Friday, February 26, 2016

041. Atomic Rulers of the World and 042. Invaders From Space

041. Atomic Rulers of the World (1964)
From: Cult Cinema
042. Invaders From Space (1965)
From: Sci-Fi Invasion
Directors: Koreyoshi Akasaka, Teruo Ishii, and Akira Mitsuwa
Writer: IchirĂ´ Miyagawa

The leaders of the Emerald planet, fearing the effects upon their own planet of nuclear fallout on Earth, dispatch their creation, Starman, to save our planet from destruction.

The first two parts of the Starman tetralogy, the other two being Attack From Space and Evil Brain From Outer Space, all of them translations of the Japanese Super Giant series/serial. There were nine episodes of the Japanese original condensed into the four films released in the US. The first six episodes were three stories told in two parts which made them relatively easy to re-cut for US release. The last three, though, were each standalone stories and so made for a curious final product, but I'll discuss that when I get to Evil Brain From Outer Space.

This week is all about parts one and two: Atomic Rulers and Invaders From Space, respectively. Just starting with the basic plot, even the first movie feels like a sequel. Each movie starts with the same moment, maybe the same footage (I didn't compare them) of the alien tribunal of the Emerald planet debating a nuclear threat facing Earth. Because the radiation resulting from a nuclear attack on Earth would eventually filter through space and destroy the Emerald planet, they once again decide to send Starman to Earth to deal with the problem.

This is my first issue with the film. In the very first Starman movie, he's being sent to Earth again. What adventure did we miss? Also, since every movie in the series starts with him being sent to Earth, you gotta wonder why the leaders of the Emerald planet didn't just leave him there. None of the aliens on the Emerald planet look remotely human. Starman is specifically created to interact with Earth, but he never stays on Earth. Wouldn't it be easier just to have him remain on-site to deal with problems as they arise, informed of or alerted to issues by his bosses on the Emerald planet?

Also, what is this Emerald planet? They're described as wise, kind, and benevolent because they're sending Starman to save us all from nuclear threats, but it's always explicitly because if we're destroyed through nuclear attack, their planet will eventually die as well. We are saved only because our deaths would be problematic for the Emerald planet. If an alien force were coming to enslave all humans, but using conventional weaponry, the Emerald planet wouldn't be bothered. Hell, if the aliens of Bad Taste who came to Earth to market humans to the rest of the universe as fast food came down, the Emerald planet would be offering to open a franchise on one of their moons.

Anyway, both movies start there. In Atomic Rulers of the World, the evil nation of Meropol is planning to take over the Earth by threatening to detonate suitcase nukes in all the major cities if they're not put in charge. Starman is dispatched to stop them, which he does relatively quickly.

Starman is basically the Japanese Superman (comes from space to save the Earth, immune to bullets, is described as having clothes “made of steel”) only instead of stomping Nazis, he's fighting nuclear weapons, which, frankly, is kind of what you'd expect. Like Superman, he can't be harmed by mere mortals and, like Superman, becomes a really dull character because of it. Stories are interesting when there's risk. Since Starman can't be harmed, the risk has to be shoehorned into this first movie which is done by introducing the goddamn stupid kids.

Starman arrives on Earth, immediately finds the goons with the suitcase nuke, gets into a fist, then gun fight with them, both of which he proves invulnerable to, and he defeats the goons. During the fight, though, a group of passing orphans steal the suitcase and one of the discarded guns. They run back to the orphanage, but one of them trips and is captured by the goons.

Space Jesus stuffs his shorts for your sins
Meanwhile, Starman's magic radiation-detecting watch leads him to the children where he destroys the gun and takes the suitcase back, appearing initially as Space Jesus. Look at that image and tell me I'm wrong. If you have any doubt about the fun you can have with these movies, set it aside. They are goofy in all the right ways.

So he gets the suitcase nuke from the kids, goes back to the field where he had the fight, the kids and their nun guardian immediately find him again and ask him to save their kidnapped friend whereupon he gives the suitcase nuke back to them to hold until he returns.

Remember what I said about having to shoehorn in risk?

Nixon or the Angry Video Game Nerd?
He saves the kid but the goons steal the suitcase back from the orphanage, taking a hostage who he then has to save while trying to disarm the villains. In the midst of this, he gets framed for murder but quickly escapes. Throughout it all, Richard Nixon looks on in growling disapproval.

Of the four, this was my third favorite. Even though it's edited from two other films, it could be cut even shorter. There's a lot of downtime and not much happens. It is, however, fun, campy, and possessed of many joys. While it's in the public domain, my copy unfortunately has the Mill Creek Entertainment bug burned into it so I can't upload a copy to the Internet Archive. There are, though, some avi and divx copies up there for streaming as well as copies on YouTube.

Why so serious?
In Invaders From Space, the second Starman movie, the producers get things right. Starman is sent to Earth to save it from invasion by alien salamander men. Hell yes! They even look awesome. Although the effects are as cheesy and cheap as the first movie, they work a little better here. There are aliens with make-up on and the black-and-white film makes them look creepy. If a kid stumbled across this in the middle of the night, I think it would honestly scare them (confession: one of the scariest things I remember stumbling across on TV as a kid was Sinead O'Connor's “Nothing Compares 2 U” video. Kids see things differently).

A further bonus is the narrator—these things are relentlessly narrated, by the way, giving them more than an echo of old time radio like X-Minus One—tells us that Starman is actually vulnerable to the salamander men's claw attacks. So this movie corrects the mistake of the previous one by introducing stakes: the hero can be harmed, even killed, so his actions and decisions carry risk and therefore weight.

The alien threat manifests through a disease spreading across the land whose source appears to be a theater where a modern dance troupe is performing. Of course, the dancers are all secret salamander men. I'm pretty sure this is where David Icke got his Reptoid theory.

While it would be easy to make fun of the idea that Starman is being menaced by modern dance, the dance routines are pretty neat. At one point, the shot of the dancers is running backwards, but, because of how they're moving, it's not immediately apparent. This also allows for some relatively dynamic and well-choreographed fight scenes. On top of this, the aliens' spaceship interiors are composed completely of shadows. Instead of having consoles and command centers, everything is just a silhouette on a wall with the dancers miming in front of them. Yes, that's a result of the low budget, but it's done in such a way that it feels like the filmmakers are taking advantage of the limitations that arise. They can't afford to build a whole set so instead they use shadows in a way that echoes German Expressionism and makes the space seem even more alien.

This one was easily my favorite of the four, even though it has the standard genre hang-ups of introducing the goddamned kids. The threat is actually alien and comes across as vaguely monstrous, the cultural gulf between the US and Japan makes the odd parts even odder, and it's generally interesting throughout. All these films are in the public domain and this one is available on the Internet Archive in a DVD-quality MPEG2 version.

Next week, I'll cover parts three and four, Attack From Space and Evil Brain From Outer Space. One curious thing, even though all four movies are public domain, Attack From Space wasn't in any of my box sets, so I'll be using the Internet Archive's version for my review.

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