Warning from Space / The Mysterious Satellite / Uchujin Tokyo ni Ararwaru (1956/1967) -**
Frankly, I’m disappointed. Warning from Space was made by Japan’s Daiei studio, the same bunch of crazies who would give us the Gamera series nine years later. It was the first full-color sci-fi movie made in Japan, beating Rodan to the theaters by a number of months. It has some of the silliest-looking movie aliens of all time, realized by some of the most profoundly un-special special effects I’ve ever seen— seriously, “The Muppet Show” routinely did better using old sweaters and ping-pong balls as raw materials. Its premise is a mismatched patchwork rip-off of two of the movies that put science fiction on the cinematic map at the turn of the 50’s, The Day the Earth Stood Still and When Worlds Collide. Its script is so inattentive to detail that it accidentally suggests an idea for a vastly better movie which, to the best of my knowledge, has yet to be made even half a century later. And yet far from the delicious seven-course banquet of schadenfreude all that seems to promise, Warning from Space actually spends most of its 80-odd minutes being a miserably dull flick.
No matter how boring a Japanese monster move may be, though, they almost invariably get off to a speedy start by immediately establishing the presence and general nature of whatever otherworldly weirdness is going to concern them. Falling right into line with that tradition (indeed, helping to establish it in the first place), Warning from Space begins with an obviously alien spacecraft in orbit around an obviously alien world. The ship resembles nothing so much as an orgy among bugles; the creatures aboard it are like Patrick the starfish if “Spongebob Squarepants” had been produced in the 70’s by Sid and Marty Kroft, except that they each have a single luminous eye instead of a complete face. (They’re also not wearing swimming trunks, but you probably guessed that all by yourselves, right?) These Pairans, as they call themselves, are getting ready to embark upon an urgent mission to Earth— something about “terminating the Earthlings’ blood-rage” and “conquering” the planet’s scientists. Whatever the Parians’ primary aim, they are especially interested in a certain Japanese astronomer, and it is evidently with an eye toward contacting him that they deploy their amphibious landing craft in and around Tokyo.
The Pairans’ activities do not go unnoticed. The whole city is soon in a tizzy over reports of flying saucers, and it gets so that poor Professor Komura (Bontaro Miyake, from Gamera vs. Barugon and The Ghostly Trap) can’t even stop on the way home for some sake at his favorite Golden Gai dive bar without some schmuck from a newspaper pestering him to speculate groundlessly about the strange things going on in the sky above Tokyo. Meanwhile, back at the observatory, Komura’s colleague, Professor Isobe (Shozo Nambu, of 100 Monsters and Tales of Ugetsu), happens to sight the Pairan mothership through the big telescope while it is in the process of seeding the area with landers. Isobe rushes to meet Komura at home, where the two men agree that they need the help of Matsuda (Isao Yamaguchi, from Zatoichi’s Pilgrimage and Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart to Hades), the observatory’s physicist and Komura’s cousin. After far too many scenes of sober contemplation and monosyllabic grunting, the scientists decide to mount a camera aboard a high-altitude rocket in the hope of getting a closer look at the weird orbiting object.
The aliens, for their part, are being only marginally more proactive, spending most of their time looming up out of rivers, lakes, and harbors to scare the bejabbers out of sailors, dockhands, and elderly fishermen. They also come ashore occasionally to scare the bejabbers out of the audience at the nightclub where Hikari Aozora (Toyomi Karita) performs, or to (you got it) scare the bejabbers out of Komura’s daughter, Taeko (Mieko Nagai). All in all, it’s easily the least decisive alien invasion I’ve ever seen. Eventually, even the Pairans realize this shit isn’t working, and they head back to the mothership (which, in case you were wondering, looks like a big, white smear instead of a tiny white speck in those photos taken by Komura’s rocket— let’s hear it for unexpected displays of realism!) in order to regroup. Plan One from Outer Space (go “Boogabooga!” at people who have nothing to do with the ones you’re trying to contact— you know, that honestly sounds like something Eros might really have thought of) having failed miserably, the aliens switch to Plan Two: infiltrate the confidences of humanity’s greatest minds while disguised as a famous nightclub singer. Yeah. Pairan Number Two managed to snag a publicity photo of Hikari Aozora while she was sowing pointless panic in the auditorium, and she programs the mothership’s trasmute-a-tron to make her over in the singer’s likeness. Then she returns to Earth alone, follows the observatory staff to the lake where they all go to relax with their families on their days off, and sneaks out into the water to play drowned. Isobe’s son, Toru (Keizo Kawasaki), spots the disguised Pairan while taking a romantic rowboat ride with Taeko, and pulls the “drowning girl” to safety. As you might imagine, the real Aozora is a little freaked out to hear about all this when a reporter asks her to comment on it the next day. Pairan Number Two plays it at least slightly cooler than we’ve come to expect of her kind, claiming total amnesia as a result of her near-death experience. Komura, Isobe, and Matsuda conclude that the only thing for it is to take the girl in at the Komura place until such time as they can figure out where she really belongs.
