Saturday, May 17, 2014

Godzilla (2014)


It's never easy to right a grievous wrong. Even if said wrong is as trivial as, "Someone made a terrible movie featuring a popular character."

Thus it was always going to be after Legendary Pictures and Warner Brothers announced in 2009 that they would be attempting a new American Godzilla movie. Even though it would be hard to do a worse job than the 1998 film, they had to know that they'd end up being judged even harsher if their film fell short of expectations.

A lot has happened in the five years since the film was announced, which I won't be chronicling here. However, every bit of news coming out of the film made it more and more anticipated. Even when deaigns and scripts leaked, the reaction was excitement because the leaked details were good.

Thus it came to pass that Thursday night I found myself in a packed IMAX theater, filled with people anxiously awaiting the same thing I was: the first Godzilla movie in ten years, and hopefully the first American Godzilla film to get it right.

Did we get what we were hoping for? Short answer: Yes, with a few reservations. Long answer: Well...

[BEWARE! SPOILERS TO FOLLOW]

We open with archival footage, courtesy a mysterious organization known as "Monarch." In 1954, the American military sets up an H-bomb in the area of Bikini. It turns out that the bomb is part of a trap for a huge, mysterious creature that rises from the ocean just in time for the bomb to detonate.
No living creature could survive a ground zero nuclear blast. This one did.



Flash forward to 1999, in the Phillipines. Monarch scientists Dr. Ishiro Serizawa (Ken Watanabe!) and Dr. Vivienne Graham (Sally Hawkins) arrive to investigate a collapsed uranium mine. Inside they find a huge fossil skeleton, and two bizarre egg cases. Well, one egg case--the other is cracked open and there is a huge hole in the side of the mine with a huge trench carved into the island, leading to the ocean. Clearly, the egg cases were not as fossilized as they appear.

Meanwhile, in Janjira, Japan--American engineer Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston!) is trying to get his bosses at the Janjira nuclear plant to listen to him. Strange seismic disturbances have been getting closer and closer to the plant and he feels that the plant should be shut down to prevent a catastrophe.

Joe's wife, Sandra (Juliette Binoche! young son, Ford (C.J. Adams) are trying to plan a surprise for Joe's birthday but he's too busy to notice. So Ford is dropped off at school and Joe and Sandra head to work.

Whatever is causing the seismic disturbances hits the plant while Sandra and a group of inspectors are down near the reactor. A breach forces Joe to close the quarantine doors--just before his wife and her companions reach the door. He can only watch as the blast doors close before she succumbs to radiation poisoning. The disaster isn't over, though. As Ford watches from a distance, the entire plant collapses and Janjira must be evacuated--it's now a dead zone.

15 years later, Lieutenant Ford Brody (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) has grown up to be an Explosive Ordnance Disposal expert. He returns home to San Francisco after finishing a tour of duty to reunite with his wife Elle (Elizabeth Olsen), a nurse, and his young son Sam (Carson Bolde). His reunion is shorter than expected, however. A call comes in from Japan--Joe Brody has been arrested trying to break into the "Q-Zone," formerly known as Janjira.

Elle convinces Ford that, despite the 15 years of bad blood between them, Joe is still his family and needs him. So Ford flies to Japan to bail his father out--only for his father to immediately launch right into his same old conspiracy theories. Only now he's added a new thread--the sesimic pattern that preceded the "attack" on Janjira was a form of echolocation being used by some subterranean creature.

Well, despite how easily Joe agrees to give up and go back to San Francisco with Ford, we all know that wouldn't be much of a movie. So Ford ends up being talked into going with his father into the Q-Zone, wearing improvised radiation suits, so they can visit their old house and collect all of Joe's data.

Once inside, Joe notices the feral dogs that run past them seem oddly healthy and uninterested in attacking the two humans that would seem like easy prey to animals desperate for food. Checking his electronic Geiger counter, he finds the rad count zero and pulls the old sci-fi standby--by pulling off his protective headgear. Janjira should be radioactive enough to kill Joe in seconds, but he's completely unaffected.

While salvaging items from their home--watch out for the label on the empty terrarium--Ford notices something is going on at the ruins of the old nuclear plant. Unfortunately, the soldiers that are a part of that something find the two and arrest them, taking them into the ruins and revealing to Ford and Joe that there is what appears to be an enormous chrysalis where the reactors used to be.

See, Monarch has set up a base of operations around the chrysalis of the unknown creature, which was responsible for the destruction of the reactor, in order to find out what makes it tick and how to make it stop ticking. So when Serizawa gets wind of the information Joe has brought with, he goes down to the interrogation cell Joe's being held in just in time to hear Joe explain that the creature in the chrysalis is generating low level Electromagnetic Pulses, and if it's emitting them at a level powerful enough to cause power interruptions while it's dormant--well, just imagine when it wakes up!

Unfortunately, it does just that. Serizawa orders the electrical grid set up to contain the creature, should it awaken, be used to try and kill it. Needless to say, it doesn't work and the MUTO (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism) breaks free and the EMP it sets off destroys all of Monarch's equipment. Worse, almost all of Monarch's staff is slaughtered in the MUTO's escape and Joe is mortally wounded. The MUTO reveals that it has wings and takes flight.



Admiral William Stenz (David Strathairn!) and Captain Russell Hampton (Richard T. Jones) of the US Navy are called in to assist in the hunt for the MUTO, but it isn't easy since the creature knocked out any way of tracking it beyond visual contact. Serizawa, being no damn fool, requested the Brodys be brought along to assist in the hunt. Unfortunately, Joe dies and his years of research die with him, leaving Serizawa forced to rely on the son who always dismissed his father as a crackpot. Still, Ford must have absorbed something of his father's rantings in those 15 years, so Serizawa decides to bring Ford up to speed on what Monarch knows.

Millions of years ago, when the world was intensely radioactive, there existed creatures that could feed on this radiation--the MUTO is a member of one of these radiation-eating species. When the radiation faded on the surface, these creatures disappeared into the deepest ocean trenches and caverns of the earth to survive. However, in 1954 the nuclear submarine Nautilus disturbed another one of these radiation-feeders in the ocean depths. The myriad H-bomb tests that followed were really attempts to kill it. They failed.
Serizawa, however, believes that this other creature is no mere monster--and Graham agrees with him. Rather, they believe this "alpha predator" is a force of nature, of the very Earth itself--designed to restore balance. Restoring balance may mean it will emerge from the depths to kill the MUTO, which could cause untold destruction. The alpha predator does not have a scientific name, but Serizawa already knows its name--Godzilla.


Since they shared their intel with Ford, they hope he can return the favor. Well, he does offer that his father felt sure the creature was using echolocation, possibly as an attempt to communicate with something. Quickly, Serizawa and Graham check their data on the MUTO and discover that there was, indeed, a response to one of its calls. That's horrible news, because when they locate where the call was coming from, they realize that it's coming from Nevada. See, the other egg case was declared inert after multiple vivisections and analyses were performed on it--but it was highly radioactive, so the US government took it and did what they do with all such things. They stored it with nuclear warheads and nuclear waste.

If you guessed that is the worst possible place to store a radiation-eating monster, you'd be correct.


So the new MUTO destroys Las Vegas and heads towards California. Comparing the two creatures, it's determined that the new one must be a female and the winged one a male. So that means they can breed.

Word comes of a missing Russian sub near Hawaii. A strike team sent to investigate quickly discovers the sub in the jungle outside Honolulu--and the male MUTO. Attempts to kill it only succeed in pissing it off and its EMP knocks out all the power on the island. As the military struggles to regain visual of the thing, a new bogey is discovered coming from the ocean. Serizawa rushes to the flight deck on the carrier to get a glimpse of his alpha predator, and Godzilla does not disappoint.


The massive beast causes a tsunami as it makes landfall. It completely ignores the military and confronts the male MUTO at the airport. The two battle, destroying more of the city in the process, but the plainly outmatched MUTO quickly flees. Godzilla pursues it, and it quickly becomes clear that all three monsters are converging on San Francisco. Unless something can be done to stop them, the loss of life could be catastrophic.


Already this film has been extremely divisive and it's out less than a week. Many fans feel that they got exactly what they hoped for, while other people (some fans, some not) found it lacking.

Before I address this strange mix of feelings, I find the most curious thing about Godzilla is that it hews extremely close to the spirit of the Ted Elliott & Terry Rossio script I mentioned in my review of the 1998 film. The main difference is wisely dropping the "Godzilla was created by aliens" aspect. However, the fact remains that--despite so much of the promotional material making it out like this was going to be a return to the mood of the original film--this Godzilla is unquestionably the hero. To me, that was extremely welcome: Godzilla as anti-hero and/or villain has been his personality for about the last 30 years. It was getting old.

In order to address the film, I'm going address what I didn't like about it first. Now, I promised myself I wouldn't follow the trend of comparing this film to Pacific Rim. However, I have to address the simple fact that both films make the same disappointing mistake--despite a film full of far more interesting side characters, a bland white guy gets to be the focal point of the whole damn film.

