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Posts Tagged ‘alien invasion’

If you think of British film companies of the 60s, particularly makers of genre movies, then of course you think of Hammer, then probably Amicus, and perhaps Tigon in third place. It might be quite a long time before you remembered Planet, a much smaller outfit these days best remembered for a couple of Terence Fisher films – Island of Terror, from 1966, and Night of the Big Heat, from 1967. Island of Terror was a moderately successful monster movie, rather let down by ropey monster props and a slightly stuffy tone. Night of the Big Heat (also known by the rather more promising title Island of the Burning Damned) almost looks like an attempt at a remake with these things fixed.

Everything takes place on the island of Fara, which we are told is somewhere off the coast of the UK. The film actually has a very unpromising opening, with no dialogue for ages and no real sense of what’s going on: someone’s radar set explodes in his face, a young woman (Jane Merrow) drives around in her convertible, and a stern-looking man (Christopher Lee) is engaged upon some mysterious experiments involving cameras and mirrors and bits of wood. (One of these scenes turns out not to have happened yet, and is just a teaser for much later on.)

Eventually we get some sense of the set-up here. Key locations on Fara include the weather station and the gravel pits (a useful location for staging mysterious deaths and the climax), but most of the action takes place in the pub, which is run by slab-faced alpha-male novelist Jeff Callum (Patrick Allen) and his wife Frankie (Sarah Lawson). Lodging in the pub is mysterious outsider Dr Hanson (Lee), while constantly propping up the bar is genial GP Dr Stone (‘guest star’ Peter Cushing). New on the scene is Jeff’s latest secretary, Angela (Merrow), who is a bit of a naughty minx: she and Jeff have history together, if you know what I mean, and she’s come to Fara intent on resuming their liaison. A torrid time is in prospect.

Especially torrid given the island is sweltering in the grip of a tremendous, unseasonal heatwave, which is making TV sets and bottles of beer spontaneously explode. (All the men have had ridiculous sweat-patches applied to their shirts by the costume department.) What’s going on? Does it have anything to do with Dr Hanson’s experiments?

Well, sort of. It seems that space probes from Earth have attracted the attention of alien creatures composed of ‘high frequency heat’ and they are using Fara as a beachhead for their invasion of Earth. Anyone who crosses their path – sheep, supporting characters, those old tramps who are such a regular feature of this kind of movie – is rapidly incinerated. Is everyone doomed?

The least you can say for Night of the Big Heat – you know, I do think Island of the Burning Damned is a better title – is that it more or less avoids the key problems that Island of Terror had: the alien monsters are kept off-screen for most of the movie (and the monster props are marginally better when they do appear), and the general tone of the thing is pepped up by some mildly saucy business between Allen and Merrow (not to mention Merrow providing some cheap PG-rated cheesecake thrills). And yet this is still a worse movie than the previous Planet production.

How can this be? Well, firstly, all the stuff about Jeff being unable to keep his hands off Angela, and her scheme to have her way with him, scarcely informs the main plot of the film – it’s filler, basically, and very melodramatic filler too. The characterisation of Angela is, shall we say, problematic: she is a one-dimensional Bad Girl, who functions primarily as a sex object, and she’s the first one to lose it completely as the situation grows increasingly dire. (On the other hand, at least she can type.)

However, at least this makes a vague sort of sense, which is more than you can really say for the alien monster invasion storyline, which starts off as slightly dubious and rapidly becomes very silly indeed; this is the kind of film you can imagine inspiring the Monty Python ‘Sci Fi movie’ sketch. As ever, you are left filled with admiration for Christopher Lee’s ability to treat this kind of material with a gravity and intensity it doesn’t remotely deserve. By the end of the film Lee is participating in expository scenes explaining how the alien invasion has happened which are basically utter gibberish, before running outside to implement his character’s ridiculous plan to see off the invaders (this involves many shots of Lee setting fire to haystacks with a flare pistol), and he genuinely seems to be taking it completely seriously. What a legend. Peter Cushing is, of course, equally good, though not in the film enough – though we do get a marvellous example of Cushing’s wonderful ‘death-spasm’ acting (let’s see Disney’s CGI Cushing do that).

Most of the film is fairly competently made, but the script is so thick-headed that it’s more or less impossible to take seriously as a piece of drama, and it’s not even particularly enjoyable as camp entertainment. Night of the Big Heat came out in 1967, coincidentally the same year as In the Heat of the Night. One of these films is a timeless classic that deservedly won critical acclaim and several Oscars. The other one is a dim-witted B-movie with Jane Merrow in a bikini and aliens defeated by their poor grasp of meteorology. You can kind of see why Planet Film Productions never achieved a higher profile.

 

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The late Gerry Anderson was quite unapologetic about the fact that his TV shows and movies, made by a British producer, using mostly-British writers and crews, in British studios and locations, almost always concerned American characters and settings, portrayed by American lead actors. If international sales are really that important to you, was his thinking, better to go down that route than to make an ostensibly British show with a single imported American star (he was particularly dismissive of Dempsey and Makepeace, as I recall). Not sure I see the distinction myself, but anyway.

