The X from Outer Space (1967)

The standard complaint about most kaiju movies is that they feature too much human-to-human interaction and too little Giant Monster action. There has never been a single Godzilla movie that hasn’t suffered complaints that there wasn’t enough Godzilla in it, regardless of how that true that is in its specific case. What a lot of people don’t realize is that a pure 100% Monster Action kaiju movie would almost certainly be a repetitive bore. Yes, the heavy metal imagery & cheap-thrills payoffs of watching a giant creature smash buildings to crumbs is inherently more exciting than listening to scientific government types cook up a plan to stop it (expect maybe in the brilliant bureaucracy satire Shin Godzilla), but if kaiju movies didn’t break that mayhem up with something, the spectacle would quickly become a monotonous bore.

What I love most about The X from Outer Space is that it breaks up its Monster Mayhem spectacle with so much on-the-ground human drama that it feels as if it’s actively trolling its audience. If it weren’t for the monster on the poster, there’d be no implication that this was a kaiju movie during its opening hour, two-thirds of its total runtime. In the meantime, the movie putters around outer space to a snazzy samba score – like a hip, jazzy update to vintage Flash Gordon radio serials with a (mostly) Japanese cast. There are a few run-ins with “space sickness,” love-triangle melodrama, and a UFO that’s shaped like a glowing pot pie to drum up some conflict before the monster arrives, but it all registers as lighthearted fluff – deliberately so. By the time the film’s doomed space crew pauses their mission for a fun, carefree holiday at their company’s moon base it’s clear no one is in a rush to fight off any giant monsters, at least not while the party vibes are still alive.

Once “the space monster Guilala” does hatch from its space-spore incubator, he does go full Monster Mayhem on any and all Japanese infrastructure he can smash by hand, laser beam, and fireball. By saving all its kaiju spectacle payoffs for its final half hour, The X from Outer Space can afford to allow Guilala to rampage on uninterrupted for long stretches, as there’s little time for his mayhem to backslide into monotony. Even then, the character design for Guilala has too much Big Goofball energy to be taken fully seriously – falling somewhere between the dorky giant-bird looks of Big Bird, The Giant Claw, and Q: The Winged Serpent. His motivation for smashing up Japanese infrastructure is that he’s just a little hangry. The fictional compound the space cadets synthesize to stop that temper tantrum is somehow even sillier than his motivator: guilalanium. Watching Guilala smash the miniature sets beneath him is absolutely adorable, which might not be the exact effect most kaiju movies are aiming for.

The X from Outer Space is too purposefully, flippantly campy to be taken seriously as the pinnacle of the kaiju genre (at least not while Godzilla vs. Hedorah outshines it in every conceivable way). Between its adorable miniature space rockets, its goofball bird monster, and its willingness to pause any conflict for a jazzy soiree, the movie’s overall tone is decidedly Cute. The movie only makes vague gestures towards the Horrors of the Atomic Age that usually concern the genre, while it mostly busies itself by having a swinging good time. Still, I do think there’s something to the peculiar way it withholds all of its kaiju action for its third act, where it unloads its rubber-suit monster mayhem in one continuous, concluding flood. That choice sidesteps the usual complaint about lack of kaiju action in kaiju movies by leaving the audience with the strongest dose of the stuff at the very end, making for a potent final impression. This particular kaiju action just happens to be very, very goofy – adorably so.

-Brandon Ledet

Ad Astra (2019)

I don’t know if it’s entirely fair to judge an Okay movie against its potential to be Great (as opposed to appreciating how decent it already is), but I can’t help doing so with Ad Astra. If this were a direct-to-VOD space travel thriller featuring nobody actors and a shoestring budget, I might be more forgiving towards it as a sci-fi mediocrity. As is, the film has all the building blocks needed to achieve something great; they’re just arranged in a confoundingly dull configuration. Worse, there’s literally not one thing about its combination of vintage sci-fi pulp & faux-philosophical melodrama that Interstellar didn’t already achieve to greater success, so there’s constantly a better viewing option hanging over its head. Ad Astra never does enough to justify its own existence, much less its Major Studio budget, which makes its momentary flashes of greatness all the more frustrating.

Brad Pitt is a near-future astronaut who’s tasked to retrieve his war-hero father (Tommy Lee Jones) from the furthest reaches of our solar system, as he’s assumed to have become a radicalized domestic terrorist, attacking Earth’s power supplies from afar. If that sounds like a trashy space thriller, that’s because it kind of is. The video game style obstacles that obstruct Pitt’s path to his deranged father include Moon pirates, feral space baboons, and mutinous astronaut crews who’d rather fight to the death following company orders than do what’s obviously right. Ad Astra seemingly wants to be a fun, swashbuckling space adventure – a Flash Gordon for the late 2010s. Instead, it somehow comes across as microwaved Malick leftovers.

Through a godawful, entirely unnecessary narration track, Pitt continually steers the focus away from the B-picture Moon Wars thrills towards a shallowly introspective story about toxic masculinity. His dangerously emotionless protagonist prides himself on maintaining a calm, “manly” control over his feelings – despite the obvious heightened emotional stakes of chasing down a father who abandoned him (by the length of an entire solar system). In theory, this opens the film to some interesting themes about the emotional prisons of gender. In practice, it steals screen time away from the much more enticing trash-thriller beats that actually make the film entertaining for short bursts – replacing them with purposefully emotionless voiceover announcements like “I always wanted to become an astronaut, for the future of mankind,” and “I’ve been trained to compartmentalize. It seems to me that’s how I approach my life.” What a bore.

