Thursday, December 25, 2014

Godzilla vs. Space Godzilla (1994)


Yes, I'm still here. Between the level of effort that had to go into Hubrisween and the general demands of being a father to a 6-month old, I haven't really had time to complete a review. However, I knew I couldn't let two important events pass me by:

1. It's Christmas, and I needed to review a movie that is both perfectly suited to a Christmas review and wholly unrelated. A movie about a giant crystal space monster visiting Earth? Totally qualifies!

2. Koichi Kawakita passed away on December 5th, 2014.Therefore, it behooves me to honor him.

Now, I'd like to think most of you reading my reviews already know who Kawakita is. However, I've also seen the search keywords that bring you here, from "sexy T-Rex gore vore" to "giant tadpole crushes man in arena" and the superbly baffling "go to hell terrorist write on hand," so I know at least some of you have no idea what I'm talking about.

(Oh, but if you ever find out what movie contains a giant tadpole crushing a guy in an arena, please let me know. That sounds like a fun time)

Koichi Kawakita was the special effects director for the Godzilla series from 1989 until 1995 (not counting the first two Rebirth of Mothra films, which we will get to soon enough), basically for all but one of the films officially called the Heisei series. He brought us one of the best Godzilla designs in the series in Godzilla vs. Biollante and got the honor of being responsible for rendering Godzilla's death in Godzilla vs. Destoroyah.

Kawakita is in the center, there.
Kawakita's legacy is a bit of a mixed bag, like most special effects artists. He brought the series some of its best effects in Godzilla vs. Biollante, but Godzilla vs. Destoroyah ended his tenure as effects director with some of the worst. He introduced some of the best new creatures the series had ever seen, a Godzilla offspring that actually looks like Godzilla, and imparted a real sense of mass into all the kaiju in the series--but he was also infamous for going so far overboard on beam attacks that many of his films were more like kaiju shootouts than brawls.

And today's film is often touted as the low point of his time in the series. Ask Godzilla fans which films they consider the worst, and today's film will often come near the top of the list.

I utterly reject that notion.

Like Cinemasochist Apocalypse and El Santo, I'm actually quite fond of the film. Why? Well, let's find out!

Somewhere in space, something glowy and crystalline is roaring through the void. The as-yet unknown creature fires off three crystal spheres, zooming away from it at a frightening speed--and slamming into Earth, at an island whose name is either Birth, Burse, or Bass Island depending on which subtitle, dub, or bad English dialogue you're listening to. The name is unimportant. What is important is that the island is next door to where Godzilla is having himself an underwater nap. So, thanks to stock footage from Godzilla and Mothra: The Battle For Earth, Godzilla wakes up good and cranky thanks to yet another damn meteorite landing on his head.

Meanwhile, the UNGCC (United Nations Godzilla Countermeasure Center) is working on their new super-robot, Moguera--an acronym for Mobile Operation Godzilla Expert Aero-type, the "U" is supposed to be "Universal" but it was only added in after Toho decided to officially Romanize the robot's name as "Moguera" instead of "Mogera," which is how it appears in the film. Now, Moguera actually is a character that had appeared before, as an instrument of alien destruction in Toho's 1957 film, The Mysterians. Here it's been given a new origin and, as hard as it will soon be to believe, been given a significant upgrade in the badassness department.

At least this Moguera isn't taken out by a falling satellite dish,

"Yeah, come at me, satellite dishes. I've been working out!"
It still looks pretty goofy, though. Even minus the spinning antennae on its head.

At any rate, Moguera is not only armed to the teeth with the usual missiles and laser beams, but it can split into two vehicles: Land Moguera (a tank with a giant drill, made from the top half) and Star Falcon (a flying vessel, made from the bottom half). If you're looking for a cheap laugh, note that the Star Falcon's cockpit folds out from what is basically Moguera's codpiece.

While Minister Takayuki Segawa (Kenji Sahara!) is busy grinning over Moguera and getting thumbs up from token white guys at the Moguera launch base, another project is underway. We'll quickly learn this Project T, as in T for Telepathy, and it is headed by Professor Chinatsu Gondo (Towako Yoshikawa) and Doctor Susumu Okubo (Yosuke Saito). All they are missing for their project is the right psychic, so who would you expect them to turn to except Miki Saegusa (Megumi Odaka, reprising the role for the fifth time and wearing a pretty cute bob this time instead of her usual ponytail).

