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Monster Zero

Toho Co. Ltd [1965] 96′
country: Japan
director: ISHIRO HONDA

It’s confession time here at Wtf-Film. When I was growing up in the late 80’s and early 90’s I saw all of the regularly syndicated Godzilla films, be it MEGALON or GIGAN making their rounds on the local UHF or the UPA editions of TERROR OF MECHAGODZILLA and the film reviewed here today filling up time slots at TNT. As a youngster my quotient for wanton kaiju destruction seemed endless, but MONSTER ZERO tested it time and time again – I fell asleep more than my fair share of times while watching it, and can only claim to have seen it all the way through on a handful of occasions. More recently I had the opportunity to view it again, both via the ancient Simitar DVD release and the much newer Classic Media disc from last year – the results were, unfortunately, much the same.

Very recently, Toho, courtesy of the Japan Specialty Movie Channel, unveiled their brand new high definition restoration of this, as well as the other Godzilla films from 1954 to 1975 – effectively giving me an opportunity to make good and realize why this film proves to be the fan favorite it is, just in time for my first annual Kaiju Christmas Spectacular.

INVASION OF ASTRO MONSTER begins with the discovery of the mysterious Planet X, found orbiting just beyond Jupiter – spaceship P-1 and its two man crew of Fuji [Takarada] and Glenn [Adams] are sent to investigate. In more Earth-bound events, Fuji’s sister is dating inventor Tetsuo [Kubo], who’s latest work is on an excruciatingly annoying alarm device known as the Lady Guard. The mysterious Ms. Namikawa [Mizuno], representative of an international manufacturer of toys, agrees to buy the invention at a high price – a fact Tetsuo hopes will convince Fuji that he’s worthy of dating his sister.

The P-1 lands on Planet X successfully and Fuji and Glenn discover a race of people there – the X-seijin – who are in need of assistance. It seems their planet is under constant attack by Monster Zero – the infamous King Ghidorah, who has driven the entire X-ian civilization into living underground. They relay a message through the two astronauts, asking for the assistance of monsters Godzilla and Rodan in exchange for the formula for a drug to cure cancer. The governments of Earth unanimously agrees to help Planet X, but becomes worried when three X-ian flying saucers appear over Lake Miyojin, revealing that their intentions to come to Earth regardless of the governments’ decision. Brushing aside all concerns, the governments allow the X-ians to take Godzilla and Rodan back to their home planet to defeat King Ghidorah – they do so promptly, and a tape containing the formula for the cancer cure is handed over accordingly.

But instead of the promised formula, the tape contains an ultimatum – the Earth is to become a colony of Planet X, which hopes to use our water supply, or face utter destruction at the hands of the X-ian controlled monsters King Ghidorah, Godzilla, and Rodan. Fuji and the scientists of the Space Authority work feverishly in their attempts to build a device that will disrupt the magnetic waves the X-ians are using to control the monsters, but the secret to success may lie with the incredibly irritating sound emitted by Tetsuo’s invention. As the clock winds down on the ultimatum, the three monsters are let loose upon the cities of the Earth, causing rampant destruction world wide. Can the scientists of the Space Authority find a solution in time?

INVASION OF ASTRO MONSTER, unleashed the same year that rival company Daiei’s DAIKAIJU GAMERA was to be released, is one the last great hurrah’s of the Godzilla series – the only future film in the Showa series to transcend its production scale would be the highly derivative DESTROY ALL MONSTERS in 1968. Even so, the limitations of the production budget show themselves in the lack of original monster action [the GREAT MONSTER WAR of the title only occurs in the final eighteen minutes of the film] and the inclusion of, for this time in the series, large amounts of stock footage [scenes from the original RODAN [1956], MOTHRA [1961], and THE MYSTERIANS [1957] are all to be found within]. Eiji Tsuburaya and his team still provide a number of highlights, including the imaginative design of the X-ian flying saucers, a few minutes of new city destruction on the part of King Ghidorah, Rodan, and Godzilla, and some remarkably good composite and matte work – but the majority of the new effects aren’t quite up to the caliber of past productions, and the limits on working time and budget are quite evident.

The narrative produced by Toho sci-fi regular is intelligently derivative of past efforts, with the earlier Toho film THE MYSTERIANS and his own writing for BATTLE IN OUTER SPACE obviously having a large impact on the story – the conclusion also seems to reference, intentionally or otherwise, the Fred F. Sears directed Ray Harryhausen SPFX vehicle EARTH VS. THE FLYING SAUCERS [1956]. There are indications that Sekizawa had a grander vision for the proceedings in the beginning – the aftermath of the X-ian ultimatum is, in the film, rendered in still images with canned sound effects – but that the same budgetary constraints that hampered the special effects crew limited him as well. What remains is a largely successful example of 60’s science fiction that, in spite of being largely unoriginal, is entertaining in its way and notable in that it is the first time alien invasion played a major role in a Godzilla film [the plot device would prove immensely popular for the remainder of the Showa series, with it being used in one form or other no fewer than 5 additional films].

This would prove to be one of director Ishiro Honda’s last Godzilla efforts – as budgets grew smaller, the Showa series would rely increasingly on director Jun Fukuda. He works well here with a cast of Toho regulars that includes the likes of Jun Tazaki and Yoshio Tsuchiya in addition to those already listed, though the pacing and continuity both suffer a bit during the final few reels. Cinematographer Hajime Koizumi deserves high praise as well for helping to make this one of the last ‘beautiful’ films of the Godzilla series, with his cinemascope eye soaking in all of the intricate makings of Takeo Kita’s intricate production design – this would be Koizumi’s final Godzilla film, having worked on the previous two entries as well as THE MYSTERIANS [1957], GORATH [1962] and MATANGO [1963].

In 1966, the Japanese giant monster movie scene would veritably explode, with Daiei’s rival Gamera series picking up steam [not to mention their production of all three DAIMAJIN films that same year] and Toei unleashing their absurd fantasy epic MAGIC SERPENT – within the course of a few more years the Japanese public would be subjected to a family of Gappa’s, the anti-mighty Agon, and the positively indescribable Guilala. INVASION OF ASTRO MONSTER would be the last of the ‘classic’ Godzilla films, paving the way for the less serious SON OF GODZILLA and GODZILLA VS. THE SEA MONSTER as well as a full slate of ridiculous seventies productions – the stories would be considerably more ludicrous in the future efforts, with Godzilla’s villainous beginnings all but forgotten in the process.

UPA released INVASION OF ASTRO MONSTER in America under the title MONSTER ZERO and on a double feature with WAR OF THE GARGANTUAS in 1970 – two years after the overdose death of star Nick Adams [having spoken his lines in English originally, his voice was the only one not overdubbed for the American release]. It was this version, pan and scanned to 4:3 and with tacky new video rendered credits tacked onto the beginning and end that I grew up with and, more often than not, slept to.

As for my opinions on the film, they have changed for the more favorable with this most recent viewing – I find myself enjoying the story of the X-ian invasion more and more, but the lack of monster action and pacing for the final half hour of the feature still feel like a bit of a drag to me. The new HD restoration is phenomenal, representing ASTRO MONSTER as best as likely will ever be seen. It’s certainly not my favorite entry in the series, but is a necessity for fans of kaiju-oriented and other Japanese science fiction all the same – INVASION OF ASTRO MONSTER comes recommended.

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