Now, when it comes to the giant monster movie genre, there is a long and distinguished (well, about as distinguished as you can get when making traditionally cheap-assed movies about silly-looking monsters treading on toy tanks) tradition of the International Version, where a whole new alternate version of a movie is assembled for foreign sales purposes. This goes back, effectively, to the very birth of the genre – the version of the original Godzilla which went on release in the USA featured new scenes in which an American journalist (played by Raymond Burr, of all people) basically looks out of the window and relates what’s going on down a phone line. (Imported American stars are also quite common in the original version of a lot of 60s Toho movies, too.)

But at what point does this sort of sales-related re-editing produce something which is essentially a whole new movie? The thought occurred to me after watching Shim Hyung-Rae’s Yonggary, which is ostensibly a South Korean kaiju movie from 1999. The thing is, however, that Yonggary apparently underwent extensive re-editing and re-shoots in order to be released in the USA in 2001, under the title Reptilian, and this is the only version of the film which is widely available.

yonggary

The story goes as follows: hostile aliens, who appear to be played by glove puppets, turn up aboard a so-so looking spaceship, intent on conquering the world. Nobody notices this at first, and the story instead concerns the palaeontological dig of the sinister and arrogant Dr Campbell (Richard B Livingston). It’s never actually referred to as a palaeontological site, by the way (and it does indeed resemble a building site more than anything else), but this may be because none of the writers knew how to spell it. Also hanging around is a photojournalist (Brad Sergi) and the doc’s comely young assistant Holly (Donna Philipson). Campbell is intent on digging up a giant dinosaur skeleton, ‘fifty times bigger than a t-rex’, and isn’t about to let a string of mysterious deaths stop him.

However, who should turn up but Campbell’s old mentor Dr Hughes (Harrison Young), making wild claims that this will bring about the end of the world, for the beast (which he calls Yonggary) will soon come back to life and devastate the planet. His source for all this is some ancient hieroglyphics which he discovered in a rather confusing prologue (perhaps that should be ‘especially confusing prologue’, for – as you may have guessed – narrative coherence is not Yonggary‘s strong suit).

Naturally, everyone assumes Hughes has gone off the deep end, but then the aliens launch their scheme and the dinosaur skeleton transforms into a living, breathing Yonggary, who promptly treads on Dr Campbell. The aliens start teleporting Yonggary all over the place, attacking Los Angeles, a nuclear reactor, and so on, and making it quite tricky for the armed forces, who have finally figured out what’s going on, to send in the troops to fight him. So it goes sometimes…

The kaiju genre was in fairly rude good health in the late 90s, when Yonggary was originally conceived and produced: Toho were knocking out a not-bad Godzilla movie every year, Shusuke Kaneko’s awesome Gamera trilogy was coming to a conclusion, and the Sony-Centropolis American remake of Godzilla had been a pretty big hit the year before. I think you can detect the influence of all of these things on Yonggary to some degree or other – there’s a sequence where a squadron of helicopter gunships takes on Yonggary which seems particularly indebted to the Emmerich movie, for instance (not to mention a bit where someone says of Yonggary, ‘Godzilla is a pussy compared to this guy!’). And this is, by any rational assessment, a plot assembled from fairly classic kaiju movie tropes: alien invasion, alarmed and impotent military, monster with a heart of gold, third-act evil monster, and so on. The film even comes up with some innovations which sit quite comfortably in this kind of movie – at one point special forces soldiers with jetpacks and ray-guns are deployed to fight Yonggary, and it’s a fairly cool scene.

Of course, it would be a bit cooler if the special effects of the movie were better, because – for all that this was apparently the most expensive movie in South Korean history – it does look cheap compared to Godzilla 2000, very cheap compared to Gamera: Incomplete Struggle, and incredibly cheap compared to the Centropolis Godzilla. The CGI of Yonggary and Cycor (the enemy monster) looks only marginally competent, although to be fair the monster designs themselves are dull and unengaging.

I suspect many viewers may not even have made it to the monster fights in Yonggary, for the first third of the movie is also its weakest part. There is, as I mentioned, an unengagingly baffling prologue, followed by a long section in which the main characters are Campbell and the photographer. Neither of these people appear after the first act of the film, which suggests a script which was just being written as it went along. The shockingly poor standard of the writing and much of the acting doesn’t help much, either.

Perhaps the oddest thing about Yonggary is the fact that this was a huge production by South Korean standards, a remake of a 60s South Korean kaiju film (Yongary: Monster from the Deep, in case you were wondering), directed by a South Korean film-maker, and yet you could watch the whole thing and remain blissfully ignorant of any of this. There are no prominent Korean actors, the film has been made in English, and it is supposedly set in California. What gives?

Then again, I did watch the 2001 version of Yonggary (aka Reptilian), which – as noted – was extensively modified for its international release. How much of the original version has survived? Was the South Korean Yonggary a bit more accomplished? To be honest, I kind of doubt it: the CGI would still have been bad, the plot would still have been silly-verging-on-the-stupid. Director Shim Hyung-Rae seems to specialise in this sort of thing – a few years ago I came across his 2007 movie Dragon Wars, in which the CGI was actually quite impressive, but the plot still baffling gibberish – and that while that one did contain some distinctively Korean bits, they felt odd and incongruous given the American milieu of the film.

