Monday, April 21, 2014

Video Cheese/Oddball Film Report: THE LAST DAYS OF PLANET EARTH (1981)

Note: This review was originally written for use by as a Video Cheese piece. Mr. Ken Begg has kindly given me permission to post the piece here instead.


  "An Inconvenient Truth: 1974"

   This movie is literally insane. Words can't describe it at all. However, after being subjected to it, one must vent in some fashion, so here goes...

  Made during the height of Japan's doom-and-gloom genre movie period (see Genocide, Body Snatcher From Hell, The "Legend of Dinosaurs" and more), Toho apparently set out to produce the Ultimate disaster movie. Supposedly based on the writings of Michele De Nostradame (who, if he could really see the future and saw what his name would end up being attached to, would have kept his mouth shut), the 1974 film Prophecies of Nostradamus was given international release as Catastrophe: 1999.

   I can't say if Catastrophe: 1999 was ever actually seen on American screens, but it may have hit the drive-in circuit in the form of one of those crudely dubbed international prints. One such print does form the base of this video/television version updated in 1981 with the addition of a new narrator, some obviously trimmed scenes (although the film is so episodic in nature it may just feel like a digest*), and a laugh-provoking pre-credit text crawl alerting us to the fact that our feature film is 'Ficiticious' in nature. Despite that note, however, the next 88 minutes will be spent trying to convince us that the wild events we see are taken from the writings of Nostradamus.
(* According to the Internet Movie Database, the Japanese version ran 114 minutes, Catastrophe 1999 ran around 90 minutes, and our current subject further trimmed the runtime down to 88 minutes. Meanwhile, the original version drew harsh criticism for reasons explained below, and was only aired on Japanese television one time. Toho has been so gun-shy about the film since, that the only version available over there was provided by a studio employee to the bootleg market! Despite all this, the film was reportedly a huge hit for Toho in it's first run....)
   Nostradamus, for his part, appears to have been Japanese, or so we see in the minuscule portion of the movie that actually deals with Nostradamus, narrated like some pre-History Channel semi-educational program for late-night TV (which is exactly where this version was meant to be seen. I first saw the film on TNT very early in the morning, probably as part of 100% WEIRD).

   It would seem the end-of-the-world portions of Mickey's writings centered around Japan and how pollution was to bring about man's final hours. Thus we see some fantastic event which seems to come out of nowhere, but we're constantly assured that the cause for all of this is Pollution. This becomes increasingly laugh-provoking as the film unspools.

   Talk about wild leaps, one minute we're discussing smoke stacks and poisoning of local water supplies, the next we see the JSDF turning flame-throwers against foot-long slugs! This, however, is only the first of the planet's convulsions...
   Though we only see one small area of the sea polluted by floating pink slime(?), the idea seems to be that all the oceans around Japan -and possibly the world- are dead, killing the livings of all the coastal fishermen. This leads to food shortages, which lead to riots, which lead to the near collapse of government. There's also a moral spiral which leads to mass suicides among young people.

    But wait, there's more! SST planes explode (though the reason for this is never cleared up), opening holes in the earth's ozone layer, causing unfiltered UV radiation to pour through and cause huge fires. The evaporated sea water causes flash storms and flooding. The jetstream shifts, causing polar ice near Hawaii and snowstorms in Africa!

   Lingering atomic radiation (?) causes mutations in New Guinea, from giant bats to radioactive leeches to super natives to brain-dead explorers! 
   During all this madness are occasional sequences in which our scientist hero alternately pleads for immediate action and cautions against rushing into a quick-fix. (So, its just like a real political debate impressionable high schoolers might have under the guidance of their teacher, and thus even funnier.)

   Volcanoes erupt for little reason (our hero more or less mentions that volcanoes COULD erupt, and they start popping) and you start to wonder how it is that the dinosaurs don't revive as well, as long as everything else is happening. 
   The sky polarizes or some such and becomes a mirror at one point, which is just one of many ideas introduced but quickly forgotten by the next scene. (The earlier seen pink slime in the ocean is never seen again, for example, nor are the giant slugs.) 

   The pollution-based poisoning of the planet begins with (thankfully unseen, save for some mock X-Rays) deformed babies. (There's a weird digression at one point involving kids suddenly developing super powers due to mutation. The idea is brought up, then dropped like a hot potato like so much in this movie. This disaster seems to be multiple choice!) When our hero's daughter finds herself with child, she's horrified and convinced that it will be a freak. Her dying mother, meanwhile (why is she dying? Why, Pollution of course!) is happy about the baby and believes it will be a vessel for her continued life. Literally, she seems to think....
   But all that hoopla about the baby comes to nothing, like so much in the film. Somehow or other, Pollution causes it all to end with all-out atomic warfare between the superpowers! 

   We see New York, Moscow, Tokyo, and Paris (?) being obliterated by atomic missiles before the earth is reduced to a burned out slag with just a few mutants running around fighting for survival.

