Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Lifeforce (1985)

Vampires are played out. Aside from zombies, I don't think there is a single monster that has been so done to, well, undeath. Vampires have been nightmarish, comedic, sexy, homoerotically sexy, heroic, and even "unerotically" sexy. They've been monsters, demons, Judas, and even mere victims of a mysterious plague.

And, naturally, they've also been aliens.

To point up how played out vampires are, they were already making them into aliens at least as early as the 1950s with the Roger Corman-produced Not of This Earth, and in the 1960s with Mario Bava's Planet of the Vampires and the also Roger Corman-produced (or AIP-produced, at any rate) Queen of Blood. That's not even factoring in blood-sucking aliens like The Thing From Another World or It! The Terror From Beyond Space, who weren't precisely vampires but fed like them.

It's not at all surprising that the trend would continue into the 1980s and beyond. After all, every vampire movie is required to either follow or buck the established lore of vampires--are they vulnerable to crosses, garlic, and sunlight or do they laugh at crosses, eat garlic bread with gusto, and just, ugh, sparkle in the sunlight? With a space vampire, you've already freed yourself somewhat of these rules without having to go through the list of "this works, that doesn't" in quite so rigid a manner.

Plus, since we became convinced that flying saucers existed--and even before that--mankind has loved the idea of aliens. Vampires, played out as they may be, have still maintained a hold on the pop culture imagination. Why not put these two flavors together and see how they taste?

Of course, most of the space vampire movies tended to ground their vampires in some way. After all, it makes no sense that a vampire from a distant galaxy would recoil at a cross or cast no reflection. And it certainly wouldn't have come about because its soul was taken, right?

Oh, but you see, by the 1980s metaphysics and psychic phenomena were treated as if they were actual science in their own right. So making your vampires into aliens in no way meant that they had to be logical. And yet, mysticism and science fiction had not been mutually exclusive concepts for decades. Indeed, some of the best science fiction proceeded from a starting point of grounding the "supernatural" in scientific terms.

So, when Cannon Films hired Tobe Hooper to direct a Dan O'Bannon screenplay based on the novel The Space Vampires by Colin Wilson, it's almost not surprising at all that the final film would end up resembling an earlier science fiction film that also dealt with a supernatural concept--that both are largely set in London just makes the resemblance all the clearer.

We begin with a science fiction staple: the voice-over narrator (rumored to be John Larroquette, more or less reprising his same role in Tobe Hooper's earlier Texas Chainsaw Massacre), explaining what we are seeing. A joint US / British expedition has been launched, with the goal of sending an experimental space shuttle, the Churchill, to Halley's Comet. This experimental craft is equipped with a NERVA engine which enables the craft to have Earth-like gravity on an extended flight. In this case, that translates to "they have gravity in every scene where we didn't want to go to the trouble of faking zero gravity."

As the Challenger approaches Halley's Comet, their sensors detect something strange: a clearly unnatural object in the corona of the comet: an object 150-miles long, at that. American Commander Carlsen (Steve Railsback) goes for the option of "fuck whatever our actual mission was, let's check out that space doohickey." So the Challenger pulls up alongside the strange object--the effects here, aside from the strange decision to make Halley's comet green, still hold up pretty well since the visual effects supervisor was John Dykstra--and Carlsen leads an away team to investigate the craft.

Entering through an opening that looks like "a giant artery", the characters make their way into the enormous derelict and discover a huge chamber full of the ship's mummified occupants: enormous bat-like creatures. Carlsen, ever the boorish American, breaks a finger off of one of the dead creatures just to test that it's as desiccated as it looks. The rest of the crew throws a specimen bag over the creature--oddly not grabbing one their commander hasn't manhandled.

"Huh, the first alien specimen humanity has ever encountered. Let's poke it."
Then something strange happens: the spaceship deploys an enormous structure on its "stern' that looks like an umbrella made of bat wings. And then an until-then unnoticed door opens up behind Carlsen, accompanied by a blinding light. Carlsen decides they should investigate, despite the objections of some of his crew.

Once through the passageway, the team finds a chamber full of crystalline containers. All the containers seem to be full of more of those bat creatures--except for the three glowing ones at the center, which contain what appear to be three humans: a beautiful woman (Mathilda May, credited as "Space Girl") flanked by two males (Chris Jagger and Bill Malin). All three are stark naked and you'll notice immediately a flagrant exercise of the male gaze, as our Space Girl is completely exposed in her crystal tube while her male companions have their genitals conveniently obscured.

