Half an hour into ‘Warning from Space’ (1956) and the phrase I’d have used to describe it would’ve been “cute as a button” as star-shaped aliens that look like Maggie Simpson in her snow-suit arrive from Outer Space with a warning to Earth. Yet by the end I felt that would’ve been a slightly patronising disservice as, cute though this film is, it’s got quite a bit more going for it than simply that.
‘Warning from Space’ has all the requisite elements — flying saucers over Tokyo, a rotating space station, scientists and observatories, alien encounters and terrified fishermen so it’s all the typical sci-fi stuff. It’s not terribly original and plays out at a somewhat leisurely pace as locals run away from slowly moving creatures while scientists in lab coats look through massive telescopes.
Then one of the aliens assumes the form of a human, a famous female singer for some reason. She informs the scientists that the aliens are from the planet Pairan which orbits the Sun on the opposite side from the Earth. They have come to Earth to warn against the dangers of a new energy source humanity is developing. Not only that but Earth is in danger of an imminent collision with a rogue planet, Planet R, which is heading directly towards us. There’s a slim chance that all of Earth’s nuclear weapons could be used to destroy the approaching planet but that would mean the entire world acting as one and relinquishing their arsenals.
And so a race against time is initiated to bring the world together before the world is broken apart.
It’s in the second half that ‘Warning From Space’ shows some surprising depth as it goes from cute alien invasion movie to a sort of mash-up between ‘The Day the Earth Stood Still’ (1951) meets ‘The Day the Earth Caught Fire’ (1961) as the threat of nuclear annihilation rubs up against a planets colliding spectacle. It adds a real sense of foreboding and tension to it all as well as providing a clear threat and focus.
It’s also quite nicely executed too with some very charming and aesthetically pleasing special effects: the shots of Planet R seen through the observatory viewfinder are suitably menacing and eerie; there’s some unexpected scale here as well such as when city scale destruction starts taking place and the design of the Pairan’s rotating space station is simply adorable. Then again, this work was by the same special effects team behind Gamera.
‘Warning from Space’ was the first Japanese science fiction film shot in colour and director Koji Shima takes full advantage of this, working with some very pleasing colour palettes. The condition of the film’s print isn’t pristine but there’s some gorgeously shot location work at times that has a very appealing look, especially in terms of the colour green, and as Planet R approaches and the temperature increases the hues of reds and oranges are utilised with excellent effect.
Director Shima also keeps things moving along better than might seem readily apparent. It’s not the most fast-paced movie ever made but Shima keeps the energy, the actors and the camera moving and pushing forward. It might seem, at casual glance, a somewhat sluggish movie but ‘Warning from Space’ as a deceptively brisk pace.
I really warmed to ‘Warning from Space’. I was dreading it would be a little creaky and dull and only of interest in terms of the history of Japanese sci-fi cinema, but it’s got a more engaging story than I expected, a decent amount of variation, some pertinent themes (the global warming aspect seems very relevant today), good effects work and some wonderful production design (if you’re a fan of 1950’s scientific technology and big telescopes then you’ll love this).
It’s not perfect, is sometimes a little creaky and dated and might only be of interest to those with a passion for early Japanese sci-fi but it’s a better made and more substantial film than surface looks might suggest. Even the Pairan’s know never to go on first impressions, and they think we humans have funny noses.