Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Beyond Godzilla: Latitude Zero

It was released in 1969, but this Japanese-American co-production (more Japanese than U.S., since Hollywood bailed mid-stream) eerily predicts the fashions of the disco era. There is gold lamé, plunging necklines, and sporty scarves. Keep in mind, we’re still just talking about the guys here. That is just how they dress in this technologically advanced Atlantis. Two scientists and a Yankee journalist will see it for themselves in Ishirō Honda’s The H-Man (trailer here), which screens during the Japan Society’s new film series, Beyond Godzilla: Alternative Futures & Fantasies in Japanese Cinema.

Japanese team leader Dr. Ken Tashiro and his French colleague Dr. Jules Masson had invited Perry Lawton to document their undersea exploration mission in James Cameron-style submersible, but an unexpected volcano eruption swept them away from their life lines. Fortunately, the two-hundred-year-old Nemo-esque Captain Craig McKenzie was there to save them. He commands the submarine Alpha, the flagship of Latitude Zero, a utopian combination of Shangri-La and Galt’s Gulch, where principled scientists are free to pursue their work confident it will not be ill-used by either side of the Cold War.

Alas, not every two-century-old genius inhabiting these deep equatorial waters is as progressive as McKenzie and his colleagues. There is also Dr. Malic, a traditional super-villain bent on world domination. He hunkers down in his lair at Blood Rock, sending out the Black Shark sub and its tragically loyal captain Kroiga to do his bidding. Like Dr. Moreau, he has a thing for grafting humans and animals together, blowing them up to gigantic size to create kaiju. Inconveniently, Malic has just kidnapped Dr. Okada, a Japanese with a game-changing formula to counteract the effects of radiation, who had intended to defect to Latitude Zero.

Latitude is certainly enjoyable as a groovy time-capsule, but it never taps into the Japanese national subconscious in the way Honda’s The H-Man and Godzilla do. There is a bit of hand-wringing on behalf of a more neutral Cold War position, which has not dated well in retrospect.

Yes, that is Joseph Cotton, from Citizen Kane, Niagara, and The Third Man sporting the V-neck as Capt. McKenzie. He plows through as best he can. That is also Cesar Romero hamming it up as Dr. Malic. Since this is post-Batman, you know his performance will come in only one speed: high camp. However, Akira Takarada and Masumi Okada maintain their dignity while looking relatively alert and willing as Tashiro and Masson (remember, he’s the French one). Linda Haynes is also far better than snarky reviews have suggested as Latitude Zero’s bikini-top rocking Dr. Ann Barton (also looking ready for a night at the discotheque). However, it is a little awkward watching Richard Jaeckel embrace just about every crass American stereotype as Lawton.

Honestly, Latitude Zero is so ludicrous, it can’t miss. It too is a film that was released in multiple cuts. Logically, the Japan Society has opted for the 15-minute shorter Japanese-language version, which wisely jettisoned Cotton’s unnecessary voice-over narration. Judging from the American version, the Japanese cut is probably the one to see. Amusing in a giant flying Griffin way (yep, that’s in there), Latitude Zero screens this Saturday (3/25) at the Japan Society, as part of the ongoing Beyond Godzilla series.