"These prizes get weirder every carnival."
Carlsen and crew decide to take the three humanoid specimens back with them, ignoring the fact that all the men in the away team have begun acting strangely around the Space Girl whilst the lone female team member rolls her eyes at them. At first it's just the expected leering and comments about having been "in space for six months", but then it's all thousand yard stares and incoherent mumbling. Still, the crew begins trying to dislodge the three tubes...

...cut to a few months later, as the Churchill drifts back to Earth. In mission control at the Space Research Centre in London, Dr. Bukovksy (Michael Gothard) smokes nervously as the radio operator informs him that the Churchill is not only not responding to radio but appears to be radio dead. Worse, it seems like they haven't corrected their course since shortly after leaving the comet. NASA dispatches the Columbia to investigate.

The astronauts who board the Churchill are in for a nasty surprise, as the inside of the craft is completely gutted by fire. The crew are all charred skeletons. However, inside the tug bay the astronauts discover the three crystal cases are completely untouched. The bodies are brought back down to the SRC. Dr. Bukovsky convenes a meeting with several of the SRC's top scientists, specifically Dr. Hans Fallada (Frank Finlay), whose specialty is Thanatology--the study of death. Fallada is hesitant to declare the aliens dead, but an autopsy is scheduled anyway--especially since the cases, which appear to be more like force fields than an actual physical structure, have opened of their own accord.

Later that evening, Bukovsky settles down to watch some BBC and drink some liquor as he watches the BBC prattle on about how comets used to be called "disaster", which is "Latin for 'evil star'." He clicks the telly off as the announcer gets to talking about the as-yet unreleased fate of the Churchill astronauts. But as Bukovsky dozes, the lone guard on the Space Girl finds himself drawn to her seemingly lifeless form on the autopsy table inside a sterile examination room--but when he reaches out to touch her, she awakens and gets off the table.

"Greetings. I am an eldritch abomination from the stars here to devour your world."
The guard, being confronted by a naked Mathilda May, does nothing to stop her when she pulls his breathing apparatus off and begins furiously kissing him. But then the lights begin to flicker in the room--and lightning streams from the hapless guard's eyes and mouth. Bukovsky woke up to see the lead-up to the kiss on the security monitor in his office and, at first, seemed to be writing it off as a hallucination brought on by sleep and alcohol, but he realizes the truth just in time to be too late. He arrives and the guard collapses into Bukovsky's arms, little more than a smoking skeleton with a thin stretching of skin over it.

The Space Girl walks out of the shadows, looking satisfied with herself, and tells Bukovsky in a heavily reverbed voice to, "Use my body." Right about then, Fallada wanders into Bukovksy's office in time to see the Space Girl leaning in for a kiss--and Fallada wisely grabs some reinforcements before rushing to the room. The Space Girl has gone, but Bukovsky is still alive even though he's extremely weak. Fallada grabs a phone to order the guards to seal the building, assuring Bukovsky, "A naked girl is not going to get out of this complex."

Famous last words, naturally. When confronted by a cadre of Cockney guards, she force-chokes one guard, terrifies one into inaction, and uses her telekinetic powers to chuck the other across the room. She then uses her powers to completely obliterate the front window of the complex and wander naked into what seems a very cold night.

Enter Colonel Caine of the SAS (Peter Firth), curly-haired man of action. He arrives at the SRC to take over the case of the murderous space nudist, waving away the press and proceeding to get the back story from Bukovsky and Fallada. Here Caine (and the audience) learns that not only were the Churchill's memory tapes erased, but that the escape pod was missing. It couldn't have been launched by the fire, so someone must have survived but the condition of the crew's corpses make determining who it was impossible.

Caine and Fallada almost instantly strike up a camaraderie as Caine questions Fallada about his interest in death. Fallada explains that not only does he believe that there is life after death, but in fact what happened at the SRC was that the Space Girl completely draining the life force from the guard and partially from Bukovsky. "A vampire," Caine intones, and he's not wrong. And what about those two male vampires, you may now be asking? Well, they're being watched by two soldiers, who are both a bit wigged out by being assigned to watch two space stiffs. As one soldier comments that they don't look dead--the vampires prove him right by blasting apart the doors to their examination room and advancing menacingly on the guards. In a manner that keeps their privates from being visible, of course.

