Just in time for Christmas, the Cinefantastique Laserblast crew – that would be Dan Persons, Lawrence French, and Steve Biodrowski – offer up their recommendations for DVDs and Blu-ray discs that would make perfect stocking stuffers for the horror, fantasy, and science fiction fan in your life. Suggestions range from the 1932 classic ISLAND OF LOST SOULS, now on Criterion Blu-ray disc, to the 1968 Japanese giant monster fest, DESTROY ALL MONSTERS, out on Blu-ray from Media Blasters. As a special added bonus feature, this Laserblast podcast includes an interview with Steve Ryfle (author of JAPAN’S FAVORITE MON-STAR), who provided audio commentary for the DAM disc.
Merry Christmas, everyone! And truly, nothing says Christmas like Godzilla!
Our nearest neighbor in the Solar System, the Moon has long inspired the imagination of humanity. Everyone has heard of “the Man in the Moon.” In ancient cultures, lunar eclipses were feared as portents of disaster. The phases of the Moon were thought to have astrological significance, influencing the behavior of people on Earth – a belief that persists to this day (hence the word “lunatic,” derived from “lunar”). In 1935, the Great Moon Hoax convinced many people that life had been discovered on the lunar surface, at around the time that astronomers were establishing that the Moon contained no water or atmosphere – the essentials for life.
Today, the attraction of the Moon still pulls on in our hearts and minds, as evidenced by the literally hundreds of movies that use the word in their titles, usually for romantic and/or poetic purposes (e.g., Mizoguchi’s masterpiece UGETSU MONOGATARI, which translates as “Tales of Moonlight and Rain”). However, thanks to the Apollo landing, every school child knows that the Moon is a barren wasteland, uninhabited by aliens; this undermines some of its potential for science fiction adventure stories (after all, if the place is not the abode of Moon Men intent on destroying the Earth, what good is it?). When it comes to cinefantastique, use of th word “moon” in the title is more likely to represent an excursion into lycanthropy (FULL MOON HIGH, MOON OF THE WOLF, etc) than a journey to outer space. Yet science fiction filmmakers still continue to find occasional use for the orbiting satellite, most recently in MOON, which opens this weekend. What follows is a look at some of the more memorable examples of Moon-based movies…
Moon movies really kick off with A TRIP TO THE MOON, George Melies short and whimsical 1902 film. The story combines elements of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells: as in Verne’s From the Earth to the Moon, the astronauts ride in a space ship shot out of a canon; as in Wells’ First Men in the Moon, the Earth explorers discover crustacean-like Moon Men. But if Melies owes his humorous tone to anyone at all, it is to Edgar Allan Poe for his satirical hoax “The Unparalleled Adventure of One Hans Pfaall,” which describes a trip to the moon in a hot-air balloon. Fantasy rather than science fiction, Melies’ film has a group of men in business – rather than space – suits landing on the lunar surface, where they breathe without trouble about the lack of atmosphere; their umbrellas take root when stuck in the ground; and the annoying moon men go up in a puff of smoke when struck. The primitive quality of A TRIP TO THE MOON date it somewhat (Melies films all scenes in master shots, never cutting to different angles), but the film retains its charm over a century later. In 1929, the great Fritz Lang gave us WOMAN IN THE MOON, which is probably the first feature film to deal with the subject of lunar travel in a serious manner. The lengthy story (the restored version of the film runs over two hours) involves the rivalry during a mission that takes place following the discovery that large quantities of gold exists on the moon. Unfortunately, the silent film was drowned out by the clamor of the new sound era of film-making. Although neglected, at least one writer believes WOMAN IN THE MOON is “quite an amazing film” that “shows Lang at the height of his powers.” With Lang’s WOMEN IN THE MOON overlooked, the first film that earned recognition for offering a believable portrait of space travel is George Pal’s 1950 production of Robert Heinlein’s novel, DESTINATION MOON. A meticulous piece of work that stuck closely to the known science of its day, DESTINATION MOON is a landmark in terms of special effects and production design (including a wonderful panoramic painting of the lunar scenery by noted astronomical artist Chesley Bonestell); it is also, unfortunately, slightly dull. Without a threat of menacing aliens, the moon is not necessarily very interesting, so the film lacks drama, coming across a bit like a psuedo-documentary. Still, you have to give the film credit for the integrity of sticking to reality instead of drifting off into fantasy.
