Sunday, March 2, 2014

GODZILLA-THON #26 - Godzilla Against Mechagodzilla (2002)

Man, do I hate that poster. The poster for Godzilla vs. Megaguirus (2000) looks incredible next to this, and that was previously the worst of the series. Now, admittedly, I have no clue who the chick in front is; and it's very likely she's some sort of major star in Japan. Perhaps Toho saw her as a big draw to bring in younger fans. I don't know. What I do know is the only selling power any Godzilla film should ever need is Godzilla, not the latest flavor of the month. Am I making too big a deal of this? Probably. Godzilla has a fairly solid design this go around, and Kiryu/Mechagodzilla is all revamped and adapted to modern technologies. That should be enough to get people interested, no?

Again, I find myself surprised by a Millennium series entry (I'm beginning to think I need to re-evaluate my stance on it as a whole, though it's still my "least" favorite) because this was yet another retcon of the series. Once again, the timeline has been restarted from 1954, when the first Godzilla was killed. A second Godzilla has been wreaking the usual havoc across Japan for some time, not that the movie gets into any sort of specifics. After a bout with the JSDF in 1999 that saw heavy casualties, a decision was made to construct a robotic adversary to save the people of Japan from Godzilla. In a semi-ironic twist, the JSDF decides to build the mechanical body on top of the original 1954 Godzilla's bones. I know what you're thinking, and just forget the bones evaporated at the end of Gojira. This new technological titan is dubbed Kiryu, Japanese for Machine Dragon. Kiryu's outfitted with all the latest in heavy artillery, with a special weapon called Absolute Zero, which can freeze anything instantly before crushing it to dust.

The film begins to pose some interesting philosophical questions when Kiryu and Godzilla have their first encounter. Although taking down G is extremely difficult, Kiryu more than holds its own... until Godzilla lets out a distinct roar. Immediately, Kiryu is flooded with memories transferred from the skeleton of G54 that lies within its metallic carriage. As Godzilla retreats to the sea, Kiryu goes haywire and launches a full-on assault that more or less levels the city. It only stops because the power ran out after an hour of the kind of city-leveling action that gets Michael Bay harder than a rock. Go ahead, make the pun... The JSDF does some maintenance work on Kiryu, but some people feel it would be best to leave it be. A young girl, who seems way smarter than she likely should be, suggests Kiryu has a right to life just as anything else on this earth. It should befriend Godzilla, not fight him. Naturally, the JSDF doesn't see it that way so they launch Kiryu to once again fight G. The battle is spectacular, ending with - you guessed it - the Absolute Zero. As is tradition, Godzilla meets it head-on with his atomic fire breath. And as is also tradition, that's usually grounds for major damage to both parties.

Kiryu not only makes for a worthy opponent to Godzilla, but also a great character on its own. I really dug the concept of using Godzilla '54's bones as a literal skeleton upon which to build his robotic equal. The idea of a bio-mechanical Mechagodzilla is novel. I love that the bones still contain some energy, a life essence of sorts, and it adds a layer of autonomy to what is supposed to be a completely human-controlled mech. Thoughts flood its memory banks in waves, unleashing instant emotional outbursts that are uncontrollable. It's truly some of the most introspective stuff ever included in the series. Thankfully, this film isn't the last we see of Kiryu, either.

Interestingly, Titanosaurus was originally going to make an appearance by helping out Kiryu during the big brawl. That never came to be, but it would have been nice to see that old shrieking dino get another appearance in the series. Though, truthfully, I was never a huge fan of it. 

Godzilla is once again more or less back to his Millennium series self. The Big G of GMK was strictly a one-off, special event type of deal. The KiryuGoji suit created for this film had a smaller head than those used for the first two films of the Millennium series. They also fixed those jacked up teeth that made Godzilla look like Austin Powers' father. His scutes were reduced in size enough not to look insanely jagged and needlessly humongous, and the coloration was returned to a bone white finish. Speaking of color, G was done up in a charcoal grey once again; no more green for this guy. I wish the suits for the first two Millennium films looked this good. It's still not my ideal look for the Big Guy, but taking into account all of the other designs used for this series I'd certainly place this one in second place behind GMK. His atomic breath is also back to blue. Even though he breathes flame a lot throughout the film, the way the filmmakers get his scutes glowing and that little hint of fiery death appears in his mouth just before an explosive burst is expertly done.

The human element is less important to this story than the questions posed by Kiryu's creation. I mean, really, what else are the humans doing in this Millennium series other than trying in vain to find a way to kill Godzilla. Constantly. And they always fail. You know what this series has been sorely lacking? Aliens. Both the Showa and Heisei era films used aliens as a central plot device on more than one occasion (I'm counting Space Godzilla as an alien). Aliens have traditionally added a unique conflict for the humans to deal with, while Godzilla had his hands full with a battle or two. The only time it's interesting to see the military desperately look for ways to off Big G is when it's for a solo outing. The universal questions wrought by Kiryu's creation certainly spill over to our human characters, requiring a great deal of understanding and reasoning on their part. But mostly, they're just trying to kill Godzilla. Is this all that much different from nearly every other entry in the series? Not exactly. The army has always tried to vanquish Godzilla. Maybe after 25 films it's just a bit tiring to see them scrambling for outrageous new ways to kill the Big Guy.

Scoring duties for this entry fell upon composer Michiru Oshima, who also worked on Godzilla vs. Megaguirus (2000) and this film's sequel, Godzilla: Tokyo S.O.S. (2003). If you read my entry for Megaguirus, you'll know I wasn't terribly fond of the music there. Oshima's work is a bit improved for this film, but there has yet to be a Millennium series score that's had any effect on me. Mostly, I just can't stand the "theme" given to Godzilla in these movies. I put theme in quotations because it's just a couple of low notes meant to signal his arrival, nothing iconic by any means. I'd rather hear recycled Ifukube scores than listen to the forgettable scores found in each Millennium entry. Only GMK broke the mold and tried something different, but even that has a cold, digital feel that couldn't match Ifukube on his worst day. The music works well enough for the films, and that's my problem. Godzilla's iconic themes, the unforgettable leitmotifs we all know by heart, are timeless. You hear those cues and you know what it's from. Nothing in the new series of movies comes close to matching the emotional response the classic themes produce. Am I being overly critical? I doubt it.

