Ultraman: Towards the Future – Part 2

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E5, “Blast From the Past”
Creatures Featured: Barrangas

E6, “The Showdown”
Creatures Featured: Gudis II

E8, “Bitter Harvest”
Creatures Featured: Majaba

Episode five of Towards the Future starts off with the monster—in extremely tight shots that prevent you from seeing it do much of anything—but really, this is a case of the ol’ switcheroo. See, UMA battles this new threat (which is apparently a gathering of Gudis cells trying to reconvene, translating it into a big floppy pretzel-dragon) for a few minutes, but then it disappears due to the efforts of…gasp!…Jack Shindo’s astronaut buddy, apparently alive and well! He wastes no time ingratiating himself with the rest of UMA, and while Jack seems initially happy to see his friend again, it doesn’t take long for him to figure out that something is amiss with his old buddy. Maybe he noticed that he was wearing an all-black get-up the entire time (Shindo, meanwhile, wears a white shirt the whole episode…symbolism!) Soon enough, astronaut buddy is shooting staff members, and when Jack confronts him, the rest of UMA decide to lock them both up as potential threats.

You know pretty much everything that will happen in this episode from the moment the guy shows up, and all the disagreements or tension between UMA members based on the whole “who is the real enemy” premise resolves itself pretty quickly. The episode tries to utilize this basic plot structure to throw in some slightly weird imagery—astronaut buddy, after easily escaping his confines, taunts Shindo by tossing a streak of snot at his cell window, and the final confrontation takes place in a construction yard lined with glowing fissures. When Jack and his faux-friend have their big speech at the end, there’s some suggestion that some part of his friend still exists and wants Jack to end his misery, but it doesn’t really go anywhere. The biggest surprise came when, and I’m pretty sure this actually happened, love interest Jean Echo says “that’s bullshit!” and I was like “wait, what? Can you say that on this show?” She then falls into a hole while Ultraman battles the pretzel-dragon, which is unfortunately still not terribly exciting because it’s mostly them on the ground spraying smoke in each other’s faces, despite taking place in a classic sort of Ultraman battle setting. The episode ends on a cliffhanger, which brings us to…

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Something I was definitely not expecting, which was half an episode worth of military thriller action. Picking up right after the previous episode, Jean Echo is in intensive care after being infected by the Gudis cells, and Gudis himself is rebuilding his body in a volcano in the middle of Australia. Suddenly, the military, led by a bearded general who grows more shouty and insane by the minute, tries to forcibly take over UMA and destroy the threat by any means necessary, even though it clearly won’t work. There are double-crosses, double-double-crosses, people yelling about insubordination and mutiny, and people yelling about other things. They play the general as such an absolute loony that seeing him interact with the UMA commander is actually kind of entertaining on its own. But that stuff eventually has to take a backseat to our old pals Jack Shindo and Ultraman and the final battle with Gudis, who now has a larger and rounder head.

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There’s some real attempts to make the battle between Ultraman and Gudis seem big…there are some fancy arm action here, but that’s mainly because it mostly consists of lasers and the deflection of lasers. One of the UMA crew says Ultraman is “fighting harder than ever before”, but to be honest, it’s kinda hard to tell. The fight is ultimately short, because Gudis’ rounder head is too much for Ultraman (and also the suit is not any less unwieldy)—so, we mostly get Ultraman and Shindo, having been absorbed by Gudis, trying to win via conversation. Inside Gudis (portrayed by some weird multi-coloured liquids, smoke, and pulsating goo composited into the background, which is always appreciated), Shindo smugly berates Gudis’ entire existence, and even though at first Gudis (who can speak while we’re inside his big bulbous head, and despite being the bad guy even manages to slam humanity’s treatment of the environment) can shrug it off, when Shindo tells him that after he’s consumed everything, he’ll have nothing left to do, Gudis is distracted enough to give Ultraman a chance to escape. It’s not so much that Shindo defeated the monster with his unbeatable logic, I think he probably just annoyed the thing into submission. Ultraman bursts through Gudis’ dome, and that moment feels pretty close to “classic” Ultraman (the “talking to the monster” bit actually does as well), and things seem to be finished. Except that this is episode six, and there’s seven more after that.

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It is pretty interesting that a show with a limited run would devise multiple story arcs for itself—although the second half of the show appears to be mostly one-off episodes— because usually, if a TV series resolves a long-running story, it would take the entire season. So, Towards the Future wnsa up being structured in a different sort of way than what you’d expect, especially now in the era of endless serialization. Anyway, getting two conclusions in a single season sounds like a bargain to me!

I jumped ahead to episode eight, just to see what kind of stories they have in store once the Gudis factor has been removed—the answer is, as expected, more directly environmental in nature. In this episode, we get the “pesticides are bad” tale, but there were some very odd choices made here—first and foremost, the idea that a single farmer would be responsible for something like this, that he, by himself, could somehow concoct an insecticide with so much PCB and other chemicals that it could create a building-sized locust monster. No giant corporations in sight, just this one farmer doing it on his own, and then trying to cover it up after his crop-duster is taken down by said locust monster. Later in the episode, when things really start going south, the farmer jumps into his truck and drives away, and is just out of the episode entirely—he never gets a comeuppance or anything, he’s just gone. It’s a really weird way to get this point across.

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In another case of “well, that’s certainly not the direction I thought they’d go”, much of the episode is focused on the farmhand, improbably named Sandman, who is implied to be at least mildly mentally challenged and only goes along with the farmer’s plans because he keeps being told that investigators will end up taking him to a home. The actor playing Sandman wisely chose not to portray him in any sort of over-the-top Lenny-style way, and is mostly just quiet. Since Sandman was friends with the crop-duster pilot who died in the crash, he has reason to help the UMA team figure out where these giant locusts are coming from, and when they discover the thing’s nest, he actually tries to chop up the eggs himself. They somehow did all this without dipping into offensive territory, so good on them.

As for the giant locust itself…all of its earlier appearances in the episode involve some of the clumsiest special effects I’ve seen on the show, a lot of dopey-looking CSO of it flying around and, at a different point, a puppet that flops around smashing a building. It’s especially weird considering that when the actual suit shows up, it looks pretty cool, and the Ultraman fight is probably one of the better ones, with more physical action taking place and an actual severed limb—an Ultraman tradition! There’s even some suit acting going on—it first appears sitting on its clutch of eggs (it looks pretty funny), and when UMA destroys them, it dives onto the eggs and starts convulsing, giving Ultraman the chance to disintegrate it—yes, Ultraman kills a monster that was mourning the death of its children. Lest we end off the episode on that down note, we instead get a scene where Sandman becomes a member of UMA, so aw, shucks, happy ending.

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Going back to the clumsy special effects in this episode, that is, on a broader sense, probably the biggest thing holding the series back—the monster scenes, the stuff that the entire show is built upon, always seems to be shot without much confidence, the monsters or Ultraman never really given a chance to shine. If the plots are ultimately nothing, at the very least you should be getting some energetic and inventive giant monster scenes (even if suits-and-miniatures isn’t “believable”, they can still look nice), and you could tell that the old show was made by people who not only knew that, but were competent directors who knew how to creatively frame a miniatures shot. That’s probably the handicap the people working on this show had—because they didn’t come from a background of working on stuff like this, they didn’t quite have the ability to really make it look like something exciting, which is a real problem when you’re directly connected to a tradition of special effects masters who had decades to perfect their craft.

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