Saturday, 30 March 2013

The Monolith Monsters (John Sherwood, 1957)

The Monolith Monsters is a 50s science fiction film that, probably due to the volume of these kinds of movies that were produced in America during the time, is not quite as well known as it should be. I say that because it has a premise that is very different from other films of this era.

A meteorite crashes into a remote but developing American town and shatters, leaving chunks of smooth black rock scattered about the desert. Over time a number of passers-by, including some kids on a field trip, collect some of these fragments as souvenirs. Unfortunately for them, and the human race in general, these rocks are pretty aggressive. Yep, aggressive rocks.

When they come into contact with water they grow to the size of tall buildings and then, on collapsing and shattering once more, spread. A burst of rainfall in the second act pretty much ensures these things are going to spread fast. Not only does this cause a lot of property damage (so many wooden huts get wiped-out in this film) but when humans make contact with the rocks their bodies seize up, almost becoming rocks themselves. With these monoliths making their way into town it is up to the townsfolk to halt their advance.

The Monolith Monsters is by no means an amazing film, its main weakness being none of the human characters are remotely interesting, charismatic or as a result memorable. Yet the premise alone makes this an interesting curiosity. While the science fiction cinema of the 50s is normally concerned with martians and saucers and whatever anti-communist metaphors can be read into them, this feels like a precursor to the disaster movies of the 70s. What particularly struck me was that there are no antagonists. The rocks are, well, just rocks, when the diseased people are transformed into monsters they just seize up and fall over, rather than becoming aggressive themselves, and there isn't even the usual selfish, cowardly survivalist character who is willing to step on or sacrifice others to survive. Nope, it's just a group of people working together in a race against time... against rocks.

Crazily the film-makers pull it off. Despite the threat being from inanimate chunks of debris there is a real sense of foreboding coupled with an urgency and energy. The final act, where the characters have blown a damn unleashing a tidal wave of salt water (the only thing that can halt the spread of the monoliths) that races to clash and head-off the approaching rocks is actually really exciting. Sure, it could do with some characters in a car caught between the waves and the rocks, but despite some great model work this film is really on a budget. No, that addition is for the remake.

I went there.

This already feels like it could be Roland Emmerich's “small, personal” movie and with a little pep added to the characters and a couple more gags worked out with monoliths it could make for a really strong b-movie. As it is it stands a not entirely successful curiosity. A great concept, some exciting moments and nice models marred by the fact that everything that isn't those things is pretty flat. But at 77 minutes it's not going to suck too big a hole in your life, so go check it out.

Sunday, 24 March 2013

Message From Space (Kinji Fukasaku, 1978)

In my article on Japanese space opera I mentioned a film called Message From Space which, at the time, I had yet to see. Although I felt I had said all I wanted to say on that subject, seeing Message From Space has compelled me to return to it briefly. Why? Because Message From Space is frigging awesome.

In deep space a race of steel-skinned bastards have invaded a peace-loving world and turned it into a wasteland. The druid-like inhabitants therefore decide to luzz eight magic walnuts into space (seriously). These walnuts seek out unlikely heroes who are destined to come to the planets aid. These reluctant heroes include Vic Morrow, two space racers, a spoilt female heir to a fortune, an irritating little prick who dresses like he's a Christmas present and Sonny Chiba as a space-knight who turns up in the third act and suddenly becomes the main character. 

For the majority of the film these people whine and squabble about not being ready to go to war until the walnuts start glowing and convince them otherwise. Alas none come to find that the walnuts where inside them all along. Frankly every moment of screen time these idiots take up is like having wisdom teeth put back in. So why did I love this film so much?

The bad guy is brilliant for a start. Not only does he look the part, but I loved the way that he is unintentionally given a somewhat softer edge than most evil space emperors. His first line is “there is something wonderful about a storm” which as scripted might sound enigmatic or foreboding, but when spoken sounds like his mind is elsewhere, as if he'd really rather be staring out a window watching the rain and listening to soft rock ballads. Later, he decides to destroy the moon instead of Earth because “Earth is too lovely to destroy”. Bless him.

What really makes the film so much fun is the action. Although most of the Japanese science fiction tropes are here, such as a sailing ship that travels through space and a kind-of transforming space craft (no drill though) we are thankfully spared the slow build. Yes the third act is a lot more exciting than the first two, but the film is liberally dusted with exciting set-pieces throughout.

The miniature work is some of the best I've seen and when you consider the high caliber of Japanese miniature work that is saying something. Without the same compositing techniques as ILM had for Star Wars the production had to rely on model space craft held up by wires. Yet this not only allows the model ships to interact with real pyrotechnics and debris but also allows the cameras to be a little looser, leading to some extraordinarily kinetic space battles.

This energy also translates to the shoot-outs and sword fights. Dutch angles, hand-held, zooms and tracking shots are all used to the get most out of each sequence. So whether you are watching Vic Morrow blast away at stormtroopers, Sonny Chiba clash blades with evil emperors or space craft dogfighting over exploding canyons each action scene is a joy to behold.

So much so that it is worth sitting through all the scenes featuring a bunch of shouting, squabbling bellends.