Director Masaaki Tezuka claimed they had no intentions of making a direct sequel to this film while producing it, yet it just happened to come together naturally after the success of this entry. With 1.7 million admissions, this was the second most successful entry of the Millennium series; makes sense Toho would want to give audiences another go-round with the same characters. And, hey, why not add in an old favorite while we're at it...  

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

GODZILLA-THON #25 - Godzilla, Mothra and King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack (2001)

First off, kudos to the Millennium series for finally nailing a poster. The art for the last two entries was about as bland as the series had ever gotten, so seeing a return to form automatically gives me additional hope.

The easiest way to forget how...well, forgettable the last two Godzilla movies were is simple: watch Godzilla, Mothra and King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack. The Japanese clearly hate brevity as much as Godzilla hates making a quiet entrance, so from here on out it'll be referred to as GMK. Once again, the Millennium series is rewriting history, bestowing upon G yet another new origin story to go along with his new look and the new looks of his co-starring monsters. Writer & director Shusuke Kaneko came to the series as a veteran of Godzilla's "competition", the titanic terrapin, Gamera. Kaneko helmed all three of the Heisei era Gamera films for Daiei Films. If I haven't mentioned it before, I'll say it again but I have only seen, like, one Gamera movie that I can kinda recall. I did watch a few of them as a kid, but very little of those viewings stuck with me. As a kaiju fan I sort of feel like it's my duty to remedy that, so at some point I'll be buying all of Shout!'s DVD releases and more than likely reviewing them here. My point in all of that was to say I don't know what type of sensibility Kaneko brought with him to the series. Maybe Gamera is steeped in all of this ancient mythology and ritual that pervades GMK.

In this universe, Godzilla appeared once in 1954 and died as the result of the Oxygen Destroyer. When a monster the Americans mistakenly think is Godzilla attacks New York City (one of the best lines in the series for obvious reasons), the Japanese Self-Defense Forces (JSDF) meets to discuss the possible return of the real Godzilla. A nuclear submarine goes missing shortly thereafter, and a glimpsed Godzilla is the culprit. Meanwhile, a truck driver who survived a recent earthquake claims to have seen Godzilla as the monster responsible, but it was really Baragon. And some kids who were partying at a lake are nearly killed by larva Mothra making landfall. An old man who appears wise on these matters determines that Godzilla is the physical embodiment of the soldiers killed during the Battle of the Pacific in World War II; their souls lashed to Godzilla's skeletal remains making him whole once more. The only way to defeat him is by summoning the Guardian Monsters - Baragon, Mothra, and King Ghidorah. We already know Baragon is ready for action since he was the first monster spotted, and judging by his lack of a credit in the film's lengthy title it's safe to assume he won't be winning the battle. But, man, does Godzilla ever stomp a mudhole in his ass before decimating his corpse with a blast of atomic fire. The military sends whatever they can at Godzilla. Nothing has any effect whatsoever, except maybe pissing him off more. Mothra, newly hatched from her cocoon, finally gets in on the action along with a fresh-off-ice King Ghidorah. The pair battle it out with Godzilla in the city, losing quite spectacularly. In fact, Ghidorah gets beaten so badly that Mothra has to sacrifice her life in order for it to absorb her energy and be revived. This leads to a massive melee between the now fully-grown King Ghidorah against Godzilla, once again ending in Ghidorah being destroyed. With all the guardians defeated, the only person left to face Godzilla is the JSDF captain who's commandeering a submarine with missiles capable of blasting a gaping hole in Godzilla... which one does, and when G goes to fire off his atomic breath - POOF - he vaporizes instantly. But that big heart of his keeps on beating, deep in the ocean depths.

This film drew a lot of controversy amongst fans due to Godzilla's portrayal, which is wholly different than any iteration that had preceded or followed. He's looks like a pissed off demon, more or less; brought to life by the dead. To emphasize this, director Shusuke Kaneko had his eyes made up with no pupils, giving Godzilla a blank, horrific visage. That wasn't nearly the only change to his look, though. The Millennium Goji design was entirely scrapped. Godzilla had a modern, stylized appearance that retained his essential features. The black-and-bone dorsal spines were back, looking more like his classic spines and less like the aggro design used for the last two films. His color was back to charcoal black; no more green. The suit itself, dubbed the SokogekiGoji, was intended to be a modern interpretation of the classic '54 design with cues taken from the Heisei series suits, too. I think Kaneko really nailed the appearance, making this the most ferocious, menacing Godzilla seen in the series, period. He's an evil beast, practically indestructible and able to outmatch and outwit any foe with relative ease. The movements of Godzilla are much more aggressive than usual, especially his quick stride which leaves a wake of devastation due to his hefty, thick legs.

Some fans also had concerns with Kaneko's reinterpretation of Godzilla's classic foes Mothra, King Ghidorah, and Baragon. In order of ire, Baragon got a nice contemporary facelift to his design, but fans rightly complained about a lack of any heat ray powers. The only power Baragon does have is his ability to burrow, which isn't too helpful against a hyper-aggressive Godzilla. Mothra has a more angular design, with more pointed wings and elongated legs. Her coloration is also more vivid than ever before, with a kaleidoscope of color under the wings. Her super power this time around is the ability to fire these tiny pellets that apparently have the effect of knocking Godzilla right the fuck out. Finally, we get to King Ghidorah, who underwent more changes than either of the other two. He's smaller. He's not very powerful. He gets his ass handed to him three times. Ghidorah's heads have been updated, but it's not for the better. This new design doesn't elicit the same sense of sheer terror the Ghidorah of old could muster up; this guy just looks like Godzilla could wipe the floor with him. And he does. Once Ghidorah is revived for the second time, he comes back as a fully-grown 1,000 Year-Old Dragon... not that it does much good against Godzilla.

Again, I really didn't have a problem with any of these changes. We're on the TWENTY FIFTH movie in the series; a little shake up of the status quo is a good thing. It certainly helped this entry stand out as one of the most original and inventive of the series. It shows more ambition than most entries can claim, too.