Well, the soldiers know the score and open fire with automatic weapons, which blasts holes in the vamps but doesn't slow them down. But the grenades do the trick. Caine and Fallada somehow didn't hear any of the prior ruckus, but the grenades bring them running to find that their specimens have been reduced to meaty chunks. But it's never a dull moment at the SRC, for just as Caine and Fallada--who totally should have been a duo that returned in a sequel to investigate other paranormal threats--are trying to make sense of the mess, the autopsy on the guard has begun. Only the guard doesn't want to stay dead for the pathologist.
George Hamilton finally hits the tanning bed one time too many.

The guard compels the pathologist to come close for a kiss and the lightning transference happens again, this time resulting in the pathologist being reduced to an emaciated corpse and the guard being returned to his healthy, naked, and extremely confused self. Fallada orders the guard and the late pathologist to each be put into "an isolation cell" (translation: supply closet). Then word comes in that the corpse of a naked woman has been found in Hyde Park in "an indescribable condition." Caine is hopeful it might be the Space Girl, but those hopes are quickly dashed--this girl isn't even a brunette. So now their quarry has clothes and they have another vampire to deal with.

Sir Percy Heseltine (Aubrey Morris) is sent to the SRC by the Prime Minister to find out what the devil is going on. He arrives just in time to witness a prediction Fallada made come true--the vampires created by the Space Girl need to be fed every two hours or they turn to dust. Explosively.
"The cleaning staff just all committed suicide, sir."
Some answers to exactly what the hell they're dealing with may be forthcoming, as the escape pod has just landed in Texas--and Carlsen is inside. He is rushed to the SRC to meet with Fallda, Bukovsky, and Caine. Caine quickly briefs him on what has happened since the return of the Churchill and implores him to explain what happened on the expedition. Basically, as Carlsen tells it, it was the space going equivalent of the Demeter in Bram Stoker's Dracula. One by one, Carlsen's crew sickened and died after leaving the comet with the bodies--completely drained of life. When Carlsen saw the Earth from the window of the shuttle, he knew he had to stop the creatures from reaching Earth. So he purged the ship's oxygen tanks, lit a fire, and then climbed into the escape pod just ahead of the resulting fireball. However, Carlsen admits he was reluctant to leave behind the Space Girl because he was so drawn to her.

Carlsen's story really didn't give them any more answers, but when Carlsens sleeps he has a dream about the Space Girl making love to him in a crypt right out of a haunted house attraction, before draining him of life. He wakes, screaming, and Fallada recognizes that it was actually a psychic visitation and reasons that if she's in touch with Catlsen's mind, perhaps he is in touch with hers. At Fallada's suggestion, Carlsen agrees to be hypnotized--and now the film starts to get truly weird.

You see, the Space Girl has left her body--though hidden in a safe place, she's no fool--and is currently inhabiting a nurse named Ellen (Nancy Paul). Using this body jumping the Space Girl has been draining victims of just enough life energy to sustain herself but not enough to leave a corpse. From the information collected from Carlsen's hypnosis, Sir Percy helps Caine track the nurse to Thurlston Asylum for the Criminally Insane. Sir Percy, Caine, and Carlsen go to visit Thurlston and its manager Dr. Armstrong (Patrick Stewart!). Armstrong leads them to Ellen's apartment and Caine and Carlsen go to question her.

Carlsen suddenly gets violent with Ellen, but he explains to Caine that he is able to see into her mind somehow (!) and knows that A) the Space Girl has moved to another body and B) the nurse knows who it is but she's actually a masochist who wants to have the information forced out of her. Carlsen advises Caine he may want to leave, but Caine responds with the immortal, "Not at all: I am a natural voyeur." One weird erotic interrogation later, Carlsen has a physical description of the patient now hosting the alien.

Giving the description to Armstrong gives them a name and Carlsen advises they want to hypnotize him using a dosage of pentothal and morphine, but when Armstrong touches Carlsen the jig is up. See the Space Girl is actually inside Armstrong. Caine and Carlsen overpower and drug Armstrong, thereby trapping her in his body so they can interrogate her.
It...doesn't go well. Sure, they find out that the aliens used their telepathy to learn about humans and assume forms that would be pleasing to their prey, but even under the effect of the drug the Space Girl is able to control Carlsen and compel him to kiss Armstrong (giving Patrick Stewart his first-ever onscreen kiss with...Steve Railsback). This allows her enough energy to almost break free in a blast of energy and telekinesis, but Caine quickly injects Armstrong with a double dose of the hypnotic drug. Sir Percy was killed in the commotion however, and Carlsen momentarily can't stop babbling about how, "It's too late, you didn't stop it." Carlsen can't recall what it means when he regains his composure, but Caine has figured it out all too well.

