Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Series Report Card: Gamera (1995)

9. Gamera: Guardian of the Universe
Gamera: Daikaiju Kuchu Kessen

I can’t say for certain what Japanese monster fans thought of Gamera by the late 1990s. Perhaps some fans appreciated those films for the campy wonders they are. Others probably dismissed them out right as ridiculous kid stuff. Either way, I bet the news of a “dark and gritty” Gamera reboot was met with eye-rolling and derisive signs. How do you grimdark up a fire-farting giant turtle? Somehow, director Shusuke Kaneko and screenwriter Kazunori Ito succeeded. Not only did “Gamera: Guardian of the Universe” fill the kaiju-sized void left by the end of Godzilla’s Heisei era, it has gone on to become one of the most beloved kaiju film of any age.

The film presents a Japan that has never been attacked by giant monsters before. Two strange events open the plot. First, a mysterious atoll, floating towards Japan, appears in the Philippines sea. Secondly, a giant winged creature is attacking and killing people on Goto Island. Expert Mayumi Nagamine investigates the latter, discovering a giant carnivorous bird species that grows very quickly and are born pregnant. Professor Kusangi, meanwhile, discovers a strange monolith atop the atoll. Just as the birds, named “Gyaos” by an ancient text, descends on Japan, the atoll reveals itself to be the giant, flying, fire-breathing turtle Gamera. Nagamine, Navy officer Yoshinari, and Kusanagi’s daughter, along with the rest of the Japan, are soon caught up in the battle between the two monsters, an ancient rivalry that goes back thousands of years.

As absurd as the idea sounds, “Gamera: Guardian of the Universe” is indeed a dark and gritty reboot of the silliest kaiju franchise. The film, at first glance, has little to do with the campy original series. Many of the defining characteristics of both Gamera and Gyaos are removed. Gamera no longer sucks fire into his mouth. Gyaos’ undoing isn’t a stiff, unmoving spine. Even the most serious of the Showa era had ridiculous things happening on-screen. “Guardian of the Universe,” meanwhile, plays its premise with dead seriousness. That sounds like a betray of the source material but, against all odds, the film works incredibly well. “Guardian of the Universe” is a complete reinvention of the Gamera series.

The sixties Gamera series never had any sort of unifying mythos. The ’95 film corrects this, building a surprisingly deep mythology around the monsters. Gamera and his enemy are linked with Atlantis. The original film briefly mentioned that the giant turtle came from Atlantis but none of the subsequent films brought it up. Both monsters are revealed as being genetically engineered by the ancient society. Gyaos was created to protect the world from pollution. When the flying monsters became impossible to control, Gamera was created to protect humanity. It was too late though, Atlantis already destroyed. Now, rising pollution has awoken the monsters again. Linking the creatures with both an established mythology and an ecological message gives them far more resonance then ever before.

Surprisingly, “Guardian of the Universe” almost plays like a deconstruction of the daikaiju genre. Gamera is Earth’s protector but surprisingly ambivalent to the man on the street. Upon appearing in Fukuoka, he knocks a Gyaos into an oil field, starting a huge fire that claims several lives. Throughout their battle, the two giant monsters wreck buildings, sending crowds of innocent people fleeing in terror. Kaneko’s direction is stationed on the ground, looking up at the massive monsters, emphasizing their huge size. Kaiju battles have always featured plenty of collateral damage but rarely has the human danger been this accentuated.

Even though the heroes quickly recognize Gamera as a good monster, the military still decides to attack him. Why wouldn’t they? It’s a giant monster that suddenly showed up and started smashing buildings. Gyaos is a deeply visceral threat, scooping up innocent people, devouring them whole. A growing monster of that size has to eat a lot, after all. The appearance of the beasts has an immediate effect on the country. Public transportation is choked with fleeing people. The stock market plunges. News broadcaster attempt to stay up to date on the story but are quickly outpaced. The Japanese senate votes on whether or not to attack the monsters, the decision made with great reluctance. The populace mostly responds to the creatures in fear. Yet one small child seems excited and a pair of partiers, on the way from a sporting event, want to place bets on the battle. The film had this experienced kaiju fan considering aspects of the genre he had never thought of before.

The film plays with the conventions of the genre while still delivering on the giant monster thrills. Both creatures are brought to life fantastically. Gamera’s design is updated with modern effects without deviating too much from his classic look. His face is more angular, the ridge on his head more pronounced. The turtle’s shell is more jagged, appearing harsher then before. Ridges, bumps, and extra armor are added to his body, giving Gamera an earthier, more intimidating appearance. I also like the touch of giving him big, green, expressive eyes, which roots the grittier design with personality. Gyaos, meanwhile, has been completely redesigned. The bat-like creature is given a more reptilian look, its skin red and scaly. The stiff posture is ditched for a more mobile body and neck, the monster now moving swiftly and believably through the skies. The changes make Gyaos more then just a Rodan rip-off. However, the designers were smart enough to keep the monster’s trademark element. Gyaos still has a sloping, triangular crest on his head and, notably, the monster still feasts on human flesh.

Initially, the film keeps coy about both monsters’ ability to shoot projectile weapons. Gyaos appears to be a big, hungry bird at first. However, the creature’s super-sonic cutting ray is maintained, fantastically revealed when two of the monsters cleave through the bars of their cage. Gamera’s fire breathing, now shown as condensed fireballs instead of long streams, gets a similarly dramatic reveal, flying out of nowhere. Both abilities play almost like in-jokes. Small references like that are sprinkled throughout, marking it as a true Gamera film. The giant tortoise takes the time to protect a child in the heat of battle. Destructive though he may be, Gamera doesn’t fight back when the military attacks him. He’s still a good monster. When severely injured, his green blood still running from open wounds, Gamera retreats to the ocean to heal himself. Though ditching the high-strung silliness of the classic series, “Guardian” maintains at least some of the spirit of the original films.

The kaiju fights are incredibly dynamic. Gyaos’ early attack on the island, a screaming man grabbed out of his car, is actually frightening, something you can’t say of most giant monster movies. Gamera’s grand entrance is exciting, headbutting a Gyaos into an explosion. The monsters encounter each other again in the forest. With a single fireball, Gamera explodes one of his enemies, monster guts flying everywhere. The film’s heroes, along with an innocent child, are caught on a bridge between the fighting beasts, raising the stakes of the fight considerably. The military attempts to shoot Gyaos down, the monster withstanding missiles strikes. He even redirects some rockets into Tokyo Tower, having the landmark. Memorably, the monster then nests on the wrecked structure. Gamera’s enters the final fight by exploding out of the ground, wrecking buildings and streets in the process.

That last battle is when the action truly shifts up. The digital effects of Gamera and Gyaos flying haven’t aged well, often looking fake. However, Kaneko’s direction is incredibly lively. The monsters race through the city, the camera flying with them. Gamera shoves his enemy into a building, the camera watching from inside as Gyaos’ head crashes through it. The creatures take to the air, flying up into the upper atmosphere. Gyaos’ wings pass before the moon before both monsters tumble back towards the Earth. Gamera crashing into another refinery, causing a massive explosion, seems to be the monster’s end. Until the film remembers the turtle’s rarely mentioned fire eating ability. He adsorbs the flames, supercharged, finishing his rival off with a giant blast to the face. That’s a satisfying moment. The final battle is incredibly exciting, one of the best in all of the subgenre.

The script is smoothly constructed. The opening minutes drag a bit, the two plot lines existing separately. The movie quickly brings them together, the characters realizing the connection between the two kaiju. A clever solution to stopping the Gyaos threat is introduced. The three bats are lured to a giant sports stadium, trapped under the dome. Actually, the plan probably would have worked if Gamera hadn’t come along, smashing the structure open. Early on, the story introduces Kusanagi’s daughter, Asagi. As a gift, she is given a strange pendent found on the atoll. This makes her a priestess of Gamera, developing a spiritual link with the monster. Now, when he is wounded, she is wounded too. When the turtle falls into a healing slumber, she does as well. At first, this subplot comes off like a clumsy device, a way to give the heroic tortoise a last minute energy boost. However, Asagi winds up being the story’s emotional heart. Gamera’s defeat would mean her death. Literally tying in the monster’s fate with one of the human cast members is a smart idea, getting the audience doubly invested in the fight. Though mostly a serious affair, Ito’s screenplay even sneaks in some humor. Comparing the flesh eating Gyaos with the Japanese ibis leads to a deadpan response. A taxi driver’s reaction to a military blockade provides a big laugh as well.