On the topic of ambition, did you know Kaneko originally wanted the three guardian monsters to be Varan, Anguirus, and Baragon. As usual, Toho wasn't seeing enough dollar signs with any of these choices so they insisted Kaneko bring some of the top draws into the fold. Baragon managed to survive the extermination; I wish they'd gone with Anguirus instead. He hadn't been seen in a film since Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla (1974) - almost 30 years ago. Also, I just got a little sad realizing we never got a Heisei incarnation of him. I would have loved to see him be re-imagined for a more modern series. Speaking of long absences, Varan's last appearance was in 1968's Destroy All Monsters! But, yea, sure, let's just keep on using the same monsters we always fall back on, right Toho?

The film's score was composed by Kow Otani, another noob to the series. His work is easily the best of the Millennium series. There's a mystical quality to the compositions, adding to the rich mythology laid out on screen. It's downright ethereal at times. Electronic beats underscore much of the tension, elevating the action on screen without becoming too techno or robotic. Otani achieves a nice balance by adding in orchestral pieces over his beats, allowing the score to encompass both contemporary and classical cues.

GMK is a solid G film, no question. Godzilla is his perhaps the most menacing he's ever been, raining down fire and death everywhere he turns. More than that, his overall design is just a thing of beauty in an evil, twisted kind of way. The inclusion of multiple monsters puts the film over the top by allowing fans to see numerous battles throughout the course of the film. Godzilla fights each monster at least a couple of times, all of which are done with stellar choreography and realism thanks to modern suit technology.

I'd always considered GMK to be the only star of the Millennium series, but a recent re-evaluation of all these films has proven to me that I was wrong, because the follow-up to this film produced a wonderful one-two punch that, frankly, should have ended the Millennium series as a whole. But then they had to go and make Godzilla: Final Wars, which I have always loathed. I am actually quite anxious to watch it again, however, before that can happen we've got two rounds to go with Mechagodzilla!

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

GODZILLA-THON #24 - Godzilla vs. Megaguirus (2000)

I know that most G fans point to All Monster's Attack (a.k.a. Godzilla's Revenge) as the worst entry in the series, but if someone asked me that same question I'd more than likely point to Godzilla vs. Megaguirus (2000). As a Godzilla film, it is lackluster in nearly every way. It's just going through the motions, killing time (and too much of it at that), and ultimately it adds nothing of value to the series. At least Godzilla's Revenge has a kitschy '60s thing going on that makes it a fun, if not slightly laborious, watch. The same can't, or ever will be, said of this film.

Keep in mind, though, that even if I'm beating this entry into the ground it doesn't mean it's all terrible. No Godzilla film is outright terrible. And before you say "GINO", I've already made it clear that film isn't considered canon by myself or most other fans. If there's anything I can give the Millennium series credit for, it's that nearly each entry tried to do something unique with the Godzilla mythos. Godzilla 2000 re-imagined him as an eternally-regenerating force of nature. This film posits that the original Godzilla never died in 1954. He just retreated back into the ocean, only to return later in 1966 to feast on nuclear power. As any fan knows, in 1966 Godzilla was sleeping in a cave before battling it out with a giant shrimp. So essentially this film is retconning the entire history of the films. Bold move.

After a string of Godzilla attacks dating back to '54, Japan has abandoned nuclear energy programs out of fear. The JSDF has decided they want to be rid of Godzilla permanently, and they devise a weapon, Dimension Tide, that produces mini black holes with enough energy to draw in Godzilla, trapping him for eternity. Their experiments cause an ancient dragonfly to enter our world, where it lays an egg that a young boy finds and eventually discards down a sewer grate. The egg turns into hundreds of smaller eggs, eventually hatching Meganulon, small larva-like insects which are loosely based off of the creatures in Rodan (1956). They invade the city and molt on the side of a building, turning into adult Meganula. Godzilla enters the city and gets into it with the swarm, eventually using his atomic breath to decimate nearly the entire population of them. The few that remain have siphoned enough energy off of Godzilla to inject a waiting cocoon with it, one that eventually opens up to reveal the queen Megaguirus. She looks a bit like Battra in winged form. And, once again, this kaiju has some of Godzilla's abilities because his energy was used in its creation.

Godzilla and the flying Megaguirus fight it out over the city. It never really looks like Megaguirus gets the upper hand because Godzilla just takes every hit and keeps on coming. Eventually, Megaguirus goes in for a paralyzing strike only to get chomped on by Godzilla's massive gnarled teeth. And that, my friends, is the end of that. The remainder of the film deals with the Dimension Tide being fired upon Godzilla, and it looks like he's sucked up into the black hole during a tremendous explosion of energy. But the film's final moments strongly suggest he just got blasted deep underground.

I'll admit to enjoying this entry marginally more than the first time I watched it, but the fact remains it is kind of a slog to get to the end. Megaguirus just isn't a very good enemy. The Meganula look terrible since they're nearly all done with CGI. Megaguirus looks decent enough in final form, though it isn't nearly as memorable as nearly every other monster in the series. Hell, even Gabara is better, and Gabara sucks. It's just boring. And lazy. Once again, we've got a monster that has used some of Godzilla's cells/power/energy to try getting up to his level. At least some of the others seemed like a real threat; there's just no way a big bug like Megaguirus was ever going to inflict any real damage on G. The film even says as much when Megaguirus is dispatched early enough for the military to inflict the film's final blow. The real problem with the film is that it's just so lackluster. It's needlessly long, with most of the human element either uninteresting or... well, it's just not very engaging.

The retconned history was a nice though, though. I can admit that much. The insertion of Millennium Goji into the classic '54 film for a scene or two was well done. I really do give these Millennium films credit for thinking outside the box in some instances. Godzilla 2000 already established he's just a force of nature with no real origin being given, and future installments seemed to relish in the ability to retell Godzilla's history as they saw fit.

Toho used the same MireGoji suit for Godzilla vs. Megaguirus, with only minor alterations being made. Most notably, the coloring was now a lighter shade of green (the last time he'd be painted this color), and his dorsal spikes were a light purple. I have never liked the purple spikes. Ever. The black-and-silver are synonymous with Godzilla's classic look; you just don't fuck with that, however, I will admit there are a few instances where I think they are insanely awesome in a very ridiculous kind of way.

