Space Amoeba (1970)

The classic Japanese monster movie has a pretty set formula: monster exists, monster causes moderate levels of destruction in far off place, mankind looks at it and goes “Shiiitttt!”, the monster moves to a highly-populated area and causes massive amounts of damage, and mankind somehow pulls its arse out of the monster-induced fire. Whilst this is absolutely perfect plot progression, especially if it has municipal destruction that you can really see the behemoth emote through, sometimes you just want something different. Some kind of large-scale annihilation je ne sais pas to spice things up.

Space Amoeba (also known as “Yog: Monster from Space” and “Gezora, Ganime, Kamēba: Kessen! Nankai no Daikaijū”, which translates to “Gezora, Ganimes, and Kamoebas: Decisive Battle! Giant Monsters of the South Seas”) offers just that. As it came from Toho studios, the home of Godzilla, you would be forgiven to assume it would work. But such misfires as Attack of The Mushroom People and Frankenstein Conquers the World had shown where they could go wrong when they tried too much change, and Space Amoeba was released in 1970 when there was a certain “quantity over quality” approach,.as the market moved from considering kaiju classic to viewing it as kitsch.

The setup is solid enough stuff; a space probe to Jupiter has unexpectedly returned to Earth and crashed into the South Pacific ocean, and the first people to get to the island where it landed are Kudo The Photographer (Akira Kubo), Hoshino The Giggling Girl (Atsuko Takahashi) and Obata The Obvious Criminal (Kenji Sahara), because science has just decided it’s not interested in the probe any longer. On the island are a bunch of natives, played by an assortment of Japanese actors in brown-face and talking a bit slow. And if you think that’s problematic, wait till you hear how happy they were at being occupied during WW2…

Away from the cultural insensitivity and dodging of war crimes, the more important matter is The Thing That Came Back With The Probe has turned a cuttlefish into a giant monster. A hundred feet tall, with lashing tentacles and piercing eyes, it only looks slightly like an oven glove that’s woken up after a bender and will now smash everything it finds until it gets an oil-tanker full of coffee. With the stakes firmly set at three people who are made of overwritten cardboard, a village of extras, and one beardy bloke that keeps on yelling that Gezora will kill everyone because they have given up on The Old Ways, something incredible happens; you give a damn!

Gezora is actually a frightening prospect, and you get a real sense of danger from its antics, even though the grand total of destruction is around the couple-of-hundred-quid level. It lacks the menace of any of the classic monsters, but still works its magic on the audience. And this is a trend that carries on through the film; minimal stakes, passable monster design, and the near-perfect interaction of monster acting – directing and editing to maximise the tension and horror, and a soundtrack that glues it all together.

Eventually, using a combination of two locally-stationed scientist’s knowhow, the native’s absolute willingness to do anything someone with a lighter complexion tells them to, and a stash of firearms and ordinance left in perfect working order since The War; the monster is beaten. Only to then have The Thing That Came Back With The Probe exit it’s body and head into a crab. Whilst the runtime gives away that this might happen, you will nevertheless go “Nooo!!” when the heroes are cheated out of the victory. And then possibly wonder why, and just get even more into the movie.

Things continue on this vein until the human story really kicks in (which always makes monster movies better, but only when they don’t get in the way of monsters being on screen… Godzilla 2014, I am looking at you!). Whilst a bit of an inevitability at that point in the plot, it’s surprisingly well-realized plot beat that leads on to some actually quite emotional moments, as well as a swan-dive into a volcano. It manages to interact heavily with the humans’ usage of nonsense – but pleasingly foreshadowed – science and with the creature arsewhooping going on. Because whilst it does take time for things to get going, once the kaiju turn up, they are front and centre for the rest of the film.

And if all that sounds like your standard rubber-suit monster flick, well, it probably is. However, basing it on an island with maybe fifty occupants and a total of eight huts to crush manages to make it a very different viewing experience. Even the humans having to scrounge up/pull out of the plot’s backside, their equipment is a pleasant deviation from the usual “we threw the whole Japanese Army at it, twice” demonstrations of unstoppability.

These structural changes could have ended up looking silly, but they work and give it a fresh feel that knocks it into being a surprise Treasure. It doesn’t have the rewatchability of the original Godzilla, the high-camp of Invasion of The Astro-Monsters, or battle royale of Destroy All Monsters, but it has its own thing going on and that makes it fun. It sets out to do something different and it works, and that warms you to it more than you would ever expect.

The Raggedyman

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