The Space Girl has been leading them further and further away form London. And if there were other bodies that they didn't find, well, it's been many, many hours since she first escaped--more than enough time for her vampirism to spread like a plague. In fact, as they rush back to London by helicopter they discover that the city is a burning chaos as the vampires run wild through the streets and one of the male space vampires flies about as a ball of energy, siphoning souls to be sent up to the spaceship that has just parked itself in orbit above London to collect all the stolen souls. To make matters worse, the Space Girl has had enough of this "drugged into a stupor" bullshit and uses her powers to cause Armstrong and Sir Percy to hemorrhage blood from every orifice, which then takes on her form before collapsing into a mess on the helicopter floor.
"You''re seeing this, too, right?"
Well, they completely failed to stop the space vampires and lost their queen, but maybe all hope isn't lost. See, there's a reason there's only one male vampire flying around London. After their bodies were destroyed, they jumped to the bodies of the soldiers who killed them. One male vampire made the mistake of going after Fallada, who had just acquired a leaded iron sword and proceeded to impale his assailant through the "energy center" directly below the heart. Turns out, that's how you kill a space vampire. So all Caine and Carlsen have to do is get to the SRC and take that sword to finish off the other two vampires. The SRC, which is in the heart of vampire-infested London.

Yeah, that should be a cinch.
"Visine. It gets the curlicues out."
It's most in its climax that Lifeforce reminds me of Hammer's Quatermass And The Pit. Both films involve an ancient supernatural evil of an actually extraterrestrial origin devastating London by turning its population into monsters, and both films have their avatars of evil convert themselves into energy to further control their victims. But the whole film is delightfully imbued with that British sensibility that made the Quatermass films so enjoyable--quite surprising, given how many Yanks were involved in its production.

Another part of its charm is just simply the fact that, like Willliam Girdler's even more batshit-insane The Manitou before it, the film throws all this surreal crap at the screen and the characters just accept it and attempt to deal with it any way that they can. By the end the characters have encountered such insanity that Caine is fighting a space bat monster without flinching--in what is easily my favorite scene of the film.
Hey, NECA: make an action figure of this thing!
The film's effects are rarely anything but amazing. Some of the optical efects and matte paintings are obvious, but they still look incredible. The make-up and creature effects are honestly where it fumbles the most--particularly as the needs of the climax force the Space Girl's victims to change from living skeletons to generic zombies--but even there we are delivered such great sights as the true form of the space vampires and the likeness of the Space Girl forming out of blood.

The film also benefits from an amazing score by Henry Mancini, who had previously given the world the ubiquitous theme to Creature From The Black Lagoon, which is performed by the London Philharmonic Orchestra. It's a sweeping, epic score that elevates the film far more than a more generic soundtrack of the period might have.

The acting ranges from stiff and unconvincing--most of the astronauts and Steve Railsback--to full-out scenery chewing--Steve Railsback--but most of the actors hit the right notes. At any rate, this isn't Antigone, it's a movie about a naked alien bombshell who sucks people's souls out of their faces, so it's less important for the actors to portray the depths of the human condition as it is that they not annoy the audience. And thankfully, none of them do.

Mathilda May deserves a lot of credit. Not only is she completely naked for 95% of her screentime--including several scenes that appear to be freezing cold, and then there's that blood avatar sequence that looks to have been quite uncomfortable--but she truly imbues the Space Girl with a sense of overwhelming sensuality, menace, and a supernatural otherness. Not bad, considering that she barely has any lines. Yet you can't deny she imbues the Space Girl with a distinct character. And you'd certainly be hard-pressed to find a more naked vampiress in film, outside of Lina Romay in Jesus Franco's Female Vampire, if that's what you're looking for.
Yeah, sorry, I'd doom the world for her.
Watching the film as many times as I have, I've begun to feel that it has a very strange idea about weaponized femininity. The only major female character being a soul-sucking space vampire should tip you off to that quickly enough, but the interactions between the male characters suggest something else entirely. It suggests a group of homosexual men confronted by overpowering female sexuality. Witness Bukovsky's horror at having been seduced by a woman, all the male characters seem to touch each other in oddly inappropriate ways, there's the Railsback / Stewart kiss, and the fact that Caine gives Carlsen a longing look whilst trying to plead with him to resist the wiles of the female vampire that suggests he is less trying to save his friend's soul and more that he is begging his lover not to get back with an ex.