Music this time around was handled by composer Michiru Oshima, a new player to the series. It's a decent effort overall, though it still retains much of the video game-esque cheesiness that Godzilla 2000 suffers from. Nothing composed here is terribly memorable; the film only seems to feel genuine when Ifukube's themes are being called upon to add the true gravitas a Godzilla score needs. You've got to remember that, until the Millennium series, nearly revery Godzilla film was scored by either Akira Ifukube or Masaru Satoh. And those two produced some phenomenal work that no composer is likely to ever match. Things got a little better with the next entry, but overall this Millennium series is sorely lacking in good themes.  

But like I said, they've got originality. And this next entry is undoubtedly one of the standouts of the series.

Monday, February 17, 2014

GODZILLA-THON #23 - Godzilla 2000: Millennium (1999)

After a "lengthy" absence of a whopping four years, Godzilla was set to be revived by Toho in an effort to capitalize renewed interest in seeing the "real" Godzilla.

Oh, yea, I guess I should mention this was released immediately following America's inaugural, disastrous attempt at making a Godzilla picture. Director Roland Emmerich's film was a critical disaster on every possible level. Despite the fact that it somehow managed to turn a tidy profit, the universal hatred projected towards Godzilla (1998) cemented the decision that no sequel plans would move forward. Plans had been drawn up for a trilogy of films, the latter two of which would never come to fruition. And if you've ever read the synopsis for the proposed Godzilla 2, be SO THANKFUL it never happened.

So, seizing the opportunity to capitalize on fans' rabid enthusiasm to see the real Godzilla, and not some big iguana imposter, Toho began to develop what would be the first of the Millennium series of films.  

Let me get this out of the way first: I am not a very big fan of the Millennium series. For me, much of the charm & fun found in the series died with longtime producer Tomoyuki Tanaka. I know not every single film under his guidance turned out to be a rousing success critically or commercially, but his lordship over every facet of the films imbued them with a quality that can't be summed up in words. The essence of what made his previous 22 films so revered has been lost to a new generation of filmmakers. And I get that. These things happen all the time. It still doesn't change the fact that there is a missing element to the Millennium films that I hope future series may be able to get back.

This time around, Godzilla isn't given much of an origin. In fact, I don't think he's given one at all. Japan considers him to be a literal force of nature; an unstoppable creature they're just going to have to deal with. The Godzilla Prediction Network (GPN, basically just two guys and a little girl operating out of a ramshackle apt.) are studying Godzilla in order to better understand how he operates. This entry almost plays out like another inaugural solo outing, with the Japanese Crisis Control Center finding an ancient UFO deep underwater that reacts to changes in light, which appears to be its main power source. Godzilla arrives on the scene (in spectacular fashion) and does battle with this extremely stereotypical saucer. The fight drives Godzilla back under the sea, and the UFO flies around town a bit before landing atop Tokyo's Opera City Tower. The CCI notes that it's siphoning all of Tokyo's data out of the tower. Godzilla returns to once again shoot the UFO with fire and hope it blows up, but this time the aliens absorb some of Godzilla's own DNA (not again...) to create Orga. Orga looks like a rock with two claws. Despite this, I still think he's a pretty cool new monster for the series. Anyway, he's only in the move for around 11 minutes before Godzilla absolutely decimates him.

It's hard to believe that this film was made only four years after Godzilla vs. Destoroyah (1995), yet it has such a different feel in every way. Again, I mostly chalk this up to Tanaka's absence. Another reason for the different feel has to do with the advent of CGI technology, something I'm sure Tanaka was trying to resist. Many shots are clearly using CGI to compose environments for Godzilla to stomp around. The alien UFO is entirely computer-generated, and it also looks so laughably bad. It's just a big silver bean, floating through the city. Godzilla is even brought to fully animated life via CGI in a couple of shots, a first for the series (not counting his meltdown last time around) and something that would only be used more frequently in further films. There is still plenty of miniature work to be seen, so don't worry that it's all been replaced just yet. Godzilla gets plenty of tangible stuff to smash.

As per usual, a new series means a new Godzilla. Millennium Godzilla, called the MireGoji for this entry, is a radical departure from the Kawakita era suits, and even further removed from the Showa depictions. Designed by Shinichi Wakasa, nearly every facet of Godzilla's design has been overhauled. Most obvious are the new spines; they're enormous. Jagged and twisted, these new spines are nearly 100% larger than any previously seen and border on parody they're so outrageous. But they work. The incredible scale given to them does make Godzilla look even more fearsome. He'll need that extra edge since his size has been greatly reduced from the 100m he enjoyed during the Heisei era. Millennium Goji is only around 50m tall, putting him in line with most of the Showa era height scales. Godzilla's scales are very prominent, looking more sculpted than organic. And his teeth look terrible, with every other other tooth getting the incisor treatment, making him look like a snaggletoothed beast. And he's green! For the first time ever, Godzilla was painted a darker shade of green. People have said he's green for years, all because of the original film's poster, and now he finally is green. It's a far cry from the iconic look he enjoyed during the Heisei series. Godzilla only repped this suit for two entries (this film and the next) before undergoing another drastic makeover for GMK.

I think most fans would agree they got his atomic breath done right. Godzilla's spines light up to a flaming gold color before flames start to appear in his opening mouth, then a ferocious blast surges forward to positively annihilate anything in its path. The effect is a tad on the overkill side, but that also seems to be what this new Godzilla is all about.

It wouldn't be an official Godzilla rebirth if an American studio didn't come in and chop up the film, right? After Sony's 1998 film failed to excite audiences, they decided to try marketing the real deal. The film was re-edited to run seven minutes shorter than the Japanese cut, with most alterations being made to tighten up the pace. No major footage of G was excised. The studio spent around $10-12 million dollars promoting the thing, and it ultimately earned around that much back at the domestic box office. Not a smash by any means, though no Godzilla film has ever been a blockbuster. Hopefully, all of that changes with the upcoming 2014 film.

