'Mega Monster Battle: Ultra Galaxy' was released in 2009 and was directed by Koichi Sakamoto. Based on the Ultraman series of iconic Japanese superheroes, this movie looks to grant the uber popular franchise a new lease of life. For those of you who don't know, Ultraman has been a firm favourite of the Japanese public since 1967 and has been the star of umpteen movies and television series. He is a giant super-being from space, forever protecting Earth from the constant threats of alien invasion and destructive rampaging monsters. Over the years there have been many incarnations of the Ultraman character, with many possessing the ability to transform into humanoids (some in fact have even merged with the human race). They often revert to this form to conserve their solar energy, which is used to maintain their enormous Ultraman form (the Earth's atmosphere, however, can only support Ultraman for approximately five minutes). These beings have super strength, the power of flight (up to Mach 5 apparently!), martial arts capabilities, teleportation and a whole host of rays and beams to attack potential enemies. Having faced numerous well known foes over the years, such as Red King (a Godzilla lookalike), Alien Baltan, Bemular and Zetton, Ultraman and his people seek to rid the universe from the scourge of the monsters, while living harmoniously with all non hostile creatures.
Obviously with such a fantastical premise, a skilled director is required to get the most from the broad scope of the source material. Sakamoto is a name that some of you may be familiar with from the 'Power Rangers' movies and television series; a show that had nearly as much success on Western shores (in its Americanised format) as it did in its country of origin. It's worth noting that the writers and producers on this movie were also involved in a couple of other Ultraman projects prior to this one. So, although this director doesn't have a huge wealth of big budget experience, he has the correct credentials to create some epic “men in monster suits” battles so let's see how he fares here.
The movie opens with an introduction to all the major players in the Ultraman family, as we experience the wonder of their Land of Light planet (in nebula M-78). Powered by the Plasma Spark, which is an artificial sun outputting enough lumens to provide the Ultramen with the huge amount of solar energy they require, this peaceful race of super beings want nothing more than to live in harmony with the universe. However, although the Land of Light is a haven, where all the Ultramen live in peace, trouble is brewing. The evil Ultraman Belial breaks forth from his space prison (which looking uncannily like a Borg cube), seizing control of the ultimate weapon, the Giga Battle Nizer. Using this staff (which is charged with powerful energy and the Pokemon-esque ability to control other monsters), Belial seeks revenge on his brothers who entombed him for eternity eons ago.
Clearly more powerful then the inhabitants of the Land of Light, it's not long before Belial completely smashes his opponents into submission. He steals the Plasma Spark, plunging the Land of Light into a premature ice age, instantly freezing all of its inhabitants. But Belial's evil plans don't stop there. Using the Battle Nizer, he raises one hundred horrific monsters from the dead (which are all located conveniently in the Monsters Graveyard), setting his plan in motion to dominate the universe (cue evil laugh). However, all hope is not lost for Earth and the Ultramen frozen on their home planet. Ultraman (the original), Ultraman Seven and Ultramen Mebius all survive the atrocity of their people. Mebius travels to find Rei, a human who is in actual fact the half brother of Belial while his two brothers seek out Belial. Ultraman Leo and Ultraman Zero, who are training on a distant planet, also survive but are completely unaware that their species have almost been eradicated. So, with the all powerful Belial and his army of monsters on the rampage, it's up to the remaining Ultramen and their human allies to save the universe.
Right from the opening scenes, as Ultraman zooms into frame and immediately begins to smash a huge reptile-like monster, it's clear that this is going to be a rollercoaster of a movie. The action content is very high indeed, with dialogue (and character interaction) playing second fiddle to Styrofoam monsters pummelling the life out of one another, almost as though it's included to provide a respite from the never ending battles. The fight sequences are inventive and use every opportunity to showcase the wide range of Ultraman and monster special abilities. When Rei is thrown into the fray, with some of his human compadres in tow, we also get some gunfights as humanoid sized monsters begin to appear. I have to admit that it did seem a little pointless when the humans were firing at the giant monsters; it's akin to shooting an elephant with a peashooter in my opinion. Later on they do utilise their spaceship to attack with much more favourable results. Rei also has the power to control the super-monster Gomora, which affords for some classic monster V. monster encounters.