I'm not trying to rag on Aaron Taylor-Johnson, as he at least makes more of an impression than Charlie Hunnam, but he's by far the least interesting character. For my own part, I found Ken Watanabe's Dr. Serizawa the most fascinating human character, but certainly Bryan Cranston lends his the character of Joe Brody--who'd be all too easily a scenery-chewing caricature in lesser hands--enough pathos that killing him off so suddenly was a disappointment. Even Elizabeth Olsen is more interesting as "the hero's wife," and I found her criminally ill-used. If you cast a character as a nurse in a giant monster film, the least you could do is cut to her fighting to save people during the destruction of her city--it'd be a perfect compliment to her soldier husband's attempt to save the city in his own way. Instead, once Godzilla and the MUTOs make landfall in San Francisco she becomes little more than a fleeing civilian and then disappears almost completely.

(Had this film reversed their roles, it would have been a much more interesting film--and joined the fine tradition of Godzilla films with badass female soldiers as their leads)

And despite Johnson being the weakest element, his character uses his expertise as an EOD tech to keep himself relevant at every possible point of the film. Except when it comes time to actually show those skills off to defuse a nuke, his response is to just help try and move it to minimum safe distance in a sequence that disappointingly echoes the ending of Legendary Picture's own The Dark Knight Rises. I'd address my disappointment with that sequence further but that would require spoiling more of it than I want to.

Suffice it to say, though, the film made a huge mistake by not having it be Dr. Serizawa's movie, or at least having Serizawa and Joe Brody working together. In the final film, the two never even speak to each other.


Honestly? That is my only true issue with the film. If you've heard anything about the film by now, though, you've heard two specific complaints: that Godzilla is barely in this movie and that what monster action there is focuses too much on the MUTOs instead of Godzilla.

I think it's extremely telling that the people voicing these complaints tend to not be diehard Godzilla fans. Yes, Godzilla does not actually appear until almost the third act and yes the MUTOs are given much more focus. These are all standard for Godzilla movies, however.

No matter how much you tweak Godzilla's back story, we know who he is already. Any new opponent, however, is really going to require some establishing. The MUTOs are fascinating creatures and, while their designs may strike some as too similar to Cloverfield, but I would argue that that is way oversimplifying it. Focusing on them does not bother me at all. If anything, I would have preferred if we got more of a sense that these creatures posed a severe threat to Godzilla--as it stands they're impressive but hardly among the toughest he's ever fought.

As for a lack of Godzilla, once he's shows up around the third act he is a constant presence. He may only have around 30 minutes of screen time, but Invasion of Astro-Monster (aka Monster Zero) has ten minutes of Godzilla action and it's still rightly considered a fan favorite. Hell, Godzilla arguably has only slightly less of a presence in this film than in his 1954 debut!

The other complaint I hear is that the film "cuts away" from every single monster fight to show us what the humans are doing. This is, again, a fairly standard trope--even in films like Godzilla vs. Gigan, Godzilla vs. SpaceGodzilla, or Godzilla: Tokyo S.O.S. where the monster fights take up much more of the running time. It is, to be fair, rather jarring that the first fight between Godzilla and the male MUTO builds to the first dramatic reveal of Godzilla--and then cuts away to show Sam and Elle watching highlights of the fight via a TV news report. It's played for laughs and, to me, was a brilliant way to do it. The first fight is, after all, only a brief skirmish and playing it as a tease just makes the big fight at the end more impressive.

Yes, the big fight at the end cuts away several times as well, but honestly this just helps to make it come across as more intense and lengthy without drawing it out--like the repetitive final battle of Godzilla vs. SpaceGodzilla. Given that most of the complaints that the movie needed more monster action seem to come mainly from non-fans, I can only assume audiences were expecting something like the hour-long climax of Transformers: Dark of the Moon, but completely forgot how boring that hour of solid action became.

Better to leave an audience wanting more than wear out your welcome.


Overall, the tone of the film hearkens back to films like the original War of the Worlds and even Jaws. This is not a bad thing at all. Indeed, I think the tone that it strikes is far better than the dark, grim tone the trailers implied. This is largely a serious film, but it also has a sense of humor and aims to be fun. Rather than the callback to the horror of Godzilla (1954) it was made out to be, it lands more along the lines of Mothra vs. Godzilla with touches of the heroic 1960s and 70s films. This is not the overload of dark and gritty that made Man of Steel so insufferable.

This film wants to make you jump occasionally, but it also wants to make you cheer. And, indeed, the audience at my showing practically did just that when Godzilla first unleashes his atomic breath on the MUTOs, and they applauded as the end credits rolled. So the film definitely succeeded.

Is Godzilla perfect? Absolutely not. The film's focus on the human story is not a mistake, but not ensuring that that human story is actually interesting was. It also could have used a bit more work on its pacing. The film never drags, but it also doesn't feel as smooth as it should. And it really is a bit ridiculous to hire Juliette Binoche, Bryan Cranston, and Ken Watanabe for your film and then give them so little to do.

However, the film more than makes up for that with Alexander Desplat's amazing score, excellent effects, and by delivering one of the most brutal Godzilla fights ever. When I left the theater, accompanied by three companions whom were not even remotely the diehard fan that I am, they all loved it--perhaps even more than I did.

All in all, it was worth the five-year wait and--given it is currently on track to make $90 million in its first weekend alone--I feel safe in saying the King of the Monsters has truly returned.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Godzilla (1998)

Hype is a dangerous thing for a movie. It can be your best friend--since obviously nobody cares about your movie if they haven't heard about it--but it can also be your worst enemy. Couple hype with anticipation and you have even more potential for something to blow up in your face.

An American Godzilla movie was in the works since at least the 1980s, when Friday The 13th: Part 2 director Steve Miner and Monster Squad screenwriter Fred Dekker tried to make "Godzilla 3-D", with creature design by dinosaur illustrator William Stout. Godzilla would have destroyed San Francisco after its offspring was killed by a Soviet sub, before finally being killed on Alcatraz with cadmium missiles, due to cadmium's ability to shut down nuclear fission. Godzilla would have been brought to life with stop-motion animation. But the studio eventually decided that spending so much on a production of a "kid's movie" would be a waste of resources and the project was scrapped.


The cadmium missiles idea would actually be used by Toho themselves when they gave up on an American remake and decided to reboot the franchise themselves in 1984.

About a decade later, Tri-Star secured the rights to Godzilla and began working on a film with a script by Pirates of the Caribbean's dream team, Ted Elliott & Terry Rossio, to be directed by Speed's Jan De Bont. The film would have seen Godzilla re-imagined as a protector of the Earth created by aliens (!) and hidden in the arctic, to be awakened when a shape-shifting alien monster known as the Gryphon arrives on Earth. The creatures were originally designed by comic artist Ricardo Delgado, but later refined by Stan Winston--the man who brought us more amazing movie monsters than I can even list here.


The film was slated for a 1994 release, but it eventually was scrapped when De Bont demanded more of a budget than Tri-Star wanted to give him and he left the project. However, Tri-Star had spent too much time on the project to just give it up, so they began to seek out another creative team. They settled on producer / screenwriter Dean Devlin and director Roland Emmerich and creature designer Patrick Tatopoulos, fresh off the success of Independence Day. The duo had shown they had what it takes to deliver a world destroying action film that could rake in the box office.

Godzilla fans were excited by the news, especially after a teaser trailer that played before Men in Black in 1997. Less exciting was the news that the film would only feature Godzilla and that the new Godzilla design would not be shown until the film was released. In fact, the studio spent millions to keep the deisgn secret. Those millions were promptly wasted because the studio had forgotten that the internet now existed.


That image was the first sign of panic. Some fans dismissed it as a fake, and indeed the filmmakers themselves claimed that the leaked designs--including prototypes of merchandise--were fakes sent out to determine which manufacturers could be trusted. But many fans weren't so sure. The creature certainly looked like something Tatopoulos might design.

Then script details began to emerge, apparently from an early draft: Godzilla in this film would be a mutated iguana of some kind, created by French nuclear testing in French Polynesia. The creature attacks New York because it wants to lay eggs in Madison Square Garden. It can burrow, it runs away at great speed when confronted by the military, exhales strongly instead of breathing nuclear flame, and after a climax where it chases a taxi cab all over New York on all fours, it is killed by six missiles after tangling in the George Washington Bridge.

Some fans were weirdly upset by the burrowing and running on all fours thing, as opposed to the fact that the film's creature sounded nothing like Godzilla. But it turns out that fans shouldn't have worried:

Godzilla in this film chases a cab on his hind legs, gets tangled up in the Brooklyn Bridge, and gets killed by twelve missiles. See? Totally different.