“Gamera: Guardian of the Universe” has a uniformly strong cast, something you couldn’t always say about the Showa films. Shinobu Nakayama is more then just a damsel in distress. Mayumi is motivated and courageous, devising ways to defeat the monstrous threats and putting her own life on the line to project an innocent child. Nakayama has solid chemistry with Tsuyoshi Ihara’s Yoshinari. While in most kaiju films, the military man Yoshinari would have been the hero. Ihara instead plays the love interest. The quiet moments between the two characters, such as a brief aside during Gyaos’ attack on Tokyo, really stand out. Another memorable quiet moment is when Professor Kusangi, played by Akria Onodera, pauses inside his sleeping daughter’s room to question how well he truly knows her. Onodera brings a surprising gravity to the part. As a man of science, he is reluctant at first to accept Gamera’s Atlantian origins. However, evidence piles up, forcing him to acknowledge the truth. Kusangi remains most concerned with his daughter though, which the film gets some great mileage out of in the final lap.

Aside from an ecological message that is introduced without much precedence and not commented on again, “Gamera: Guardian of the Universe” works incredibly well. It’s amazingly exciting, fantastically directed, well written, and features great special effects. It successfully re-birthed Gamera, exposing a new generation to the flying turtle and completely changing the character’s public perception. [Grade: A-]

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Series Report Card: Godzilla (1998)

23. Godzilla

Godzilla’s status as an iconic pop culture figure has a long reach. He’s beloved all over the world, sometimes to the point that I wonder if Americans don’t love him more then the Japanese. So, because Hollywood is always looking for a recognizable brand name, an American “Godzilla” film had been considered for years. In the early eighties, horror-sequel-workhorse Steve Miner and Film Thoughts favorite Fred Dekker nearly made a 3-D movie with a stop-motion Godzilla. In 1993, after “Jurassic Park” made dinosaurs huge business again, TriStar immediately scooped up the rights to the character. “Speed” director Jan deBont was going to make a film where a Stan Winston-designed Godzilla would have battled a giant griffin. However, deBant’s proposed film cost too much money, loosing him the job. TriStar then handed Godzilla over to Roland Emmerich and Dean Devlin, right off mega-hit “Independence Day,” who got the job because they promised to make the film quickly and cheaply.

The film’s advertisement campaign is probably better remembered today then the actual movie. “Godzilla” was too big to fail. The studio carpet-bombed every city and TV screen with ads. The exhausting ad campaign, boasting “Size Does Matter” and featuring everyone from the Taco Bell dog to the big ball in Time’s Square, made the movie a huge hit. Even the soundtrack, with Puff Daddy warbling over a Led Zeppelin riff and a bloodless Bowie cover, was enormous. Despite making over 400 million worldwide, few people liked the movie, Godzilla fans least of all. Emmerich’s “Godzilla” has long been the whipping boy of the fandom, widely loathed for years. Separated a decade-and-a-half from the original release, now the question can be asked: Does the TriStar “Godzilla" succeed in any way?

Paying homage to the original, the film opens with a Japanese fishing boat being attacked by some huge, reptilian creature. When giant footprints are found in Jamaica, biologist and worm-specialist Nick Tatopoulos is recruited by the military to investigate. Tatopoulos quickly comes to the conclusion that a giant animal, mutated by nuclear testing in French Polynesia, is responsible. Turns out he’s right when the monster, dubbed “Gojira” by the only-surviving Japanese fisherman, rampages through New York City. However, that’s only the beginning as Nick, his estranged reporter girlfriend, and her cameraman sidekick soon discover that Godzilla is pregnant and has picked the Big Apple as the perfect nesting ground for its brood.

For all the things “Godzilla” has been criticized for over the years, nothing is more controversial then its titular monster. After getting one look at the creature, hardcore G-fans dubbed it “GINO:” “Godzilla in Name Only.” It’s not an unfair label. The film’s lean, spindly reptile barely resembles the classic monster. It’s greenish, sure, and has long spines on its back. That’s about it. Instead, the monster looks like an uninspired combination of various dinosaurs. This Godzilla doesn’t charge the military forces head on, instead spending most of the picture fleeing from helicopters. It gobbles piles of tuna, instead of raiding nuclear power plants. He doesn’t breathe atomic fire, a late-film super-burp being a poor substitute. Most damningly, this Godzilla isn’t a sleeping dinosaur mutated by the atom bomb into an unstoppable force of destruction. Instead, he’s a super-sized iguana and swiftly killed by missiles. Not experimental, super-strong missiles. Just regular, mundane missiles. It’s no wonder that fans rejected the monster. Even Toho, years later, would declare the creature unworthy of the title of “Godzilla,” officially dubbing the monster Zilla. As in, not a god, just a big lizard.

So “Godzilla” isn’t much of a Godzilla film. Can the picture be appreciated on its own merits, separate from the Japanese franchise that inspired it? That depends on your tolerance for brain-dead action movies. The defining characteristic of Emmerich and Devlin’s “Godzilla” is its overwhelming dumbness. The script has little respect for the ’54 original’s stark horrors. Instead, the film more-or-less regurgitates the clichés of the disaster movie genre, ignoring everything that made the original special.

American blockbusters are frequently criticized for their ferociously pro-military attitudes, some Hollywood movies playing like feature length recruitment videos. “Godzilla” features the military prominently but could never be mistaken for propaganda. The army in this movie is dumb. Astonishingly, staggeringly dumb. They successfully lure the monster out with a payload of tuna. Their missiles miss the creature, instead destroying the Flatiron Building. Helicopters chase after the fleeing Godzilla, their machine guns tearing through the walls of surrounding buildings. The air force can’t hit the giant monster, their missiles instead hitting the Chrysler building. The destruction of these New York landmarks are shrugged off, the military simply sighing in embarrassment. Yet the biggest indignity belongs to the Navy. Two submarines attempt to corner the monster in the Hudson Bay. Somehow, in a sequence that makes little sense, one sub aims its torpedoes at Godzilla but instead hit another submarine. A multimillion dollar submarine, not to mention countless lives, destroyed by friendly fire. The commanding officers only give it a passing mention.

Ultimately, it seems the military is responsible for more destruction then Godzilla is. For a giant monster, the creature rather skillfully navigates the city. It runs between the buildings, only occasionally scuffing the structures with its head or tail. The movie’s most infamous moment of stupidity comes when Godzilla leaps through the Pam Am building. Despite blowing a huge hole through the building, it continues to stand. Maybe in a pre-9/11 world, audiences were more willing to accept this, that skyscrapers could survive such damage. Seemingly no lives are lost in the destruction, nobody killed. After Godzilla’s first rampage, people are still gathering in diners and businesses. The news reports constantly. Everyone spends more time complaining about the traffic then the actual monster. Godzilla is less a force of nature then a minor inconvenience.

The script’s stupidity isn’t confined to its treatment of the military or the city destruction. Every character is either a thin stereotypes, deeply unlikable, or both. The man in control of the military, Kevin Dunn’s Colonel Hicks, is your typical clueless authority figure. When the heroes realizes Godzilla is pregnant and has already laid eggs somewhere in the city, he ignores them, willfully ignorant of the proof. The city’s mayor, patterned after Roger Ebert in the shallowest of jabs, isn’t concerned about the destruction the monster causes. Instead, he threats constantly about the effect this will have on his reelection campaign. Bafflingly, the film provides much time to Maria Pitillo’s Audrey. Audrey is a struggling reporter, held back by her sexiest, egomaniac boss, another pathetic cliché. When the story should be focusing on the monster’s rampage, it instead turns to Audrey’s struggle for journalistic recognition. In the course of the story, she betrays Nick’s trust, leaking crucial information to the public. Despite proving she can’t be trusted, the hero still falls in love with her, the two ending the film in each other arms. Audrey’s sidekick, Animal, is an incredibly broad New Yawk stereotype. He’s nearly killed by Godzilla but never seems worried, slinging pithy one-liners even when on the edge of death.

