Tuesday, November 09, 2010

The Green Slime: a DVD review

I made some brief comments about The Green Slime and the Warner Archive program in an earlier post when the title was first announced. We received the new DVD last Tuesday and watched it that night.

In the future, Commander Jack Rankin (Robert Horton) is called back from retirement. A rogue asteroid is on a collision course with Earth, and Rankin is charged with leading a team of astronauts to set charges and destroy the asteroid. The staging for the mission takes place at Space Station Gamma III, under the command of Rankin's old friend Commander Vince Elliot (Richard Jaeckel), who is now engaged to the station's doctor -- and Rankin's old flame -- Dr. Lisa Benson (Luciana Paluzzi). This love triangle plays out against a backdrop that includes the tense but successful mission to the asteroid, and shortly thereafter the discovery that something was brought back attached to a space suit...

The Green Slime was a co-production between American, Italian and Japanese studios: MGM, RAM Films and Toei. It is often considered as part of the "Gamma" films, including the Italian science fiction films War of the Planets and Wild, Wild Planet. Reportedly, MGM gathered together the actors, while Toei offered the studio, crew, set construction and special effects. Although filmed in Japan, the entire cast was foreign actors. Background extras were recruited from the US Air Force base near Tokyo.

This is important for the feel of the film, as it has a definite sense of a military organization and mission. In this way it is in the same tradition of "quasi-military force" science fiction as Forbidden Planet and Star Trek. Robert Horton was best known for Westerns, but Richard Jaeckel distinguished himself the year before as Lee Marvin's second-in-command Sergeant Bowren in The Dirty Dozen.

Kinji Fukasaku was known as a dependable director. For the majority of his career he worked at Toei Studios directing yakuza films. Although he delivered what the studios expected, he was still able to innovate and express his own ideas through his films. For The Green Slime, he wanted to deliver a Vietnam-era parable, about a nebulous fight against an enemy that could not be contained or controlled. Some of that shows through, but the ongoing struggle between the producers and the director over scheduling and costs held back the extremes of Fukasaku's vision. Five years later, he would direct the first in a series of films based on the memoir of a Hiroshima yakuza boss, and would be critically acclaimed around the world: Battle Without Honor and Humanity.

What we do find as a result of this international collaboration is a claustrophobic, paranoid, and almost Lovecraftian struggle against a foe that does not stop, that takes on energy from its surroundings and the very weapons used against it to reproduce.

Rankin and Elliot are fighting over Dr. Benson, but also fighting for command of the situation on the station -- literally and metaphorically. There are spacious areas on board the station (see the celebration scene), but we're still in an enclosed and self-contained space with nowhere to run. Even the sickbay isn't safe.

The hunting of the Slime through the dark and empty corridors of Gamma III is a precursor of military sci-fi and horror films like Alien, Aliens, and The Thing. The shots of the aliens swarming on the outside of the station and trying to break into the docking bay are reminiscent of the Martians in the dream recording from Quatermass and the Pit -- a nameless multitude marching on.

Considering the budgets that were available to films of this era, the special effects are quite good. The model work is excellent. The ship models are filmed against a starfield backdrop which gives it a slightly less-than-realistic feeling, but this technique also avoids the problem with matte lines that plague effects work from other contemporary films. The sets are expansive and spacious. It's remarkable to think that all of the locations were built for the film.

The master used for the DVD is a newly-created anamorphic 2.35:1 master scanned from a "beautiful" inter-positive print. For those of us who have only ever seen the movie on cable TV or videotape, the most obvious change is the widescreen presentation. Watching in the proper aspect ratio lets us see so much more of the frame, and therefore more of the action. It's still claustrophobic at the right times, but now it isn't the artificial 4:3 format that causes it.

Colors on the DVD are bright and good, and the blacks deep, so that details in shadow are still visible. Good examples are the service tunnel and darkened corridor sequences. The colors don't pop quite as much as I expected, but still comparable to other similar films of this era. Some speckles are noticeable, along with the occasional scratch in the film, but nothing glaring. The only odd film effects are two quick shots of astronauts outside the station, where the matte effect seen at DVD-resolution levels gives the actors a greenish glow. Overall, this is, without a doubt, the best that the movie has looked since the theatrical release.

The audio track is Dolby Digital mono. No special features are included. I understand that extra features mean additional expenses, although a good print of the trailer would have been a great treat.

I noticed something interesting when viewing this again for the first time in at least ten years: I felt sorry for the alien creatures. Their home asteroid was destroyed, some of their cells were carried to a strange and alien environment, and they just tried to survive and reproduce according to their instincts.

Any fan of Japanese science-fiction/fantasy films would enjoy The Green Slime. The film sits at the intersection of several noteworthy and historic trends. It's part of the career of an internationally-famous and inventive director. It was one of the first major international film co-productions. The effects were created by former employees of Toho Studios and Eiji Tsuburaya's effects crew. The theme song of the American version was written by the composer of the music for Barbarella and Happy Days. It deserves to be part of any cult movie fan's collection.

War of the Planets and Wild, Wild Planet are also new releases from the Warner Archive. I haven't seen either one before, but I definitely plan to pick them up in the future.


miakoda said...

I've never really gotten into these old sci fi flicks, despite being raised on Start Trek and Buck Rogers, but I have to admit you have a talent for making them sound interesting. Thanks for the review!

Kaiju said...

Thank you! It's the result of a steady diet of late-night TV and weekend "Creature Features"/"Svengoolie" viewing.

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