The score blows. Sorry if you like it. Takayuki Hattori, who previously handled scoring for Godzilla vs. SpaceGodzilla (1994), is back. And so are the lame, video game-level themes he loves to employ. A few of Akira Ifukube's classic themes are thrown in for good measure, but the majority of the track is forgettable background noise. Bummer.

Don't think it gets better from here, because Godzilla vs. Megaguirus is up next and that, if I recall, is the worst film of the Millennium series and possible of the entire series overall.  

Sunday, February 9, 2014

GODZILLA-THON #22 - Godzilla vs. Destoroyah (1995)

Godzilla dies.


But this time it has so much more emotion behind it. When the first Godzilla died in 1954, he was a creature that we had only spent a single film with, and his death seemed important to restore a harmony to Japan's way of life. The second Godzilla, who appeared in Godzilla Raids Again, lasted right up through the end of the Showa era. When Godzilla made his triumphant return in 1984, this was intended to be the start of a new timeline, with a new second Godzilla, serving once again as a direct sequel to the original film. We've spent a great deal of time with this guy, and his iconic visage has become the de facto look for how many people perceive Godzilla. He embodies everything pop culture describes him as, from his impressive stature and gargantuan bulk, to the sleek look of his head and the ferocity of the triple "maple leaf" fin rows. He's fought man, his plant clone, alien monsters, his robotic clone, Mothra, his space clone, and, now, finally, he faces a certain death. Right from the start, Godzilla vs. Destoroyah is a dark, brooding film that entirely eschews any camp. Godzilla is returned back to his initially intended state, that of a revered beast who is to be held in awe with equal parts wonder and terror. He is death incarnate - literally - because his expiration means the destruction of the planet as we know it. As if the threat looking from G wasn't enough, there's also his latest, most massive foe yet - Destoroyah. Or Destroyah. Or Destroyer. Toho loves to mess with spelling. This new baddie, born of the famed Oxygen Destroyer, poses an immediate threat to an already-critical Godzilla. Little Godzilla returns here, too, though now he's absorbed enough radiation to be Godzilla Jr. He looks an awful lot like Dad, just smaller. The film combines numerous, big scale monster battles with true emotion, resulting in one of the best films of the entire series. Toho pulled out all the stops to make sure Godzilla's farewell was a memorable one.

Birth Island, home to Godzilla and his son for the last few films, has been leveled in the wake of a nuclear attack or accident, the film never really says. Godzilla is presumed missing, but he soon shows up in Hong Kong, sporting glowing lava-like spots over a majority of his body. His attack is devastating, leaving a wake of rubble and bodies before his exit. The JSDF hires Kenichi Yamane, grandson of Dr. Yamane from Gojira (1954), to figure out what's going on with Godzilla His response: Godzilla is a living nuclear reactor, and his rate of nuclear fissure is increasing with no signs of slowing. Once G reaches 1200 degrees Celsius, he will experience a meltdown. Intense heat will vaporize the atmosphere, eventually causing the death of every living creature on the planet. The JSDF immediately orders the launch of the Super X-III, which is equipped with a freezing weapon to hopefully diminish the heat released by Godzilla's combustion. As this is occurring, scientists discover that microbial lifeforms have begun to appear near the site of the original Godzilla's death, creatures seemingly fueled by the remnants of the Oxygen Destroyer. These parasites soon escape the lab and wreak havoc, eventually evolving into numerous air & land forms. When Destoroyah proves too much for the military to handle, Godzilla Jr. appears to do battle for the first time. He manages to defeat his crab-like land form and aerial form. Godzilla appears soon after, still burning red hot from the internal fire raging within. But Destoroyah isn't done, revealing his final form - a massive, bipedal kaiju with powerful abilities. It knocks Godzilla down before snatching Jr. away and dropping him to his death. Distraught and full of discomfort, Godzilla fights back and unleashes his unbridled fury against Destoroyah, eventually annihilating the beast thanks to help from Super X-III, before a final, emotional meltdown claims his life.

I'll be honest, this movie is kind of hard to watch if you're a serious G fan. It's one thing to know Godzilla was taken out by a device man made to destroy him as quickly as possible, thus minimizing any pain. But to see Godzilla burning from within, lashing out only because he's in such physical pain, gives this film a real sense of gravitas that few other entries have shown. The feeling of helplessness and the sense of mortality apparent in Godzilla are palpable, dripping off the screen with real weight. He's in agony right from the start, and it only continues to get worse with Jr. dying and a lengthy gauntlet of battles against Destoroyah's many forms before he finally succumbs to internal temperatures and melts. That's a tough scene - seeing those signature spines drips away like hot wax, watching his iconic face slide off as he fights with every fiber of his being to remain King. The combination of those images alongside what is easily Akira Ifukube's best score in years, is a cause for reflection on the series that stirs genuine emotion.

It's not all sad, thankfully. Although Jr. appears to die at the hands of Destoroyah, the radiation released by Godzilla's death at the end of the film was siphoned into Jr.'s lifeless body, and before the end credits roll it is revealed that he has been born anew! Ready to live up to his father's legacy as the new King of the Monsters. For the first time, a child of Godzilla's was portrayed as a true mini-Godzilla, taking on his father's trademark appearance, mannerisms, and able to fully utilize his atomic breath. Because he audience was able to see him as a true successor to the throne, his death had much more impact. Plus, it didn't hurt that both Godzilla and Miki sold it hard when Junior bought the farm. I'm glad the film was able to end on a positive note by showing Jr. alive and ready to assume his place.

The Godzilla suit used for this film, the DesuGoji, was actually the same MogeGoji suit used in the previous film, Godzilla vs. SpaceGodzilla, except that special effects supervisor Koichi Kawakita removed many sections of the suit and added in tiny red, orange, and yellow bulbs to simulate the burning glow of Godzilla's fiery flesh. The suit also had a mechanism installed that allowed for steam to be released as Godzilla lumbered around. This provided G with a striking appearance, one that likely caught many fans off guard. While there had been numerous suits used over the years, Kawakita really took this one over the top by adding in the molten glow. For the first time ever, Godzilla was rendered entirely via CGI. The scene in question comes right at the end, as he melts down. That would have been a difficult effect to achieve through Toho's usual processes, and on screen it works just fine for the moment. Godzilla wouldn't be fully realized as a CGI creation until 1999's Godzilla: 2000. And before you even mention the '98 film... don't.