The film opens simultaneously on a promising note and with a good sense of the idiocy to come. The credits roll over sepia footage of what is supposed to be lizards in the French Polynesia islands before the French nuclear tests begin--even though every explosion shown is recognizable stock footage from American nuclear tests. The promising note is that David Arnold's score gives a great sense of menace to the proceedings. The idiocy sets in because absolutely zero lizards shown in the credits sequence are from French Polynesia. You have Galapagos marine iguanas, Komodo dragons, Chinese water dragons, spiny iguanas, bearded dragons, and--lastly--a green iguana hanging out next to some dinosaur eggs. Clearly the green iguana is supposed to have laid said dinosaur eggs pre-nuclear test, and after the test only one egg remains to hatch...

Cut to the present, as a Japanese fishing boat (supposedly the Kobayashi Maru in a weird little fan joke that is never made clear in the film's dialogue) is making its way through the storm. In a typical Hollywood twist, the supposedly Japanese vessel is staffed by actors who are simply Asian. One of the crew is Al Leong, for fuck's sake! The vessel is suddenly attacked by a large creature--its claws tearing through the hull and its tail smashing the bridge.

Meanwhile, in Chernobyl, Dr. Niko "Nick" Tatopoulos (Matthew Broderick) of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is studying the increase in earth worm growth as a result of the radiation. He is suddenly taken away by helicopter, as he has been reassigned. Meanwhile, Phillippe Roache (Jean Reno), a French secret agent visits the sole survivor of the fishing boat, an old man who can only repeat, "Gojira...Gojira...Gojira."

In Panama, Nick meets up with Colonel Hicks (Kevin Dunn), Dr. Elsie Chapman (Vicki Lewis), and Dr. Mendel Craven (Malcolm Danare)--who it turns out are investigating the tracks of some strange radioactive creature. Whatever it is, it's big and it likes to attack fishing boats. Dr. Chapman, in between awkwardly flirting with Nick and ignoring the advances of Dr. Craven, suggests it's an Allosaurus from the Cretaceous period, but Nick shoots that down because it's too big to be a dinosaur. (He doesn't also point out that she's a shit paleontologist if she thinks Allosaurus lived in the Cretaceous--but then, we'll later see he's a far worse biologist)

Meanwhile, the creature sinks three fishing boats off the coast of New England. In New York we are introduced to (ugh) our heroine, Audrey Timmonds (Maria Pitillo), an insufferable wannabe reporter and Nick's ex whom he hasn't seen in eight years but never got over. She works for slimy news anchor Charles Caiman (Harry Shearer), but her married coworkers Lucy (Arabella Field) and Victor "Animal" Palotti (Hank Azaria) think her problem is she's too nice. The audience thinks it's more that she's insufferable. She sees Nick in a report on the mysterious shipwrecks and almost immediately begins to think that maybe she now has an angle to exploit.

She has no idea. The mysterious and barely glimpsed creature makes landfall in New York, where it attacks a fish market and interrupts a campaign speech by Mayor Ebert (Michael Lerner) and his assistant Gene (Lorry Goldman)--yes really. After the creature rampages past the diner Audrey, Lucy, and Animal are in, Animal pursues it with the intent to film it. He barely gets two seconds of footage before the creature almost steps on him. And then the creature somehow disappears, which the seemingly incompetent Sergeant O'Neal (Doug Savant) is forced to report to Col. Hicks. Where the creature has gone is anybody's guess, but it turns out to be that the creature burrowed underground--using the subway tunnels that it is way too big to fit through.

Unbeknownst to the military, Phillippe is monitoring them to see what their plans are. He and his team--all named Jean Something because they're French, you see--have already figured out that the creature is a result of French nuclear testing and thus view its destruction as their mission.

At Nick's suggestion, the military lays out a huge pile of fish. The creature arrives as expected and, after a brief weird moment where it gets up close and personal with Nick, the military attempts to kill it with missiles and machine gun fire--and they somehow miss it, destroying the Flatiron Building instead. The creature flees, using its gale-force breath to cause an explosion to destroy the pursuing ground vehicles. Apache helicopters take up the pursuit at that point. Unfortunately, their heatseeking missiles (!) can't lock onto the beast because it's somehow colder than the buildings around it (!) and the Chrysler Building gets beheaded. Man, New York needs to stop storing unlicensed nuclear reactors in its skyscrapers.

Pictured: The rare lizard that can be colder than a skyscraper and not be comatose.
The beast somehow outruns the choppers, who are now shooting at it with side-mounted machine gun turrets instead of the rotating chin turret on actual Apaches. The creature circles back and destroys the choppers pursuing it--which we are apparently supposed to cheer for. Maybe because anybody too stupid to just fly up out of reach of the giant lizard deserves to die.

Nick, acting on a hunch that makes no sense, takes a sample of lizard blood and buys up several pregnancy tests. He runs into Audrey and just lets her into his tent, with no regard to the fact that she broke his heart eight years ago--and, oh yeah, he has a top secret tape about the creature's rampage in his tent. Anyways, Nick somehow makes the blood sample usable for a human pregnancy test and determines that the radioactive lizard is pregnant, through asexual means.

Now, despite the fact that this creature is now pregnant, Nick continues to refer to it as a "he." In fact, Nick refers to it as, "A very unusual he!" Yeah, unusual in that it is not biologically possible for a male creature to be pregnant. Your lizard is either a hermaphrodite or a parthenogenic female. There is literally no reason to pretend that your monster is a male and gravid (the correct term for a pregnant egg-layer), except the most ridiculously stupid one: Godzilla is, by and large, considered to be male by the fandom and the general public.

That's right, Devlin and Emmerich had no problem removing everything that made Godzilla, well, Godzilla--his dinosaur origins, his radioactive flame breath, his invulnerability to conventional weapons--but apparently at the last minute they said, "We better keep him a male, or the fans will be furious!"

Well, Audrey steals the top secret tape and uses it to put together her own piece on "Gojira", only for Caiman to overhear it and re-edit the piece to be his before it airs. Caiman mispronounces the creature's name as "Godzilla", even thought that makes no sense given the old man enunciated the word the way an English speaker would instead of its true sound, which is similar to "Godzilla." Also, Gojira became Godzilla thanks to the fact that the Romanization of Japanese was not standardized in the 1950s--so even though an American Men's Magazine in 1954 wrote an article about a new Japanese monster movie called "Gojira", in 1956 the name was translated into English as "Godzilla" for Godzilla, King of The Monsters! Since Caiman is hearing the word and not reading it translated, it would take a hell of a lot of effort for him to bungle it that badly.

Oh, what am I saying, that's not even the dumbest thing in this sequence. See, Nick is informing the brass that Godzilla is about to lay eggs when the report comes on. Since Nick is credited by name, the military kicks him off the project--and then decide to ignore his warning about the eggs. Why? Because I guess they decide he was just making it up for the press's benefit.

Nick gets more or less kidnapped by Phillippe on his way out, as Phillippe believes his story. Nick and Phillippe's team prepare to follow the tunnels Godzilla has dug in search of her (up yours, fanboys!) nest, with Audrey and Animal in secret pursuit, Meanwhile, another attempt at ambushing Godzilla results in the creature fleeing into the Hudson, where three submarines are waiting for her. She manages to destroy one sub by luruing its own torpedoes back around into it, before she attempts to burrow back into the city. Two other torpedoes impact next to her and the navy declares her dead, even though she is clearly just stunned. Though why the torpedoes didn't kill her is anybody's guess, given she's now vulnerable to conventional weapons.

Nick and Phillippe find Godzilla's nest in Madison Square Garden, which is full of man-sized eggs that look like they should be disgorging facehuggers. How Godzilla found room for the hundreds of eggs in her belly, much less how she laid them all inside the building, is not explained. It doesn't matter, as the eggs promptly hatch and since Nick, Phillippe, Audrey, and Animal all smell like the fish clogging the arena and tunnels--the Baby Godzillas think that they're lunch.

Totally not raptors, guys. Totally.
The Baby Godzillas, which are so shamelessly ripped off of Jurassic Park's raptors that they might as well have that old "JP" trademark stenciled on their legs like all the Kenner toys did, quickly devour Philippe's team--proving themselves oddly invulnerable to machine gun fire, given that it was earlier capable of injuring their mother. The heroes manage to broadcast footage of the hundreds of Baby Godzillas, so Hicks is able to order an airstrike on their position. They barely make it out before the arena is blown up and the day is saved from--

Goddamn it.
Godzilla reappears, seeming way more concerned over the fate of her babies than lizards usually are, and then somehow makes the connection between her dead babies and the puny humans in front of her. And thus begins the interminable taxi cab chase, after Phillippe hotwires a cab to help them flee and Godzilla proves incapable of catching a damn car, even though she was earlier snatching helicopters with ease.

Finally, the beast is lured onto the Brooklyn Bridge, where she stupidly gets herself tangled in the suspension cables.

"Well, this is a fine mess I find myself in!"
The F-18s that blew up Madison Square Garden hit her with 6 missiles, circle around and hit her with 6 more on the other side. Godzilla falls, the sound of her heartbeat slowing fading away before the light in her eye goes out in a bit shamelessly ripped off from King Kong (1976). You'd think, when remaking a property in a way that nobody who loves the original will like, you would try to avoid reminding people of another remake that did the same Goddamn thing--not actively rip it off!