I very much want to like this movie, which only makes me harsher towards its faults. I’m drawn to its cosmetic near-future speculation about interplanetary commercial flights and crowded Moon Malls, as much as I am to its more somber speculation about a future where Macho Men are forced to regularly seek therapy for psych-evaluations. These touches never quite match the thrills of its video game action sequences, though, which only makes them feel like annoying distractions instead of the main drive of the text. I want to enjoy the film as a big-budget B-picture with exquisite visual compositions that far outweigh the heft of the killer space baboons & Moon Pirate conflicts they serve. Unfortunately, its function as a sub-Tree of Life stargazer frequently gets in the way of that indulgence, and I spent most of the film wishing I had just rewatched Interstellar or Aniara instead.

-Brandon Ledet

Aniara (2019)

Among the big-city dwellers who were lucky enough to see it on the big screen, Claire Denis’s High Life proved to be one of the year’s more divisive films. That work’s stubbornly esoteric allegories about climate change & humanity’s isolation in an uncaring universe could either register as captivating or exhaustively boring depending on its audience’s sensibilities – an effect Denis only amplified by rooting the story in prolonged, systemic cruelty. Even the Swampflix crew was divided on the film’s merits, with Boomer filing a negative review for it the same week CC & I sang its praises on the podcast. In some ways, I wish that same awe-and-vitriol divide had been afforded to this year’s other brutal space travel allegory, Aniara, which shares a lot of thematic ground with High Life when considered in the abstract. Instead, Aniara has been suffering the much worse fate of not being talked about at all. Ever since it premiered at TIFF last year, Aniara has been damned with faint praise as a decent-enough, 3-star sci-fi yarn, which naturally stirs up a lot less critical conversation than the wild, alienating swings of Denis’s film. That’s a shame, since it covers similar thematic territory as the more divisive, attention-grabbing work in a way I think a lot more people would be receptive to. And it’s just sitting right there on Hulu, largely unwatched & undiscussed.

Maybe it’s only genre nerds who’ve spent hundreds of hours watching SyFy Channel reruns of venerated series like Star Trek & Battlestar Galactica who would be greatly excited by Aniara’s melancholy space travel mood. It shares existential climate change themes with High Life, but its story is much more linear & traditionally structured than its arthouse counterpart. At least, it appears that way in the early goings. As the boundaryless void of outer space and the meaningless of time for those drifting across it becomes increasingly apparent, the movie gradually blossoms into its own blissfully bizarre object. No matter how familiar the film’s storytelling structure & spaceship setting may first appear, it’s ultimately a surreal, existential descent into despair that processes the horrors of climate change through a deep-space travel narrative. It features a bisexual female scientist as the lead, dabbles in the psychedelia of futuristic space-cult religions, and argues that maybe bringing new children into a dying world isn’t necessarily the best idea – a tough, but worthwhile topic given our current path to extinction. No film that embodies all those potentially alienating elements should be brushed off as “conventional,” no matter how familiar its tone & setting might feel to sci-fi television storytelling ritual. It’s just that it’s more adventurous & ambitious in its ideas than it is in its formal structure, which could be said about plenty sci-fi classics of the past.

A massive spaceship ferrying a routine transportation haul of human passengers from Earth to Mars is unexpectedly thrown off-course by space junk debris. The captain of the ship informs his horrified passengers that their trip will now take months instead of hours. Those months turn into years as it becomes increasingly unclear whether the ship will ever return home at all. The organic supplies that generate fresh food & oxygen gradually start to rot. Drifting through space with no hope or purpose, the passengers search for higher meaning & easy escapism in their severely limited environment. This mostly entails visits to Mima – a machine that broadcasts holodeck-style images of Nature into the minds of its users. Even before they were stranded on this spaceship, this imagery belonged to a nostalgic past before Earth was wrecked by climate change. Through Mima, it’s now twice removed from its original source, and becomes an addictive tool for mental escapism in what’s essentially a prison ship. Of course, this shipwide abuse of Mima is not sustainable in the long run; the demands of the passengers far outweigh the supply. As the passengers search for other, grander ways to find meaning in their endless drift into the void of deep space (and wrestle with the morality of bringing newborns into such a nihilistic environment), we experience daily life on the titular ship through the eyes of Mima’s operator – who suffers the full spectrum of love, loss, labor, and search for purpose while her years adrift endlessly accumulate.

I’d readily recommend Aniara to any & all sci-fi nerds who’ve ever gotten hooked on a long-running space travel series. I’d especially recommend it to those who were intrigued but frustrated by High Life earlier this year. Personally, both films hit me in about the same way on a thematic level, but I found it easier to buy into the linear, structured drama of Aniara on an emotional one (not least of all due to a stunner of a lead performance from Emelle Jonsson). I appreciated High Life more for its arthouse craft, whereas Aniara left me gutted and terrified for our inevitable near-future doom as a species. Both works are worthy of attention & discussion, even if you end up falling in love with neither.

-Brandon Ledet