I rather doubt that that was on purpose, but it's amusing to interpret it that way nonetheless.

The film is definitely not for everyone, but I love its mix of British sci-fi, psychic nonsense, exploitation, and vampire tropes. It rarely makes any actual sense, particularly as it goes on, but it's an amusing enough ride that it doesn't matter.

It's interesting to note that, like Blade Runner, this film is better known in its extended cut than the theatrical cut. Indeed, the only cut on VHS and DVD for many years was the extended cut. When Scream Factory released it in 2013, I finally got to watch the theatrical cut and...oof. It's not just that it's shorter. It also cuts out most of Henry Mancini's score, removes most of the space vampires' dialogue (ruining my favorite part of Caine's confrontation with the male vampire), and inserts scenes from the climax throughout the film. By doing so, they've completely undercut the effectiveness of the realization that the Space Girl has been luring them away from London by showing that it's too late well before the characters realize it. I much prefer the longer cut.

At any rate, a shorter cut still didn't bring in audiences and the film was a bit of a flop. Calling it Lifeforce instead of Space Vampires was probably part of that as well, but Cannon Films wanted to sell the film as a high-budget spectacle instead of their usual low-budget fare. It didn't work, clearly. However, like much of Cannon's output, it's since gained a cult following. As it damn well should.
This has been my contribution to the "Cannon Fodder" roundtable, dedicated to the memory of the late Menahem Golan of the Cannon dream team, Golan and Globus. The others got theirs done well before i did so why haven't you read them already?

Checkpoint Telstar: Delta Force

Cinemasochist Apocalypse: Exterminator 2

Micro-Brewed Reviews: 10 To Midnight

Monday, July 28, 2014

Carnosaur 2 (1995)

Roger Corman is a legend for many, many reasons. One such reason is his unerring ability to cash in on a new, popular film in a way that The Asylum can't even dream of. Sure, cashing in on Snakes On A Plane by making a movie called Snakes On A Train is kind of brilliant--but that's nothing compared to how Corman responded to Jurassic Park.

Not only did Corman recognize the hit potential of Jurassic Park far enough ahead of time to not only have his own rip-off ready--also ostensibly based on a novel, albeit only sightly more faithfully than World War Z, and featuring the mother of one of Jurassic Park's stars--but he got it into theaters a full month before the film he was cashing in on!

So it is therefore fitting that Corman also beat Jurassic Park to releasing sequels. This film came out a full two years before The Lost World: Jurassic Park finally got its act together, and Carnosaur 3 came out a year after this film. Thus is the benefit of relying on John Carl Buechler puppets and guys in suits instead of revolutionizing Hollywood effects: your turnaround is almost immediate.

Now, Carnosaur 2 goes one better than the film it follows by managing to not just rip off Jurassic Park, but the entire plot of a different Hollywood blockbuster. You'll probably figure out which one as we go along. It also continues the trend set by the first film of apparently having some serious issues with women, but we'll get to that.

The credits roll over desert scenery interspersed with quick cuts of footage from the first film (and I'll note here that John Carl Buechler's name is misspelled in the credits). Now, given that the first film ended with a virus that was causing women to give birth to dinosaurs and die sweeping the world, you might expect that this film opens in a post-apocalyptic future where dinosaurs rule the earth again and humanity is dying out.

You'd be wrong. And probably disappointed.

No, I guess that either this film is following a different continuity or it just wasn't as bad as all that. Business has apparently continued as usual at the government-run Yucca Mountain uranium mine in the Nevada desert. Or so it has until some schmuck in a cowboy hat is set upon by a snarling POV cam as he is searching through the bowels of the facility for the source of some issue or other. Presumably his last words were a gurgled, "Welp...there's your problem."

Meanwhile, teenager Jesse (Ryan Thomas Johnson) and his friend are breaking into the dynamite storage closet using a keycard-hacking device borrowed from John Connor. His uncle, one of the lead engineers, first finds a huge chunk torn out of the cables in the corridor that are somehow crucial to the mine's operation--and then finds Jesse and friend mucking around with dynamite. A brief lecture is followed by Jesse being dragged topside--where, in order to keep him busy while his uncle talks with the communications tech, Jesse is shown by another engineer how to work a forklift and the lever that opens the gate to a 150-foot deep pit. I'm sure that won't come in handy later.