"Nobody cry when Jaws die, everybody cry when they see this piece of shit!"
Godzilla dies, Nick and Audrey stupidly reunite, Phillippe wanders off into the rain like the only good character in the film should--and the film ends with a single, unhatched egg disgorging a Baby Godzilla to threaten a sequel that won't be coming. Unless you count the cartoon spinoff series, which was way more awesome than the film that inspired it.

In 1998, I was but a lad of 14. I had been a Godzilla fan since I was 8 and I followed the news of Tri-Star's Godzilla obsessively. Year after year, I had seen the supposed release dates come and go--but 1998 had arrived and this film was being hyped out the wazoo. A New Year's Eve commercial declared 1998 "The Year of Godzilla"; signs everywhere boasted about the size of the creature, including its unfortunate double entendre tagline; and Trendmasters, the source for Godzilla toys for an American kid in the 1990s, was announced to be doing the toys for the film. But most fans online had heard the rumors about the film. They knew it had the potential to not resemble their beloved creature at all.

I was optimistic. I was such an optimist, in fact, that when I saw early leaked materials confirming the designs that had leaked were accurate, I still didn't care. And then I saw the film.

And then I saw it again, and again, and again.

You see, I loved it at the time. I was so excited to see a film called Godzilla in the theater that it apparently didn't matter to me that the creature in the film acted nothing like my beloved Godzilla and, in fact, was the star of an ersatz remake of The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms. It didn't matter that the script was terrible, Matthew Broderick put in the kind of lifeless performance that only Thora Birch in Dungeons & Dragons could top, or that Maria Pitillo makes you long for the thespian fortitude of Jessica Alba.

It was Godzilla! And if I didn't love it and see it repeatedly, it would fail and Hollywood would never touch the property again! Good Lord, I even defended this film!

Well, it didn't actually fail but it was so poorly received it got considered a failure, and Tri-Star mothballed the property except for distributing the Toho films that were to follow in an attempt to clear the air of this film--and even then, they only gave Godzilla 2000 a theatrical release. Barely.

So, if I loved the film, why am I so hard on it now? Because the more I watched it, the more I began to no longer be able to ignore its faults. The more it became a chore to sit through--until, finally, one day I put it into the VCR (ah, the dark days before DVD) and before I hit the halfway mark, I realized I couldn't finish it.

So how did this film go so wrong? For starters, the worst thing you can do for a film based on a popular franchise is hire someone to make it who is not a fan of it. Rarely, such a film does end up being financially successful--as in the case of the J.J. Abrams Star Trek films--but usually the contempt for the material is such that it drives even the general public away.

Dean Devlin and Roland Emmerich have revealed, in the intervening years, that they didn't even want the project. In fact, according to Emmerich, rather than declining the offer in the first place, they wrote the film as it stands in the hopes of Toho refusing to agree to let it go forward and them being fired from the film. Instead, Toho approved it--apparently thinking that these two yahoos knew what the American public wanted out of a Godzilla movie better than they did--and they were more or less stuck.

The contempt for the source shows through. Independence Day may not be a great film, but it has a great cast and they put in enjoyable performances, all of them. Come to this film, and that isn't the case at all. Independence Day also sees several major cities reduced to rubble, yet when the duo were given the reigns to a franchise about a giant monster that levels cities, they made the military do more damage than Godzilla--and even then, it adds up to no more than ten buildings destroyed. To further add insult to injury, every Roland Emmerich film since has basically destroyed the whole world, while this film can't even destroy New York.

The most bizarre thing about it all is at some point they seemed to realize that fans were gonna loathe this version. Unfortunately, they realized it after the film was almost finished. That is the only way I can explain why Godzilla "breathes fire" in two scenes. You see, the creature uses her breath weapon three times, and one time it is clear that it is just a gale-force blast of air. However, the other two times the breath causes cars to explode and then apparently the breath ignites. But the effect was plainly added at the last minute, and indeed, it is not mentioned in the novelization--which is usually based on the shooting script.

It's also important to consider that, when doing a Godzilla film, you need to have a clear idea of what kind of monster Godzilla is going to be in your film. Is he a villain, out to destroy and kill who must be stopped? Is he an anti-hero? Or is he a straight up savior of the Earth? This film has no clue what its Godzilla is. She destroys things in her path out of hunger--which, ironically was originally the motivation for Godzilla attacking Tokyo in the 1954 film at the script stage, before he became a walking nuclear bomb--and she is seeking to lay eggs that will mean the end of all human life as they feed and breed. She is, therefore, the villain who must be stopped. She is said to be "just an animal", which seems to be why the film feels we should have sympathy for her. All well and good, since even the original Godzilla evoked pity as the Oxygen Destroyer killed him rather than elation, but the film goes too far when it seems to expect us to cheer when Godzilla destroys helicopters and evades the military. We should not be cheering for the creature that could end the world.

Then again, it never seems remotely like the Godzilla species will end the world. The mother is put down with conventional weapons once a clear shot is provided. Her young? The velociraptors in Jurassic Park were given moments of clumsiness, but these Baby Zillas are foiled by a boot to the face, falling chandeliers, and gumballs. Not to mention, despite being referred to as "born pregnant" like Tribbles, they are less intelligent than those ambulatory furballs--they are somehow incapable of leaving Madison Square Garden despite their mother leaving a gaping hole in the floor filled with fish to lure them out.

If those lizards are capable of replacing humanity as the dominant species, as Broderick's character suggests, then we deserve it.

Simply put, this film is a disaster. It starts off almost promising, but even its beginning shows signs of the disappointment to come. Oftentimes, fans will say, "If it was just called something other than Godzilla, it'd be a fun movie." That's a bold-faced lie. This movie is flat-out terrible.

Beyond the way it ignores everything about the character that made it Godzilla, the film is a shambles. I've already harped on the acting and the script, but I need to beat up on the script a bit more anyway because it is one of the biggest problems. For one thing, it's horribly paced. Someone should have told the filmmakers that the scene of the T-Rex chasing a jeep in Jurassic Park was thrilling because it only lasted a short while and didn't make the T-Rex look like an incompetent buffoon. This Godzilla can't even kill our "heroes" when the taxi is inside her mouth!

The film always requires huge leaps of logic by the characters, such as Nick deciding to test and see if a creature he believes to be male is pregnant for no apparent reason, while also being completely immune to any form of logic. This film wants us to accept Godzilla as an animal instead of a monster, but then has her doing impossible things--like burrowing underground without being detected (despite the huge seismic activitry it would cause) or escaping heatseeking missiles (which the military wouldn't even be using on an animal) because she is colder than concrete and steel buildings. At night. In torrential rain.

The film is also full of awful running jokes--the least annoying being people's bizarre inability to pronounce "Tatopoulos", as my first name is even easier to pronounce and I still get it mangled constantly--and, worse, most of them are incredibly petty swipes at its critics. The Mayor Ebert and his assistant Gene is the worst kind of swipe, as it's petty and it doesn't pay off. The late Roger Ebert himself expressed disappointment that the character was never killed by Godzilla. Then there's the fact that one scene bizarrely focuses on a guy before Godzilla drops a boat on his car--and apparently the man in the car was cast because of his resemblance to J.D. Lees of G-Fan magazine, who had been openly critical of the project.

What, are Devlin & Emmerich twelve?

The film's effects are a mixed bag. Some of the CGI holds up really well today and there is, actually, a nice bit of practical effects usage as well. Yet for every shot that works, you have Godzilla's tail vanishing out of sight, as if the animators got tired of animating it, and a shot of Godzilla's eye that would have been more convincing if it was hand drawn. Not to mention that the creature's size varies wildly from scene to scene--in one she is crawling through a subway tunnel she has slightly enlarged with plenty of room, yet she can later barely fit her head through another tunnel that is the same size to get at the heroes.

The Baby Godzillas fare even worse. The practical effects deliver creatures not much more convincing than something from Carnosaur and the CGI versions plainly don't mesh with the real environment they're composited into.

The only thing I can say in the film's defense is that Jean Reno is amazing, David Arnold's score is great, and I like the creature design.


In execution, the beast is terrible. In design, however, she is magnificent. And, indeed, in early concept art used to convince Toho of the film's promise, she's even using the trademark flame breath.


A shame, then, that the only place the creature would actually be allowed to be Godzilla was in the cartoon spin-off, made by people who actually understand the character. Seriously, check that cartoon out.

Well, the cartoon and in the pinball machine for the film, apparently.

I want to see that movie!
Thankfully, it looks like Hollywood has corrected its mistake with the new American Godzilla. Tomorrow night I shall be finding out for myself, but as of this writing all I have to go on is the incredibly promising previews that have been offered to fans and positive early buzz.

Either way, it won't have to work hard to do better than this film.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Godzilla vs. Hedorah (1971)

Godzilla is a symbol as much as a monster. Symbols have a tendency to change, however. Sometimes it's a case of perspective--a flag is a symbol of patriotism to the citizen of the country it belongs to, and a symbol of terror to the citizens of countries it attacks. Other times, it's simply a matter of the passage of time.