DESTINATION MOON was followed up by 1953’s less well-remembered PROJECT MOON BASE, which was also scripted by Heinlein. Meanwhile, the low-budget ROCKETSHIP X-M(1950) just missed the Moon: its rocket ship (containing Lloyd Bridges, among others) veers off course and lands on Mars instead – quite an impressive accomplishment. Also in 1953 was the immortal camp classic CAT-WOMEN OF THE MOON, which is more or less summed up in its title – what more could you possibly need to know?
In 1958, Hollywood stars Joseph Cotten and George Sanders went FROM THE EARTH TO THE MOON. This competent but mostly forgotten film version of the Jules Verne novel suffered a bit from the passage of time between the source material and the adaptation. Verne often made uncanny predictions about the possibilities of air travel and space flight (From the Earth to the Moon predicts that America is the country with the ambition and ability to reach the moon, and based on the fact that the rotation of the Earth would provide an extra boost to any rocket launch, Verne picks Texas and Florida as the likely launching sites.) However, the method of travel – shooting a space ship out of a canon – would instantly kill any astronauts on board.
The same year as FROM THE EARTH TO THE MOON, Hollywood gave us MISSILE TO THE MOON, about a pair of escaped convicts who are forced by a scientist to pilot the titular ship – the plot twist being that the scientist is actually a moon-man who wants to get back home. 1963 gave us THE MOUSE ON THE MOON, a political satire directed by Richard Lester (who would go on to direct A HARD DAY’S NIGHT). This sequel to THE MOUSE THAT ROARED (in which a tiny country named Grand Fenwick declares war on the U.S. in the hope of being rebuilt with American dollars after being defeated) depicts what happens when Grand Fenwick decides to enter the space race: Not only do they win; they end up rescuing the astroanut teams from the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. The film suffers a bit from the absence of Peter Sellers (who played multiple roles in ROARED), but Ron Moody, Margaret Rutherford, and Terry-Thomas do a good job of filling his shoes. The New York Times’ film critic Bosley Crowther called the result “a blithely outrageous spoof” full of “daffy situations and some very droll dialogue.”
Hercules battled the Moon Men in 1964’s Italian import HERCULES AGAINST THE MOON MEN. Also that year, Charles Schneer produced FIRST MEN IN THE MOON, an adaptation of the novel by H. G. Wells. The film is basically a showcase for Ray Harryhausen’s stop-motion special effects; nevertheless, it retains the Victorian setting and even some of Wells’ ideas, thanks to a script co-written by genre expert Nigel Kneale (best known for his Quatermass serials on British television). With NASA’s real-life Apollo missions only five years away from actually reaching the moon, the film updates much of the science (eliminating the flora on the lunar surface and giving the astronauts space suits made from deep sea-diving equipment), and the story is bracketed by scenes set in contemporary times to help make the period story more palatable to a modern audience (a technique later used in Titanic). Still, for all its virtues, the film feels a bit slow and episodic. Fortunately, Harryhausen’s work is splendid as always, and Lionel Jeffries is quite an amusing incarnation of Wells’ absent-mind professor, Cavor. If 1967’s ROCKET TO THE MOON feels a bit like FROM THE EARTH TO THE MOON, the reason is that both films were inspired by the writings of Jules Verne. This time we get stars Burl Ives and Troy Donahue instead of Joseph Cotten and George Sanders, in a story about real-life P.T. Barnum financing a trip to the Moon. Terry-Thomas (of THE MOUSE ON THE MOON) and Lionel Jeffries (of FIRST MEN IN THE MOON) lend their support to the proceedings. This independent production from euro-sleaze merchant Harry Alan Towers (also known as THOSE FANTASTIC FLYING FOOLS) was meant to rival lavish productions like THOSE MANGIFICENT MEN IN THEIR FLYING MACHINES. DVD Talk’s John Stuart Galbraith opines that the film is “shamelessly derivative but entertaining,” adding that it “wears thin during its aimless middle section, but has enough amusing ideas and performances to sustain it through to the end.” One year later, Stanley Kubrick gave us 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY. Although only the film’s second section deals with the moon, this has to be considered the greatest “moon movie” ever made, thanks to the utterly convincing special effects and the beautiful classical music used to lend a balletic sense of beauty to space travel. Not only do we get a trip to the moon; we also get a tour of the lunar surface, where TMA-1 (Tycho Magnetic Anomaly) has been discovered – a strange monolith buried beneath the Earth’s surface, presumably for humanity to discover when they have achieved the first step in space travel. The film’s depiction of space travel still ranks as the best and most scientifically accurate ever seen on screen. As if to offer a contrast between science-fiction-based-on-fact and science-fiction-as-all-out-fantasy, 1968 also offered us DESTORY ALL MONSTERS, in which Godzilla, Rodan and Mothra fight off an alien race from the Moon. The depiction of space travel is the stellar opposite of Kubrick’s – completely unbelievable but completely exciting, in a boy’s adventure kind of way; if you ever dreamed of being an astronaut flying through space and defending the Earth from aliens, this is probably exactly how you imagined it. Unfortunately, the real lunar landing eclipsed this type of adventure-fantasy, and “Moon Movies” – unable to compete with reality – began fading from the screen.