The communications guy was able to send a message and a repair crew should be on their way in a few hours. Jesse and his father retire to the mine's diner. His father believes Jesse is responsible for the damaged cables, but Jesse insists he is not. Jesse is somewhat vindicated when the cafe's proprietor goes outside to chase away what he thinks is a coyote getting into the trash--and instead finds something capable of tossing him back through the diner's window. The something then follows and backhands Jesse's father to death before setting in on the rest of the diner's patrons while Jesse cowers in a corner...

The next morning, a government-contracted team of repair technicians are called in to the office at the crack of dawn. Reed (John Savage) just seems depressed and tired, Monk (Rick Dean) is complaining to Rawlins (Arabella Holzbog) about how the call was the interruptus to his extramarital coitus, and Moses (Miguel A. Nunez, Jr!) is tired and irritated with Monk. None of them knows why they were called in, until their eye-patched boss, Kehane (Don Sttroud), walks in with Major McQuade (Cliff De Young). McQuade--who is oddly decked out in a flannel shirt and tan vest--explains that they are being called in to help out with a short in Yucca Mountain's systems. Ideally, a civilian crew would not be called in but the mine is on a schedule and this crew was the closest. McQuade has no idea the nature of the issue, of course, because radio contact ceased right after it was called in.

The crew takes off in a helicopter piloted by Galloway (Neith Hunter), while Monk blasts "Ride of the Valkyries" from a boombox. Once they land, Moses has to hotwire a door in order to enter the facility. Inside they find the place trashed and empty--and in the mess hall they find blood and a catatonic Jesse, who somehow escaped the notice of whatever ate everyone else by...cowering in the corner. McQuade ignores the team's vocal misgivings and Moses gets to work fixing the computers in the control room.

Reed takes Jesse to the infirmary to check him out with Galloway's help. McQuade tries to question Jesse, but it's no good. McQuade insists that the crew couldn't have run away because there's nothing but desert for 80 miles. The team wants to leave, but McQuade refuses and successfully pressures Galloway into refusing to fly the group out. With little choice the group begins to work on the job they were called out there for, even as it gets more suspicious by the minute--the computer system is too sophisticated for a mining operation and Monk pulls up a radiation readout that indicates some of the levels are "Unsafe."

Reed tries to bond with the catatonic Jesse by talking about his now deceased son that Jesse reminds him of. Perhaps to stop Reed from stroking his cheek awkwardly, Jesse begins having a flashback to the attack on the mess hall and muttering, "God help us all." After Jesse calms down, Reed leaves him so that Galloway can have her turn at stroking his face inappropriately. Galloway brings a now-conscious Jesse into the control room with Moses as the rest of the team descends into the lower levels of the facility as Moses monitors their progress through cameras and radio.

McQuade stops the group from going into a lower level because it's classified, but Reed and Rawlins just barge past him. They really should have listened--Rawlins finds a huge tooth in some cables and while the others try to get a frightened McQuade to give up some answers, something roars. Kehane had wondered off from the group to get a better radio signal, but he onlu succeeds in being dragged to his death by something with scaly claws. The rest of the group flees back up toward the control room, where Jesse has fully snapped out of it as he realizes what's happening and runs away. Galloway follows, which means that Moses is left on his own in the control room--when a "Velociraptor" attacks.

"Look, if this is about Juwanna Mann, I understand your frustration..."

Now, the dinosaur that held this role in the first film was an actual Deinonychus--whom some of you may recognize as the dinosaur this blog is named after. In this film, much like Jurassic Park, the dinosaur is still a Deinonychus in size and build, but it's supposed to be a Velociraptor. I'll play along and call it a raptor, but it's really a step-down: Deinonychus is way cooler than Velociraptor any day of the week.

Anyways, the "Raptor", which is plainly a guy in a suit, proceeds to slap the hell out of Moses. Galloway comes back just in time to witness this as Moses yells for her to leave and is then dragged up into an duct by the Raptor. Galloway takes Moses' last words to heart and runs to the helicopter and gets it running. Jesse joins the others and they rush out to the helicopter as Galloway yells at them to get in.

Unfortunately, Galloway has an unexpected passenger already.

"Take this chopper to Cuba!"
The Raptor's attack causes the chopper to lift off and then a not very convincing model to crash back down and explode. McQuade still dodges any questions but insists that they can't leave by foot--80 miles of desert, remember--so their best bet is to hole up back inside. In the control room, McQuade finally reveals that 2 months earlier a biotech firm somehow discovered a way to bring back dinosaurs. Naturally, the dinosaurs went wild and started killing people. A team was sent in to wipe out the dinosaurs and succeeded--but a nest of eggs was found and stored in the Yucca Mountain facility. The eggs were on ice but clearly they thawed out.