Godzilla was a nuclear nightmare in 1954, but by 1971 the creature was a heroic defender of the Earth. It's likely that the change had the most to do with the simple fact that by 1964 Toho realized that if they wanted to keep making Godzilla movies, it was going to get boring if Godzilla was the villain who kept showing up and getting defeated by heroic monsters but always in a way he could come back.

Whatever the reason for the change, it meant that Godzilla had to shed his symbolic skin and become just a matinee monster. It was hardly the worst thing to happen to the character--and indeed, it broadened his appeal--but no doubt it was a bit disappointing to those who had made the original film such a stark, frightening experience.

Yet,someone at Toho saw the potential to still make Godzilla films matter. Sure, there had been satire and allegory in the films following the original--Mothra vs. Godzilla, my personal favorite, had been a satire of rampant corporate greed and government corruption--but few had truly attempted to address the evils of society in a meaningful way.

Nuclear war, while still an ever-present threat thanks to the ongoing dick-measuring contests between the US and the USSR, had become passe. Everyone knew it was still a risk, but it didn't have the same frightening potential by 1971 as it did in the 1950s and 60s.

Pollution, however, was truly beginning to be recognized as a threat. It had been so ever since humans first began to develop cities. But in a growing industrial power like Japan at the time, it was becoming truly serious. Any film about the evils of pollution was going to be lecturing and on the nose, so why not make a monster movie about it?


The youth market was also becoming a force to be reckoned with, so it only made sense for producer Tomoyuki Tanaka to choose someone to helm the latest Godzilla movie that wasn't a student of the old school. Ishiro Honda and even Jun Fukuda were both getting too old in the tooth, so Tanaka decied to hand the reigns over to young filmmaker Yoshimitsu Banno.

Tanaka had always taken a hands-on approach to producing, but ill health forced him to stay in the hospital during filming. Thus Banno was afforded way more freedom than I expect anybody involved in the film had anticipated.


To say that Tanaka was not pleased with the end result is an epic understatement. He declared that Banno had "ruined" Godzilla and declared that Banno was never, ever going to direct again. Given Banno never did, I'd say that Tanaka made good on his threat.

Of course, Banno had the last laugh in a way: he's one of the producers of Godzilla (2014).

So, is Godzilla vs. Hedorah really as bad as Tanaka felt it was? Or was Tanaka simply not with it?

Young Ken Yano (Horoyuki Kawase) loves Godzilla. And like most small boys in kaiju films who wear shorts that can only be seen by a microscope, he feels he understands Godzilla. He feels that pollution is becoming so awful that Godzilla is going to become furious. So Ken is understandably certain that bad things are on the horizon when an old man brings a strange tadpole-like creature to Ken's father, Dr. Yano (Akira Yamauchi), and the creature is determined to be living sludge.

Dr. Yano goes scuba diving where the tadpole was found, while Ken waits on the shore. Ken narrowly escapes an encounter with a huge tadpole, with only a minor burn on the hand he used to knife the creature as it leaped over him. Dr. Yaho, unable to hear Ken's warnings, is attacked by the tadpole and his face is severely burned.

Ken names the creature "Hedorah" (derived from "hedoro", the Japanese word for sludge) when a reporter comes to interview Dr. Yano. Ken's mother, Toshie (Toshie Kimura) doesn't want her husband photographed, but Dr. Yano feels it is important that everyone sees the danger of Hedorah. Especially when Dr. Yano discovers that Hedorah is a colonial organism--every piece of the beast is alive, and when two pieces meet they join together to become a larger creature. There might be no limit to how large Hedorah can become.

Ken knows that Godzilla will come to fight Hedorah, however, and of course he's right. While Ken's oddly teenaged friend, Yukio Keuchi (Toshio Shiba)--whose relationship to the Yano family is never explicated, but I chose to believe he is a student of either Dr. Yano or Mrs. Yano, as the latter is explicitly shown to be a teacher--is watching his girlfriend Miki Fujiyama (Keiko Mari) perform a song about pollution at a night club in the trippiest damn outfit you ever saw, Hedorah comes ashore.

She rocks it, but it's still damned weird.
Hedorah, now resembling a salamander composed of melted plastic, feeds on the fumes from a smokestack until Godzilla arrives. Godzilla challenges his new foe, only to find that physical attacks are worthless on a creature made of goop--his punches go right through Hedorah's body. Swinging the beast around by the tail is an even worse idea, as the chunks that fly off kill several innocent bystanders. One chunk of Hedorah ends up in the night club, just as Yukio is struggling with the brown acid he apparently took.

Or maybe just some bad sushi?
Rushing outside, Miki and Yukio witness Godzilla finally driving Hedorah away after his nuclear flame breath causes strange sparks when it hits Hedorah. Examining the ashes that fell off of Hedorah, Dr. Yano determines that Hedorah's eyes contain a strange material that Ken dubs "Hedrium". This strange material suggests to Dr. Yano that Hedorah must be a living mineral that came to Earth on a meteorite--which kind of undercuts the idea that Hedorah is something humanity created, but what can you do?

Hedorah is an unpredictable creature, that much is certain. And it quickly takes on a flying form, looking like a dirty trilobite, spraying sulfuric acid fumes as it flies. Godzilla confronts it again but is quickly routed when the creature's fumes prove too much even for him. Mere mortal humans are reduced to skeletons by its passing.


There is hope, however. Hedorah is only sludge, so if they can find a way to dry it out, it will be rendered inert. Dr. Yano figures out the only way to do that is by getting the creature between two enormous electrodes--but they will take time to build. Meanwhile, Yukio and Miki have brought Ken to a happening party at the base of Mount Fuji, meant to celebrate the world before Hedorah destroys it.

Right on cue, Hedorah appears--now 60 meters tall an oddly sparkly--to menace the righteous youth. Godzilla appears to defend them, just as Ken predicted, but after Godzilla loses an eye to Hedorah's caustic projectile sludge and is knocked out by the creature's eye lasers, it seems clear that even Godzilla may not be able to save the Earth.


A simple plot synopsis of the film doesn't fully get across how bizarre the film is. There are animated interludes, psychedelic imagery, and--most spectacularly--a bank of screaming television screens, as if The Brady Bunch opening credits got taken over by Occupy Hedorah and then went insane. By the time Godzilla flies, you're left capable of only a shrug as it's not even the weirdest thing you've seen by that point.

"Fuck you, science!"
Looked at only for its surreal quality, it's easy to see why Tomoyuki Tanaka hated it. However, I think that it's far too easy to write this film off for its weirdness rather than actually examining the film and its merits.

This film is, simply put, horrifying. It's honestly the first film since the original to show the consequences of a monster fight in a major city. Much like what we would eventually see in the 90s trilogy of Gamera films, Godzilla is trying to save humanity from Hedorah--but in the process he still kills multiple innocent people. Not to mention the direct victims of Hedorah. Collateral damage simply hadn't been shown in a Godzilla film on this level since 1954.


In fact, the Godzilla flying scene was added by Yoshimitsu Banno almost at the last minute because he felt the film needed to be lightened up a bit for the children he knew would be seeing it. As bizarre and nonsensical as the scene may be, it's almost impossible to imagine the film without it.

There's also a heavy dose of cynicism in the film, of the sort you could only find in the years following Night of the Living Dead, but no doubt seems odd to modern audiences in a film where the damn hippy kids are our heroes. The heroic, high-minded youth that stage a happening at the base of Mount Fuji are all slaughtered by the beast when they try to drive it off with torches--including Yukio, who is the closest thing to the film's hero after Ken. Only Miki, Ken, and a handful of others survive. The military are shown to be absolute incompetent buffoons, incapable of screwing in a damn light bulb. So incompetent are they that even Godzilla expresses disgust at their uselessness.

The message of the film is that pollution must be stopped, but the filmmakers seem to be convinced that humanity is completely incapable of saving itself. And this was before "denying climate change is real" became a paying gig!


The film definitely makes good on Tomoyuki Tanaka's initial intent of making a Godzilla film for the next generation. Director Yoshimitsu Banno and composer Riichiro Manabe had never been involved with a Godzilla film before, while special effects director Teruyoshi Nakano had only directed the effects for one Godzilla film prior, though he had assisted on a few--the lone "veteran" was screenwriter Takeshi Kimura, who had worked on several Godzilla and other Toho kaiju films before.

Despite Banno's flair for the surreal, his direction is really quite good. It's almost a shame he never got a chance to redeem himself when Tanaka was still running the show, as I'm sure he could have delivered work on Ishiro Honda's level if he'd just had a restraining hand on his shoulder. Thankfully, he never got the chance to do it after Tanaka's passing, as Banno's story treatment for "Godzilla 3-D To The Max" was a truly Godawful idea. Saner heads prevailed and the project morphed into the upcoming Hollywood film directed by Gareth Edwards.

