chance to see what so dazzled me then.
The plot centers around a mysterious fire and a disappearing scientist. Investigators soon learn that the scientist is working with the Mysterians, a group of space aliens who wear helmets and want to live on Earth. They request a few square miles and the right to buy human women and use them to interbreed with. Whoa there, bucko! If science fiction the world over has taught us one thing, it’s that you don’t go messin’ with Earth women. Nothing gets a red-blooded human male’s fightin’ dander up quite like a race of aliens who have come to take our women away.
When the humans explain that they will not let the Mysterians have the women, the aliens shrug and launch an all-out offensive against Earth. Their first weapon is that Mogera robot, which I always thought would play some major role or something, seeing how it was on every piece of promotional material I found for the movie. Turns out it shows up, waddles around for a few minutes, melts some tanks, and then gets pushed into the river. I guess the Mysterians only brought the one Mogera, because that’s the last we see of it. Frankly, given how poorly it performs, it seems like it might have been some sort of military-industrial boondoggle, and the Mysterians just wanted to get rid of the thing. Luckily, the Mysterians also brought heat rays and stuff, so all is not lost. Humanity bands together to fend off the aggressive aliens who want to take our women.
A fun story, lots of sci-fi action, and top-notch effects make for a thoroughly enjoyable Saturday afternoon. Effects maestro Eiji Tsubaraya dominates with incredible miniature work and the requisite “city in ruins” stuff that he does so well. In the end, the Mysterians beat a hasty retreat, and the nations of the world learn they must stay united in order to prevent more alien races from pushing us around.
Sadly, the aliens did not learn their lesson, which is “don’t mess with earth.”
The action begins all over again with Battle in Outer Space, which isn’t quite a sequel to The Mysterians in terms of chronology but certainly can be seen as such in terms of sentiment and spirit. A fleet of UFOs attacking an Earth space station in the distant future year of 1965. The destruction of their cool orbiting platform irritates the humans — but it could be worse. They could have bombed that swank space port and cocktail lounge on the moon that was in X From Outer Space. Humans quickly discover an alien base on the moon and assemble a team of astronauts to go kick a little ET ass. The only monkeywrench in the plan is that the aliens have this keen mind control device that can make good astronauts go bad and try to destroy the secret weapon that will smash the alien base.
Mind control or not, the end result is a massive laser beam shoot-out on the moon in which the humans teach these malevolent unseen beings to keep the hell out of our galaxy. For the final portion of the movie, the scene shifts to Earth, where the aliens launch an all-out attack on our greatest cities.The people of the Earth must unite and select the best pilots in the world to fly our special rocket fighters into final combat with the persistent alien invaders. Lots of aerial and space dogfighting occurs, and many jagged laser beams are shot. This is where Tsubaraya really shines. The aliens use a beam that can actually destroy, or at least reverse, gravity. Tsubaraya and his effects team pull off some absolutely stunning shots of entire cities being uprooted, torn to pieces, and hurtled up into the sky.
What we have here is an enjoyable, simple tale of evil space aliens and the goodly humans who fend off their aggressive advances. Toho goes hog wild with the space effects. The attention to detail is staggering. The initial shots of a destroyed space station feature all sorts of recognizable rubble, including a little dead spaceman floating amid the destruction. At the center of Battle in Outer Space, as in many films of this nature, is a study of how the different tribes of mankind band together when faced with a greater foe. But even with politics aside, this film is full of little spaceship models kicking each other’s asses in the bleak darkness of the Milky Way.