In 1969, Hammer Films, a company usually associated with horror movies, tried their hands at science fiction with MOON ZERO TWO. Despite opening credits music that deliberately evokes SPACE ODYSSEY, the film is actually more of a melodrama involving a salvage expert on the moon who gets mixed up with some criminals who hijack a mineral-rich asteroid and crash it onto the lunar surface.
Ten years later, MOONRAKER never reached the lunar surface. Instead, James Bond battled bad guys on an orbiting space station. Although the film is pretty much a self-spoof, filled with laser beams and tongue-in-cheek action-adventure, the outer space special effects are pretty stellar, with an eye for as much accuracy as possible. Another film that tried eat its cake and have it too was SUPERMAN II.Though mostly Earthbound, the film featured an early sequence of escaped super villains murdering astronauts on the surface of the Moon. The comic book nature of the material gave the filmmakers license to ignore reality in order to suit the needs of creating an exciting sequence that would not be filmed with total realism, but the production design and special effects are clearly influenced by the real-life lunar landings, with recognizable space suits and a lunar rover. AMAZON WOMEN OF THE MOON (1987) is an anthology of comedy sketches, along the lines of THE GROOVE TUBE, TUNNEL VISION, and KENTUCKY FRIED MOVIE. The film takes its title from one of the longer episodes, a spoof of bad sci-fi flicks like CAT-WOMEN OF THE MOON. Stern-faced actor Steve Forrest sends up his tough-guy looks as the leader of the mission, and Sybil Danning makes an attractive Queen of the Moon. A GRAND DAY OUT (1994) is one of the few “Moon Movies” (besides SPACE ODYSSEY) to earn an Academy Award nomination. The stop-motion film, written and directed by Nick Park, was nominated in the animated short category but lost to Park’s other film, CREATURE COMFORTS. GRAND DAY OUT introduced the world to the delightful duo of Wallace and Gromit, a somewhat dense human and his considerably sharper canine companion. In their debut, Wallace runs out of cheese and gets the bright idea that he can find a ready supply on the Moon; being an inventor, he whips up a rocket ship in his basement, and off they go. Unfortunately, the lunar surface is not as palatable as they hoped, and they encounter a somewhat threatening robot, but everything works out well in the end. The film’s linear storyline is primitive compared to later Wallace and Gromit films, but the humor and charm make this fanciful excursion a wonderful fantasy in the tradition of Melies A TRIP TO THE MOON.
With the Moon no longer quite so mysterious as it once was, the number of films that focus their attention on the lunar surface has dwindled. Earth’s lone satellite is only humanity’s first step into outer space, and filmmakers who seeking space invaders, alien cultures, and strange new worlds must look further out into space. When science fiction franchises like STARK TREK imagine a future when travel to the far reaches of the galaxy is possible, the Moon starts to lose its lustre.