Akira Ifukube returned to deliver his final score for the series, and it's easily one of his best. Hardly resting on his impressive laurels, Ifukube weaves some of Godzilla's most classic themes into a dark, brooding score that portends the cataclysmic ending to come. I absolutely love Godzilla's theme when he first appears in Hong Kong. No longer do the music cues sound triumphant in signaling Godzilla's arrival; there is an ominous tonality used to convey that this is a gravely serious matter. There isn't a bad piece of music during the entire running time, and it all culminates in one beautiful, ethereal sendoff for the Big G. Ifukube's "Requiem" is nearly four minutes of the most stirring, emotional music heard in the series. Now that much time has passed and the film can be placed in a greater context, fans realize this isn't just a requiem for Godzilla, but also for the classic series as fans had come to know it as a whole. Never again would Ifukube provide a score.

Nor would longtime producer Tomoyuki Tanaka oversee another Godzilla film again. Tanaka died less than two years after this film was released. He had been there since the very beginning, shepherding the series along every step of the way, ensuring there was a standard of quality to be met with each release. I'm not saying they were all gems, but Tanaka had a vision for the series that was superseded by no one. With his death, and the death of Ifukube close to a decade later, all of Godzilla's "fathers" were gone. The legacy that Tanaka left, however, will never be forgotten because Godzilla is an enduring symbol that will never be forgotten. The two are inextricably linked for eternity.

This was supposed to be the final Toho Godzilla film for some time, with his resurrection not set to occur until his 50th birthday in 2004. Plans were already underway for an American studio to give Godzilla a big budget rebirth on foreign soil, leaving his Japanese legacy to cease with his death here. But, as we all know, that 1998 disaster led to a universal disinterest in any sequels, leaving Toho with the option of making another film sooner than they ever expected. Less than one year after Emmerich's fiasco, Godzilla would be reborn for a new millennium, with a new suit, and an entirely new creative team set to handle his history.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

GODZILLA-THON #21 - Godzilla vs. SpaceGodzilla (1994)

After Toho decided not to kill off Godzilla for his "40th Anniversary" film, the series continued on to what was actually the Big G's 40th Anniversary film proper: Godzilla vs. SpaceGodzilla. Let the weirdness of that title soak in for a minute before realizing this isn't the series jumping the shark. In fact, high and lows all taken into account there hasn't been a single Godzilla film that truly jumped the shark. Godzilla eats the shark. SpaceGodzilla sounds like a horribly ridiculous idea, but then you think back to the sixth entry - Invasion of Astro-Monster - to be reminded that Godzilla (and Rodan) was taken literally into space to fight King Ghidorah on a barren, rocky planet with what is presumably a hostile atmosphere. Then, suddenly, this idea of a Space Godzilla doesn't sound so out there. Oddly enough, this was a concept that producer Tomoyuki Tanaka had been kicking around since the '70s! Though I haven't really touched upon it yet, most fans are probably aware that Godzilla has had lots of potential adventures drawn up in the conceptual stage of development, with many, many possible foes never leaving the drawing board. Some manage to get resurrected down the line, like Megalon. SpaceGodzilla is actually a pretty rad villain, with an imposing final form once he's out of Super Mega Crystal Mode. This entry also features a couple of returns - last year's Baby Godzilla is growing up so fast that he's now Little Godzilla; and the robot Moguera, who hadn't been glimpsed since 1957's The Mysterians makes a triumphant return looking a bit more contemporary.

Despite the roster of big hitters, the film itself is unusually disengaging for Godzilla. Some Godzilla cells make their way into space - either via Mothra after her battle with Godzilla in Godzilla vs. Mothra: Battle for Earth, or from Biollante, who is now presumably just floating around in the cosmos - finding their way to a black hole, where intense levels of radiation transform them into... SpaceGodzilla! Which, really, is just a giant wad of crystals with a little Godzilla somewhere near the center. It's an eye-catching look. Meanwhile on Earth, the Japanese Self Defense Forces (JSDF) are trying to attach a transmitter to Godzilla's head so that Miki Saegusa can control his mind. It fails, but soon after the JSDF learns from the Cosmos (remember those little twins princesses?) that SpaceGodzilla is approaching and only Godzilla can stop it now that Mothra is on a space adventure. When SpaceG lands on Birth Island, attracted to the radiation there, it begins to attack Little G. Big G shows up soon after, but SpaceG manages to knock him out before imprisoning Little G in a crystal cage thing. Godzilla reawakens and is unable to free his son, so he sets off for the mainland to fight SpaceG. He arrives to find that SpaceG is using a building from the Fukuoka Nuclear Plant (geez, never thought that name would be universally known, right?) to siphon energy. Godzilla and SpaceG have a massive battle, one that comes to include Moguera when the giant robot is sent to aid Big G. It helps G gain the upper hand, at which point he then blasts the ever-lovin' shit out of SpaceG with his fancy new Spiral Fire Ray, totally annihilating his black hole brother.

Let's talk about what this film gets right, because I honestly don't even feel like taking a lot of time to address the wrong. The design of SpaceG is very inventive, looking very much like an otherworldly version of Big G. Unlike Biollante, SpaceG is infused with many more direct elements of G's signature look, making him look like a true cosmic clone. His space-faring crystalline form is wholly outrageous, with these unnecessarily massive crystals somehow helping him fly through the universe. Once he lands and transforms, that's when we get a good look at his mobile form. Kawakita went with a menacing appearance, with these large shoulder crystals giving the creature a serious bulk to throw around. The face is very similar to Big G, but there are some extra deadly teeth surrounding the mouth. SpaceG also has some powerful special powers that make him quite the adversary. He's also got some psychic abilities, like being able to move Little G with only his mind-ray-thing, but it's not a power he overuses. The battles against Godzilla are fierce, and it really seems like things could end in a stalemate until Moguera comes along to give G the edge.