"I'm the protagonist this time!"
When the two come to her at the ESP Institute, Miki isn't sure she wants to help. After all, she's spent the previous four films getting to know Godzilla and doesn't feel he should be controlled like a puppet. Of course, as Gondo points out, would Miki prefer Project Moguera insead, which seeks to kill Godzilla? (Good luck with that) Okubo, who is much more direct, says that they'll just have to recruit one of Miki's pupils instead. Miki finds that far more objectionable, as none of them are as advanced as she is and trying to pit their telepathy against Godzilla's mental will could kill them.

Miki takes a walk to think things over and two things happen. First, she sees a vision of Mothra flying through space--where she went at the end of Godzilla and Mothra: The Battle For Earth to save Earth from an oncoming asteroid that would obliterate it in 1999--with little Mothras flying off of her. (The implications of this will become clear later) The second is that the Mothra symbol earrings she wears begin to glow and she is visited by Fairy Mothra, a psychic projection of Mothra, that then changes into the image of The Cosmos (the "twin" fairies, Sayako Osawa and Keiko Imamura reprising their role from the 1992 film). The Cosmos warn Miki that a horrible space monster is heading toward Earth and it wants to kill Godzilla, and that would be a very bad thing since Godzilla is the only thing that can stop the beast from destroying Earth.

Gee, bet Mothra wishes she hadn't gotten Battra killed now, huh?

With a plea to Miki to help Godzilla save the Earth, The Cosmos vanish. Gondo and Okubo walk up, and Miki now eagerly accepts the chance to help. Meanwhile, Lieutenant Koji Shinjo (Jun Hashizume) and Lieutenant Kiyoshi Sato (Zenkichi Yoneyama) of G-Force have been dropped off on Birth Island. They're supposed to be there to assist Major Akira Yuki (Akira Emoto) with preparations for Project T, but his welcome to them is to stab Sato in the neck in order to save the man from a lethal local variety of big damn spider. (Okay, so the poor spider that gets to take a knife through the cephalothorax appears to be a variety of tarantula, so it's more a big darn spider) Also, Shinjo noticed his compass going haywire and both he and Sato observed the huge, mysterious crystal structures left by the space monster before the spider incident--but they seem to promptly forget about them immediately after.

Yuki may be a big grump, but for some reason that is lost on Little Godzilla, who follows yuki around like a 30-meter puppy. The cute, well-designed Baby Godzilla from the previous film has grown into his toddler stage, which makes him look like one of those "Chibi" or "Super-Deformed" Godzilla toys come to life. It's a design that, like Minilla in the Showa films, is not unjustifiably reviled for being an attempt at creating something sickeningly cute. However, he actually is kind of cute and I've found that the older I get the less I mind his design. I still much prefer the more dinosaurish Baby Godzilla and Godzilla Junior designs on either side of this film.

"Love me!"

Yuki sets Sato and Shinjo to work digging holes to fill with tear gas mines. This has jack-all to do with Project T, but you see some idiot decided that the best person to head a mission designed to control Godzilla instead of killing him was a guy obsessed with killing Godzilla. I have no idea what purpose the mines serve, other than annoying Godzilla whenever he decoes to take a stroll on the beach or come up on land to check in on his adopted son, but Yuki's real plan is to kill Godzilla with--a bullet. A bullet full of blood coagulant, fired by an uzi, which he intends to fire at a weak spot in Godzilla's arm pit.

Because a creature that shrugs off tank rounds, missiles, masers, electric shock, and acid to the eyes will totally be taken down by small arms fire. Weirdly, nobody ever points this out to Yuki when they're trying to dissuade him from his Ahab complex.

While those three doofuses are digging holes and watching Yuki shower (yeah, I have no idea what that scene is about, but there's some brief rear male nudity if that's your thing), NASA is conferring with the UNGCC. You see, their interplanetary exploratory ship has been destroyed--the only evidence they have to go on is footage of a bunch of terrible white actors in "zero gravity"suddenly being killed by crystal spires piercing the hull of their ship. NASA has concluded "that some kind of giant monster..." and they need the UNGCC's help to fill in the blanks.

Well, luckily UNGCC has pretty good telescopes at their disposal and they see the space creature passing by what I think is meant to be Jupiter--based on later scenes--and over the objections of Commander Takaki Aso (Akira Nakao), who thinks it should be used against Godzilla, Minister Segawa orders Moguera to be launched to intercept the fiend before it reaches Earth. and yes, this means that NASA apparently launched a vessel far enough out to be attacked by a space monster before said monster had even passed by the asteroid belt.