The movie’s weakest character work belongs to its treatment of the French. Aware that the French government is partially responsible for the monster’s creation, secret agents are sent to investigate. Though you’d think it would be easier for them to work with the U.S. government, the Frenchmen act in secret. The agents spend a lot of time hanging out in an apartment, watching television and complaining about American coffee. When they finally do something, they pretend to be Americans by chewing gum and talking like Elvis, a deeply stupid joke. Another weak joke is that each of the French soldier’s names is some variation on “Jean.” For an elite squadron of warriors, they are all easily dispatched by Godzilla’s offsprings.

“Godzilla” is also bankrupt on a sub-textually level. America’s nuclear experiments aren’t responsible for Godzilla’s creation. Instead, the blame is shifted to another country. The atomic bomb is repeatedly referenced in the film. Yet the monster’s radioactivity is never treated as problematic. The monster is never compared to the bomb’s massive destructive power. The film has nothing to say about the bomb, warfare, or anything of that nature. This “Godzilla” is simply a facile monster movie, as brainless as its characters.

That’s not even the worse part. “Godzilla” is also a rather poorly constructed screenplay. Audrey is an important character yet never interacts with the rest of the cast until an hour in. It’s only by coincident that she and her cameraman wind up in Madison Square Garden with Nick and the French commandos. That’s sloppy writing. Moreover, the film has an incredibly awkward structure. Godzilla attacks New York City and is downed in the water by the submarines. The focus then shifts to finding the eggs. Nick and the others discover hundreds of eggs inside Madison Square Garden. Despite the eggs hatching around them, none of the characters attempt to flee until much later. Suddenly, “Godzilla” becomes the shrillest “Jurassic Park” rip-off you’ve ever seen. The group is stalked by the newborn mutant iguanas. Their shadows are cast ominously on the walls behind them, blatantly mimicking the raptor attacks in “Park.” For newborns, the baby Zillas are spry, ignoring the piles of fish around them in order to chase the soldiers. After the babies are exploded, the original Godzilla reawakens without explanation, having borrowed under the Garden when no one was looking, I guess. Now “Godzilla” lurches into a belabored third act, the cast trying to escape the pissed-off monster. By constantly shifting its focus, the film leaves the audiences’ unsatisfied and confused.

The cast is problematic though it’s not like they were given much to work with. Matthew Broderick is an astonishingly bland leading man. Like everything else in the movie, he never seems concerned by what’s around him. Even after discovering that the monster is pregnant, making the situation much worse, he has time for banter with Pitillo. Broderick isn’t bad though, simply incredibly uninspired. He’s neither irritating nor exceptional. He’s just… There. Pitillo, who has few notable credits before this and even fewer after, is similarly uninspired. Her character is so unlikable that, even if the actress had an ounce of charisma, I don’t think she could salvage it. Veteran character actors like Jean Reno, Hank Azaria, Michael Lerner, and Harry Shearer each play their thin, stereotypical characters to the best of their abilities. It’s not their fault, Lerner and Shearer sometimes coming dangerously close to being entertaining. The script just gives them so little to work with.

The mood that truly defines this “Godzilla” is boredom. It’s amazing how uninteresting this movie is. With such an uninspired script, the special effects are the only thing keeping it going. Are those at least good? The CGI was, at the time, cutting edge. Even today, they hold up decently. Godzilla looks convincing enough when running through the city. There’s no weight or grit to the design but, by 1998’s standards, it’s not bad. Much worse are the Baby Godzillas. They have to interact directly with the human cast, bringing their fakeness into a harsher light. I’ll give credit where credit is due, however. When practical effects are used, they are perfectly serviceable. Effects supervisor Patrick Tatopulous might not be Stan Winston or Rick Baker but the guy knows his stuff. The designs are uninspired but the puppets and models move realistically.

Even if the destruction is incredibly soft and the script is full of lame jokes, “Godzilla” is still a monster movie. What distracts the most from this tone is David Arnold’s whimsical score. The film’s ambitions are obviously Spielberg-like, owning a massive amount to “Jurassic Park.” Arnold’s score is similarly indebted to John Williams. However, the sweeping, airy themes badly contrasts with scenes of the monster walking through the city. What exactly was the score’s goal? “Godzilla” never feels like an inspiring film full of awe nor was it intended to. The music appears to be written for a different movie.

“Godzilla” isn’t a film in need of a reprisal. It is truly not very good. The film is hackwork of the highest order and accomplishes something even the weakest of the Toho efforts didn’t: It bores me. The greatest legacy of 1998’s “Godzilla” wasn’t a stream of successful sequels, as originally planned. The film inspired a Saturday morning cartoon show that featured a fire-breathing Godzilla that fought other monsters and had better-then-average writing. Yet even that isn’t the best thing to come of this misbegotten blockbuster. Instead, the film inspired new interest in Godzilla. Many of the classic films were reissued on VHS, some available in the U.S. for the first time. As forgettable as this film is, it’s probably responsible for a whole generation of G-Fans. In a strange way, that almost validates the whole noisy, senseless, affair. Almost. [Grade: D+]

Monday, April 21, 2014

Series Report Card: Godzilla (1995)

22. Godzilla vs. Destoroyah
Gojira tai Desutoroia / Godzilla vs. Destroyah

By 1995, the Heisei Godzilla series was beginning to run out of steam. Simultaneously, TriStar Pictures was well into development on a cutting edge, American made Godzilla. Aware of the lesser quality of the last two films and fully expecting the American Godzilla movie to spawn a franchise of its own, Toho made a decision. Godzilla would die. The long running series was being brought to a seemingly permanent end. Fully aware that this was the end of an era, the death of an icon, the studio pulled out all the stops. The 22nd and intended final film, “Godzilla vs. Destoroyah,” had the King of the Monsters facing off against a terrible new enemy and facing an even greater struggle: His own mortality.

Birth Island, where Godzilla and his son have made their home for the last few years, goes up in a volcanic explosion. Absorbing massive energy from the blast, Godzilla’s heart, a natural nuclear reactor, begins to overheat. His eyes glow red, his skin burns like molten lava, and his power reaches unheard of new levels. With the help of the college-age grandson of the original film’s Dr. Yamane, G-Force realizes Godzilla is facing nuclear meltdown. When he reaches his maximum point, the King of the Monsters will explode, taking most of the planet with him. Meanwhile, the scientist Kensaku Ijuin has developed “micro-oxygen,” super-charged oxygen atoms. The doctor believes this is a miracle substance that could save the world but others worry it could be a dangerous new weapon. Those fears come true when microscopic organisms, surviving from the Precambrian period, interact with the micro-oxygen, birthing Destoroyah, a massive, extremely powerful new monster. Godzilla, on the brink of nuclear meltdown, along with the maturing Godzilla Junior, battle this new threat. The Japanese government hopes the monsters will destroy one another, preventing the end of the world.

Well aware of its status as the “final” Godzilla movie, “Godzilla vs. Destoroyah” treats its hero with a renewed mythic status. The film opens with a scenic pan of Hong Kong before the peaceful night is interrupted by the monster’s reappearance. A normal night flight halts when Godzilla attacks the plane at take-off. Godzilla’s smoldering skin is, at first, unexplained, adding to the shock. He tears through Hong Kong, exploding several buildings off the bay with his supercharged atomic breath. This opening scene establishes two very important factors. There’s something wrong with Godzilla, he’s incredibly pissed off about it, and that’s making him more powerful then ever before.