(And yes, McQuade says "months" not "years." That's a hell of a growth rate these Raptors have!)

With Jesse's help the group finds the store room where the dynamite is kept. Over McQuade's objections, Reed and Monk go down to retrieve the dynamite. After a false scare with a pet iguana, the two find the store room but McQuade remotely seals them in intending to keep them there until the Evac team arrives. However, Reed breaks the panel control the door easily and the two are free.

Reed goes down a level to begin setting dynamite snares. McQuade knocks Monk out and then attacks Reed--but McQuade is distracted when an alarm sounds and is followed by an announcement of containment failure. Monk knocks McQuade out and then Reed uses a flare gun to kill the Raptor that ambushes Monk.

Up in the control room, McQuade reveals that the lower levels of the facility are a nuclear waste repository--plutonium, nuclear warheads, MUTO eggs, you name it. McQuade figures the alarms mean they have about 2 hours till the facility is a big mushroom cloud. So either dinosaurs or nuclear explosions, either way they're all dead. Jesse suggests they crash the whole system: in theory that will set off enough alarms for the government to send an Evac team pronto.

Reed, Monk, and McQuade set about placing dynamite booby traps and then Reed leaves the boombox blasting "Ride of the Valkyries" to...annoy the Raptors? Do dinosaurs hate Wagner?

"RAR! You're only playing this because it's public domain! RAR!"
While Jesse works on the shutdown codes, he and Reed bond as Reed explains that he used to have a son, too. Finally, Jesse gets the code and shuts the system down--and right on cue, the dynamite snares begin going off. Unfortunately, it quickly becomes clear that the Raptors are somehow still getting closer to the control room. You see, they've figured out the traps and how to set them off.

Qouth Monk, "What do you mean, figured it out? They're lizards, man!"

I trust you have by now figured out what the other movie being ripped off is, but if not you will soon.

"Lizards?! How dare you, sir!"
The group rushes to the elevator, barely escaping a Raptor that tries to get in through the control room hatch. The elevator takes its sweet time in moving and another Raptor bursts through the ceiling, grabs Rawlins, and hauls her off to her doom.

Now, remember when I said this movie had issues with women? The fact that there are only two female characters and they both end up as dino-chow doesn't necessarily mean anything. Except that every other victim of the Raptors thus far has just been slapped around a bit, bloodied, and then discretely dragged away to their certain death.

Not so with Rawlins. We get to watch as the Raptor graphically tears off her arm and then rips her guts out before she finally expires.

Yeah. Issues.
"Look, my psychiatrist said it was a healthy way to deal with my anger at my ex-wife!" --the director, probably.
Somehow the Raptor attack causes the elevator to fall several levels. Reed takes out a Raptor with dynamite, but then another Raptor sets off a trap too close to Monk. Monk is injured, but Mcquade volunteers to help him while Reed and Jesse head for the surface. Unfortunately, Raptors quickly surround McQuade and Monk and McQuade grabs the last of the dynamite and lights it--killing himself and Monk, but taking several Raptors with them.

Reed somehow manages to fall over a railing. Jesse tries to help him up, but Reed slips and plunges a hundred feet down and lands on a bunch of metal pipes. Somehow, Reed survives this. Jesse hollers down that he'll be back with help. Jesse runs outside to where the Evac Team is waiting with a helicopter and tries to tell them that they need to rescue Reed. The Evac Team tries to just put Jesse on the chopper, but Jesse refuses to go and runs back in, taking the elevator down. He finds Reed, who has developed a slight limp from his fall and they head off--somehow taking a different route than Jesse came in and finding several dismembered bodies.

And then the T-Rex shows up.

Without the lens flare.
Delightfully, the T-Rex is bellowing the generic dinosaur roar used by the T-Rex in The Land Unknown and by King Kong in the 1976 remake as it somehow catches the two by surprise. They outrun it and make it to the elevator. Topside the two are helped to the chopper, but Jesse forgot the remote for the detonator (yeah I've watched this several times and I'm not certain when this remote was ever set up, but whatever) and runs back to the elevator to get it. Which means he is nearby when the T-Rex bursts out of another door (!) and proceeds to grab the only black guy in the Evac Team by the head, bite his head off, and then shake his headless corpse until it falls apart.

