Movie Reviews

Number 8 – “Invasion of Astro-Monster” (1965)

If “Ghidrah, the Three-Headed Monster” is the dress rehearsal for what was about to come, and “Destroy All Monsters” is the grand finale to everything Ishiro Honda and crew worked towards, then “Invasion of Astro-Monster” (aka “Godzilla vs. Monster Zero”) is the main act. This film takes everything that “Ghidrah” started and amplifies it, giving us a near perfect mix of the daikaiju and alien invasion genres that the Godzilla would try to emulate many times, but never get quite as great as “Invasion of Astro-Monster.”

I like to think of this film as the final installment of a daikaiju trilogy that also includes “Mothra vs. Godzilla” and “Ghidrah,” with each subsequent film building ever so slightly on top of the last one. One could even argue that the fourth film in that series of events is “Destroy All Monsters,” even though two other Godzilla films happened between this and DAM. This is also the first Godzilla film to bring in a then-famous American actor in one of the lead roles, in this case Nick Adams, who had previously been in films like “Rebel Without A Cause,” “Mister Roberts” and “No Time For Sergeants” even forming a solid friendship with James Dean. Adams would also go on to be one of the lead actors in “Frankenstein Conquers the World,” while Toho would bring in other American actors like Russ Tamblyn to be in their monster movies.

One thing I would like to talk about first is the music. Once again, Akira Ifukube provides his usual impactful soundtrack for this movie, but for some reason the music is immensely effective this time, especially when the characters are in space. Ifukube gives us a soundtrack that feels like something out of “Forbidden Planet,” while still giving us his typical grandiose flare. In fact, the piece Ifukube did for the space sequences was so effective that the American version made it the main theme.

And honestly, I think it’s a much more effective theme than the Japanese version. This might be the one time where American version is superior to the Japanese film.

The Japanese theme is an effective military march and screams of triumph (this won’t be the last time we hear this song in a Godzilla film), but it doesn’t match the tone of the film that is about to come. “Invasion of Astor-Monster” is the closest the Godzilla films get to being a space opera, but this theme sounds like something you would see troops marching to. It’s not bad, but not great either.

 


Every time I watch the American version and this theme starts up, I get chills down my spine. It’s so isolated and distant, almost alien-sounding. As a kid, I was so scared from just this theme alone that I wanted to turn off the movie, even though the rest really isn’t that scary. Even the part where you catch a hint of Godzilla’s theme it sound eerie and foreign. I have no problem with this being the main theme for the American verison.

Anyway, the film begins in the year 196X…I guess they got so far into the future they just stopped using numbers for the years. Scientists have discovered a large planet, nearly as big as Mars, that had been hidden behind Jupiter until now. The planet has an interesting composition and the fact that it has just been discovered makes the world authorities send up a space ship to go travel to this new world, nicknamed Planet X.

Aboard the rocket are two astronauts, Fuji (Akira Takarada) and Glenn (Nick Adams). This again shows Ishiro Honda’s desire to focus on the brotherly love between nations, since Fuji and Glenn are constantly exchanging jokes, talking about their troubles back on Earth, and enjoying a light-hearted atmosphere where the two act like they’ve known each other their entire lives.

Interestingly enough, when the movie was filmed, the entire cast spoke Japanese except for Nick Adams, who spoke all of his lines in English, yet everyone seems to understand each other perfectly. In the Japanese version, they dubbed over Adam’s lines so that he speaks Japanese, while the English version restores Adam’s original performance and dubs over everyone else. I’ve yet to watch a version of “Invasion of Astro-Monster” where everyone speaks in their native tongue.

Anyway, as the rocket approaches Planet X, they make some quick observations about the surface and how it looks like a sea covers most of the planet when it’s really just oddly colored rocks, and how the gravity is a third of what it is on Earth. As they land on the surface, I’m still amazed their landing looks as good as it does. This looks like something out of “2001: A Space Odyssey,” especially with the giant looming presence of Jupiter over them. Some of the other Toho alien invasion films had a tendency to look cheap at times, but this one goes all out to make it feel other-worldly, especially with its eerie music.