The film also goes out of its way to establish a connection with the very first film. Like that original, the opening credits are preceded by the Godzilla’s name, in bold Japanese kanji, filling up the scream, accompanied by the monster’s unforgettable roar. Momoko Kochi, in her final film role, returns as the now-elderly Emiko Yamane, still haunted by Godzilla’s original rampage and Dr. Serizawa’s sacrifice. Her father, Dr. Yamane, was such an important part of that film and is repeatedly referenced here. His grandchildren, Kenichi and Yukari, are several of the main characters. Kenichi, despite just being a college student, might be the most knowledgeable Godzilla expert in the world. His sister, Yukari, is a famous television reporter and motivates part of the plot.

The film very well could have been called “The Death of Godzilla.” Officially dubbed Burning Godzilla, the new design in this film is very effective. The red hot sores on his skin make it apparent how sick he is. His destruction is the most fierce it’s been in a long time. The movie makes it apparent very early on that if Godzilla meltdowns, the resulting explosion would devastate the planet. The movie doesn’t back down from showing what this would look like, all of Tokyo bursting into flames with the monster. When the Japanese military invest in some freezing technology, the film is given a brief hope spot. Godzilla is frozen before consuming a nuclear power planet. However, it doesn’t take him long to thaw out. His temperature continues to rise. Godzilla is going to melt down and there’s no way around it.

Instead of rehashing another old monster, Toho decided Godzilla’s final opponent would be an original creation. Destoroyah, always referred to as “Destroyer” in the film, is directly connected with the original as well. The monster has its origin in ancient soil mutated by Serizawa’s Oxygen Destroyer. Its evolution is further aided by the micro-oxygen, the modern day equivalent of the fifties’ super weapon. Having Godzilla fight the physical off-spring of the only weapon to kill him sounds gimmicky on paper. It almost makes Destoroyah sound heroic. The monster is anything but. His power is devastating, able to liquefy humans with a single burst. In his final form, he stands taller then Godzilla, his appearance demonic and grotesque. Since he’s made from an amalgam of microscopic organism, he’s very difficult to kill. There’s something symbolic about the monsters’ fight. Godzilla is the son of the atomic bomb while Destoroyah sprang from the next terrible super-weapon. That the two monsters are battling for the fate of the world is appropriate.

It’s a good thing that Destoroyah is a captivating threat. He takes up a lot of screen time. The Oxygen Destroyer’s effect is shown in graphic detail when an aquarium full of fish dissolves on-screen. Destroyah first appears as a ten-foot tall crab-like creature, with a rust-red armor, a crowned head and multiple spindly, crawling legs. Multiple versions of the monsters infest a power plant, forcing the military to go in. A solid amount of time is devoted to the soldiers fighting off the monsters. This portion of the film blatantly recalls “Aliens.” The military force is quickly overwhelmed by the monsters as they burst through the walls and drop through the ceilings. It’s hard to tell if the movie is intentionally referencing James Cameron’s classic or simply ripping it off. The men battle the monsters with flamethrowers. Most damningly, this first form of Destroyer has a second, snapping jaw that extends out of its mouth. Despite the derivative moments, this portion of the film remains effective. The military men have huge holes blown through their chest by the monster’s energy beams. A moment where Yukari is trapped in a car by one of the beast, it tearing at the metal, actually generates some decent suspense.

“Godzilla vs. Destoroyah” in addition to being the final film of the Heisei era, also finishes up a storyline that has been running through the last two films. Godzilla’s son comes of age. Last seen as the overly cute Little Godzilla, the juvenile monster has grown into Godzilla Junior. The teenage kaiju lumbers on-screen looking like a leaner, shorter version of his dad. While Godzilla Senior is on-ice, it’s up to Junior to battle the still evolving Destoroyah. How evil the enemy monster is established when he pins the smaller Godzilla and jabs its extending jaws into the kaiju’s flesh. Blood flies from the wound, a gory effect, and foam bubbles from Junior’s mouth. The younger monster comes out on top though, blasting off Destoroyah’s claws and dropping him, burning, into a building.

However, the film’s villain is far from done. Soon enough, he reemerges in his final form. The mature Destoroyah is a truly intimidating figure. He’s massive, taller and bulkier then Godzilla. His head is decorated with a massive horn, his jaws opening to reveal multiple rows of teeth. His whole body is covered with protruding spikes and horns. His wings are huge and bat-like, lending a truly demonic appearance. My favorite element of Destoroyah is his tail, which ends with a squeezing pincher. The monster can even generate light-saber-like energy slashes from his head horn. The Heisei era featured some fine creature designs but Destroyah is by far my favorite. The crew set out to create Godzilla’s most powerful enemy and I think they succeeded.

“Godzilla vs. Destroyah” generates genuine empathy for its monsters. Godzilla, still ablaze, bordering on meltdown, meets with his son near an airport. Destroyah swoops down, grabbing Junior, lifting him into the air. He drops the smaller monster onto a building, spraying with micro-oxygen blasts. The young monster blinks, his breathing labored. Miki Saegusa, who had watched the little monster grow up and formed a special bond with him, watches him die. The viewer has watched him grow up too. Godzilla approaches his foster son, attempting to breathe some atomic life into him, failing. For a series about giant monster stomping cities and beating the crap out of each other, moments like this resonate on a surprising emotional level.

For its final fight, the stakes have been raised. Now Godzilla’s fight with Destroyah is personal. Maybe it’s suit actors Kenpachiro Satsuma’s performance, maybe this viewer is projecting. Whatever the reason, Godzilla seems especially pissed-off during the final battle. Destroyah grabs him by the neck, dragging him across the city. He slices huge gashes into the Kaiju King’s skin with his horn. Godzilla blasts him with a massive energy wave, chunks blown off the villain’s chest, yellow blood pouring from his mouth. Two of the film’s most memorable moments come from this battle. Destoroyah is seemingly destroyed before a swarm of smaller monsters crawl over Godzilla, forcing the burning monster king to fight them off again. Godzilla burns so hotly, his back spines begin to melt. The fight is fearsome enough that the audience honestly isn’t disappointed that Godzilla doesn’t deliver the killing blow to Destoroyah. The military freezes the monsters with their experimental weapons, the villain shattering apart on the ground.

Originally, Godzilla was to defeat Destroyah when he reached melt-down, taking his enemy with him. However, Toho decided that would distract from Godzilla’s death scene. I believe this was the right decision. Inevitably, Godzilla’s core reaches its breaking point. Even in his dying moments, the King of the Monsters can’t get any rest. As he expires, the military pelts him with freezing rays, attempting to control the meltdown. It doesn’t work. Godzilla’s skin bubbles and flakes, melting off his bones. Akira Ifukube’s score plays out a mournful requiem as the greatest kaiju of all time dies. Humanity looks on bleakly, the end of their world imminent. One character rightfully blames mankind for their own destruction, bringing the series’ moral full-circle.

The final minutes of the film aren’t blankly explained. The radiation levels mysteriously drop, Armageddon held off at the last minute. Out of the smoke emerges a new Godzilla. Silhouetted against the burning ashes, he roars triumphantly. With repeated viewings, I’ve come to realize what’s happening. Godzilla Junior absorbs the radiation from his dying father, reborn as a mature Godzilla, inadvertently saving the world. However, on first viewing, I took this last scene as strictly metaphorical. Before the credits roll, scenes from Godzilla’s forty year history rolls, the immortal Ifukube theme playing over them. Godzilla may die but his legacy is immortal.