Composer Riichiro Manabe, on the other hand, got to compose a scant two years later on Godzilla vs. Megalon, and damned if I know why. By all accounts, Manabe's themes for other films have been great, but his Godzilla scores are astoundingly terrible. When scoring Godzilla, Manabe has two settings: experimental jazz tracks that ought to be accompanying a plot-halting night club scene in a Jesus Franco film and high school marching band fight song. Godzilla should have a theme that imparts power, majesty, or power--not that he has a cadre of cheerleaders just offscreen.

That said, Manabe did give us the film's delightful theme song, "Kaizen" or "Give Back the Sun"--which was translated to "Save The Earth" for the film's initial American release. So catchy tunes are definitely among his strengths.

Asfor Teruyoshi Nakano, he learned well from his former boss, Eiji Tsubaraya--except for one major weakness that would become even more apparent in the film following this one, Godzilla vs. Gigan. Namely, Nakano has issues with scale and perspective, as pertains to scenes that require a small model to interact with a larger model--when the former model is supposed to appear larger. In Godzilla vs. Gigan it manifests as miniature models of Gigan and King Ghidorah buzzing around the head of the Godzilla Tower, which they are both supposed to tower over. Here, the flying Godzilla model is smaller than the shrunken Hedorah it is meant to be chasing. In both cases, you have to wonder how nobody noticed, or if they simply didn't care.

All in all, I find that I grow fonder of this film every time I watch it--and I started off pretty damn fond of it. It's a grim, dark film with a message that still understands that at the end of the day, films are meant to entertain. If you can just accept that it's absurd as Hell, then you will probably enjoy it.

When choosing a "dark" Godzilla film, I'll take it over Godzilla, Mothra, and King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack any day of the week.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Godzilla vs. The Sea Monster (1966)

It's not uncommon for a movie to have to compensate for an actor not being available for a movie planned specifically for them. Schedules, salary disagreements, and just plain lack of interest can all conspire to keep a planned project from coming together as intended, and sometimes a filmmaker can manage to pull it together with a different actor. But a case of the monster you wanted to use being unavailable? That's a bit more uncommon.

That's exactly what happened with Godzilla vs. The Sea Monster, though. In the mid-1960s, American producers Arthur Rankin and Jules Bass, whom I've previously discussed here, secured the rights to make a cartoon series about King Kong. As part of the deal, they had to produce a live-action feature film. Knowing this, they turned to Toho Studios for a collaboration--since Toho could easily produce a film that would cost less than the average American studio.

The first draft of Toho's King Kong film saw a group of teenagers in a sailboat finding themselves marooned on the island base of a terrorist organization, guarded by an enormous lobster. When the teens find King Kong sleeping in a cave, they wake him up to use as a defense against the terrorists and their pet crustacean.

However, Rankin & Bass weren't interested in this script. It was too different from their show for their tastes, so it was set aside and the next draft, which was more faithful to the show, would become King Kong Escapes. Toho obviously saw promise in the unused script, so with a quick bit of find and replace, King Kong was replaced with Godzilla.

And the rest is history.

Ryota (Toru Watanabe) lost his brother at sea several months ago. However, their mother visits a medium who insists that Yata (Toru Ibuki) is not in the land of the dead, so he must still be alive. Unfortunately for Ryota, the Japanese authorities don't really feel a medium's word is a good enough reason to expend resources searching the South Pacific for one guy. So when Ryota sees an ad for a dance contest where the prize is a sailboat, he rushes to get to it.

Unfortunately, it's an endurance contest that started 3 days ago. You can't very well join an endurance contest at the last minute. Ichino (Choutarou Tougin) and Nita (Hideo Sunazuka) have just washed out of the contest when they bump into Ryota. Apparently amused by the country boy's fascination with sailboats, the pair take him down to the docks to look at some.

They go aboard a fancy yacht, the Yahlen, only to find its apparent owner, Yoshimura (the imminent Akira Takarada), waiting for them with a rifle. Bizarrely, he agrees to let them stay the night as long as they're gone by morning. This proves a mistake, as Yoshimura, Nita, and Ichino wake up in the morning to discover that the Yahlen is already well out to sea, thanks to Ryota.

Oh, and Yoshimura's rifle is fake, he has a mysterious briefcase, he turns off a radio news broadcast right after it shifts from news of an American movie producer's stolen yacht to a report on a bank robber, and he makes skeleton keys for fun. But he's totally not a bank robber, you guys.

The Yahlen was fully stocked for an ocean crossing, so the four are doing just fine--until they run afoul of a storm. The storm quickly wrecks their helm and sets them adrift. However, that's a minor concern when an enormous lobster claw appears and obliterates their vessel. Luckily, they all wash up on the shore of a mysterious island alive. However, they quickly find the island isn't uninhabited. It's the base of a shady military organization, which they discover when a ship spraying yellow liquid arrives at the dock--and disgorges its cargo of captives from nearby Infant Island.

Three natives escape, one of them being gunned down in the process. The Guard Captain (Akihiko Hirata, wearing an eye-patch yet again) orders his men to cease pursuit when the two remaining fugitives make it to a canoe. The canoe doesn't get far before the giant lobster rises above the water, crushes the canoe, and them impales the two men on its claw to eat them like a kabob. In all the excitement, Dayo (Kumi Mizuno, long a fan favorite despite appearing in only two Godzilla movies prior to the Millennium series) escapes from the guards and runs into Yoshimura and the others. Unfortunately, the guards are in hot pursuit and now they know the castaways are here.

Luckily, the group is able to hide in a cave on a cliff. Dayo explains that the soldiers are the Red Bamboo, the giant lobster is Ebirah, and they are using the Infant Island natives as slave labor. Mothra is, oddly, napping throughout all this and ignoring the prayers of her people. So clearly the Red Bamboo are at least aware of the fate "Rolisica" suffered and did not lay a finger on the Shobijin (singing duo Pair Bambi, marking the first time the twin fairies are not played by Emi and Yumi Ito).

Ignoring the pain and suffering of her chosen people. Typical God behavior, really.

Dayo also reveals that Yata is alive and well on Infant Island. Yoshimura decides that the group should sneak into the Red Bamboo base to find out what they're up against. Ryota and Dayo are up for it, but Nita and Ichino would rather stay in the cave--until Nita happens to notice that the cave is not as empty as they thought.

Fighting space hydras really takes it out of ya.
Not eager to hang around a sleeping Godzilla, the whole crew attempts to infiltrate the Red Bamboo base. They manage to steal some smoke bombs and Dayo grabs a coil of copper wire to use as a necklace, but after discovering the base is a heavy water factory--to make nuclear bombs--the Guard Captain finds them. In their escape attempt, Ryota gets tangled in a weather balloon and floats away and Nita is captured. Nita quickly discovers the natives are being forced to crush yellow berries into juice--apparently these berries have a repellent effect on Ebirah, which allows the Red Bamboo ships to come and go unharmed. Nita proves smarter than he looks and suggests that they whip up a batch of the repellent using only the leaves so that it will be useless against Ebirah the next time a Red Bamboo ship tries to leave.

With the Red Bamboo combing the island for the castaways, Ichino comes up with an idea so crazy it just might work: use lightning to wake up Godzilla.

Ryota, meanwhile, lands on Infant Island and is reunited with Yata. Somehow, despite having been on the island long enough to know Dayo, Yata has not heard of the Red Bamboo. He can't bear to think of people suffering, so he and Ryota load up a canoe with barrels of yellow juice and head back to what the Shobijin term "Devil's Island." Unfortunately, a storm whips up and washes away their barrels--so they have no defense when Ebirah appears.

Luckily, the plan to wake up Godzilla worked beautifully. Godzilla bursts out of the cliffside and challenges Ebirah. The two bat rocks back and forth, until one rock goes astray and smashes a guard tower--alerting the Red Bamboo of Godzilla's presence. Ebirah proves oddly resistant to Godzilla's radioactive breath, but after a scuffle underwater the lobster retreats.

Ryota and Yata reunite with the group, but their attempt to sneak into the Red Bamboo base just results in them being pursued again. Dayo gets separated from the group and winds up at Godzilla's feet. Oddly, Godzilla seems a bit interested in Dayo--but then, she is played by Kumi Mizuno. When Godzilla begins to take a nap, the others move in to rescue her...

...only for a giant condor to appear out of nowhere and attack Godzilla. I imagine in the original script this played like a recreation of the King Kong vs. Pteranodon fight from the original King Kong. In the final film, though, the condor annoys Godzilla for a bit until it discovers the true price of taking on something that spits radioactive fire when you're covered in feathers.


Godzilla attempts to go back to sleep, only for a squadron of Red Bamboo fighter planes to appear. Godzilla's destruction of the plains is, delightfully, set to surf guitar music. The plane attack serves only to annoy Godzilla into destroying the Red Bamboo base, which allows Yoshimura and Yata to free the captives--but they're too late to stop a Red Bamboo scientist from triggering a self-destruct device that will obliterate the whole island in two hours. And when Godzilla crushes the building, the falling debris makes the shut-off switch impossible to reach.