Anyway: hats off to South Korea for having a go at making a proper giant monster movie, even if they didn’t quite manage it in the end. This is a pretty bad movie by any reasonable standard – even if you are a very keen follower of kaiju movies, you may find it only really passes the time, at best.

 

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The continents drift along in their stately way, the zodiac processes across the heavens, and the cinematic calendar continues its own slow evolution. When I first got into this ‘paying serious attention to cinema’ game, it was all much simpler: you had serious movies as the majority of releases right up until Oscar Night, at which point the more lightweight fare and genre movies would pop up to fill the gap until the big blockbusters appeared round about the time of Memorial Day in the States. These days, of course, everything is up in the air: the genre movies have been joined by blockbusters much earlier in the year, some of them even before the Oscars have been handed out. It doesn’t help matters that the line between the two appears to become a bit blurred – was Deadpool a genre film or an aspiring blockbuster? How about the imminent Logan, or the new King Kong movie?

Or, for that matter, Zhang Yimou’s The Great Wall? The film’s $150 million budget, along with the presence of an A-lister like Matt Damon, would seem to suggest a film with the biggest of ambitions. Set against that, on the other hand, is… well, decide for yourself.

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The film appears to be set around the 11th century, and opens with European mercenaries William (Damon) and Tovar (Pedro Pascal) leading a small group of adventurers into the remote wilds of the east. (Pascal is allowed to use his native Spanish accent, Damon attempts a rather optimistic, not to mention variable, Irish brogue.) Things look grim when the rest of their party is killed by a weird and mysterious beastie, and hostile local horsemen drive the duo onwards until they encounter something awesome – the imposing sight of the Great Wall of China (which still isn’t visible from space in the 11th century, despite what everyone says)!

The Wall is manned by a huge force of soldiers, apparently getting ready to enact some serious slaughter, but exactly what’s going on is not immediately clear, not least because the only senior officer who speaks English, Commander Lin (Jing Tian), is clearly suspicious of them. Her concerns are quite justified, as the Europeans have only come to China to steal the recipe for gunpowder – nor are they the first, for hanging around the place handing out exposition is Ballard (Willem Dafoe), survivor of a previous expedition with the same aim.

It turns out that the Great Wall is being manned to fend off an invasion of monsters which (the subtitles assure me) are called the Tao Te, a terrifying horde which arises once or twice every century to eat everything in their path. If the monsters are able to overrun the wall and devour the population of the Chinese capital, they will be well-fed enough to conquer the world! Things look bleak – can William put aside his mercenary, capitalistic principles long enough to join forces with the Chinese warriors in a proper piece of collective effort?

This is another one of those films which has received a bit of a savaging from the Diversity Enforcers, on the grounds that it supposedly perpetuates a slightly dodgy trope where a Caucasian protagonist swoops in to save the day for a bunch of incompetent supporting characters of a different ethnicity – the so-called White Saviour stereotype. On paper, you can see why this could be so, but I would argue that fears of this sort are groundless, for two main reasons.

Firstly, the film is largely the work of Chinese film-makers, with the distinguished director Zhang Yimou in charge, and Matt Damon is in this film for basically the same reason that Donnie Yen and Jiang Wen showed up in the last stellar conflict franchise brand extension (it shares one of the same writers, by the way) – to guarantee global ticket sales. The Caucasian presence is a business decision, not anything ideological.

And, secondly, IT’S MATT DAMON ON TOP OF THE GREAT WALL OF CHINA FIGHTING ALIEN MONSTERS WITH A BOW AND ARROW. GET A GRIP ON YOURSELVES AND STOP TAKING THIS FILM SO SERIOUSLY. I mean, really. There’s a time and a place to get righteously indignant, but doing it with this film just makes you look silly.

When word of The Great Wall first reached me, the impression I received was that this was going to be a genuine historical epic, supposedly concerning the fate of some of the Roman soldiers captured by Parthia at the battle of Carrhae in 53BC, who ended up working as mercenaries on the Chinese border. It’s one of the great ‘could it have happened…?’ stories of history, with some tantalising evidence (there is, for instance, apparently a village in western China where, once in a generation, a child is born with curly hair, as those Italian genes resurface). Needless to say, if this was ever the case, it ain’t true now, for this is… this is…

Actually, I’m genuinely unsure what kind of film this is supposed to be. It starts off not a million miles away from The Man Who Would Be King, in terms of the two main European characters and the tone of their relationship. But as soon as we reach the Wall itself, with its battalions of primary-coloured troop-types and CGI as far as the eye can see, it starts turning into something rather less interesting and more superficial. And once the major VFX sequences start rolling, with Starship Troopers-style swarms of monsters scuttling over the horizon (the script suggests these may genuinely be aliens), and female soldiers bungee-jumping off the top of the Wall to stab the monsters with spears… well, it’s like a cross between some kind of garish computer game and a comic book, and not an especially interesting one.