That may be changing, thanks to the passage of time since Neil Armstrong made the giant leap for mankind onto the lunar surface. For those too young to have been impressionable children during that era, the lunar landing may seem less like a piece of history and more like an incredible legend. As Duncan Jones, director of MOON, said in a Q&A posted here:
The thing about the Moon is that I was born after the Apollo missions went to the moon. For a lot of our generation, it’s something very mysterious and slightly unbelievable. Even if you know that humanity has been to the moon, it feels a bit mythic and legendary; it doesn’t feel like something we can relate to. The fact that all of us can look up and see the moon at night…it’s like this place that none of us gets to visit. So I think there’s a mystery there. Even if we know everything about it from a scientific basis, there’s still something so mysterious about it. It’s the obvious place to set science fiction because it’s the first step….
As part of our weekend tribute to the late special effects director Sadamasa Arikawa, here is the U.S. theatrical trailer for DESTROY ALL MONSTERS – the memorable Toho production in which Godzilla, Rodan, Mothra, and all of Earth’s other monsters team up for a non-stop destruction derby involving invading aliens trying to take over the Earth. The trailer does a good job of showing off the film’s unconvincng but colorfully entertaining effects, and it includes a blooper when the monster Gorosaurus is mis-identified as Baragon (a problem that exists in the film as well).
DESTROY ALL MONSTERS is probably the last well-regarded entry in the original Godzilla series. By this time, all serious threat of the monsters had disappeared; recognizing this, director Ishiro Honda (who had helmed the original GODIZLLA in 1954 and many of the subsequent sequels) opted for a fast-paced action-adventure roller-coaster thrill ride that was seldom scary but always entertaining. Co-scripting with Takeshi Kimura (RODAN), Honda used a slim, familiar story (aliens use monsters as weapons in a war against the Earth) to string together as many effects sequences as possible, creating a memorably colorful confection.
Basically, it’s MONSTER ZERO (a.k.a. INVASION OF ASTRO-MONSTER) all over again, except this time, instead of just Godzilla, Rodan, and King Ghidorah, we also get Mothra, Anguirus, Gorosaurus, Manda, Kumonga (a.k.a. Spiga, the giant spider), Varan, Baragon and Minya, Godzilla’s son. DESTROY ALL MONSTERS lacks MONSTER ZERO’s slightly more adult storyline and the clever banter between Nick Adams and Akira Takarada, but it delivers much more monster action. True, some of the monsters make little more than cameo appearances, but the big stars get plenty of screen time, and second-stringers Anguirus, Gorosaurus, and Manda get a few moments to shine as well.
Before DESTROY ALL MONSTERS, the previous two films in the series, GODZILLA VS THE SEA MONSTER and SON OF GODZILLA, had shifted gears, with director Jun Fukada and composer Masuro Sato replacing the Ishiro Honda and composer Akira Ifukube. The results were light-hearted and fun, offering a clear change of pace for the series.
DESTROY ALL MONSTERS sees a return to form, with the old director-composer team back in place, with Ifukube offering another example of his impressive monster movie music, by turns ominous, mysterious, and rousing – quite a contrast to Sato’s jazz-pop stylings (which were more suited to something like GODZILLA VS. THE SEA MONSTER, which stuck the monsters in the middle of what looked like a spy adventure).
Also notable is the absence of screenwriter Shinichi Sekizawa, one of the chief architects of transforming Godzilla from villain to hero. It would be going too far to say that his absence signals a more serious approach in DESTROY ALL MONSTER, but the screenplay by Honda and Kimura definitely avoids the juvenile tone of SON OF GODZILLA.
Instead, DESTROY ALL MONSTERS is a true movie-movie. It takes itself seriously only in the sense that it does not adopt an attitude of campy condesension towards its monster-filled alien-invasion scenario. The events are presented in a straight-forward way that is an almost perfect realization of any ten-year-old boy’s dream of the most awesome movie adventure ever, loaded with heroic heroes piloting rocket ships to the moon and back while battling an evil race that has turned all of Earth’s monsters loose in one cataclysmic attack.
Honda directs DESTROY ALL MONSTERS with brisk efficiency, using the widescreen image to show off the sets and letting the actors have a ball. A free-for-all shoot out between astronauts and aliens has the heroes waving guns around not in manner designed to actualy hit a target but simply to look good on camera. In a way, this is the apex of ’60s cinema, back when movies like OUR MAN FLYNT were all about having a good time with gadgets and explosions, no matter how unlikely the storyline.