Now all the heroes can do is hope that Mothra will finally wake her damn ass up and come rescue them before the whole island is vaporized.


As a kid, this was unquestionably my favorite Godzilla film. This was partly because it was among the ones I had the most access to because a neighbor recorded it off the Disney Channel for me. I once drove a babysitter to madness because of how often I wanted to watch it. Even now, though, it delights me to no end.

That the film was meant for King Kong is painfully obvious, of course. Godzilla had, after all, just spent two movies fighting King Ghidorah--one of his most powerful foes. A giant lobster with zero offensive weapons is a step down in every conceivable sense. What's more, most of the fight scenes require Godzilla--an amphibious creature--to behave as if he is out of his element in the water.

Ebirah dragging its opponent back down to the ocean floor after he attempted to get a breath is a suspenseful moment--if the opponent is a giant gorilla. We've seen Godzilla taking naps under the ocean repeatedly. It's no skin off his nose to be unable to reach the surface. For that matter, I'm not certain that Godzilla would even have been harmed by the island exploding if he didn't leave in time, unlike Kong who would definitely have been killed.

Plus, there's the whole "beauty and the beast" moment. Again, it's Kumi Mizuno we're talking about here and it is played down a lot more than it would be with Kong, but it's still odd that Godzilla would have any interest in a tiny human woman at all.

"Society and all its Maser cannons can never stop our love!"
So, yeah, Godzilla's opponent is less than impressive and the film is set on a tropical island, which cuts down on the city destruction significantly. This seems to be the major beef that many older Godzilla fans have with the movie. This movie is also a far cry from the dark and starkly terrifying 1954 film, so I'm sure the newer fans who seem to think that Godzilla should only ever be serious and a grim nuclear allegory would hate this film with every fiber of their being.

Nuts to that, on both counts. This movie, to me, exemplifies one of the aspects of Godzilla that is oddly forgotten in most discussions--the character's versatility. Yes, in the long run there's only so much you can expect out of a 150-foot radioactive dinosaur, but he can be anything from the dark avatar of nuclear weapons to valiant protector of the Earth. Godzilla is a character, not just a metaphor. And Godzilla is one of the few fictional characters to go from villain to hero and back again--and have it make sense every time.

This film is not meant as a metaphor. It has no message. It is meant to entertain only. So does it succeed at that goal? And how!

This film was the first time that Jun Fukuda would sit in the director's chair, making it only the second Godzilla movie not to be directed by Ishiro Honda. It's also the second film in the series to feature Masaru Sato as composer, but thankfully in this film Sato is allowed to use his own style--as opposed to Godzilla Raids Again, which saw him shamelessly ripping off Max Steiner's King Kong score.

Jun Fukuda was a very workman-like director. Unlike Honda, he didn't really have a knack for disctinctive framing choices and leitmotifs. However, that didn't stop this film from having a lush, candy-colored palette--it looks amazing on Blu-ray, where its technicolor glory truly pops.

If you ask me to chose Akira Ifukube or Masaru Sato as my favorite Godzilla composer, I'd have to honestly think hard on it before choosing. While this film is not Sato's finest work on the series--that honor goes most definitely to Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla--his score here is delightful. It takes manny of its cues from surf rock, as befits a film set on a tropical island. And while Sato's version of the Mothra song is hardly equal to the traditional theme, originally composed by Yuji Koseki, it's a nice spin on it that manages to be its own thing.

The effects for the film are largely great--provided you're not so lacking in imagination as to automatically label anything involving men in suits and miniature buildings as "bad effects" without any appreciation of the effort involved--though the monsters are a bit of a mixed bag. The Godzilla suit--originally used in Invasion of Astro-Monster--is actually one of my favorites, despite its resemblance to Cookie Monster, but it does look a bit haggard. It's possible that this was filmed after the suit was used as Jirass on an episode of Ultraman, so having to repaint it and cover up the spot where the frill was attached would account for some that. Mothra, on the other hand, looks godawful. The puppet looks, fittingly, moth-eaten and dirty; as though it was taken out of storage minutes before filming. Cripes, it even has a cigarette butt on the side of its head in one shot.

Maybe Mothra was like Steve McQueen in The Blob and she just refused to stop smoking during filming?
Ebirah, on the other hand, looks amazing. The creature is constantly in motion: its eye stalks wiggle, its feelers wave, and its mandibles are continually working. Add to that the fact that the creature was largely a man in a suit, yet the actor's legs--which would jut out at the totally wrong angle to be convincing as a crustacean--are never visible, and you have a fantastically realized monster.


Oh, yeah, and the giant condor looks okay, I guess.

The human story is ultimately where any monster movie fails, though. Sure, we come to see the monsters, but a movie that is 90 solid minutes of monster action is simply not feasible so the non-monster sections need to be compelling or it will be an exercise in boredom or frustration.

Luckily, this film's human story is great. The teenagers and the Red Bamboo don't really make much of an impression outside of the always reliable Akihiko Hirata charmingly evil Guard Captain, sure, but Kumi Mizuno is always welcome--and not just as a pretty face. The real standout is Akira Takarada as Yoshimura, though. This was Takarada's fourth and final Godzilla film until he returned to the series briefly in 1992's Godziilla and Mothra: Battle For The Earth and in 2004's Godzilla: Final Wars, and it is easily my favorite character of his. Yoshimura is a charming rogue with a hidden moral compass that actually points due North, similar to what made Han Solo so popular. The film would definitely not be as enjoyable without him.

In the long run, if you're expecting a serious Godzilla film with a strong central message, you need to look elsewhere. If you want a film that's entertaining, light-hearted, and fun? This will fit the bill perfectly.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Gorgo (1961)


Typecasting can be a pain in the ass. As an actor, you may want to play Othello but you end up stuck as the guy who plays a cross-dressing Mammy stereotype. As a director, you may want to do an inspirational film but you're just seen as a horror film director.

And then you have the weirdly specific typecasting. Eugene Lourie, a Ukraine-born French director is known specifically for three films that are so alike in subject matter that you could easily call them a trilogy--The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms; The Giant Behemoth; and today's film, Gorgo. You may have picked up that Gorgo is not a biopic about the queen of Sparta and that all three of these films are about giant monsters. Giant amphibious dinosaurs, to be specific.

Lourie was so frustrated at having been shoehorned into these films that after directed Gorgo he quit directing so he wouldn't be stuck making "the same comic-book monsters." Somewhere, with fourteen kaiju movies under his belt, Ishiro Honda calmly drags on a cigarette and chuckles.

The amusing thing about Lourie's trilogy of sea monsters is that the latter two films feel weirdly like response pieces. The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms was, in essence, a game changer. In 1953 it set the stage for the majority of giant monster films to follow--beginning, as it does, with a nuclear blast releasing a giant dinosaur from the arctic ice and setting it loose to destroy a major city.

The original Godzilla drew inspiration from this, but whereas the nuclear explosion in The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms is only a MacGuffin to set the plot in motion, Godzilla is all about the dangers of nukes. Even in the cut-up and re-edited Godzilla, King of the Monsters! that the film was released as for American audiences, Godzilla is still a walking avatar of nuclear weapons. He is indestructible, radioactive, and beyond human control.

Lourie seemed to have a bizarre need to one-up the creature that had arisen as a result of his own creation. The Giant Behemoth is, like Godzilla, a giant amphibious dinosaur that was minding its own business at the bottom of the sea until nuclear contamination drove it out, and like Godzilla it can discharge its own radiation as a weapon. Unlike Godzilla, the Behemoth is slowly dying of its radiation and is therefore a mortal creature to begin with.

But Gorgo is the most blatant attempt by Lourie to one-up his apparent saurian nemesis. You see, both The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms and The Giant Behemoth used stop-motion effects for their monsters. (And a truly unfortunate prop head in The Giant Behemoth, which we will get to eventually) Gorgo, on the other hand, takes a page from Toho studios and renders its monsters with a man in a suit destroying miniature sets. Lourie apparently wanted to beat Toho at their own game by doing it better.

How did he do in his attempt? Well...

We open off the coast of Ireland, as Americans Captain Joe Ryan (Bill Travers, who looks rather like Dominic West to give any fans of The Wire material for riffing) and his first mate Sam Slade (William Sylvester, better known for 2001: A Space Odysssey) are anchored in order to exploit the riches of a sunken ship. Suddenly, a volcano rises up out of the ocean and erupts--the resulting rough seas nearly capsizing their vessel. With the rudder damaged, they're forced to go ashore to get supplies on nearby Nara Island until they can repair it.

On the way in they encounter several (patently rubber) dead fish that look like nothing either of them has ever seen. Clearly the volcano displaced everything from even the deepest part of the ocean. Ashore the men find themselves not exactly welcomed by the inhabitants, who refuse to even speak anything but Gaelic at them. The most welcoming native is Sean (Vincent Winter), an orphaned young lad who either lives with the harbormaster or just hangs around to let strangers inside to show them the Viking artifacts the self-styled archaeologist has found and tell them about Ogra, the legendary sea serpent. McCartin (Christopher Rhodes), the harbormaster, is less than thrilled to have two salvage men around all his stuff when he comes home and tells them they can't stay in his harbor more than 24 hours.