The characterisation is pretty thin, the CGI about as persuasive as Damon’s Irish accent, and it has none of the class or sophistication of the other films I’ve seen from Zhang Yimou, for all that it has the same underlying principles and fascination with colour as movies like Hero and House of Flying Daggers – I’m kind of reminded of Ang Lee’s Hulk, as another example of a director best known as an art-house darling taking a crack at something much more mainstream and just not quite being able to hack it. Not that this is Matt Damon’s finest hour, either: there may be a Chinese expression that describes just how far out of his comfort zone Damon visibly is for most of this film, but it certainly doesn’t exist in English.

To be honest, this looks like the kind of knowingly silly, CGI-heavy piece of fluff that should be starring a wrestler or possibly Gerard Butler, so the presence in it of proper actors is one of the most bemusing things about it (Andy Lau is also in the cast, by the way). But it’s just an odd, odd film overall, not really compelling as an American action movie or a Chinese fantasy. It neither convinces nor persuades, nor does it grip or thrill. But on the other hand, it’s mostly just silly rather than being actually bad, and of all the great walls currently being unleashed on the world, this is not the one people should really be complaining about.

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In the Earth Year 1965, Toho Pictures were on a bit of a roll with their loosely-connected series of mostly-knockabout, usually-underbudgeted SF and fantasy films. What had started off with a heartfelt and very serious film about the tribulations of Japan in the closing stages of the Second World War had by this point transmogrified into something with much more of a focus on pure entertainment, with a strong element of comedy often in the mix. A tendency to go a little bit crazy was always inherent in these movies, but it was to become much more apparent as time went on, and you could argue that it is particularly in evidence in Ishiro Honda’s entry in the series from that year, Invasion of Astro-Monster (also variously known as Monster Zero and Godzilla on Planet X).

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As things get under way, we are informed that scientists of the near future have been startled by the discovery of Planet X, a mysterious new world which is a satellite of Jupiter. Packed off to check the place out is rocketship P-1, piloted by astronauts Fuji (Akira Takarada) and Glenn (Nick Adams, imported to help with getting an American release). Planet X turns out to be a grim and unattractive place, with constant bad weather (suspiciously familiar-looking golden lightning crackles across the sky). Much to the Earth men’s surprise, however, Planet X turns out to be inhabited by aliens possessing strange unearthly powers and even stranger and more unearthly ideas about fashion:

xiliens

But the folk of Planet X (lore ascribes them the name ‘Xiliens’, though this isn’t used on screen in any of the versions I’ve seen) have a problem – their civilisation is constantly being raided by the three-headed space monster King Ghidorah, who they refer to as Monster Zero (‘Here on Planet X, we use numbers, not names,’ says the alien Commandant, helpfully, and no-one points out to him that ‘Planet X’ itself is actually a name). The Xiliens (oh, go on, it’s convenient) want to do a deal with Earth whereby they ‘borrow’ nuclear sea-dragon Godzilla and supersonic pterodactyl Rodan and use them to drive Ghidorah off, the pair of them having form in this department. In return they will provide humanity with a cure for cancer.

The lure of this to a 1960s world where everyone smokes like a chimney is sufficient to make everyone on Earth overlook how ridiculous and illogical the Xilien plan is, and at a meeting of the World Council not only the medical representative but the spokeswoman for the globe’s housewives are both all for loaning out the Earth monsters to Planet X.

While all this is going on, there are some slightly soapy goings on between Fuji, his sister, and her inventor boyfriend Tetsuo (Akira Kubo, a personable young actor who plays various roles in this series). He has invented what he calls the ‘Lady Guard’, which is basically a rape alarm, but is concerned that the corporation who has bought the rights to his gizmo isn’t doing anything with it. His main contract, the beautiful and enigmatic Namikawa (Kumi Mizuno), is also the girlfriend of astronaut Glenn, which in any other film would count as an outrageous plot contrivance. Different priorities apply here, of course.

Fuji and Glenn grow increasingly suspicious of the Xiliens’ intentions, but not to the point of actually telling anyone or doing much about it, and the transfer of Godzilla and Rodan to Planet X goes off without a hitch. Ghidorah is sent packing with his tails between his legs (Godzilla appears to do the Highland Fling to celebrate his victory) and everyone can celebrate!

Or can they? It turns out that all the women on Planet X are clones, and they look just like Glenn’s chick Namikawa! Why are the Xiliens so interested in suppressing Tetsuo’s rape alarm widget? And what are they going to do with Godzilla and Rodan now they’re on Planet X? Well, it may not come as a total surprise if I tell you that the Xiliens are planning on taking over Earth and enslaving everyone, and if the Earthlings don’t do as they’re told, King Ghidorah (who was secretly under their control all along), Godzilla, and Rodan will be unleashed on the hapless planet…

It is customary to refer to Invasion of Astro-Monster as part of the main sequence of Toho’s Godzilla movies (as opposed to movies like Mothra and King Kong Escapes, which appear to take place in the same continuity but obviously aren’t Godzilla movies per se), but I think this is really one of those benefit-of-hindsight things. If you watch this movie expecting a proper kaiju movie, I suspect you will be rather disappointed – the three monsters get very little active screen-time and the scrapping between them is commensurately abbreviated. I think it makes rather more sense to view this movie as part of the flying saucer alien invasion genre, which just happens to include extended cameos from various members of the Toho monster stable.