So the goriest deaths belong to a woman and a black man. Damn, there's a lot of unfortunate subtext going on here.

Jesse runs and gets the forklift, confronting the T-Rex. This is a familiar scene for two reasons: first, it's basically a recreation of the climax of the first film where the hero fought the T-Rex in a Bobcat (even re-using some of the footage from that sequence) and two, well, it's a blatant copy of the same scene in the film it's ripping off.

"Move back from him you female dog!"
Jesse eventually activates the the switch that opens the pit. After slashing open the Rex's stomach he finally pushes the dinosaur to its death.

"Curse my tiny arms! Come closer so I can throttle you!"
With one minute left before containment failure, Jesse rushes to board the helicopter. The chopper takes off and then Reed grabs the remote and sets off the detonator (!), blowing the facility sky high. Yeah, I don't get it either. What was the countdown for if the heroes were just going to blow the place up?

At any rate, the chopper somehow outruns a nuclear blast and Reed assures Jesse that it's all going to be okay. Well, until they hear from James Cameron's lawyers, that is.

Yes, as I'm sure you figured out very early on, this film might be the most shameless rip-off of Aliens ever made. It is almost a scene-for-scene remake of Aliens, if you switched the setting to modern day Earth, replaced aliens with dinosaurs, and strong female characters with misogyny. Hell, McQuade is dressed exactly like Paul Reiser as Burke.

It's so shameless you're forced to admire it, even if you don't like it.

And boy, I used to not like it. I saw it at around 11 or 12, before I had actually even seen Aliens alll the way through, and I was not a fan. Maybe it was because I didn't like seeing all the women and minorities bite it--I was a very progressive kid in some ways--or maybe it was because the video case promised me something that the movie inside never delivered upon:

Great, I just directed a lot of Vore traffic to this site, didn't I?
No, no cheesecake photoshoots are interrupted by hungry T-Rexes in this movie--or whatever is supposed to be happening in that still.

However, when I was younger there were a lot of movies I wrote off as terrible and then years later discovered I enjoyed. Some of that was that my tastes, like most people's, changed as I got older. I no longer found gore to be a bad thing in films that I watched.

That alone is not why I sought this film out: I sought it out because a weird form of nostalgia began to overtake me a few years ago. Usually, nostalgia is for things you loved as a child and even now can't entirely give up. The form of nostalgia that struck me, however, was for things that even young me knew were terrible.

So it was that I sought out the Carnosaur trilogy and discovered that, yes, I actually do like Carnosaur 2 now.

Obviously, the film coasts a lot on the plot it's stolen from a beloved genre film, but its own merits lie in other areas. For one, the dinosaurs are delightful and delightfully terrible: I've always loved Buechler's adorable T-Rex robot and puppet, and it's in fine form here--both for the good and the hilariously cheesy. The Raptors are not even for a moment convincing and their terribleness is what makes them great. Even though none of the prehistoric denizens of this film hold a candle to the dinosaurs of their immediate inspiration, they have just as much personality and charm.

The acting ranges from pretty good to acceptable. Nobody is awful, but John Savage ought to make everyone watching laugh with his hilariously exaggerated Brooklyn accent. I swear it gets more pronounced as the film goes on. At one point he hollers, "You're a buncha sick bastahds!"

This really isn't a good film, exactly, but it has a charm to it that modern day direct-to-video rip-offs and rehashes just don't have. This film is trying. It doesn't just accept that it's terrible and expect you to laugh with it instead of at it. It runs with its obviously borrowed plot and delivers guys in Raptor suits slapping people in the face. And I will take that over a hundred Sharknados.

I'm really not sure why this film is such a shameless rip-off of Aliens. Maybe Roger Corman figured that, since he gave Cameron his start, that any of Cameron's successes were fair game. Whatever the reason, you can either admire its gall or be disgusted by it. 12-year-old me was disgusted by it, but modern me loves it.

If you're looking for a good film, watch Aliens. If you're looking for an entertaining film that's exactly like Aliens but with the added detail of a T-Rex biting a guy's head off, you'll find it in Carnosaur 2.

This review is part of the Celluloid Zeroes Roundtable, "The Sincerest Form of Fradulence." Go check out the other entries, won't you?

Checkpoint Telstar fights a Battle Beyond The Stars!

Cinemasochist Apocalypse gets a little too frisky with Inseminoid!

Tomb of Anubis challenges a few Death Racers!

Micro-Brewed Reviews needs an adapter for a Cyberjack!

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...


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.