I've never been the biggest fan of Moguera because it's just a robot with no personality. It's like getting excited when the Super X-III debuts in the next film, Godzilla vs. Destoroyah. I like the monsters, not the mechs. Still, I will admit to always liking the Moguera design, which is a bit like the endoskeleton for a mechanized penguin or something. Robots have a history of going down hard in just about every Big G film, and while Moguera is no exception he definitely gets some good blows in there and makes a mark in the climactic fight. The fight against SpaceG in space is kinda cornball, even for this series, but the events at the film's end prove its inclusion in the film wasn't a total waste. Interestingly enough, it was originally supposed to be Mechagodzilla (whose remains were used to construct Moguera here) who teams up with Godzilla to fight and defeat SpaceGodzilla. Now that would have been an awesome showdown. Toho, apparently, felt that MechaG was too strong, so the fight would've seemed uneven. To that I say: writing. Write it so that everyone is evenly matched then! Geez, how hard would that have been? Well, actually, looking back at how Toho has notoriously ignored needed script rewrites and given incorrect abilities to other monsters, it's not a big surprise.

Baby Godzilla has grown up into an anime version of Minya, now called Little Godzilla. He is undeniably cute, but he'd probably be more at home in an anime series than a Godzilla film. He just looks too cutesy and his eyes are friggin' huge. Still, he isn't annoying and his peril at the hands of SpaceG gives Big G even more incentive to pound his celestial copy's body into the ground. Little G spends most of the film stuck in a crystal prison, so it's not like he's all over the movie, trying to ruin it with his adorable face and funny mannerisms. Unlike Minya, this is a baby that has an arc over the final three films of the Heisei series, growing and maturing under his father's watchful eye, paving the way for a major moment before the series' close.

You know the drill by now - new film, new suit. Even if it appears to look just like the old suit. Godzilla's new digs, dubbed MogeGoji, was a little bit bulkier than the previous suit, with wider shoulders and clear proof that Godzilla does not skip leg day at the gym. Gone was the pronounced ribbing on the neck, but the face remained virtually unchanged from before. One major change that suit actor Kenpachiro Satsuma surely must have loved was the new cooling system that finally allowed the person inside to feel slightly more comfortable. 

That's the good. The bad is the film's plot, which is barely there and entirely uninteresting. Something about JSDF trying to once again control Godzilla via Miki's weak-ass brain waves. Why? Alien mind control I can accept, but humans have blown it practically every time. Just give it up. Even when it does work, it doesn't seem like Miki is actually controlling G's movements all that much. And, again, it's not an interesting storyline. The monster activity is frequent and fun to watch, but everything else in between lags. So far, most of the Heisei films have been punctuated by some stellar monster battles with a dearth of engaging plot lines. I've never felt as invested in any Heisei film as I did in any single Showa era production. Maybe that's because Showa ruled my childhood. The Heisei films are still a great deal of fun more often than not, but aside from Gojira (1984) none have really sucked me in with a solid premise.

Remember earlier how I mentioned that Akira Ifukube handled all of the Heisei scoring duties from Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah (1991) onward with one exception? Well, this film is that exception. Takayuki Hattori takes over scoring duties here, delivering the cheesiest, lamest, cringe-worthy score of the series yet. Not all of it is outright terrible, with some cues carrying a Masaru Satoh influence, though more often than not what we get is real Mickey Mouse kind of stuff. It sounds like the soundtrack to a cheesy fantasy videogame. The music never reaches the level fans have come to expect after hearing so much stellar work from Ifukube and Satoh. It simply exists alongside the picture, keeping the pace. Music should take on more of a life than it does here. I'm actually listening to the soundtrack now as I type this and it is just horribly lame in many places. In others, it's simply serviceable. 

Godzilla's next film of the Heisei series would be his last. The time had come to die. Literally. Toho even used the tagline "Godzilla Dies" for the next entry, which is one of the best in the series - Godzilla vs. Destoroyah (1995).

Monday, February 3, 2014

GODZILLA-THON #20 - Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla II (1993)

Keeping on with the once-a-year cycle Toho preferred, Godzilla was set to get back into action with one of his most powerful adversaries of the Showa era: his evil robotic clone, Mechagodzilla. Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla II (1993) brought back some old faces, introduced new concepts that would be further utilized in future films, and saw the return of a new incarnation of the series' most divisive character: Baby Godzilla. He isn't called Minya, or Minilla, here, though he does share the same basic origin. Despite the fact that they were a year early, Toho declared this the "40th anniversary" film for the series, also making note of the fact that this was Godzilla's twentieth big screen outing. At this point, he had done more films than James Bond. With all the fervor behind this picture, the intention was to make it very special by moving up the permanent retirement date of Big G. Director Ishiro Honda was even reported to have been approached to return to the series, but his death prevented any further activity. In the end, all of the grandiose plans were shelved, and Godzilla got a standard sequel that has surprisingly good continuity, more excellent battles, and a strong return for three long absent monsters.

Humans have finally gotten smart! The U.N. has created a branch called the United Nations Godzilla Countermeasures Center (UNGCC), whose sole task is to find a way to stop Godzilla. Again, using their brains the U.N. decides to salvage the scrapped remains of Mecha-King Ghidorah and use the futuristic technology to build things that can (hopefully) kill Godzilla. The first one they build is a flying ship, Garuda. The second (which probably should have been the first just in case they ran out of space metal or something) was Mechagodzilla. Meanwhile, a group of scientists visits a a remote island and finds what appears to be a large bird egg. Soon after, Rodan shows up to defend her turf. Just as the team is running for cover, Godzilla appears out of the ocean and begins to fight with Rodan, badly wounding the bird. The research team manages to abscond with the egg back to Kyoto, where it hatches to reveal... Baby Godzilla! This little guy is "Minya is Godzilla's Revenge" sized, but he's definitely cuter. Minya looked like a dirty circus freak wearing a rubber body suit. Baby Godzilla looks like, well, a baby Godzilla. Anyway, he gets attached to the female scientist who happens to be there when he's hatched, forming an immediate bond. He acts like a big puppy, really. And he whines, which attracts Big Daddy. Godzilla shows up and trashes the shit out of Kyoto before Mechagodzilla hits the scene, but the technological titan malfunctions during battle, giving Godzilla the win. Figuring that adult is responding to baby's calls, the team shields Baby Godzilla away to discourage Godzilla.