Fortunately, Honda offers more than just monsters and mayhem; there are even a few intriguing moments that border on the subtle. A long interrogation with a human taken over by aliens holds attention because the interrogation subject (Yoshio Tsuchiya) always seems on the verge of breaking his silence – but he never does. Outside on the beach, another human controlled by aliens – this one a woman – walks along a beach in high heels; the sight of those high-fashion stilettos sinking into the sand is almost surreal.
And in one of the most memorable sequences of any giant monster movie, this same alien-controlled woman walks, calm and unconcerned, amidst the panic that erupts when sirens announce an imminent attack on Tokyo. The stark contrast between the mad, rushing crowds and her serence face, indifferent to (or perhaps even eager for) the monsters’ arrival, is a wonderful sight to behold.
Special effects director Sadamasa Arikawa (working under the “supervision” of Japanese effects pioneer Eiji Tsuburaya) delivers several memorable sequences in DESTROY ALL MONSTERS. The initial attacks on Moscow, Paris, and New York go by too fast, but theyleave you wanting more. The aforementioned attack on Tokyo is one of the great sequences of its type, featuring a coordinated assault by four monsters (Godzilla, Rodan, Mothra, and Manda), with some cleverly timed action (e.g., the serpentine Manda cracks a bridge in the foreground simultaneously with Godzilla’s blasting a building with his radioactive breath).
Of course, Arikawa’s effects are far from convincing, but that becomes part of the charm. By this time, Toho had given up almost any pretense of making you believe in their menagerie of monsters and had developed their own particular aesthetic, in which acrobatic flair and flashy pyrotechnics outweighed believability. Consequently, even if the vision of space travel, rockets, and lunar landscapes in DESTROY ALL MONSTERS looks quaint compared to 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY – well, the unreality suits the storyline.
Keeping with this tradition, the final all-out assault of Earth’s monsters against the alien’s ace in the hole, King Ghidorah, is as entertaining a battle as ever put on screen, even though the wires show. The action deliberately defies physics, opting for a World Wrestling aesthetic in which monsters supposedly weighing thousands of tons effortlessly leap, jump, and fly with acrobatic flair; at one point, Gorosaurus even springs high off the ground to deliver a kick to Ghidorah’s back. Also as in wrestling, bodies are slammed, kicked, punched, and pummelled, with little if any real damage ever done – it’s all for show, not effectiveness. And Arikawa cannot resist the urge to anthropomorphize the monsters, as when Minya shields his eyes to avoid seeing King Ghidorah drop Anguirus to the ground (a shot deleted by AIP when the film played in U.S. theatres).
Despite all this, Ishiro Honda and Sadamasa Arikawa combine their talents to create one scene in DESTROY ALL MONSTERS that offers at least an echo of genuine suspense: when the heroes search for the aliens’ hidden lair on Earth, they are interrupted by Godzilla and Anguiras, acting as enormous guard dogs. Unlike many of Toho’s then-current films, which tended to shoot the monsters at eye level, undermining the sense of size, this sequence presents a good combination of camera angles, from the human perspective looking up and from the monster perspective looking down, including some effective composite shots that integrate humans with monsters in the same frame. For a brief moment, you almost remember what it was like to be frightened at the prospect of being crushed by something so huge that it would barely feel you under its toes.
In the end, DESTROY ALL MONSTERS is too slim in its storyline, too thin in its characterizations, to be considered a truly great film. It is not as impressive as the original GODZILLA, and it is not as hip as MONSTER ZERO. But for the ten-year-old living inside us all, it is entertainment of the most awesome sort.
DESTROY ALL MONSTERS introduced the concept of Monster Island (here called “Monster Land” in the English dubbing), an island where all of Earth’s monsters had been gathered and kept locked up for study. Future Godzilla films would use Monster Island as a lazy way to re-introduce the monster without having to worry too much about continuity.
DESTROY ALL MONSTERS features the return appearance of Anguirus, the very first monster to fight Godzilla, way back in 1955’s GODZILLA RAIDS AGAIN (a.k.a. GIGANTIS THE FIRE MONSTER). Basically an oversized dinosaur (an ankylosaurus), Anguirus would go on to appear in GODZILLA VS. GIGAN and GODZILLA VS. MECHAGODZILLA in the 1970s. On the basis of these few appearances, Anguirus inexplciably became a favorite among some fans, who eagerly awaited his return when the Godzilla franchise was revived in the 1990s. Anguirus finally reappeared in the “last” Godzilla film, GODZILLA: FINAL WARS, a virtual remake of DESTROY ALL MONSTERS.