After Fuji and Glenn land on Planet X, they take a moment to see how different this planet is from Earth, like how it lacks visible atmosphere and appears to be nothing but barren rock, almost like the planet has been deserted. While they set up their international flags, Fuji sees some strange yellow lightning in the sky and his contact with Glenn is cut off. But the weirdest thing of all is that he returns to the landing site to find the rocket has disappeared.

 

 

 

As if things couldn’t get worse, an odd looking cylinder pops up out of the ground and politely tells him to step inside. He refuses and gets his gun shot out of his hand for good measure, and suddenly changes his tune and he is taken underground.

The introduction to these aliens, who refer to themselves as the people of Planet X but are more commonly known among fans as the Xillians, is slow and mysterious, building up this odd atmosphere where everything is cold and methodically calculated by the aliens. Their hallways are long and sterile, built only to serve their function while the lights are only lit on the necessary parts. Before we’ve even seen the aliens, we already know so much about them through their minimalistic yet logical environments.

 

 


Glenn and Fuji meet back up and we’re introduced to the leader of the Xillians, as well as their classic alien outfits, complete with visors that make it impossible to see their eyes. The leader claims that they are now their honored guests and that their rocket is safe, kept in an underground bunker. Before the two can ask why everything is underground, we find out exactly why Monster Zero arrives and starts to attack the surface.


As the Xillians make preparations for its attack, we learn that Monster Zero is actually King Ghidorah. The leader says that everything on this planet is numbered and categorized, which explains Ghidorah’s name change, and that Monster Zero’s initial attack destroyed their above ground civilization, forcing what was left underground.


After a short attack by Ghidorah, and a short pause when the Xillians’ water supply is damaged, the leader returns to say that everything is fine and that they have a request for the astronauts. Since they don’t have the ability to defeat Ghidorah, they want to borrow Earth monsters that have defeated the space dragon before Godzilla and Rodan.


The Xillians say that all they need is permission from the people of the Earth and they’ll handle the rest, even rewarding humans with a miracle drug that will cure all known diseases. They even know exactly where Godzilla and Rodan currently are on Earth and will transport the two of them to Planet X to fight King Ghidorah. While this is suspicious, keep in mind that we already know these aliens think much differently than we do, so it’s no stretch that their social and political etiquette would be far more alien to us as well.

The astronauts return to Earth and immediately meet with the world leaders to discuss the Xillians request. The leaders are a bit conflicted, unsure of the aliens’ true intentions and how they went about telling us their request. But the majority seems to be in agreement, this is a golden opportunity to kill
three giant birds with one stone. Not only would Godzilla and Rodan be moved away from Earth, but they’d have the cure to every known illness. Ishiro Honda’s idea of paradise would be complete!

The next big development comes when the Japanese defense force finds movement at the lake the Xillians said Godzilla was located in. But instead of finding Godzilla, a classic bubble-headed alien spaceship flies out of the lake and hovers over the defense forces. When I think of alien space ships, these white and blue crafts are usually the first ones to come to mind, especially with the alien sound effects they make.

The next morning, the Xillian leader reveals himself to the people of the Earth, apologizing for hiding on our planet without our permission but says that our two worlds will now work together as one people. The leader deploys two more space ships to get Godzilla and Rodan in the most outlandish yet stylish way possible by removing the two from their environments without waking them up and putting the monsters inside of a stasis bubble, allowing them to transport the two to Planet X safely.

 

 

 

I’ve always loved this particular sequence, because it is so strange to see vastly different effects and weapons used on these monsters. Even at this point, bombs and planes had been over-used, so to see Godzilla trapped in an alien bubble to be taken to another planet is a nice change of pace.

The Xillians head back out, bringing along Glenn, Fuji and their commander to return to Planet X. At this point, our two astronauts begin to suspect the Xillians are up to more than they are leading on. With stasis fields that can stop a creature of any size in its tracks, a fully functional underground world with far more advanced technology than us and space ships that can travel between Earth and Planet X in less than four hours, why would they have so much trouble with King Ghidorah?

