Tuesday, July 14, 2020

Space 1979: The one where a space station is destroyed by space seaweed

Title: The Green Slime aka Gamma 3 Space War
What Year?: 1968 (production and Japan release)/ 1969 (general US release)
Classification: Prototype/ Anachronistic Outlier/ Evil Twin
Rating: For Crying Out Loud!!!

In this installment, I am making my first departure from my decision to cover 1970s-1980s films. I have done this in part to introduce not one but two new categories. The first is the fairly self explanatory Prototype, a film that introduced new concepts and new talent. The second and more elusive is the Anachronistic Outlier. What this means to me is a movie that feels like it belongs in a different time. As might be expected, the entries I have considered span equal and opposite extremes, from unexpectedly innovative gems to relics that were outdated straight out of preproduction. This particular item just might be both.

Our story starts with the discovery of a 600-million ton asteroid on a collision course with Earth, followed by a completely surreal theme song. When we return, we meet a tough-guy astronaut, a former friend who got a number of his men killed because of unmanly compassion, and a nurse who has been involved with them both, all of whom are inexplicably stationed on the same space station. They manage to work together well enough to destroy the asteroid, and in the process discover a mysterious green gunk that the tough guy specifically refuses to collect or study. The expedition returns with a blob of the organism on an astronaut's space suit. Soon enough, the space booger grows into dozens of strange creatures that feed on energy and electrocute anyone who gets in their way. After the sensitive astronaut blows up about a quarter of the station trying to stop the creatures, the tough guy takes over. In our finale, the two astronauts reconcile long enough to go on a final foray to self destruct the station, while the nurse and various extras evacuate to Earth.

The history of this one is more complicated than might be expected, In 1965-1967, an alliance of US and Italian filmmakers including director Antonio Margheriti pounded out four loosely-connected films featuring a space station called Gamma One, initially in hopes of laying the groundwork for a television series. The producers of several of these films turned to MGM and the Japanese studio Toei to make a fifth installment minus Margheriti. The resulting production was filmed in Japan with a multinational cast and crew. The monster suits were reportedly made by two former Toho employees. The film was released in a different form in Japan ahead of US release, with 12 minutes including the entirety of the melodrama between the main characters cut out.

The whole of the production is a smorgasbord of unaccountably prescient ideas entrapped in painfully dated production values and story telling. To start with, the quite well-executed space station makes it feel like an inferior clone of 2001, which actually came out the same year.. The encrusting muck that the monsters evolve from parallels The Andromeda Strain, which was published in filmed in 1971 from the 1969 novel. The central storyline of aliens loose in the confines of a spacecraft presents a possible "prototype" for Alien, while a few sequences even anticipate the hive shootout in Aliens, as monsters, astronauts and volatile equipment are caught in haphazard crossfire. Most curious of all is the asteroid that opens the feature, not only decades before Armageddon but a full 12 years before Luis Alvarez published the theory that an asteroid impact caused the extinction which killed off the dinosaurs.

The most curious part of the production is the monsters themselves. Their kelp-like initial form is formidable enough, at one point jamming a drilling machine with crud. When the slime-monsters appear, they not only prove virtually invulnerable to available weaponry but are also shown to have no obvious need to consume humans as food. What is most disconcerting on consideration is that they really don't pay much attention to anyone who doesn't attack or annoy them, and sometimes appear to ignore unarmed and harmless crew members. For aliens to be indifferent rather than hostile to humanity remains a unique and unnerving concept that has rarely been explored (perhaps in A Quiet Place). Here, however, it mostly serves to keep the heroes from being picked off before the story calls for a heroic last stand (in my opinion also a problem with the Quiet Place predators).

But the "one scene" was always going to be the expedition to the asteroid. It was a pleasant surprise to get a definite figure of 6 million tons from the script, which also mentions three "trimegaton" bombs. I confirmed that this would be 20 times the estimated size of the object that made Barringer Crater in Arizona, 60 times the size of an aircraft carrier, and just a bit larger than the Great Pyramid. In short, it is a large but potentially manageable size for a conventional response. With a few nukes, we could break up the main mass  and  maybe lose a city or to the leftover chunks. However, the script adds the complications that the asteroid will reach Earth within 10 hours (far less than it took Apollo astronauts to reach the moon), and then states that it has accelerated to reach Earth before the astronauts on its surface can evacuate (something that normally requires engines!).

And what an adventure the astronauts have! The landscape of the asteroid both in distance shots and close ups is conspicuously psychedelic despite a limited palette of earthy red and mucky greens. (There are also pools of water that would be inexplicable, unless we assume it's really liquid helium.) The expedition sets down in what looks like a cross between a rocket and a tank, then spreads out  over convincingly rugged terrain. Once they plant charges advertised to obliterate the asteroid, it becomes a race, and that much is convincing, at least until the astronauts activate a force field that is never mentioned again. The unforgettable shot is the explosion of the asteroid, which vanishes in a cloud of dust like a malted milk ball dissolving in a fish tank.

This is the sequence that got this movie's rating as low as it is. Everything else that is wrong with this movie is forgivable or at least forgettable mediocrity, especially for its time. But this is one of the first known representations of a genuine threat to life on our planet, and they get almost everything wrong. In the timeframe the movie shows, an object would be close to if not within the atmosphere. And while a nuclear response might prevent a civilization-ending impact, there would still be a monument's worth of irradiated rocks and dust raining on the happy ending. (The EMP effect from 9 megatons of nukes is nothing to laugh off either.) Like most of the tough guy's ideas, this sounds pragmatic on the surface but is really just preventing avoidable damage from getting worse and doing badly even at that. 

I have reserved the option to rate movies based on moral judgment, and this one absolutely offends me on a moral level. The most insulting part is that after more than 50 years, Hollywood has if possible gotten even dumber in its treatment of the subject. At this rate, the next big plan will be for a team of Egyptologists to fly a pyramid into space and knock the asteroid back into the void. If a Futurama plot doesn't make much less sense than a Hollywood blockbuster, we really are going to die, and we probably deserve it.

For links, see a review at Mark's Movie Cave (which does a good job outlining how dumb and amoral a central character really is), and a Moonbase Central post on a tie in toy for the movie.

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