On Birth Island, Miki arrives with Gondo and Okubo. Shinjo immediately puts his foot in his mouth by asking why she likes Godzilla so much. I suppose next he'll ask a vegan why they think eating meat is wrong, while chomping on a turkey leg. Gondo, meanwhile, seeks out Yuki since the two have a history--a history of her apparently trying to get her brother's friend to notice how freaking pretty she is, while he either remains oblivious or pretends to be. (More on her brother in a minute) She's rather irritated that he had asked her to send him all kinds of medicines to make "Yuki's Special," but her attempts to get him to "notice me, damn it" while he fiddles with the bullet are interrupted by the mines going off on the beach.

Naturally, after Shinjo and Sato are overcome by the tear gas, it turns out that Little Godzilla was setting off the mines because Yuki somehow forgot there was a baby kaiju on the island that thinks everything Yuki does is fun to mess with. Naturally, the mines drive off Little Godzilla in a way they absolutely won't for the real deal. And naturally, the real deal--perhaps having heard his child's cries of distress--decides to emerge from the sea, set to Akira Ifukube's classic theme (although the film's overall score is by Takayuki Hattori). The long shot of Godzilla, superimposed into the sea, is one of the best shots from Kawakita's reign as effects director--but then, composite shots were definitely one of his strengths.
"Yes, dear, the vista is beautiful but can we run now?!"
Of course, the best shot is immediately followed by the sequence that is widely considered the lowest point in Kawakita's work: the asteroid belt sequence. The concept is marvelous--Moguera attempts to take on the space monster in a dog fight amongst asteroids floating between Mars and Jupiter. Unfortunately, either Kawakita ran out of time or budget for the sequence and what ends up in the film is two small props of Moguera and Space Godzilla facing off amongst unmoving foam asteroids in front of a plain black backdrop.

"But sir, the odds of making a convincing asteroid belt on film are--" "Never tell me the odds!"
There's no arguing that, in execution, it's a pretty dismal failure. However, I think that it still gets more hate than it deserves--and a lot of the hate for the movie itself seems to motivated by the poor quality of this one scene. That strikes me as pretty odd given that, overall, this film actually has some of the best effects of the 1990s films. It's certainly far more consistent than the effects work of the next film, Godzilla vs. Destoroyah, which was supposed to be the big hurrah for the Japanese series but had Godzilla super-imposed in the background of scenes where normal traffic and unhurried pedestrians carried on in the foreground and where the wheels under the little Destoroyah models were plainly visible even on bootleg VHS tapes. And when you consider that this film has a far larger percentage of kaiju scenes compared to non-kaiju scenes, just one terrible effects sequence becomes a lot more excusable.

At any rate, the sequence concludes with Moguera failing to do anything but slightly annoy Space Godzilla before getting a leg blown off and spiralling off into the void of space, while its opponent continues on to Earth. Moguera must find its way back to Earth somehow as no dialogue indicates it was completely rebuilt when next we see it.

Project T commences on Birth Island in the meantime. Sato and Shinjo chase after Godzilla on a dirt bike and use a grenade launcher to fire a shell at the base of is neck that turns out to be a miniature receiving dish. Then Miki puts on a helmet hooked up to a computer that broadcasts her brainwaves at Godzilla--and allows her to control him and make him calmly walk down the beach. Yuki spends this sequence ludicrously "hunting" Godzilla. Of course, Godzilla's brainwaves quickly become out of sync with Miki's and when Okubo recklessly tries to boost the signal past safety limits, he nearly kills Miki with the feedback.

Yuki, meanwhile, manages to waste every shot he has firing at Godzilla's bicep and chest. When Shinjo and Sato find out that Project T failed, they decide to go help Yuki kill Godzilla. (?!) With their sidearms. (?!?!) For some reason, this development greatly alarms Miki and Gondo, who try to stop them out of concern for Godzilla's wellbeing. This is a bit like trying to stop a child from poking a full-grown bull moose with a thumbtack because you're worried the moose will get hurt.

At any rate, it becomes a moot point when Space Godzilla lands on the island right by his crystal power converters. Where Little Godzilla is currently hanging out. Seeing the resemblence to his papa, Little Godzilla attempts to make contact--only to cower in fear from Space Godzilla's frightening countenance. Little Godzilla's eyes light up red briefly, in a bad attempt to recall the actually good effect from the previous film where Baby Godzilla's eyes glowed red when he was afraid. And the Space Godzilla proceeds to beat up on a kid. Boo, hiss!

Of course, given later developments, this actually is more like an illegitimate child lashing out at the half-sibling their father actually chose to recognize. You can't blame Space Godzilla for being upset at that!