Long time fans will find a lot to love about the film. Yet I take issue with one aspect. The script is slightly muddled. The screen-time between the three monsters isn’t evenly distributed. The biggest problem is that there is no clear human protagonist. Yukari Yahame seems to be an important character early on but, after Destoroyah grows to giant size, mostly disappears from film. Her brother Kenichi gets more screen time but spends most of the film furrowing his brow at computer monitors. Takuro Tatsumi gets top billing as Dr. Ijuin. The character is important plot-wise as the inadvertent creator of Destoroyah. However, he too vanishes before the story’s end. The pilot of Super-X3, Major Sho Kuroki, is the most blatantly heroic of the cast, piloting the cool plane and saving the day. Yet he doesn’t have much development in the film’s quieter moment. Miki and less likable new telepath Meru get the most screen time but mostly spend the story panicking, nearly stepped on by the warring monsters. Maybe this was intentional and Godzilla himself is meant to be the main character. The lack of character focus is the sole major flaw in an otherwise effective, serious film.

“Godzilla vs. Destroyah” is one of the best of the Heisei era, shot dramatically by director Takao Okawara, featuring an excellent Akira Ifukube score, notably his last, with excellent special effects. Even back in 1995, I don’t know if fans seriously believed Godzilla was gone forever. However, the film acts as if he is, granting one of the greatest monsters of cinema a fittingly epic and surprisingly emotional send-off. [Grade: A-]

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Series Report Card: Godzilla (1994)

21. Godzilla vs. SpaceGodzilla
Gojira tai SupesuGojira

For the twenty-first film in the Godzilla series, Toho brought in a new creative team. Kensho Yamashita, who had previously done second-unit work on “Terror of MechaGodzilla,” was directing only his third film. It was screenwriter Hiroshi Kashiwabara’s first crack at a Godzilla movie while it was the first credit in general of co-writer Kanji Kashiwa. Tellingly, Yamashita and Kashiwa would never work on another film. “Godzilla vs. SpaceGodzilla” is widely considered the worst of the Heisei era and showed that the new wave of Godzilla films was already running out of steam.

On Earth, the UNGCC continues to pursue methods to stop Godzilla. After years of trying unsuccessfully to destroy Godzilla, the scientists hit on a new method. Using an implant shot into his skin and telepathic waves, they seek to control Godzilla. If this doesn’t work, the military has another huge-ass robot waiting in the wings: Moguera, a heavily-armed, drill-nosed machine that can split into two separate vehicles. Miki and the Lieutenants, Koji and Kiyoshi, attempt to hit the giant kaiju with the sub-dermal implant. Major Akira Yuki, on the other hand, wants to destroy the monster, to avenge the death of his friend. Most of these subplots are interrupted when Space Godzilla; a massive, crystal-covered, psychically-powered, clone of Godzilla; drops out of the sky. The evil double kidnaps the growing Little Godzilla, pissing of his adoptive dad, and sets about destroying the Earth.

“Godzilla vs. SpaceGodzilla” suffers from a seriously unfocused script. Compared to the effective A-to-B plot designs of the last few films, the movie feels like a collection of different ideas were tossed together. The central threat of SpaceGodzilla is completely unrelated to the rest of the film’s stories. His appearance has no connection to the other plot threads. You’d expect Project T, the plan to telepathically control Godzilla, to factor into the fight. It doesn’t. You’d expect Major Yuki’s personal grudge against Godzilla to affect the finale. Not really. Little Godzilla is imperiled early on, setting up the battle between the two Godzillas. Yet the immature monster doesn’t appear again until after the fight is over. There is a three-way battle between Moguera and the mutant dinosaurs but that’s the only storyline the movie resolves in a satisfying way.

Those are only the subplots that actually get developed. “Godzilla vs. SpaceGodzilla” has even more on its plate. Out of nowhere, after Project T is determined to be a failure, the Yakuza kidnaps Miki. The film’s heroes, Koji and Kiyoshi, rush in to save her, the movie making time for a gun fight. During the battle, Miki lifts a bed in the air with her mind, a power she has never mentioned before or since. The movie attempts to throw Miki and Koji together into a romance. Their romance takes up two whole scenes, one unceremoniously dropped into the middle of the movie without prior foreshadowing, and another stuck on at the very end. I’m glad the movie pushed Miki to the front of the plot but I’m disappointed that a previously strong heroine is mostly a damsel-in-distress here.

The movie probably should have focused on one of these plots instead of throwing all of them into one movie. For example, Major Yuki's revenge against Godzilla would have made a fine basis for a film. The dead friend is actually Lieutenant Gondo, the badass who shot a bazooka right into Godzilla’s face in “Godzilla vs. Biollante.” His personal vendetta is egged on by Gondo’s previously unmentioned sister, another underdeveloped character. He’s been living on Birth Island with the monsters, planning to shoot Godzilla with a blood coagulant. His first attempt, shooting the giant monster with tiny bullets from a small gun, fails. He doesn’t try again. Once in the pilot seat of Moguera, he goes off-course to fire at the good monster, the one currently defending the world from his evil clone. His co-pilots tie him up after this but untie him only a few minutes later. After the dust clears, Yuki completely changes his mind about Godzilla for no reason. Perhaps if the film didn’t have seven other storylines going, this change could have been paid more attention. In an already overstuffed film, it’s another subplot competing for screen time.

Then there’s the business of SpaceGodzilla. Godzilla’s fought some pretty ridiculous threats over the years, from upright cockroaches to giant flowers. It’s not the titular threats’ premise that makes him ridiculous. There’s already one evil Godzilla clone running around. Instead, it’s the monster’s origin. Godzilla cells carried into space by Biollante and Mothra pass through a black hole. Somehow, this trip causes the cells to mutate into a giant, evil Godzilla. For some other reason, the cells fused with a crystal organism, causing the finished monster to sprout huge crystals all over its body. For yet another reason, SpaceGodzilla feels compelled to head to Earth, planning to destroy his genetic father and the planet he’s on. Why? Because he’s evil, dude. To make things even more contrived, SpaceGodzilla also has psychic powers, levitating Godzilla into the air.

The real reason, I suspect, SpaceGodzilla was given telekinesis is because the creature’s design gave him tiny, neutered arms and massive, unmovable shoulders. There was no way that suit could believably wrestle with Godzilla, much less toss him through the air. The SpaceGodzilla suit represents the Heisei era’s worse tendencies. He’s freakishly muscled and over-designed. A list of his features: Huge crystals on his shoulders, a horn on his head, tusk at his mouth, a spiked tail, giant star-shaped spines down his back. To top it off, the monster is colored blueberry and burgundy. His superpowers include generating crystals from the ground, launching said crystals like missiles, flight, shooting beams from his mouth and spikes, and the infamous, rarely used telekinesis. SpaceGodzilla is to Godzilla as Venom is to Spider-Man, a beefed-up, overpowered, overrated, evil version of the hero.

The film’s second monster is another awkward design. Like MechaGodzilla, Moguera is an update of an older character. The alien-made giant mecha from “The Mysterians” has become a human-built robotic tank. Like 1993’s MechaGodzilla, Moguera seems designed as a toy first and a workable special effect second. The robot splits into two separate vehicles, a drill-tipped tank and a flying space craft. Moguera’s movement is awkward, the mech more frequently rolling around on treads. Despite being an update, Moguera seems less heavily armed then his predecessor. He’s got laser eyes, a laser cannon in his chest, and drill missiles in his arms. His only melee weapon is the giant drill on the tip of his nose. That isn’t especially useful, as the heroes find out when they try to attack with it. When separate, neither vehicle works very well. Both seem like smaller components of a larger machine which, of course, they are.

None of the film’s original kaiju are well regarded but a lot of scorn has been reserved for Little Godzilla, the evolution of the last film’s Baby. Here my opinion departs from the masses. I actually kind of like Little Godzilla. He’s designed for maximum cuteness, with big anime eyes, shrimp-y little arms, and a chubby belly. Yet I can’t help but like the little guy. He’s curious about everything around him, from the humans to the evil space monster, an instinct that gets him in trouble. When SpaceGodzilla snatched the smaller monster off the ground, I actually worry about him. When he’s returned to safety, he sneezes out a little nuclear breath, Minilla-style. Mostly, I wish the film paid more attention to Little Godzilla’s relationship to his foster dad. I think the two monsters have one scene together despite his disappearance being an important plot point.

