The Good: lovable characters realised by good actors, well written narrative, excellent special effects, intense fight choreography, delves into deeper themes, snappy dialogue.
The Bad: use of stock footage, occasional over-acting, some cheap looking monster designs, theme song may seem copied from Superman
Produced in 1992, Ultraman Toward the Future is the first live action Ultraman series NOT produced in Japan. This entry into the much loved Ultraman Mythos was an Australian production which was easily years ahead of its time. The likable cast of characters ate complemented with top notch special effects coupled with a well crafted story all of which "Ultraman Toward the Future" one of the best Ultraman series in existence.
Originally filmed in English, The story starts of very mysteriously across 2 plot arcs that unfold over 13 episodes only in total. In the first story arc, Jack Shindo and Stanely Haggard are members of the first manned expedition to Mars where they encounter a giant slug-like monster, Gudis. They are rescued by the mysterious silver and red giant ULTRAMAN but not before Gudis escapes to earth in the form of an alien virus and Stanley is presumably killed.
To ensure Jack Shindo does not die on Mars, Ultraman joins with Jack, allowing Jack to summon the heroic giant whenever all hope seems lost. On earth He joins the UMA organization in order to help them battle the monsters created by the Gudis virus. The story is very well plotted as the stakes rise as the episodes progress leading to UMA being compromised from within, a near catastrophic clash with the military, and the culmination of the Gudis' malevolent plot.
The second arc delves into a green Aesop of "protect the environment" as monsters are awakened by pollution, created by the abuse of science or summoned as a form of symbolic retribution against humanity. Ultraman and UMA find themselves torn between protecting the planet or protecting humanity as an apocalyptic prophesy is slowly fulfilled.
ULTRAMAN TOWARDS THE FUTURE boasts a fair amount of human drama and a little comic relief thrown in but it does not detract from the overall dark feel of the story. Every character is fully fleshed out and immediately likeable.
One can easily develop an emotional connection with each of the characters, from the hot headed Jean Echo, the skeptical Lloyd, the geeky Charles Morgan, and ace pilot Kim Shaomin to the "straight to business" base commander Arthur Grant who seems to be channeling a more cynical Captain Picard.
The actors are mostly Australian but are of mixed ethnic heritage and manage to pull off different accents, lending to a very diverse look for the main cast. Ultraman is not longer just a plot device to defeat the monster but a character onto himself who converses with Jack and helps him to deal with personal problems such as an emotional crisis of faith. Like a wise mentor, Ultraman dishes out some philosophy once in a while.
Each episode deals not only with a monster but with very down to earth themes that anyone can relate to. Themes like a child dealing with family neglect, the plight of immigrants, the ongoing conflict of interests between and the importance of trust are interspersed with enough plot twists and intrigue that put some crime dramas out there to shame. The second half of the series even boasts some environmental cautionary tales with a overarching subplot of the earth trying to fight against the humans who have polluted it.
Those still suffering from traumatic memories of rubber pillows with eyes that pass off as monsters wrestling with a red and silver rubber man, fear not! The monsters are not just men in suits like the Japanese series but a mix of man in a suit, puppetry, animatronics and props. Close-ups make use of still-props of, for example, the monster's head or foot, which allows a greater level of detail. Puppetry is used to give the monsters a more organic feel, to give life to tentacles, antenna and wings instead of just letting them flop to the side like in the Japanese series.
Yes there is the occasional dud where the monster looks like a balloon with obvious fabric skin but those are few and well masked by the masterful camerawork. The director(Andrew Prowse, who would go on to direct a number of episodes of the popular sci/fi series "Farscape") uses long panning shots from the ground level angled upward to give a grand feel and a sense of scale to the giant monster battles. Close ups are only used when necessary for dramatic effect.
The fight choreography his lighter on physical brawling compared to other Ultraman series, placing a greater emphasis on special effects based powers which look absolutely astounding for its time. It is a mix of early CGI laser style effects and practical effects that creatively uses gases, lighting and actual fire. The powers look better than Power Rangers which came out 3 years after this show and just as good as Ultraman Tiga, which came out 6 years after this.
Ultraman's design in this show is also a real treat. It keeps true to the spirit of the original without any added gimmicks while creating a great looking character in its own right. This Ultraman is visibly bulkier and more muscular than the previous ones, looking more like an american comic book hero than ever before. The miniatures are very intricate and realistically built and it helps that shots of miniatures are inter cut with shots of real cities. The Hummer flying scenes can look a little weird at times though due to the use of green screen against a stationary hanging model instead of real time puppetry.
Unlike may other tv shows of its ilk, "Ultraman Towards the Future" proves that giant monster defender shows of this sort can go beyond just brainless action and have an intelligent story with themes both simple and complex for children and adults. It even teaches good morals. The action is well paced, the cast do a marvellous job in fleshing out lovable characters and special effects are revolutionary for its time. All of this set to an epic orchestral score. A pity it only ran for 13 episodes.
Replay value: B+