   According to a popular story, said mutants got the film banned in parts of Japan. Supposedly, this was because the hideously deformed humanoids were reminders of the Hiroshima blast. (Never mind that the blast never caused monstrous mutations like we see here. This form of mutation would require generations to produce. Given everything else we've seen though, I'm not sure if that much thought was put into it.) That story is presumably false, although as noted, Toho is rather skiddish about releasing the film to Japanese home video.

   Weirdly, we see the control centers for the atomic missiles are still pristine, with not even a flake of dust to be found on any of the merrily humming computer banks. Funny thing is, the base personnel are still in evidence, but dead. I think the idea is that the fallout killed them, but then why did they die instantly? (How can the base keep out the elements, but not radioactivity? You'd think that would be the first thing the base was built to withstand.) 
   Not only that, but while slumped over, their hands are all still on the controls! Like they've been glued there!

   Then, in the final insult, we see this is just the yarn being spun by a Concerned Scientist to government officials. 
   After all that Nostradomas-said-this-was-going-to-happen-and-there-is-no-escape nonsense, we learn it was simply a scientist spouting off about what COULD happen. We are told mankind still has a possibility to avoid the hellfire Nostradamus foretold. That his writings were a warning, not a solid prediction, that we can avoid the bad stuff by changing our ways. I recall a History Channel special ending on this exact same note.

   Of course, the movie ends more or less convinced that the end will come no matter what we do because a 16th Century writer said so. Oh, and according to the clock presented as fact, the end will come before the finish of the 20th Century.....

   While visually impressive, and sporting some faces familiar to Godzilla movie fans, this has to be the most hysterical film I've seen since His Girl Friday!
   I expect Al Gore caught this film at some point and woodenly vowed to spread the message. If the trailer is any indication, Gore's film too implies that slightly higher than normal carbon dioxide levels will lead to earth-shaking natural disasters and nuclear war. (Of course, according to him, the polar caps melted and drowned half the world about ten or so years ago.)

   The most bizarre element to The Last Days of Planet Earth is that, despite everything going on, the movie is incredibly boring! 
    Something happens every five minutes. There are monsters, floods, exploding cities, blazing infernos, etc. And yet, this has to be the least involving Nipponese science fiction epic I've ever seen! The effects work is top notch, but it never feels important. The movie just zips by into one crazy sequence after another. And yet you keep eyeballing the clock to see how much more of this junk you have to sit through. Not a good legacy for a Toho film. 
    I will grant that I found it slightly less dull watching the video than I did watching it on television. On video, you can get the thing over with in one big lump, while the start-stop, start-stop experience of commercial TV just drives home how little one cares about what's going on in this picture. The commercial breaks are included on the tape, so you still feel like you're watching something taped off television (apart from from the sight of some topless native women in the New Guinea scenes). 
   I will keep my eyes open for a print of Catastrophe: 1999 and see how the (comparatively) unedited version stacks up. At the very least, I imagine it will be much more watchable in scope, which the '81 version obviously isn't.

[FLASH! I have now seen the CATASTROPHE 1999 cut and can offer a word or two on it. For starters, I was floored that the patently Japanese Nostradamus seen in THE LAST DAYS OF PLANET EARTH was completely absent from CATASTROPHE 1999! The fuller cut of the film has more of a narrative feel, which despite being less lively is actually less boring. The effects work obviously looks much better in wide screen, and the performances certainly work better when the camera isn't shoved into the actors' faces due to severe cropping. Rather than the male narrator sported by the '81 version, the original international print features a barely audible female narrator who supposedly relates actual Nostradamus verses to justify what events we see. Still not a great movie, if anything it's even more aggressively anti-industrialist, but a better way to go if you'd like to see the film.]

   In the end, The Last Days of Planet Earth is far more amusing as a political comedy than it is moving as an epic disaster flick. There are some good yuks to be found here, and some nice effects work, but you'd do better to opt for the same decade's Godzilla vs the Smog Monster (or even Gamera vs Zigra) if you're looking for a Japanese fight against Pollution. Meanwhile, there are some far superior Disaster films from the same period that you can try, provided you can even find copies of them.

   In 1976, Toho produced two films which were imported with added American stars. Lorne Greene watches over the fairly effective end-of-Japan epic TIDAL WAVE, and Peter Graves joins the cast of a proto-UNDER SIEGE affair called SOUTH SEAS HIJACK. Meanwhile, those seeking a fine Japanese-made end-of-the-world disaster epic can hunt down the 1980 film VIRUS, which boasts an all-star cast and a genuinely descent script. Be warned, however, while the film has been released on DVD, said disks are notoriously finicky. They either play great, or not at all, from what I've heard. (There was a VHS release in the 80's, however, if you have a VCR. I'm sure the disk used that very same print.)

   Should you actually wish to see THE LAST DAYS OF PLANET EARTH, I'm not sure if it has ever seen release on DVD. The Paramount VHS release was on a pretty cheap tape, but it was released on Laserdisc at the same time.

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