The movie’s special effects are also inconsistent. The monster suits, over designed though they might be, work fairly well. SpaceGodzilla’s exposed jaw muscles are about the only thing I like about the design. There’s some fun effects during the final fight, Godzilla psychic-smashed through a building or Moguera exploding the villain’s shoulder crystals. Despite being in hero mode for most of the film, Godzilla still tears through a building upon arriving in Fukuoka City. It’s not very visually appealing but SpaceGodzilla reducing the city to a collection of giant crystal spires is certainly a memorable image.

Yet some of the film’s effects are unforgivable shoddy. When flying, SpaceGodzilla grows a giant cluster of crystals from his back, an odd, ungainly looking design. His crystal spires being fired like missiles is fairly cheesy looking. SpaceGodzilla attack on a NASA space station is unconvincing, actors clearly working in front of a green screen. Miki is visited by the Cosmos and Fairy Mothra, both of which are brought to life through unconvincing puppets and digital effects. Most infamously, Moguera and SpaceGodzilla fight in space. The two kaiju fly about an asteroid field. Giant plastic rocks float among a pitch black space. The cables holding both models up are visible while the asteroids are deeply fake looking. This scene also opens a plot hole. SpaceGodzilla is already established, by this point, as being in Earth’s orbit. Why is he suddenly in an asteroid belt? How can Moguera fly from Earth to the asteroid belt within a day, much less when damaged?

“Godzilla vs. SpaceGodzilla” is strangely maudlin in its pacing. The final battle seems to drag, the tinny, self-serious score drudging along. The fates of the various pilots are focused on, each one in mortal danger. While cutting between the human drama and the monster fight has been successful in the past, it only hinders the pacing this time. The scenes of city destruction lack any sense of fun, coming across as strangely depressing. The film generally makes me miss the days when an American distributor would have tightened the pacing up by shortening and shifting scenes.

For all these reasons and more, the film is not well regarded by G-fans today. “Godzilla vs. SpaceGodzilla” continued the Heisei era’s success at the box office but is not looked back upon fondly. Though not without its moments, the movie is a low point of the nineties series and brought the franchise’s current winning streak to a sudden end.  
[Grade: C]

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Series Report Card: Godzilla (1993)

20. Godzilla vs. MechaGodzilla II
Gojira tai Mekagojira / Godzilla vs. MechaGodzilla

After the massive success of “Godzilla vs. Mothra,” it was only natural for Toho to continue to revive Godzilla’s classic foes. The simply titled “Godzilla vs. MechaGodzilla,” which gained a roman numeral two when dubbed for American audiences, brings back the most memorable of Godzilla’s enemies from the late Showa period. The ticket sales of the previous entry must have embolden Toho though since the movie is even more ambitious then that. The film also resurrects another long-time adversary, the legendary Rodan. It even manages to update one of the most widely revived characters in the series for more modern sensibilities. Out of the gates anyway, “Godzilla vs. MechaGodzilla II” seems like it will be a great time.

The script starts with the rather realistic assumption that, if giant monsters were burning Tokyo to the ground on a regular basis, the United Nations would want to get involved. In 1992, the world’s governments form a scientific, military organization designed to stop Godzilla once and for all. Two years later, they reveal the fruits of their labors. The first, a giant airship called the Garuda, is mostly sidelined in favor of UNGCC’s second advancement: The titular MechaGodzilla, a life-sized robotic copy of Godzilla. Meanwhile, a scientific team investigates polluted Adonoa Island. There they discover Rodan, a giant pterosaur that quickly comes into conflict with Godzilla. They also find an egg which quickly hatches to reveal a baby Godzilla. Resident telepath Miki and the creature’s caretaker Azusa quickly realize Baby shares a psychic connection with both greater monsters. The military devises a plot to lure Godzilla out using the infant critter so MechaGodzilla can exterminate the King of the Monsters.

The screenplay for “Godzilla vs. MechaGodzilla II” is far more focused then “Godzilla and Mothra: The Battle for Earth.” The script manages to organically weave four different kaiju into one story. The scientists who have built MechaGodzilla are obviously interested in other giant monster activity, which is why they find Rodan and Baby Godzilla. Rodan and Baby are connected, both being born in the same nest. And the infant dinosaur is clearly connected with Godzilla, giving him a good reason to march on Japan. The young reptile is utilized to lure both monsters out and the scientists studying his anatomy reveals Godzilla’s weakness. Furthermore, Rodan shows up to neatly resolve a plot line later in the movie. MechaGodzilla is actually the least important of the film’s daikaiju, not motivating the plot, simply being a weapon used in it.

Among all the monster action, the movie even makes room for some fairly compelling human drama. Kazuma Aoki, played by Masahiro Takashima, is set up as the film’s hero. He’s a pterodactyl obsessed pilot and inventor. When his Garuda battle ship is sidelined in favor of MechaGodzilla, he keenly manipulates one of the project scientists. It’s his ingenuity that saves the day, temporarily anyway, when he combines the Garuda with MechaGodzilla, making both more powerful. When not building weapons of mass destruction, he builds cute little air-gliders shaped like pterodactyls. Aoki might be the film’s hero, and Takashima imbues him with enough charm, but he’s not its most charming character.

That honor falls to Azusa Gojo, played by the lovely Ryoko Sano. Azusa is put in charge of taking care of Baby Godzilla. The little monster quickly adopts the woman as its mother. She talks to him, pets him, shares her fast food burgers with him, and even plays game with him. This charming subplot nicely occupies the film’s battle-free middle section. I don’t know about all the other Godzilla fans out there, but I’ve always wanted to have my very own kaiju as a pet. For fans with similar wishes, this subplot is bound to tuck at their heartstrings. It helps that the movie never forgets that cute little Baby is going to grow up into a city wrecking monster, frequently referencing the fact. When the two are forced to separate at the end, both shedding tears, it should probably be ridiculous. Yet the viewer has invested in Azusa and Baby enough that the scene truly gets to them. The movie even finds a bigger role for Miki Saegusa, putting the underutilized and always interesting character in MechaGodzilla’s cockpit.

Considering all these factors in its favor, you’d think I’d like “Godzilla vs. MechaGodzilla II’ more. The film has one major problem. The audience doesn’t know who to root for. Godzilla is a destructive force of nature that has claimed thousands of lives and bound to claim a thousand more. However, the scientists behind MechaGodzilla are far from sympathetic. They set about dispatching Godzilla, using the innocent Baby as bait, much to Azusa’s chagrin. When MechaGodzilla finally deploys his Godzilla-killing secret weapon, it’s not a heroic triumphant. The King of the Monster is cruelly defeated, held down, paralyzed, bombarded with lasers and missiles. Even if the Heisei Godzilla is a city-wrecking asshole, the audience still likes the guy. Even the film is uncertain about who to like. While Godzilla is in his death throes, Miki watches, doubting her actions. The only truly sympathetic characters are Asuza and Baby Godzilla, both of whom are pushed around by the plot’s whims.

Another problem facing the film is that this new version of MechaGodzilla is not horribly engaging. The Showa MechaGodzilla had a rough design, fitted out with rivets and steel plates. It looked like the result of a seven year old asked to draw a robot Godzilla. And I mean that as a compliment. The Heisei MechaGodzilla, on the other hand, is all smooth surfaces. His joints are rounded and his limbs are perfectly symmetrical. The posture is too upright, too human-like for my taste. The robot looks too much like a ready-made toy. This is further confounded when it combines with the Garuda, something straight out of a mecha anime. The original MechaGodzilla was built by aliens, an artificial intelligence designed to conquer Earth. This MechaGodzilla is a machine built by humans to save the world. It’s less a character then it is a vehicle. All of this is perfectly logical and the machine being reverse-engineered from the remains of Mecha-King Ghidroah is a nice touch. However, the script wound up creating a rival to Godzilla that totally lacks any personality.

