Director Ishiro Honda and special effects master Eiji Tsuburaya are best known for bringing ‘Godzilla’ (1954) to life but between them they were responsible for more than just the big ‘G’, producing an output of an impressive variation. One of the best examples of this is their 1959 space opera ‘Battle in Outer Space’, an alien invasion film that initially gets by on charm alone before developing into something genuinely exciting and seriously ambitious. Write this movie off at your peril, humans!
1965, the future, and an orbiting, rotating space station is destroyed by alien spaceships. It seems this alien race has some form of advanced technology as they are able to reduce matter to absolute zero thus rendering it immune to gravity and causing it to fly into the atmosphere (okay, so the science is bollocks but it pays off in the end, trust me). This causes mayhem to Japanese railways, ships passing through the Panama Canal and even the waterways of Venice.
It turns out this alien race (called the Natals) has established a base on the Moon so the governments of the Earth unite and build two rockets, called SPIPS and each containing a team armed with ray guns, and send them to the Moon to discover what the Natals are up to and stop them.
On the way the teams encounter various obstacles and evade Natal fighter attacks although a bigger threat could be the crew member the Natals have remotely brainwashed into being their saboteur.
Can the teams cross the Moon in their lunar rovers, find the Natal base and destroy it before the Natal force attacks Earth or they are destroyed by a force from within? Watch ‘Battle in Outer Space’ and find out!
So the story to ‘Battle in Outer Space’ is clear, simple, linear and exceptionally easy to follow — Fly to the Moon to stop the baddies before they can attack us. In fact, it’s so straight forward and leisurely paced (in the opening act, anyway) that some viewers could label it all somewhat dull. Yet when it comes to launching the rockets, the flight to the Moon and subsequent battle it’s non-stop. Sure, it’s a slow moving kind of non-stop but there’s always some new incident or wonder in store and all of it realised through some of the most gorgeous, beautiful, elegant, evocative art design and special effects work I’ve seen. ‘Battle in Outer Space’ might not be on the same level of technical brilliance as, say, ‘Forbidden Planet’ (1956) but it can hold its own against that sort of sci-fi big hitter with confidence.
The space stations, rocket ships, spaceships, star fields, distant galaxies, lunar rovers, ray guns are all stunning to behold and all decked out in exquisite designs, colourings, contours and lines. It’s that dreamy, optimistic, International Geophysical Year futurism that just looks better with every year that goes by and ‘Battle in Outer Space’ is almost nothing but all this loveliness up on screen. It’s simply heaven.
It’s not just the design but also the efficacy of the effects work that also impresses with Tsuburaya and Honda knowing exactly what techniques work to sell this world to us. There’s an integrity, coherence and consistency to the visuals that’s impactful and striking. This might be best exemplified by the lunar surface which feels both believable and expressive. It’s one of the prettiest Moonscapes I’ve seen and that includes ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ (1968).
By the time ‘Battle in Outer Space’ reached its climax I was sitting with a huge smile on my face as I realised it had charmed me to the point of falling in love with it. However, I noticed there was still ten minutes or so left. “Oh well,” I thought, “I guess it’ll be ten minutes of winding everything up. As long as it’s not too sluggish an ending I’ll have enjoyed myself immensely.”
Turns out I was in for a massive surprise because not only do things not get sluggish or wind down in anyway because shit kicks off and kicks off BIG TIME!
(Spoilers below for the climax of ‘Battle in Outer Space’)
So after destroying the Natal Moon base the teams return home where the entire Earth quickly builds a fleet of space fighter jets to stop an approaching Natal attack. What follows is a seriously exciting dog fight in space that pre-empts ‘Star Wars’ (1977) and comes close to frequently matching it. It’s really cool!
Then the Natal armada enters Earth’s atmosphere and the fight continues. Except now the Natal mothership unleashes its anti-gravity weapon and wholesale destruction ensues. We cut to a fantastic model of New York City only for it to explode before eyes as skyscrapers and buildings are torn up into the sky in a whirlwind of demolition. Next it’s the Golden Gate Bridge which is suddenly splintered apart and on an epic scale. Tokyo is next to be destroyed by the anti-gravity ray as buildings and people are pulled up into the sky and I’m sitting there with my jaw slack looking at a film from 1959 that’s pulling off shit that films such as ‘Man of Steel’ (2013) or ‘Independence Day: Resurgence’ (2016) would attempt decades later but with nowhere near the fidelity or thrill of Honda’s work. It’s an unbelievably exciting, spectacular and epic closing ten minutes to any movie and means ‘Battle in Outer Space’ finishes with gusto, bravado and style.
‘Battle in Outer Space’ had fully seduced me by its halfway mark so it couldn’t really do much wrong to leave me feeling satisfied, but the way it explodes and on such a scale for its climax floored me. It’s a visually ravishing, aesthetically captivating sci-fi movie that is deceptively well paced and finishes with a bang most other movies would struggle to pull-off with such flare. I loved it.