So does this mean that the Pairans’ long-delayed mission on Earth is about to get underway at last? No. It does not. Rather, it means that Pairan Number Two is about to do everything within her considerable power to attract as much suspicion as possible while making no apparent effort to so much as ask Dr. Komura— whom, I seem to recall, she was supposed to be “conquering”— to pass the wasabi. She leaps twice her height in the air while playing tennis with Toru; displays vast knowledge of high-energy physics at the limits of even Dr. Matsuda’s understanding; walks through solid matter in full view of sizable crowds. Finally, Matsuda runs a few surreptitious tests, and determines that Komura’s new houseguest has no fingerprints, and that her hair is cytologically akin to the glowing crud often left behind by the aliens at the scenes of their “Boogabooga!” raids. The game is up now, and what Pairan Number Two reveals when she is cornered into admitting her identity really makes me wonder why it ever had to be a game in the first place. That business about conquering the Earth’s scientists? Just a figure of speech, really. Ditto all the talk of “termination.” In fact, the Pairans’ aims on Earth are so peaceful that Klaatu looks like Tamerlaine in comparison. Paira, it turns out, shares Earth’s orbit, but on the far side of the sun. (Note that Daiei would recycle that idea for Gamera vs. Guiron in the late 60’s.) The Pairans have known about us for around 4000 years, but they’ve never taken the time to introduce themselves because they are by nature an inward-looking, self-sufficient people. Also, they know how much we like killing each other, and frankly that gives them the creeps. However, Pairan astronomers have been tracking a runaway planet which they have dubbed “R,” and it is now plainly on a collision course with Earth, moving fast enough that it will get here within 50 days. Because the planets share an orbital path, the destruction of Earth will mean the destruction of Paira, too (presumably when the latter world catches up to the slower-moving debris field generated by the collision of the former with R), so the aliens figured the time had finally come to head next door and say hello. There are two possible ways to proceed from here. First, Komura and his fellow scientists can appeal to the World Congress with what they have learned, and attempt to convince the Earth’s leaders to put all those nukes they’ve been building so frantically for the last decade to use for the common good. Or if that fails, the Pairans can try to do something with Matsuda’s new formula. He recently stumbled upon a mathematical equation that Pairan science ran screaming from when they discovered it centuries ago, the theoretical basis for a subatomic reaction so powerful that a weapon exploiting it would make the hydrogen bomb look like a Roman candle. Terrestrial science could not possibly control such a reaction (and terrestrial politicians could scarcely be trusted to know about it), while the Pairans always regarded it as more trouble than it could ever be worth. But if the World Congress is too stubborn or short-sighted to act (or if what action they take is a failure), then the Matsuda Equation becomes the last hope for all life on two planets.
You remember how I said that Warning from Space suggests a much better movie than the one we actually got, seemingly by complete accident? Well try this on for size. Like a fair number of 1950’s sci-fi flicks that take their cues from The Day the Earth Stood Still, Warning from Space proceeds from the premise that pacifism and maturity are synonymous at the level of civilizations, and that weapons and war are childish things that humanity will have to put away if we are to reach our full potential as a species. It’s been a common enough perspective in science fiction since the dawn of the genre, and was probably a pretty sensible one once extinction in a cascade of mushroom clouds was on the table as a realistic alternative. But consider— we have here in Warning from Space a scenario in which an evolved, pacifist society finds itself relying upon those warmongering savages from the next world over to avert certain destruction in a celestial catastrophe that the pacifists have voluntarily renounced the means to combat! For all their advancement over us, the Pairans would be screwed without our help because we’re the ones with the suicidally vast nuclear arsenals, and because we’re the ones foolhardy enough to keep delving deeper into the violent secrets of nature instead of doing the mature thing and recognizing the moral limits of our intellectual power. Sadly, though, nobody involved in making Warning from Space— not writer Hideo Oguni, not director Koji Shima, and certainly not the people who adapted it for English-language television in the 1960’s (by which point it was looking more than a little obsolescent anyway)— seem to have had any idea what thought-provoking material they were working with here. The movie never even obliquely acknowledges the tension at its core between the attractiveness of the Pairans’ triumph over bloodshed and the helplessness in the face of external danger that results directly from it, let alone embraces the wary moral toward which its story inescapably points. Whatever lessons humanity learns as R looms ever larger in the sky by the final act, it’s obvious not only that the Pairans have learned nothing, but that the filmmakers never noticed that the aliens had anything to learn to begin with.
Thus Warning from Space fails most signally to be a good movie; its failure to be bad with any sustained panache can best be summed up by the phrase, “not enough monster suits.” I defy anybody to keep a straight face when confronted with these anthropomorphic starfish hobbling around in ill-fitting canvas dropcloths, but the sad fact is that they’re hardly ever onscreen. Instead, we spend the vast bulk of our time among a bunch of immobile-faced old men with no discernibly separate personalities, while they nod very seriously at each other and take turns peering at little flecks of light through a telescope. Occasionally, the gripping telescope-squinting action will be interrupted by a romantic subplot so desultory that it never makes even the vaguest hint toward ever going anywhere. It’s just, “Ooh, look— young people! Right, that’s enough of that. Now back to the nodding and squinting…” Even the last-minute appearance of what I take to be Red Chinese agents hunting up the secret of Matsuda’s equation doesn’t help matters much, since Shima treats the one effect they manage to have on the plot with a lack of urgency that would have been shocking had he not already handled an entire movie’s worth of plot developments in an equally lackadaisical manner. A few more hobbling starfish guys would have gone a long way toward livening up that crap.
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