Not that this actually makes the film better, or more logical, of course. Even while you’re watching it, the various incongruities of the plot leap out at you and you’re constantly going ‘What? Hang on a minute… Surely…?’ The plot of Invasion of Astro-Monster disintegrates as soon as you breathe on it, even if you don’t have nuclear rays or gravity lightning coming out of your mouth, and the film-makers seem to be under the impression that if they keep things rattling along at a fairly decent pace then no-one is going to complain too much.

Maybe they have a point, for this is a hard film to really dislike, for all of its rampant eccentricities and unanswered questions. Two things keep Invasion of Astro-Monster from becoming the hallucinogenic fever-dream of a movie it often feels like it’s turning into – first, the fact that things like cancer cures and rape alarms – both with all manner of rather downbeat real-world associations – are central to the plot, and second, Ishiro Honda’s inability to completely shake off the ‘proper’ sci-fi tone the film starts with. (The model work and special effects in this movie are fairly decent in a slightly sub-Gerry Anderson way.)

I used to think of Invasion of Astro-Monster as a sort of mid-range entry in the Toho monster  series, and it is an influential movie in its own way (the ‘aliens use monsters as invasion weapon’ idea was endlessly recycled in movies all the way up to Final Wars, where the Xiliens also appear). But looking at it again now, the sheer bizarreness of the plot, and its multiple inadequacies, mean I think this is a film you really can only view as an extended, unintentional piece of deadpan comedy. And as such it’s a bit of a triumph.

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The 1971 Godzilla movie, Godzilla Vs Hedorah (aka Godzilla Vs The Smog Monster), was a) a heartfelt parable about the importance of protecting the environment and b) hallucinogenically bonkers. Longtime series overseer Tomoyuki Tanaka wasn’t keen on it at all, banished director Yoshimitsu Banno from the series, and set about producing something a bit more traditional for the 1972 film, which eventually emerged in the form of Jun Fukuda’s Godzilla Vs Gigan.

godzilla_vs_gigan_1972

(Banno probably got the last laugh, as he is the Japanese exec producer of the current run of American Godzilla movies.)

I first came across this film in the summer of 1990, when one of the British TV channels ran a short season of some of the Showa Godzilla films (the 1954-75 run). Even as a relative newcomer to the canon it was still pretty clear that the early 70s films suffered from limited budgets (and limited imagination), although this is to some extent offset by the vaulting weirdness that also ensues. Godzilla Vs Gigan is a pretty good showcase for all of this.

Our main character (who isn’t thirty storeys high and radioactive, anyway) is Gengo Kotaka (Hiroshi Ishikawa), an artist looking for a gig. With the help of his girlfriend he lands a job at the corporation responsible for the building of Children’s Land, a new theme park – although there appears to be some confusion over whether the theme in question is ‘peace’ or ‘giant monsters’ (maybe time to get the brand consultants in). The wunderkind chairman of the place insists on the former, but the centrepiece of the park is a life-size Godzilla Tower filled with offices and so on. The chairman even goes so far as to suggest that once the park is finished Monster Island (where Godzilla and his associates live happily, thanks to the wonders of reused footage) should be blown up. Clearly he is a bad ‘un.

Well, despite Gengo’s own ideas for new monsters being rubbish (he comes up with the Monster of Homework and the Monster of Over-attentive Mothering), he lands a job at Children’s Land. However, he soon finds himself caught in a web of intrigue, for there are rum doings going on behind the scenes at Children’s Land. Another employee seems to have disappeared and is being looked for by his sister and her weird hippy friend, and their investigations have turned up a mysterious spool of tape. Meanwhile their investigations reveal that the chairman and secretary of the park both apparently died in an accident the previous year, so what are they still doing walking around running a corporation?

Eventually the tape gets played, which answers a few questions and also provides one of the moments this movie is remembered for: the electronic bibbling that ensues just confuses the human characters, but it really annoys Godzilla over on Monster Island (much clutching of ears ensues). Having a busy schedule that day (we are invited to imagine what this may involve) Godzilla packs his fellow monster Anguirus (also known as Anguillas and various similar names, due to the wonders of English-Japanese transliteration) off to investigate. (Anguirus is a veteran monster from the Toho stable, but in this film he’s essentially Godzilla’s kid sidekick.)

Yes, this is the movie where Godzilla gets dialogue. How do you go about writing lines for a giant nuclear dragon? I’ve no idea, but I would suggest that making Godzilla say things like ‘Something funny going on! Go check it out!’ is probably not the best way to proceed. Anyway, Anguirus swims off to Japan, where he is promptly shot at a lot by the army and driven off (this probably constitutes the greatest single achievement in the history of the JSDF’s monster defence division), going back to Monster Island having found out pretty much nothing. Nice work, Anguirus.

In the end we find ourselves dealing once again with the spectre of an alien invasion, for the park is secretly being run by giant alien cockroaches from another planet, the humanoid inhabitants of which polluted themselves to death. The cockroaches (who can disguise themselves as dead people, it would appear) are going to use the mysterious tapes to control two space monsters, King Ghidorah and Gigan, and use them to devastate Japan as part of their conquest of the world. They are also planning to off Godzilla, naturally. Can our hero and his unprepossessing gang of friends do anything to help?