"FAAAATTTHHHHEEEERRRRR!"
Godzilla comes to the rescue of the son who isn't an eldritch abomination from the depths of space. However, Space Godzilla's powerful lightning beam weapons, energy shield, and ability to fly quickly put Godzilla in the position of having to use his body to shield Little Godzilla from the blasts. But Space Godzilla, being a bastard--in more ways than one--seizes the opportunity when the wounded Godzilla falls over, and telekinetically yanks Little Godzilla away and imprisons him in one of the crystal structures. Space Godzilla then flies off for parts unkown and the real Godzilla stumbles into the sea to recuperate.

Even Yuki can agree that obviously the space monster is the bigger threat. So quickly plans are made to head back to Japan--only Miki is planning to stay and look after Godzilla and the little one. (What she can do for him while he's trapped in that crystal prison is beyond me) Shinjo, already lovestruck with Miki, decides to stay behind--and makes Sato stay, too. Nobody notices the suspicious look on Okubo's face before the helicopter departs.
"I have a wonderfully Grinchy idea!"
Gondo makes a presentation to the UNGCC about Space Godzilla, explaining that the creature's cells are nearly identical to Godzilla's, so it must be a "Space Godzilla." Gondo explains that the Godzilla cells that formed the creature could either have come from Biollante (who shouldn't actually have ever existed, thanks to the time travel nonsense in Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah) or Mothra (hence Miki's vision earlier). The cells then fell into a black hole (!), came out a white hole (?!), and then merged with a crystalline lifeform and then grew powerful by absorbing the energy of exploding stars.

Oooookay, then. Ask Stephen Hawking if this hypothesis checks out and I'm sure he'll find a way to punch you.
At sunset on Birth Island, Miki gets another visit from Fairy Mothra that tells her nothing of substance. However, she and Shinjo get to have a relationship-building conversation where we get a few hints that he's not as obstinate and violent as she thinks he is, but he also stupidly wonders if all she thinks about is Godzilla. Look, there's a reason she's the first regularly recurring human character in a Godzilla movie, chump! Oh, and then some mercenaries break into the camp at night, beat Shinjo and Sato up, and kidnap Miki.
Look, she's psychic but she's not clairvoyant, okay?

Of course, when Gondo picks up Shinjo and Sato--minus Yuki, who is following up leads--she already suspects Okubo kidnapped Miki. Which implies she suspected that her project partner was up to no good but didn't bother to warn anybody until he did something. Also, we find out here that Gondo's brother was one Colonel Gondo--who G-fans would remember as the awesome character from Godzilla vs. Biollante who had the nerve to shoot Godzilla point blank in the mouth with a rocket launcher and quip about it. Of course, you might recall he then got a building dropped on his head as a result of his wise assery, and Yuki has been obsessed with avenging his friend ever since.

Miki wakes up strapped to a bed as Okubo removes the Project T helmet from her head. See, he was copying her brain wave patterns into his computer so he can control Godzilla without her--and naturally he wants to use Godzilla to hold countries to ransom. Of course, this doesn't explain why he needed to kidnap Miki if he could have just copied her brainwaves, but villain. Villain currently hiding out in a known Yakuza base, in fact.

Well, "the Japanese mafia," according to Yuki. Normally I would assume that means Yakuza, but given most of the gangsters we see are white guys, maybe this really is a Japanese branch of the mafia. Shinjo, Sato, and Yuki sneak into the base as Okubo is directing Godzilla to swim...somewhere, to the delight of the white guys. Meanwhile, Space Godzilla is flying over Japan and causing machines to go haywire. So haywire, in fact, that a claw machine begins somehow rapidly spewing out stuffed animals to the delight of a comic relief businessman and his terrified underling.

Godzilla's brainwaves once again outmatch the control system, just as our heroic trio burst in and get into a gunfight with several thugs. Miki helpfully uses telekinesis--a power even she didn't know she had--to help Shinjo shoot a gangster in the foot. And then it's time for all the good guys to run away, because Space Godzilla is coming. So Okubo gets to die trying to fix his machine that will never work, as Space Godzilla blasts the hell out of the building as he flies over.

Of course, it's time for everybody to beat feet to G-Force HQ because earlier Commander Aso asked Yuki to head Project Moguera, and Space Godzilla just set up shop in Fukuoka and turn the city into his own crystal fortress. Naturally, Moguera requires two copilots, so Shinjo and Sato go right from shooting gangsters to kaiju punching duty. Shinjo and Miki get a tender goodbye and Yuki...asks Gondo to refill his lighter for him. That's his way of letting her know he cares, or something.

However, Godzilla has just landed on the coast, after destroying stock footage of the naval armada from Godzilla vs. Biollante, and he making is way toward Fukuoka to take out his evil spawn.Yuki forgets the mission briefly to go antagonize Godzilla, but Shinjo knocks his superior officer out with one hit--incredibly easily, considering they're all wearing helmets--and ties him up so Moguera can return to its original mission:

Getting the tar kicked out of it by Space Godzilla.