Directors Contrad Vernon and Rob Letterman cited DESTROY ALL MONSTERS as an influence on their 2009 animated film MONSTERS VS. ALIENS: “We watched it three or four times,” says Vernon, who was inspired by the plot involving mangy monsters freed from an island prison by galactic invaders. “We even have our villain, Gallaxhar, use the command, ‘Destroy all monsters.’”
INDEPENDENCE DAY (1996) also bears structural similarities to DESTROY ALL MONSTERS. The filmmaking team of Roland Emmerich and Dean Devlin would go on to do the 1998 American version of GODZILLA.
Unlike most of the Toho giant monster movies, DESTROY ALL MONSTERS reached U.S. shores relatively unchanged, except for being dubbed into English. Ironically, Toho had created an English dub of the film to increase its export value, but the U.S. distributor, American International Pictures, commissioned a new dialogue track, featuring the likes of Hal Linden (television’s BARNEY MILLER).
The AIP dub rewrites some of the lines and provides better voice acting. This version was seen in theatres and on television in the U.S., but it has not been available since the defunct AIP’s distribution rights lapsed. Currently available prints are of the Toho “International” version.
The dub on the International version of DESTROY ALL MONSTERS features a literal English translation of the Japanese dialogue, which does not always sound natural; the problem is aggravated by the weak vocal performances.
In at least one case, the International version’s audio track is superior. In the AIP dub, there is a lame line when a reporter watching the climactic battle near Mt. Fuji holds up his microphone and says, “I’ll turn up the sound so you can hear the monsters dueling to the death.” The Toho dub offers instead a memorable moment of high-camp comedy: “It’s horrible, ladies and gentlemen – listen to the monsters and their cries of sudden death!” This perhaps intentional echo of the “Oh, the humanity!” account of the Hindenburg disaster is capable of bringing the house down with laughter, should you ever be lucky enough to see DESTORY ALL MONSTERS in a theatre crowded with kaiju fans.
During the early montage of monsters attacking different cities around the globe, the International version offers newscaster voices overs doing very bad accents (Russian, French, etc) – an effect carried over to some extent in the AIP dub. (The original Japanese audio track has the voice-overs speaking in their native languages.)
The above-mentioned montage contains one of the more memorable film flubs in the Godzilla series. France’s Arc de Triomphe was supposed to be toppled by the burrowing monster Baragon (introduced in FRANKENSTEIN CONQUERS THE WORLD), but problems with the suit necessitated that Gorosaurus get the job instead. The dialogue was never changed, so the monster is erroneously identified as Baragon – a mistake carried over in the written text of the U.S. theatrical trailer. DESTROY ALL MONSTERS (Kaiju Soshingeki [“Monster Invasion”], 1968). Directed by Ishiro Honda. Written by Ishiro Honda, Takeshi Kimura. Cast: Akira Kubo, Jun Tazaki, Yukiko Kobayashi, Yoshio Tsuchiya, Kyoko ai, Andrew Hughes, Chotaro Togin, Yoshifumi Tajima, Kenji Sahara, Hisaya Ito, Yoshio Katsuda.
Portions of this review originally appeared in “Godzilla Invades L.A.” in the December 1996 issue of Cinefantastique (Volume 28, Issue 6).
In Monsters Takes Tips from Vintage Villains, USA Today points out that MONSTERS VS. ALIENS directors Conrad Vernon and Rob Letterman drew inspiration from number cult science fiction films. The most important of these many influences was the 1968 kaiju monster fest DESTROY ALL MONSTERS, starring Godzilla, Rodan, Mothra, King Ghidorah, and many other monsters: “We watched it three or four times,” says Vernon, who was inspired by the plot involving mangy monsters freed from an island prison by galactic invaders. “We even have our villain, Gallaxhar, use the command, ‘Destroy all monsters.’ ”
The BBC takes a look at Cinema’s Third Attempt at 3-D, examining how Hollywood has embraced the new digital technology (which provides a better viewing experience that prevous 3-D processes) because the added visual impact encourages audiences to see films in theatres.