In conjunction with offering a wealth of action content, 'Ultra Galaxy' also introduces a ridiculous amount of characters (well it's ridiculous for an Ultraman novice such as myself). They are initially difficult to keep track of as they are all named Ultraman but with a different suffix (such as Seven or Zero) and a large amount are introduced during the opening few minutes. To confuse matters worse, they all basically look the same (and have ridiculous offset pupils in their glowing amber eyes, giving some of them a distinctly cross-eyed expression!). The only one of the bunch who really stands out is Belial, and that's simply because he's different from the rest. The human characters, from the ZAP SPACY crew (and the Ultramen in their human form), are played by a whole host of Japanese actors (some of whom reprise their roles from previous Ultraman movies), with varying degrees of experience and ability. With such basic dialogue and not a whole lot of meaty content to provide the opportunity to evoke emotion, the characters become monotonous and indistinguishable. The wholly human participants are equally wooden, with the “funny” character proving to be both idiotic and irritating.
Although I have not heard of this director before, I was not surprised to read of his involvement with the Power Rangers. Many of the battle sequences in this movie, the characterisation and they way the monsters engage, reeks of the aforementioned kids show. Now, this is not wholly a bad thing but it's largely dependent on whether you are a fan of the Power Rangers or indeed any of the other types of movie in this genre. I am firmly on the fence when it comes to Japanese classics such as 'Godzilla' and indeed the Power Rangers. Although I appreciate the charm of the aforementioned iconic movie (and the many subsequent instalments), there is only so much of “men in monster suits” wrecking building and fighting other monsters that I can take. In this respect, 'Ultra Galaxy' is not very original at all. Although the earlier movies were (reportedly) action packed affairs, this one takes it to the next level and attempts to cram in an almost unfathomable amount of action. While the director most certainly has achieved this goal, the end result is rather one dimensional and samey for the duration. That being said, there is never really a dull moment as we rapidly transition from fight to fight. But, when the dust settles on the umpteenth fight, we fall back to the crux of the matter with this movie; if you love Japanese monster battles then this one is most certainly for you, if you don't, then you may look elsewhere. Stylistically I have to say that I enjoyed this presentation immensely, it's almost like a cross between 'Tron' and 'A Scanner Darkly'. Every background is computer generated (aside from the inside of the ZAP SPACY spaceship) and this initially can take some getting used to but it can also look very striking on occasion. The direction from Sakamoto is inventive, with plenty of camera angles (such as a novel fight sequence which takes place on the side of a building in the Land of Light) and thoughtful application of special powers and other effects. He also manages to keep up with the frantic back and forth nature of some of the battle scenes, capturing lots of detail and for this he must be commended.
As a complete novice to the world of UItraman, I have to admit that I did have a little difficulty believing some of the concepts which form the basis of his universe. Everything seemed a little too convenient, with fantastical events taking place without much explanation. I am aware that this is a superhero movie but unlike many modern incarnations of classic characters such as the X-Men and Batman (and, dare I say it, Ironman!), this movie is firmly rooted in its 1960's origins. The plot is basic and one dimensional, with zero characterisation worth mentioning or indeed any visual revelations to behold (although it is without doubt stylish). Perhaps I am being unfair, as this movie is a firmly aimed at the Japanese audience, who hold this material in such high regard and close to their collective heart. While I most certainly enjoyed certain aspects of the presentation, the entire package (despite it's relatively short run time) was just too repetitive and shallow for my liking. I'm sure that fans of the series, and this genre of movie in general, will revel in the glory of the latest Ultraman instalment, but this reviewer will most certainly be avoiding any future treks into the Land of Light.
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