Once he's in captivity, researchers run a few quick tests on Baby G and determine he has a second brain located in the lower spine area. Deducing Big G must also have the same brains, the UNGCC devises a plan to destroy the second brain, rendering Godzilla paralyzed and able to be easily defeated. Baby calls out again, but this time the cries draw Rodan. The UNGCC is forced to send both Garuda and Mechagodzilla into early battle with Rodan, a skirmish that ends with Rodan critically wounded. Godzilla soon shows up and does battle with Mechagodzilla, but just as the bout looks like a stalemate Garuda combines with Mechagodzilla to create Super Mechagodzilla. This new incarnation is equipped with the G-Crusher, projectiles which can be fired into Godzilla's hide and used to annihilate his second brain. Super MechaG fires and hits, jolting Godzilla's second brain and causing it to explode. Godzilla is writhing in agony and about to receive a death blow when Rodan sacrifices itself on top of his body, fully imbuing him with all of his radiation and energy. Godzilla is instantly revived and fucking pissed. Explosions of nuclear energy are occurring all around him when he unleashes his new weapon, courtesy of Fire Rodan: the Spiral Fire Ray. That just sounds like something that fucks shit up. Sure enough, MechaG can't stand the heat and his ass gets fried like a bucket of chicken. Just as Godzilla is about to leave, Miki Saegusa (a returning Megumi Odaka), contacts Godzilla via ESP and convinces him to be Baby G's daddy, since it was implied earlier that Baby G might be from someone else. Whoever that is, the film never speculates. He takes the little tyke, and the film ends with them heading toward the ocean. It's a very typical and fitting ending.

I read that the original plan for this film's ending was to have Godzilla killed,  but his energy would then be transferred to Baby Godzilla, who would in turn grow into a large Godzilla. There was also the idea to have Godzilla killed, but a damaged Garuda would leak nuclear energy that revives Godzilla. Toho seemed to be intent on killing off Godzilla for his "50th anniversary" feature (even though it was a year early), a plan they didn't make good on until a couple years later, when the "energy revival" concept was used, too. Personally, I think the ending works great. It's typical of the Showa era films, and I loved the idea of a dying Rodan's energy being used to not only revive Godzilla, but to make him even more powerful, too. There hasn't been much fluctuation in the Big G's powers over the years; nice to see him get a new toy to play with.

The series decided to bring back the idea of a child in Godzilla's life. Baby Godzilla isn't all that annoying of a character, even if his appearance is a bit goofy. He's sort of cute in a retarded puppy kind of way. One thing is for sure - he actually looks like he could be Godzilla's kid. Unlike Minya, who looks like what would happen if Godzilla screwed his own sister. Baby G looks like an anime character come to life, and he's far less annoying than the Raptor Zillas from Emmerich's 1998 debacle. The scenes with him and the female scientist, and Miki, are... dare I say... cute.

What the film lacks in story - because, really, it lacks plenty since the entire plot is basically "let's build MechaG and kill Big G" - it makes up for in monster battle action. Godzilla and Rodan are shown early on, with lots of big skirmishes taking place periodically during the film. Godzilla and Mechagodzilla have some serious showdowns, which are very reminiscent of their fights in the '70s. This film has a few callbacks to Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla (1974), most notably the double-beam-explosion that wounded both monsters during their first encounter. This new MechaG is powerful, but it isn't until he's paired with Garuda and able to take down Godzilla's second brain until he can gain the upper hand. I've always felt that the most dangerous robotic incarnation of G was his '70s clone. It seemed like such a crazy futuristic killing machine. So ruthless. I never got that feeling from Mechagodzilla II, or Kiryu.

Rodan makes a series comeback here, having been absent since 1968's Destroy All Monsters. The film originally was going to feature Titanosaurus in this role, but for whatever reason Toho replaced him at the last minute with Rodan. We get two distinct versions here - regular, and fire. The difference being that Fire Rodan is more powerful and looks cooler. Baby G hatched from an egg left in Rodan's nest, so there's a bit of a link between the two of them. Rodan responds to Baby G's calls, which is why MechaG and Garuda are forced into an unexpected early battle. Rodan isn't much of a fighter outside of the ability to blow like an industrial fan and run into things. It's not like it breathes fire or has laser eyes or anything. Well, not until the final fight with MechaG, when Rodan has become Fire Rodan and gained the ability to shoot an energy beam. Makes sense. This is the '90s. Can't be flapping wings and hoping for the best anymore; you need some serious power. It doesn't last all that long, though, before MechaG pretty much obliterates Fire Rodan.

My personal favorite moment in the film comes when Fire Rodan, critically wounded, lays atop a paralyzed Godzilla and not only regenerates his second brain, but also imbues him with all of the additional nuclear powers it had received earlier in the film. Godzilla gets a super recharge, like he just did all the cocaine and is crazy full of energy. The real kicker is that Rodan's sacrifice gave G a new form of atomic breath, one which MechaG can't even begin to attempt withstanding. His new Spiral Fire Ray is devastatingly powerful, easily melting the synthetic diamond exterior on the new MechaG. At this point, after twenty films, it's high time Godzilla got a few new abilities that didn't involve him flying or doing a super kick.

Koichi Kawakita once again made some modifications to the Godzilla suit. This iteration, the RadoGoji, looks nearly identical to the previous suits, only the head has been widened a bit and the shoulders and legs are a bit slimmer than before. He doesn't have the extreme bulk on his legs the last couple of suits employed. Honestly, most fans (myself included) would be hard pressed to see a difference in suits from the last picture. Kawakita's Godzilla has a very defined, iconic appearance, and it never deviated much from that aesthetic aside from the final film of the Heisei series.

Akira Ifukube once again returned for scoring duties. His work here seems to be revitalized after the mostly ho-hum score to Godzilla vs. Mothra (1992). Classic themes are once again reprised, but Ifukube puts enough of a new spin on the compositions to give them a new feel and a new life. As ubiquitous as it is, I never tire of hearing Godzilla's trademark theme lumber through the soundtrack. Ifukube would bow out of the next entry as composer, but he did make a return for the "final" Toho Godzilla picture, Godzilla vs. Destoroyah (1995).

But before that could happen, he'd have to fight yet another clone. This one from outer space...