However, something is about to force McCartin to deal with the sea raiders a bit longer. Two divers have gone missing and when one is found, he promptly dies--seemingly of fright. (As opposed to the bends, caused by coming up too fast due to fright, which seems more likely) The dead man had gold doubloons with him, so Joe and Sam figure McCartin was trying to keep them out of his treasure stash and decide to dive down to find the source. Instead, they glimpse what caused the diver to die of fright--a huge reptilian creature, and they decide that the gold is not worth the risk.

As Joe and Sam are loading up in order to leave Nara, they summoned by Sean to meet with McCartin. They observe a group of boats searching for the shark they think got the missing diver--but naturally they find what really did it when one of them throws a harpoon at a disturbance in the water and promptly a 65-foot dinosaur bursts from the water and smashes the boats. Sean, watching the creature from the shore, identifies it as Ogra. Unfortunately for Nara, Ogra is amphibious and charges ashore--harpoons and bullets only angering it further. Fortunately, Joe and Sam discover that the beast is terrified of fire and drive it back into the sea by flinging torches at it.

Joe and Sam, our heroes, see that the islanders are terrified and furious--so they blackmail McCartin  into opening his safe and giving them all his gold coins and treasures in exchange for them capturing Ogra. Sean warns them that what they're doing is a terrible bad thing, but being adults in a kaiju movie they ignore the child who intrinsically knows everything about the monsters. Maybe if he was wearing tiny shorts they'd listen.

Having apparently never seen The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms, Joe volunteers to go down in a diving bell as a lure for the monster. It works.

"Gah! This was a bad plan and I should feel bad!"
Luckily for Joe, his boat crew are more on the ball than the last time someone tried to observe a Lourie monster in a diving bell and he escapes with nothing worse than a sea water shower, Ogra is netted and hoisted aboard somehow. Joe and Sam immediately notify the media and offer the beast to the highest bidder. They at least let two paleontologists from Dublin--Professor Hendricks (Joseph O'Conor) and Professor Flaherty (Bruce Seton)--examine the captive Ogra and imply that they'll take it to the University of Dublin, and even take the advice of the scientists that a steady stream of water should be run over the creature so its skin does not dry out. However, they just received a wire from Dorkin's Circus in London that's a much, much better offer. So for London they set sail.

Unbeknownst to them, Sean has stowed away on board. Joe catches him in the process of trying to free Ogra. Somehow this is what prompts Joe and Sam to post a guard on the animal with a rifle. After stowing Sean in a bunk, they observe that the water off of Ogra is leaving a phosphorus trail--right before they hear the guard scream. The guy was on guard duty for about five minutes and somehow got himself killed by Ogra, but damned if I know how given the creature is so tied down it can't move its front paws more than two feet. He won't be the last person to die.

Mr. Dorkin (Marin Benson) re-christens the creature "Gorgo", apparently after the Gorgons of Greek Mythology, and has it paraded through London on its way to Battersea Park. During the attempt to load Gorgo into its enclosure, a typically reckless newspaper photographer runs up takes a flash photo of the beast and wakes it from its tranquilizer-induced stupor. After a brief rampage that kills no one, the beast is driven back into its enclosure by flamethrowers--only for its tail to casually swipe some idiot who chose to stand too close as the creature makes its way into the enclosure. So really Gorgo is only a threat to to the suicidally stupid.

Naturally, while the University of Dublin is trying to sue to get Gorgo back, the exhibition of the beast--in his pitifully small enclosure with a token attempt at giving the beast some water to wet its feet--is a huge success. Joe is delighted by the success, Sam sits in his trailer and drinks. He can't shake the feeling that something is going to go wrong, and the riled up behavior of the other circus animals just convinces him all the more. So when Professors Flaherty and Hendricks summon them in the middle of the night, their news is all Sam needs to hear.

You see, Gorgo is only a baby. And if Gorgo is a baby, he must have a mama. And if Gorgo is a baby at 65 feet, well, its mother would be 250 feet tall.

"We're boned."
The professors advise that they will be notifying the authorities, over Joe's strong objections. And right on cue, the true Ogra rises from the sea and smashes her way across Nara Island as she follows the trail her child left, killing McCartin in the process.

When the military stock footage--er, I mean fleet goes to investigate they find Nara Island destroyed and fire upon Ogra when she shows her head above water. They assume she is dead--until she resurfaces and sinks a Destroyer.

Sam wants to let Gorgo loose, but Joe refuses and the British military sees no reason that Dorkin can't be allowed to hold onto the creature. Surely they'll kill its mother soon enough. Sam attempts to free Gorgo on his own but Sean (oddly enough) stops him with Joe's help.

However, the full might of the British Navy is for naught. Ogra tears through the anti-submarine nets and makes her way into the Thames. An attempt to flood the Thames with petrol and set it alight succeeds only in killing some careless onlookers. Tanks are sent to bombard the beast at tower bridge, but she simply smashes her way through.


Now she makes her way through London, smashing buildings in her path and crushing hundreds of civilians with rubble. She smashes Big Ben--though with the military's help since they shoot right through it to get at her--and continues with frightening determination towards Battersea Park. But of course, at no point does anyone suggest that maybe, just maybe they ought to give back her offspring before the entirety of London is left in ruin.


Gorgo is hardly the best of Eugene Lourie's sea monster trilogy. That honor goes, without question, to The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms. I would say, however, that this film runs a close second.

For one thing, there were few giant monster movies outside of the original Godzilla to truly consider the scope of an enormous creature rampaging loose in a major city. The onscreen death toll of this film is impossible to count--people trampled by crowds, set afire, electrocuted, drowned, and crushed under tons of rubble. The shots of Ogra in front of a night sky turned red with the flames she has created are downright nightmarish, as are the endless shots of frightened civilians crushed under falling bricks.

And it's hard not to appreciate a movie that ends with the stupid humans who kept trying to kill Ogra rather than give back her child watching helplessly as she finally rescues her child and they turn from the ruined city to return to the sea. Apparently, this was done because Lourie's daughter was saddened by the endings of his prior two films where the monsters had to be killed for the good of mankind. Either way, Gorgo and Mothra both hail from 1961 and remain rare examples where the monsters are rampaging because they are trying to get back something precious to them--and are allowed to leave, victorious, at the end.

As for the monsters, going back to my earlier point--Lourie had expressed a desire to have his monsters be more believable than Godzilla and with more personality. Quite simply put, he failed. Don't get me wrong, I love the creature designs for Gorgo and his mother. They're incredibly memorable creatures with crocodilian hides and wiggling fin ears. Clearly even Toho liked them, given they must have been an influence on the design for Titanosaurus.

Little flappy fin ears are all the rage!
However, Lourie apparently insisted on lots of internal machinery that would move the creature's tails and give them more of realistic presence. The end result is...they don't look any different than Toho's creations that used wires to manipulate that tails. In fact, the suits are far more stiff and inexpressive than Godzilla--though that is due largely due to the fact that Mick Dillon, the man in the suit, does not have the same sense of character that Haruo Nakajima did. Gorgo and Ogra flap their jaws entirely at random and swing their huge front paws around willy-nilly. That the suit has red, light-up eyes and absolutely zero details inside the mouth doesn't help--the suit makers did a marvelous job detailing the suit's skin and then just gave up, from all I can tell. Which is a shame, since the eyes are one of the most important parts of a monster.

And I said "suit" rather than "suits" since I honestly believe they only made one. There's no effort made to make Gorgo look different from its mama, to the point that some shots of the two creatures were clearly mixed up in editing.

The rest of the film's effects just make you appreciate Toho's all the more. Apparently this film cost millions to make, and I'd wager the majority of that money went into optical composite and rear projection in sequences that absolutely do not require it. For instance, a ghostly reporter (Maurice Kaufmann) who impossibly shows up at every part of Ogra's rampage, awkwardly composited into the shot.

Of course, given that all the optical effects are Godawful and the film would be a good ten minutes shorter without the military stock footage, it's entirely likely that the majority of the film's budget went into the pockets of its producers, the King Brothers, as they were known crooks.

As far as the human story, well, it falls pretty flat. Joe and Sam, our supposed heroes, are opportunistic cretins not afraid to blackmail at the drop of hat--and willing to let all of London be turned into a parking lot rather than give up their cash cow. That neither of them--not even Joe, arguably the more mercenary of the two--get any comeuppance is rather ridiculous. Though, I'm sure that like the opening of Son of Kong, the entirety of London's survivors sued them for every penny they ever grabbed as soon as the closing credits finished rolling.

All things being equal, I am still very fond of this film. As a giant monster film, it definitely delivers on the destruction and its monsters--for all their faults--are incredibly memorable. If you love giant monster films and haven't seen this, I definitely recommend you rectify that at once. If you don't love giant monster movies, then you're already beyond help.