The film’s revival of Rodan is far more successful. Though obviously an iconic monster on nearly equal footing with Godzilla, Rodan always has an awkward, borderline comical design. Effects supervisor Koichi Kawakita has completely streamlined the monster’s design. Rodan looks far more like a realistic pterosaur then ever before. The head, in particular, is fantastically realized. The monster’s thin neck, long beak, and wide eyes not only looks better then the squat-nosed Rodan of the sixties but it’s also far more memorable. The flying monster moves realistically too, soaring through the air in a logical fashion. Via a late film upgrade, Rodan even gains a long-overdue projectile weapon. Like Godzilla, the winged beast can now breathe fire. Though one of the more radical Heisei redesigns, it’s also one of the best.

The movie also successfully reclaims the concept of Godzilla having offspring. Or, at least, raising a young member of the same species. Minilla has been widely derided over the years for being far too goofy a character. The movie, smartly, doesn’t try to emulate the original design. Baby Godzilla is far more plausible, looking largely like what you’d expect a baby Godzilla to look like. He’s cute without being coying and his antics are never as ridiculously overdone as Minilla throwing a temper tantrum. Realistically, the human-sized dinosaur is frightened by Godzilla when they first meet. It takes some psychic prodding from Miki to make the two friendly. Fans at the time were probably skeptical of the movies reestablishing the Son of Godzilla but the film pulls it off.

The battles between the kaiju are massively entertaining. The early battle between Godzilla and Rodan is a highlight. It’s great to see some of the monster’s trademark moves maintained. Rodan holds Godzilla down, pecking at his head. Because this is the supped-up nineties, Rodan’s beak makes sparks when striking Godzilla’s head. The tussle on the island is mostly done in close-up, the two monsters tossing each other in to mountains and burying one another under rocks. Godzilla’s march through the ocean-side refinery features some nice explosions and building smashing. Rodan’s famous move of exploding objects by flying over them at supersonic speeds shows up too. The pterosaur destroying a helicopter and then catching the crate it was carry in its claws sure seems like an unlikely event but I liked it anyway. The flying kaiju’s last minute battle with MechaGodzilla is a good time too. I especially like when Rodan is thrown back into a building, collapsing the skyscraper. That’s a good moment.

MechaGodzilla’s arsenal is certainly impressive even if further robs the monster of any humanity. It can shoot a rainbow-colored laser from its mouth, a special electro-beam from a hole in its chest, missiles from its shoulders, and electrified grappling cords from its wrists. In the first battle between the Godzillas, the robotic copy seems to gain the upper hand at first. At least until the original makes a surprising come-back. Since the new MechaGodzilla is so soulless, the audience really wants to see Godzilla defeat him. When that defeat comes, it’s epically satisfying. Godzilla melts the robotic copy’s armor by generating a nuclear atmosphere and then blows him away with one super-charged atomic blast.

The last act is depended upon a series of unlikely events. The cries of Baby Godzilla calls Rodan to the city, which seems reasonable enough. However, the flyer doesn’t stand much of a chance against the heavily armed robot. Earlier in the film, we discover that Godzilla has a second brain at the base of his spine, similar to a long debunked theory concerning the dinosaurs. (Though considering Godzilla is far bigger then any dinosaur ever was, perhaps it makes more since) The secret to defeating the monster lies in targeting this second brain. This is exactly what MechaGodzilla does, blowing up the secondary brain and crippling Godzilla. After a series of missile barrages, the UNGCC successfully kills Godzilla. That would have made for a downer ending, at least until Rodan flies in, drops down on the Big G and, with his dying breath, gifts Godzilla with his nuclear energy. The monster is revived and proceeds to kick some major ass. Is this contrived screenwriting? Most definitely. Is it also a fairly daft way to handle the movie’s various subplots? I’d say so.

Akira Ifukube’s score is typically powerful. The original Rodan theme gains a fresh coat of paint while MechaGodzilla’s new heroic theme works very well. Takao Okawara’s direction is a bit on the somber side but nevertheless effective. The film attempts a theme of “nature vs. technology” but very little in the actual story supports this. While there’s a lot to like about “Godzilla vs. MechaGodzilla II,” a soulless opponent and uncertain screenplay keeps it from reaching the heights of the previous three entries. [Grade: B-]

Bangers n' Mash 38: Witches

If it wasn't immediately apparent, my podcast co-host, Mr. Mash aka JD, is a dear friend of mine. I can honestly say he's my best friend, probably. The two of us have a lot in common and our mutual love of horror and comic books has given us enough material for 38 episodes of the Bangers n' Mash Show. (And will certainly provide enough material for many more.)

However, it's fair to say I'm a much more serious film fan then JD is. There are many genres I've explored that my co-host wouldn't be willing to. Silent cinema, for one. Foreign language films for another. I've tried to make in-roads but haven't had much success. It's frustrating. Living in the part of the country I do, (Here's a hint: It's rural.) I wish I had more friends interested in the same weird shit I like. Anyway, one of the topics I've been trying to break to Mr. Mash without much luck is Italian horror. I know it's not for everyone but I continue to believe that, if he gave the sub-genre a try, he would find some things he'd like.

For a while now, Mr. Mash has been wanting to do an episode about witches. It's a personal fetish of his. I don't mind using that word "fetish" because the attraction is pretty blatantly sexual for him. I can say this because I'm fairly certain no one will read this. JD has got a serious thing for chicks with special powers, whether they be supernatural or psychic in nature. Thus his life-long crush on Jean Grey and Willow from "Buffy." Feel free to read into that all you want.

Anyway, I was resistant to this for a while simply because I didn't think there were truly that many witch movies worth discussing. However, after thinking on it a bit I realized I could use this as his gateway into Italian horror. Dario Argento's Three Mothers trilogy feature, of course, a brood of evil witches as their antagonists. "Suspiria" also happens to be one of the most highly regarded Italian horror films of all time, if not the highest regarded. The experiment was, well... Not hugely successful but I think I have piqued his curiosity a little. Maybe we'll try some Fulci or Bava in the future? Maybe.

As for the episode itself, it's not our best effort. My brain was a bit scattered on the day we recorded and a lot of editing was required to cover up my stuttering and tripping. Secondly, I made the mistake of discussing several films my co-host hadn't seen in succession. I don't know what our tiny fanbase thinks but listening to myself drone on isn't the easiest or most entertaining thing to edit. It certainly took a lot of energy out of the show. That's also the reason why this took so long to get out. (Though the first episode coming out late in the month and me then rushing out the next episode is more or less standard protocol around here.) We'll do better next time. Probably.

Anyway, I'll put up another Godzilla review in a few hours so feel free to ignore this if you aren't a listener.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Series Report Card: Godzilla (1992)

19. Godzilla and Mothra: The Battle for Earth
Gojira tai Mosura / Godzilla vs. Mothra

After the success of “Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah,” the Japanese public had made it clear that what they wanted to see was the pumped-up nineties version of Godzilla battling his classic foes. Following that logic, Toho decided that Godzilla would next fight his most common supporting member, the mighty Mothra. The script would raise the stakes even further by introducing, essentially, Mothra’s evil twin. This proved a very smart decision for the studio. “Godzilla vs. Mothra,” released direct-to-video in America under the less-generic title of “Godzilla and Mothra: The Battle for Earth,” became the highest grossing Japanese film of the year and, unadjusted for inflation, the most successful of any of the Godzilla films. It holds strong nostalgic value for me, another favorite I watched over and over again on video back.

The story starts large, with a meteor falling to Earth, reawakening Godzilla. The event has an immediate effect on the Earth’s environment, causing a typhoon that washes up a massive egg. The story then goes small again, focusing on would-be Indiana Jones, Takuya Fujita. When his treasure hunting gets him locked up, Fujita is recruited by the government, along with his ex-wife Masako and a representative for a massive corporation. Exploring Infant Island, the trio discovers the giant egg, along with an ancient temple and a pair of tiny women. The fairies, referring to themselves as the Cosmos, explain the story of an ancient civilization, their protector Mothra, and the embodiment of the Earth’s rage, Battra. Right on cue, Battra and Mothra reemerge, coming into conflict with the newly rampaging Godzilla. The three monsters battle throughout Japan, while the greedy corporation attempts to buy the fairies and Takuya attempts to reconcile with Masako and their daughter.