Oh, well: as I say, this is a pretty standard late-Showa Godzilla movie, with aliens trying to invade and Godzilla firmly ensconced in his position as a wholly non-threatening defender of Japanese society, complete with (as mentioned) kid sidekick. The monster suit is of the googly-eyed kind, and it does seem like the film is sometimes in a race against time to complete the story before the suit actually falls to bits, but as I say this is par for the course at this point.

Key opposition this time around is, of course, Gigan, who gets even less back-story than most antagonist monsters: he just turns up working for the giant cockroaches, the most distinctive thing about him being that he has a buzzsaw mounted in the front of his torso. I suppose this must count for something as Gigan has gone on to make a bit of a rep for himself, reappearing in Godzilla Vs Megalon and as the second villain in Final Wars. Certainly the buzzsaw makes for some striking moments: huge, Peckinpah-esque sprays of blood erupt as Gigan carves up Godzilla and Anguirus.

If the Godzilla and Gigan fight isn’t exactly prime stuff, at least it’s original to this film, which is more than can be said for a lot of the other monster action, which is recycled from other films in the series – one might even suspect that the main reason Anguirus and Ghidorah are in the film is because of their extensive stock-footage back-catalogues. It’s not exactly hard to spot, either, given the earlier films were differently lit and with higher production values.

In the end it boils down to the usual tag wrestling shenanigans – Godzilla gets the crap kicked out of him at extraordinary length before suddenly recovering to vanquish the opposition with startling ease – while the human characters dispose of the aliens and their Godzilla Tower with a deeply stupid plan (it involves hippies sneaking into the tower carrying big boxes clearly marked ‘TNT’). ‘Everything was going so well!’ wails a giant cockroach as it expires, and the Earth is safe again.

Many Japanese monster movies operate close to the intersection between fun/bonkers/silly/stupid, but Godzilla Vs Gigan crosses the line into ‘stupid’ more often than most of them. If you like Godzilla movies, then there is probably enough going on here to make the film a worthwhile and entertaining watch. If you’re still agnostic about the Big G, this really isn’t the best place to start.

 

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Some time around 7am, July 3rd, 1996: and I struggled back to consciousness after what was probably the heaviest night of my life, falling-down-water-wise. Not normally greeting the world until well after nine in the morning, seeing this time of day was a bit of a novelty, regardless of my debilitated condition, and so I popped on the TV just to see what sort of things got shown while I was asleep. The big entertainment news was of a film opening in the USA – big, grinning crowds emerging, vast queues forming. A young boy was asked what he was hoping to see in the new movie. ‘Lots of blowing up,’ he said excitedly.

The movie, needless to say, was Roland Emmerich’s Independence Day, which I had never heard of prior to this point. Still, a big SF movie with lots of blowing up was definitely my sort of thing, and my interest was particularly piqued by a UK-specific radio prequel in which Nicky Campbell, Sir Patrick Moore, Toyah Wilcox and Colin Baker did their bit to repel the alien hordes. I loved Independence Day from the first time I saw it and eventually ended up going back to see it at least three more times. At the back of my mind I was aware that any film which ends up making $800m is more likely than not going to be assessed for sequel potential, but at the same time I honestly couldn’t see how the trick could be turned in this case.

Well, it’s taken an unusually long time – I’ve been racking my brains trying to think of another instance of it taking 20 years for a film to get a direct sequel – but here it is, Independence Day: Resurgence, directed as before by Roland Emmerich. Which, needless to say, also features lots of blowing up.

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In this latest instalment… um… well… more aliens arrive and have another go at taking over the world. Pretending there’s much more to the actual story than that is fairly pointless, but then I suppose you could say something quite similar about the original film. All right: united by their struggle in the original film (explicitly dated to 1996, which is moderately curious if you’re as retentive as me, but never mind), the nations of the world have spent the last two decades preparing for a fresh wave of alien attackers. President Whitmore (Bill Pullman) is now a cranky old man paranoid about the coming menace. David Levinson (Jeff Goldblum) is now top boffin in charge of defending the Earth. Steve Hiller (Will Smith) has managed to get himself excused sequel duties by dying in a plane crash, in what may be a rare recent instance of Smith making a smart career move. However, his stepson is still around, along with a bunch of other young characters: one consequence of the failed alien invasion appears to be that everyone under 30 now looks like a model.

Well, anyway: there are worrying signals from deep space, people who came into psychic contact with the invaders get rather agitated, and the alien POWs being held in Area 51 also start exhibiting strange behaviour. Sure enough, another whopping alien craft turns up, its occupants intent on interplanetary gittery, and it’s up to our heroes to try and save the human race before the visual effects budget runs out…

When you think of Independence Day, what springs to mind? Well, if you’re anything like me, it’s huge, iconic, arresting images – the White House blown to pieces, a vast alien ship appearing out of a wall of fire above New York City – engaging performances from the ensemble cast, a truly magnificent score by David Arnold, and an infectious sense of exhilaration and fun – that of a couple of fairly little-known film-makers discovering one of the great old stories (for Independence Day is largely The War of the Worlds with the details only moderately altered) and having a whale of a time telling it to a new audience.