Along the way, the Xillians reveal that their ships are controlled using brain waves and that their thoughts are electronically controlled by computers, meaning there is no emotion in what they do, only facts and logic. They worship their computers as gods – to disobey a direct order from the computer is to disobey all of the Planet X culture.

Eventually, they make it back to Planet X with Godzilla and Rodan in tow, and they begin working on getting the two out of their stasis bubbles. Of course, just as they are finishing up, King Ghidorah arrives to cause more destruction. The Earth monsters are freed just in time and we begin the only monster fight in the Godzilla series that doesn’t take place on Earth.

 

 

One criticism fans have with “Invasion of Astro-Monster” is how there are so few monster scenes, with this fight coming halfway through the movie and the only other scene is at the end of the movie. For a while, I agreed with this criticism until I realized this is an alien invasion story first, and a daikaiju film second. The monsters are not the main attraction here, they are mostly just plot devices to move the Xillian story along. The monsters make it stand out from other alien invasion films, but so does changing the story so we come to the aliens first.

That being said, this is a memorable monster fight between Godzilla, Rodan and King Ghidorah, if only for the landscape they are fighting on. It feels like more of the final battle from “Ghidrah, the Three-Headed Monster” but with improved cinematography and Godzilla’s crazy body slam at the end that forces Ghidorah to flee. This leads into one of the oddest moments in the entire franchise – Godzilla’s victory dance.

Although it provides to quick laugh to see Godzilla jumping into the air and striking a pose, part of me feels this is where it becomes clear that Toho was marketing these films towards little kids. Why else would they put this shot of Godzilla dancing after he forces King Ghidorah to flee? The only thing missing is Rodan joining him in the dance.

Speaking of Rodan, his contribution to the fight is dropping one big rock on King Ghidorah. As we will see later, Rodan doesn’t do much in this movie other than serve as another monster for the poster.

 

 

In the middle of the fight, the astronauts start to explore more of Planet X and find out a couple things – Gold is a plentiful resource to them, water is valuable, and all of their women look the same. In fact, they all bare a striking resemblance to Glenn’s girlfriend back on Earth, Ms. Namikawa (Kumi Mizuno). The two are captured by the Xillians and forced to leave the planet in a copy of their original rocket. The Xillians hand the recipe for the miracle drug on a tape to the commander and the three head back to Earth, taking one last moment to say goodbye to Godzilla and Rodan.

As the three make it back to Earth safely, they start the tape the Xillian leader gave them so everyone on the planet can hear the good news. Unfortunately, the tape does not have the recipe to cure all diseases, instead it’s a command by the Xillian leader – surrender control of the Earth to them or they will wipe out all of humanity.

In this tape, they reveal their plan – They always had control over King Ghidorah, using their brain wave machine to use him as their puppet. Now that they have Godzilla and Rodan on their planet, they can do the same thing to those two. They’ve always had a base of operations set up on Earth, so they’ve always known what we were up to. Additionally, Ms. Namikawa is an Xillian agent who was sent to spy on Glenn. If the world leaders do not willingly give up the planet in 48 hours, they will unleash the three monsters under their command and destroy everyone.

Another criticism fans with this film is the Xillien’s plan – Why go to all the trouble of befriending humanity if the only reason to do that was so they could gain control over Godzilla and Rodan? Couldn’t they have just used their brain wave machines on the two monsters while they were on Earth? I’ve never had too much of a problem with this complaint, since this provides a great over-arching story that has a shocking twist halfway through the movie. If it just started with the Xillian’s attacking Earth and demanding control, the first half of the movie would be lost and we wouldn’t have had those atmospheric and eerie scenes on Planet X.

 

 

That being said, the first half of the movie is the strong portion. From here, we get a mad scramble by the scientists and world leaders to find a way to combat the Xillian’s and their monsters. Fuji pulls out a file of a machine that just so happens to be their ace in the hole – a device that distrupts magnetic waves, which would cut off the Xillian’s control to the monsters. Apparently, every stupid scientific idea was kept in that drawer, kept their until just the right occasion and it becomes useful.