“Godzilla and Mothra” doesn’t have the smooth screenplay construction that “Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah” had. Most of the events in the story just seem to happen without much correlation. The meteor just happens to crash right next to Godzilla, waking him. The environmental upheaval seems only partially related to the monsters. Battra reappears mostly because the script calls on him too. After having a wrestling match with Godzilla under the sea, both monsters are swallowed by the Earth, not reappearing until the second half. The middle section of the movie is suddenly devoted to Mothra’s own march through Tokyo. As Mothra is about to emerge from her cocoon, Godzilla and Battra both reappear. Battra changes form too, seemingly because its rival does so. In the last act, the different plots finally converge, the two flying monsters teaming up against the destructive Monster King. The movie attempts to tie together the subplots in a natural way but not smoothly.

As “Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah” added wilder sci-fi elements to the Heisei era, “Godzilla vs. Mothra” introduces heavier fantasy elements. The last film gave Godzilla a long overdue origin story. This film does the same for Mothra. The butterfly goddess is introduced as the creation of an alien society that colonized Earth millennia ago. The Shobijin are now known as the Cosmos, the last of their kind and the sole residents of Infant Island. The movie also subscribe to the Gaia belief, that Earth is alive and pissed-off. That rage manifests in another giant monster, Battra, a dark mirror to the kinder, gentler Mothra. Considering the Godzilla-verse has always mixed together a number of divergent sci-fi, horror, and fantasy elements, the Heisei era moving into similar territory is welcomed. The movie doesn’t feature many of the campier effects of the previous film while still managing to keep most of the fun.

The film references several of Toho’s past kaiju flicks. The giant caterpillar’s egg is transported to Japan on a raft pulled behind a ship, recalling both “King Kong vs. Godzilla” and the original “Mothra.” The movie is actually a quasi-remake of “Mothra vs. Godzilla.” A wickedly capitalistic corporation kidnaps Mothra’s fairies, determined to use them as advertising mascots. The human protagonists plead with the fairies’ captives, begging them to return the girls. However, the greedy businessmen refuse. The big bug’s rampage through Japan is motivated by this human greed and, once reunited with her emissaries, the kaiju relaxes and retreats. Tokyo Tower is destroyed by Battra earlier in the film, forcing Mothra to cocoon herself against the Diet building instead. Unlike the broad commercial satire of “Mothra vs. Godzilla,” this subplot winds up having little to do with the rest of the film and is forgotten before the end.

Even if the script was hastily assembled, “Godzilla and Mothra: The Battle for Earth” certainly delivers on the monsters. Godzilla is once again given a minor redesign, the suit slightly sleeker while still being uber-beefy. As with King Ghidorah, Toho’s effects masters knew not to mess around with Mothra’ iconic design too much. In larva form, the caterpillar gains a slightly flatter face and some distinctive tasks. As a butterfly, Mothra is far fluffier then ever before, special attention being paid to her massive wings. The design pushes up against cute while still seeming possible.

Battra, the movie’s primary contribution to the Godzilla universe, is a memorable creature. The creature is, essential, the death metal version of Mothra. Its larva form is topped off with a massive horn that, naturally, shoots lightening bolts. The monster is covered with spikes actually, spikes for legs and spikes on the end of its tail. The dark design is codified with its huge red eyes and black skin. I’m a big fan of Battra’s larva form and actually prefer it to the final form. The red and black wings are jagged and tattered, its legs long and covered with spurs. The head is topped off with a crown of spikes and a pincher-like mouth. Mothra’s evil twin, on paper, sounds like an idea out of fan fiction. The movie pulls it off though, making the monster a memorable and creditable threat.

The movie is probably the most action packed of the Heisei era, up to this point. The city destruction scenes are filled with explosions. Battra honestly gives Tokyo one of its most thorough trashing since maybe the original “Gojira.” Lots of buildings explode as the evil caterpillar blasts buildings with his laser beams. As Godzilla emerges from the ocean, Mothra immediately hatches from her egg, seemingly sensing the other monster. In another amusing callback, the larva bites Godzilla’s tail, the Monster King thrashing around in aggravation. The underwater battle with Battra features the film’s wildest moments, like when Godzilla slams his opponent into the ocean floor repeatedly by the tail. Despite being an angelic figure, Mothra still wreaks some carnage of her own, plowing through buildings, tank rounds bouncing off its skin.

The movie saves the best for last. The action set piece is the three-way battle royale between Godzilla, Mothra, and Battra. Godzilla battles the army and Mothra and Battra tussle a little but these scenes are just appetizers. Battra slices a building in half with its laser vision, burying Godzilla. This, however, is a short lived remedy, the mighty reptilian blasting his way back out. The fight features such memorable moments such as Godzilla bouncing Mothra back with his new trademark attack, the Nuclear Pulse. The entire fight is set against the background of Yokohama Cosmo World. This comes in handy when Godzilla tries to drop a giant Ferris wheel on a prone Mothra. However, Battra swoops in, grabs the giant wheel and slams Godzilla with it instead. Both moths have some fancy long distance weapons of their own. Mothra collapses Godzilla by bathing him in poison powder and casting lightening bolts from her wings. Somehow, said bolts reflect Godzilla’s atomic breath back at him. Working together, the two flying monsters are such a force that you truly believe that they can take down the King of the Monsters.

“The Battle for Earth” certainly has an awesome finale but concludes on an off-tone, somber note. Once again, Godzilla plummets into the ocean, taking his opponent with him, ready to return for the next sequel. Battra’s death is treated with a lot of weight, solemn music playing on the soundtrack. In its final minutes, the movie info-dumps some exposition on us. As Mothra retrieves her fairies, they talk about how Battra was supposes to destroy a planet-killing comet in the future. Mothra takes its twin’s responsibility, having made a death oath to, flying into space at the end. Not only is that an inelegant ending, it’s also a bit of a down note to take the film out on.

Even if the script is unfocused, the film’s human cast provides a lot of heart. Neither Tetsuya Bessho’s Fujita nor Satomi Kobayashi’s Masako are typical heroes. The exes’ relationship is at first played for laughs, the two sniping at each other in corny, sit-com style. Later, however, the relationship evolves in a surprisingly touching fashion. Fujita is wrecked with doubt and guilt, actually considering selling the Cosmos in order to provide for his family. Ultimately, the two forgive each other and seem ready to get back together at the end. Bessho and Tetsuya have great chemistry together and quiet scenes of the two eating dinner and talking prove more entertaining then you’d expect. My only disappointment about the cast is that Megumi Odaka’s Miki Saegusa is mostly pushed towards the background; her psychic abilities used only once, to confirm that Godzilla is still alive, something we all knew anyway.

“Godzilla vs. Mothra” was Takao Okawara’s first shot at directing a Godzilla film. He generally does a great job. One of my favorite moments in the film is when Mothra cocoons herself against the Diet building. Set against the setting sun, the caterpillar’s silk dances in the air, against the purple sky. A lovely, soft song plays, creating a very poetic effect. Akira Ifukube returns once again to score. The classic Mothra theme is skillfully incorporated in with the pounding, Godzilla march. Keiko Imamura and Sayaka Osawa play the Cosmos, singing a stripped down version of Mothra’s lullaby. I like the classic Peanuts’ version better but this rendition is more fitting for the darker film.

“Godzilla and Mothra: The Battle for Earth” was rushed into production to capitalize on the success of “Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah.” This shows in the film’s sometimes shaky screenplay. However, the film still provides some fantastically realized monsters and beautifully orchestrated battles between them. The previous entry is bit more fun but the 19th Godzilla film is still a blast.  
[Grade: B+]