It’s partly that sense of originality and fun which I thought any sequel would struggle to recapture, but above all I was dubious about the very premise. Watching the world as we know it get blown to hell is one of those things which people never seem to get tired of watching, it’s the dark impulse which has kept horror stories and disaster movies as viable propositions all these years. It’s central to the plot of Resurgence that this is very much not the world as we know it, and, perhaps as a result, the film backs off from blowing it to hell with quite as much gusto. Instead we have a story where some people are expecting aliens to arrive and give them a hard time. Aliens duly arrive and give them a hard time before the conclusion. The rest is mostly small print.

The writers attempt to give the film some interest by raising the stakes to a slightly absurd degree: or perhaps I mean increasing the scale. Ships the size of cities are replaced by ships the size of continents, weapons capable of vaporising buildings are replaced by ones able to drill out the core of the planet, and so on. It certainly allows for the CGI wizards to do their stuff at length, but it doesn’t actually make for a more interesting story.

It doesn’t really help that most of the new characters are a dull and one-dimensional bunch, even the ones who appeared as children in the original movie. It’s also painfully clear that one of them, a hot female Chinese pilot, is a cipher who has only been inserted on the orders of the marketing department to make it easier to sell the movie in Asia. The deal given to the returning characters isn’t necessary better – at least one of them gets killed off after very little more than a cameo, others get shuffled about the place quite perfunctorily. The only real beneficiary is Brent Spiner (yes, it’s him, though he is quite difficult to recognise), who gets much more to do this time around than he did in the first film.

Oddly, I didn’t find myself missing Will Smith at all, but then I always thought the other two leads were more interesting characters, and had he come back Smith might even have been able to inject a little vitality into what too often feels like a laborious and mechanical succession of set pieces. The contributor I really did miss was David Arnold: elements of the original soundtrack are used, but the new music is rather drab and forgettable compared to the themes from the first movie.

There’s a strange way in which most of Independence Day: Resurgence feels like it was only made as a contractual obligation, even though I’m pretty sure this wasn’t the case – but it would be remiss of me to suggest I took no pleasure from it whatsoever. The towering, grandiose absurdity of the whole thing did make me laugh towards the end, together with the preposterousness of some of the plotting – Judd Hirsch spends most of the movie on what looks like a pointless road-trip across devastated America with some orphans, and then you realise it has just been organised so the film can get away with having a bus full of children in jeopardy during its climax. It is as brazen and silly as that, and this is before we even get to the bit when it starts turning into a very peculiar Japanese kaiju movie, not a genre Emmerich and Devlin have exactly distinguished themselves with in the past.

The key thing, though, is that during the original film I was having such a good time all the way through that I was quite happy to laugh along with its cheesy jokes and tongue-in-cheek jingoism. This time around the jokes are nowhere near as good, the characters are nowhere near as engaging, the plot is highly forgettable, and I spent the climax laughing at the film rather than with it. The conclusion makes it very clear that this movie is not so much continuing a story as setting down a marker to extend a brand, with future episodes clearly planned. Nothing is allowed to be special, unique, its own thing anymore, it seems. I went along to Independence Day: Resurgence with very strictly limited expectations, but even so I was shocked by how little of the old magic it managed to retain. A major disappointment.

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H.G. Wells is rightfully celebrated as one of the founding fathers of science fiction, but he is rather less well-known as one of the pioneers of tabletop wargaming. Wells’ Little Wars is way down on the list of his books in terms of general name-recognition, outside the better-read segments of the wargaming community, but it’s difficult to read it without concluding that the great man is staking out the territory a huge number of subsequent games have occupied in the century or so since its first publication.

It’s essentially a description of the rules that Wells and his friends – we are invited to assume that Jerome K Jerome was a regular opponent – concocted to play wargames using a mixture of infantry, cavalry, and artillery pieces. Some of Wells’ system feels distinctly odd to me, as a modern gamer – beyond the very occasional use of a tossed coin, it makes no use of randomisation, gunfire is handled by the players physically launching pellets at each other’s miniatures, hoping to knock them over, and there are some (fairly unwieldy, if you ask me) rules for models being taken prisoner – but time and again Wells either hits upon a consideration which will be familiar to any modern player – army comp, how much terrain to use, unit coherency – or comes up with a gaming convention which is still in use today – for instance, one player setting up terrain and the other getting choice of sides. I rather think that, were Wells to walk into any branch of the UK’s leading wargames store chain, he would find much more that he recognised than was strange to him. Would he, perhaps, recognise power-armoured SF warriors and colossal titans toting melta-cannon as somewhat-distorted descendants of his own creations? I don’t know. I would like to think so.

In any case, these two threads of Wells’ career come back together, sort of, in Osprey Games’ War of the Worlds: The Anglo-Martian War of 1895, written by Mike Brunton (whom I dimly recall as a GW writer back in the mid 80s, when they didn’t just sell their own miniature games). Osprey are one of the newish, small wargames publishers that I have become rather more familiar with since severing my own engagement with Games Workshop. This book, along with the rest of the range it belongs to, are slightly odd in that they are composed entirely of ‘fluff’ – in other words, they’re all background, with no actual game rules included.