The best scene in the second half of the movie comes when Ms. Namikawa and Glenn meet again, Namikawa wearing her Xillian uniform. She explains that, while she was sent to spy on him, she truly did fall in love with him, something she never expected to happen, especially since it went against what the computers told her to do. I find this is more effective than other lover-turned-spy reveals, because Ms. Namikawa’s directive to follow only what the computers tell her and Kumi Mizuno’s performance. This is a woman who doesn’t regret falling in love with Glenn, but does regret that it had to be this way. For the first time in her life, she’s feeling emotions and cannot cope with them.

Namikawa ends up sacrificing herself when an Xillian commander tries to take Glenn prisoner and he vaporizes her without a second thought. This leads to some William Shatner-like acting from Nick Adams, as he screams at the top of his lungs after watching his girlfriend fade into nothing.

Other than that, it’s mostly movie science about disrupting the magnetic waves, Glenn learning about the Xillian’s weakness to loud sounds and a last-ditch attempt to save the planet. The better parts are the scenes showcasing some unique effects, like an Xillian spaceship melting a massive radio dish until it caves in on itself with very little noise, like watching a hot air balloon deflate.

 

 

 

The Xillians figure out what the humans are up to and move their attack ahead of schedule, sending Godzilla and Rodan to attack Japan while the space ships head out to attack the magnetic wave disruptors, known as the A-Cycle Light Rays, which apparently have been mass produced in the last day and a half because now they’ve got about two dozen of these things.

The attack by the monsters is a mix of stock footage and new scenes, though blended together so the old shots don’t feel tiresome or reused. While the new footage is pretty neat to see, since we finally see the defense force attacking both Godzilla and Rodan at the same time. The budget problems of “Ghidrah, the Three-Headed Monster” are finally solved here and we get that all-out assault I was asking for. King Ghidorah eventually joins the fight and we get some of the best city destruction from the Showa series.

Except for Rodan, who just flaps his wings a couple times and knocks a couple shingles off someone’s roof.

At this point, the humans put their plan into action. They send out a nation-wide signal and order everyone to turn up their radios as loud as possible and emit the noise that the Xillians cannot stand. Apparently, this works on their ships too because they start to malfunction, giving the defense forces enough time to finish setting up the A-Cycle Light Rays without being blown up by the aliens.

This is the point in the movie when the main Japanese theme comes into effect, as everything comes together in Earth’s plan to stop the aliens. Their ships are breaking down, the monsters have been knocked out when their signal is disrupted, and the Xillian’s Earth base has been located and blown up by a squadron of tanks (though it still takes them about ten shots to hit one house in the middle of the forest). It is an effective triumphant moment to see the humans not only overcome three giant monsters, but also a computer and logic-driven alien race.

 

 

 

Of course, this isn’t the end of the movie yet – Godzilla, Rodan and King Ghidorah have only been knocked out. Godzilla is the first one to awaken, who immediately get both of the others up and is ready to resume fighting King Ghidorah. We get a much better fight out of it, as Godzilla continually gets blasted with Ghidorah’s gravity bolts but still does his best to get up-close to the space dragon and knock his three heads around. The fight ends in a way that is similar to the finale to “King Kong vs. Godzilla,” with the three monsters tackling each other and throwing themselves off a cliff and into the ocean.

King Ghidorah is the only monster to emerge from the ocean and flies off into outer space once again. I would assume that, if this is the same logic as “King Kong vs. Godzilla,” Ghidorah is considered the winner. We get some final bits of character development, as Glenn and Fuji share one last laugh before their commander orders Glenn to return to Planet X and become its new ambassador, giving everyone one last good joke.

“Invasion of Astro-Monster” is arguably Toho’s best and most fascinating alien invasion tale. The aliens feel like a vastly different people instead of actors wearing a funny mask, their world is unique and captivating, and the idea that we were the first ones to reach out to them feels works well here. While the monsters don’t get a whole lot of screen time, it is just enough to add a greater sense of scope to the movie.

This is one of the few Godzilla movies I would recommend watching in English over Japanese. Not only do you get to hear more of that creepy theme, but seeing and hearing Nick Adams’ natural charm and charisma is a big plus too. Overall, this is a classic Toho daikaiju film and one of the best. It’s smart, inventive, charming and filled with great effects and cinematography.

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