Towards The Future really tries to go out with a bang: much as in the older Ultraman series, it has a definite conclusion, with an epic final story to go along with it, so big it must be told in two parts. The finale probably has some of the best-shot monster scenes I’ve seen in the series—maybe after thirteen episodes they finally had enough confidence to give the suit actors some space—but more importantly, they just go all out on the crazy plot, even if some of it hangs together so loosely you wonder if they just had an excess of ideas and no time to edit in some coherence. Ah, who needs it, anyway?
The first of the two episodes sets up a dual concept: not only are UMA taking part in a space program to fix the ozone layer, sending the tech nerd to a satellite to handle it (there is a brief argument about whether humans should be trying to fix the problem with technology, or just let it sort itself out, which has hazy implications for the rest of the episode, maybe), while something in the oceans is spreading deoxygenated zones and toxic algae (which are, of course, not problems we still have to this day, nosiree.) As it turns out, there’s a giant turtle monster behind it all, but the mystery (and it’s barely a mystery, to be honest) is where it came from and why it’s there, and how an ancient disc found at the bottom of the ocean connects to it—meanwhile, the pollution it is spreading seems to be getting closer to land, causing harbours and cities (in Australia, at least) to be abandoned, while some people stick around the oceans in traditional post-apocalypse rags (and since the timeline of the story isn’t entirely clear, it’s fun to just think that was their first response.) There is some sort of televangelist everyone watches who rants on about our abuse of the planet and how we must appease it—he appears throughout both episodes without much explanation, and then seems to become the leader of the post-apocalyptic mini society, but aside stealing the mystery disc for a brief period and trying to give it to the turtle monster, he is rather immaterial to the whole story (although, interestingly, the UMA commander seems to think that his views may have some validity.) Far more material to the story is the appearance of a second monster, a flying thing who glides through space towards earth, and that is definitely a problem, especially when Ultraman is defeated by the turtle at the end of the first part.
We get another appearance from General Nutcase from episode six, who finally gets a chance to nuke something as the flying monster gets closer to earth, but who would have guessed that it would have no effect whatsoever? We also get another appearance from the American agent who first showed up back in episode two, who ends up joining the survivalist group and hanging around with a kid—and while he is dressed in his finest Mad Max wares, he still talks in the unsure tones of a substitute teacher. All this nutty stuff is there to candy coat the real meat of the show: scenes of the flying monster plowing through the skylines of the city (which, because of the design and lighting, looks almost exactly like the background sets of every action figure commercial from the nineties) followed by some stock footage of burning buildings, the slow preparations for what Ultraman assures Jack Shindo is his final battle, and also the final revelation: that there is a third force controlling the two monsters, and it is the earth itself. A show like Ultraman: Towards the Future has every reason to go complete bonkers Gaia Theory, with the planet deciding to use giant monsters to take revenge on human civilization for the damage it has caused (and the implication that this very thing has happened before), because one of the joys of fantasy is the chance to take something metaphorical (at least, Gaia Theory is metaphorical to some people…) and see what happens when it becomes literal.
The monster fights, as mentioned, are better here than in most previous episodes, and especially the final sequence involving both monsters; that final battle also gives both Ultraman and the UMA crew useful things to do, so no one gets left out. For the humans, the commander apparently figured out (after spending most of the two episodes in a museum basement full of ape skeletons) that the disc and its message should be used…to power a laser. Those ancient civilizations knew how to get some utility out of their relics. The laser proves it worth by creating a reflective volley between it and the turtle which eventually destroys both, leaving Ultraman to deal with the winged beast alone—two laser swords to the neck later, the monster is down, and Ultraman picks up its body and flies away, leaving Jack Shindo behind. “We’ve been given another chance” Jack tells the assembled supporting cast, and it feels like that is always the message for these sort of environmental fantasy: the immediate problem may be solved, but the ongoing concerns remain, and we gotta figure them out ourselves. Much like the original Ultraman, there is enough to imply that humanity does, in fact, have the capability of doing so—whether or not you believe it twenty-some years later, I’ll leave to you.
So, there are a ton of ideas that never really seem to come together (was the ozone rebuilding project the impetus for the monsters appearing? What did happen to the civilization that dealt with them before?), but that’s part of the charm of Ultraman as a whole, really. Despite all its problems, I feel that there was at least an attempt here to do the franchise some justice, with the main issues still probably being a lack of experience making this sort of production. And while it falls into a lot of the same traps as most mainstream culture that try to address eco concerns (overgeneralization and lack of specific details about the issues at hand), I do appreciate it when they did get more specific, and it never gets too preachy about any of it (although the never-ending smugness of Jack Shindo gets pretty close.) It was an earnest attempt to make both an environmentally aware show and an Ultraman show, and while I can never say it ever successfully got to “good” (and isn’t a patch on the Japanese shows in terms of sheer fun), it stands as an interesting artifact of its time—1991 may have been the only point in time when someone would even think to do something like this.
Starting Friday – Ultraman: The Ultimate Hero