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To be honest, a War of the Worlds tabletop game would be a rather odd prospect, given that the whole point of the story is that the war is a one-sided slaughter pretty much from start to finish, with the Martians suffering only a few token casualties along the way. However, the book, which presents itself as a ‘historical’ account of the war written from a modern perspective, is rather engaging – although I am admittedly a bit of a War of the Worlds devotee, and thus most likely biased.

The book takes an ambivalent approach to the ‘facts’ of the Martian invasion as recounted by Wells himself (perhaps most obvious from the title of the book itself, which dates the conflict to 1895, when the author explicitly specifies it took place in ‘the early years of the twentieth century’). The text indicates that Wells was ‘not the most accurate of war correspondents’, and inclined to present the Martians as more of an implacable menace than was actually the case, which is presumably the justification for some of the divergences from Wells in the new book. However, unlike most books and films inspired by Wells, they agree with the author that the Martian invasion was limited to southern England (no global despatches on this occasion).

Things get underway with an overview of the disposition of the two forces prior to hostilities commencing: the stuff on the British army is a little bit dry but historically interesting, the material on the Martians and their technology obviously a bit more imaginative: Brunton comes up with some interesting amendations when it comes to Martian biology and the nature of the silicaceous-boned servitors brought with them from Mars. The revelation that the Heat Ray was actually a maser should really surprise no-one, though.

Past this is an account of the war from beginning to end, which is… well, it’s faithful to Wells up to a point. The thing about The War of the Worlds is that much of it concerns the initial weekend of the Martian arrival, and the days on either side, with the government having effectively collapsed by Monday (the same day as the Thunder Child‘s battle with three Fighting-Machines). Wells’ primary narrator spends most of the next fortnight in the cellar of a ruined house, emerging into a devastated landscape where the last of the diseased Martians is about to expire (do I really need to give a spoiler warning for a book published in 1898?). What the army and the Martians have been up to in the interim is mainly a matter of hearsay, as far as the book is concerned, so you would have thought this would be fruitful territory for Brunton to expand on.

But apparently not. The Osprey book diverges considerably from the actual chronology of the novel, with the Martians arriving on a Saturday, not a Friday, and the Thunder Child engagement happening ten days later rather than three. The saturation use of the lethal Black Smoke by the Martians to destroy the defences around London is only obliquely referred to, although Brunton does come up with a few instances of actions taking place not mentioned in the novel – heavy fighting around the Palace of Westminster, for instance. On the whole, though, he seems happy enough to deviate from his source material in terms of the details, but very reluctant to make really significant additions to it in terms of narrative.

Hey ho. As I’ve said before, The War of the Worlds is such a magnificent book, and such a brilliant idea, that it takes a really concerted effort to totally stuff it up (for the record, I think Greg and Sam Strangis were the only ones who really managed it), and Osprey’s The War of the Worlds is entertaining enough, especially when it’s not dealing with the particulars of the novel. There have been many worse offenders, after all, and there’s a sense in which the novel has surely become a sort of folklore, or collection of ideas and images which different people play with in different ways: it seems to be an irresistible, endlessly rewarding game.

Post-invasion history is also touched upon, with the Russians being the only foreign power to get their hands on a Heat Ray projector – the technological bounty brought by reverse-engineering Martian devices, which Wells alludes to, doesn’t really seem to have been an issue, however. Brunton also suggests a reason for the Martians not making another attempt, but nobody tell Stephen Baxter about that (Baxter’s own War of the Worlds sequel is out next year).

Perhaps inevitably, the Osprey book engages in the usual metafictional conceit where every significant literary figure from Victorian England lives in the same city: I remember reading Anno Dracula back in 1994, when this seemed terribly new and interesting. Now it just feels routine. The results are not quite as grotesque as in the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen‘s version of the Martian invasion: we hear of Fu Manchu’s role in the upheaval afflicting London, and of Colonel Sebastian Moran bagging himself a trophy like no other. (It’s not quite the same thing, but we also learn of a young Winston Churchill’s exploits in the war.) Elsewhere, the author looks further afield, with perhaps more laboured results: we are told that, luckily, the Martian landing which damaged the botanical gardens at Kew did not result in the escape of any triffids, while many years later a ‘lost’ Martian cylinder turned up, mistaken for an unexploded bomb when it was discovered under an underground station in Hobbs Lane. Hmmm.

Whatever you may think of this sort of thing, the writing itself is consistently brisk and engaging, and the art is very nice: these are slightly steampunky-looking Fighting-Machines, and not entirely faithful to Wells’ description, but then that fits pretty well with most of the rest of the book. Quite who this is aimed at, though, still bemuses me a little: there’s pretty much zero wargames content for anyone intent on recreating a series of one-sided massacres on their tabletop, while it’s simultaneously neither detailed nor expansive enough to be a totally satisfying addition to the already-sizable War of the Worlds canon. The slimness of the volume when you consider its price is also likely to be an issue for many people. Hard-core fans of The War of the Worlds, in all its incarnations, will likely find a lot to enjoy here, though.

 

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