"I REGRET EVERYTHING!"
Even the robot's crew calls it a piece of crap in the middle of the fight. Luckily for them, Godzilla shows up in Fukuoka and either doesn't hold a grudge against them for shooting him or is too focused on revenge against Space Godzilla to care. It's a good thing, too, because it will take their combined might to defeat him...

It is very true that the climactic battle between the three combatants isthe perfect embodiment of the main complaint against Kawakita's effects: most of it consists of the monsters standing on opposite sides of the screen firing beams at each other and rarely ever coming into physical contact with each other. However, that doesn't automatically mean that the climax is boring or uninteresting. Far from it. The film concludes with colorful beams and massive explosions, and Fukuoka is practically wiped off the map in the process. What more could you want out of a kaiju battle?

Oh, okay, sure, you could want actual physical combat. Koichi Kawakita decided early on in his tenure on the series that he wanted to fully imbue his monsters with a sense of mass and power. He felt that, in order to do that, he needed to reduce a lot of the grappling and wrestling of the preceding series. It wasn't all that noticeable in Godzilla vs. Biollante and the first half of Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah, but by Godzilla and Mothra: The Battle For Earth it was pretty obvious. Mothra was given beam weapons for the first time ever simply so she could blast laser beams at Godzilla from afar.

Yet, was that necessarily a bad thing? One of the most badass moments in the whole series was the first time Godzilla and Mechagodzilla met and we were shown how evenly matched they were when their beams met and caused a massive explosion. Beam battles are fun and colorful, Are they repetitive? Sure, but even the best kaiju brawl can be accused of that.

Indeed, perhaps one reason this film is so reviled by so many Godzilla fans is that its kaiju battles deliver almost exactly what every Godzilla fan always asks for: more Godzilla and monster battles. This film delivers more Godzilla action than about 90% of the series and shows why it's actually a good thing that not every Godzilla movie has a lot of Godzilla in it. Much as I love the film, it does get a bit monotonous at times because there's only so many ways to keep a monster battle going past ten minutes of screen time.

That said, I still feel that the film gets unfairly maligned for no good reason, especially compared to the other Heisei films. Is it honestly worse than the total mess that is Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah? Worse than the final sendoff that feels more like everyone just giving up in Godzilla vs. Destoroyah? I don't think it is. I think it's a fun romp and callback to the heroic Godzilla films of the 1970s, and sometimes that's enough to damn a film in the eyes of fans who think Godzilla should be serious all the damn time.

Does that mean the film doesn't have major flaws? Of course not. There are plot elements that make no sense (like nobody bothering to investigate the crystals on Birth Island before Space Godzilla shows up), the attempts to make this almost a direct sequel to Godzilla vs. Biollante are odd (especially since, per the Heisei timeline, that film never happened), and really the Project T subplot only serves the purpose of giving Miki something to do--and Okubo's villainy is almost totally a plot cul-de-sac.

Then there's the monsters. Space Godzilla is awesome, which even the film's detractors usually agree with. But, much as I loved Kawakit'a Godzilla design in its 1989 debut, the fact that every suit that followed was only minor variations made it get somewhat dull. And I have never liked how the eyes went from dark and feral to bright eyes that look totally out of place in the suit--potentially as an attempt to make the face look more feline as opposed to the more seal-like appearance it originally had. And while Little Godzilla and Moguera are not as awful as popular opinion states, they aren't all that good, either. Somehow, though, it all evens out for me.

Is everyone who dislikes this film just a stick in the mud who forgot how to have fun? Of course not. As I said, it's a flawed film. However, it's a fun film and for me that is far more important. Godzilla may have started out as a serious, somber allegory--but its evolution into a fun, pulpy series is what made it so enduring. And this film embodies that side of Godzilla wonderfully. If you're open to it, I think most people will find it it to be quite fun.

So have a Merry Christmas, and try to be sure that any unexpected family reunions don't end with someone locked in a crystal cage,

"Merry Kaiju-mas!"

1 comment:

  1. XD Add me to the list that enjoyed this one. I found a box set on the clearance rack at the grocery store, it has this and "vs. Destroyah" in it.

    It's not a great monster movie, but I love the 70's feel of the story, I *love* Space Godzilla, and it's just fun. It reminds me of "Destroy All Monsters", which is my favorite.

    Hell, I love "Godzilla: Final Wars" too. XD Sometimes, you don't want a challenging movie. Sometimes, you just want monsters and chrome mecha, and kawaii Japanese women.

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