Posted on | January 25, 2006 at 4:47 pm | 2 Comments
Time for a little walk down memory lane, followed by a review of what sent me there. The first Godzilla movie I saw in the theater (also probably the first Godzilla movie I saw ever) was Destroy All Monsters. I was all of eight years old or so and it left a big impression on my fragile young mind. It was an odd first Godzilla movie to see, as it featured all the Toho monsters, who had escaped from Monster Island and were wreaking havoc across the world under the control of evil aliens. So not only did I have to deal with figuring out who this Godzilla creature was, I was also faced with a plethora of rubbery monsters hell-bent on destruction, each with their own history. The creatures didn’t frighten me so much as the small amount of blood in the movie, caused by the implantation of an alien mind-controlling BB in some humans. That image stayed with me for months and haunted my nightmares. Of course, that’s nothing compared to what kids view at the movies these days. My young nephews routinely chomp popcorn contentedly through horrific scenes (the Jurassic Park movies, Van Helsing, even Harry Potter) that would’ve sent me screaming from the room, or at least covering my eyes, back when I was their age.
This was all brought to mind because last weekend I watched the newly-released DVD of Godzilla: Final Wars, the latest, and supposedly last, in the long line of Godzilla pics made since the 50s. It came out theatrically in Japan in 2004, but as far as I know, the flick was never released theatrically here. Sony did a decent job with the domestic DVD though, and so I’m glad I didn’t buy an import version. If this really is the last Godzilla movie, they certainly went out with a bang. It’s a real romp, very reminiscent of Destroy All Monsters. It has basically the same plot – aliens control the monsters and make them destroy the world. Godzilla is humanity’s only hope. Well, that’s really the plot of pretty much all the Godzilla movies.
[Spoiler Warning... plot details follow...]
But this one attempts to be a bit different from the get-go. For one thing, the director is a hot young (well, younger than me anyway) Turk, Ryuhei Kitamura, who was responsible for the cult gangsters vs zombies movie Versus. I found Versus incredibly tedious and repetitive. It all takes place in a forest, so there’s not much in the way of production design, and it’s pretty much just one fight scene after another. Yet it obviously had a certain style that suggested to the producers at Toho that the director could make an interesting Godzilla movie. Especially since Godzilla movies should be one fight scene after another.
All of the Godzilla movies since the latest reboot of the franchise, starting with Godzilla 2000, have been scripted as if the only previous Godzilla movie was the very first one from 1954. This was their way of not having to deal with 50 years of burdensome continuity, one assumes. Each movie exists in its own little alternate reality timeline along with the first one. (The lone exception is that the two movies Godzilla Against Mechagodzilla and Godzilla: Tokyo SOS are from the same timeline.) If you think about it, that’s kind of weird in the case of Final Wars, because you have all these non-Godzilla monsters whom the humans have been fighting for years, with no explanation of where they came from or what they’re up to, until the aliens show up to give the monsters purpose. Kind of like Spielberg’s War of the Worlds, but more sensical.
The “plot” is simple. Our hero Ã”zaki is a mutant – a superhuman member of the Earth Defense Force, a military group that seemingly exists solely to fight this giant monster proliferation. The EDF get around in these giant flying submarines with mole-machine nose-cones for burrowing into the earth – they can fight the monsters on land, sea, and earth. The main power of the mutant humans seems to be that they have amazing marital arts abilities, which is really an excuse to show off the wire work choreography that every director and his grandmother puts into action movies these days, and which doesn’t seem real useful when fighting 100-meter tall monsters. But even the aliens know martial arts, so the monster-on-monster action will frequently be interrupted by an impromptu Kung Fu melee. Which means there’s something in here for everyone. The non-Godzilla monsters and the mutants share a genetic heritage – some foofaw about an extra amino acid in their DNA – which allows them to be controlled by the similarly evolutionarily-blessed aliens. After a brief feint to make the world believe they are friendly aliens, their true colors are quickly revealed and the aliens set upon their true agenda of wiping out humanity. Actually, this happens after a brief power struggle among the extraterrestrials, when the older, more liberal leader, who wants merely to enslave the humans or something, is offed by his younger subordinate who will have none of that wussy alien reformism. Or something. The parallels to the current political climate are frightening.
So the aliens go about ordering the monsters on rampages to destroy various world cities and landmarks. They also control the mutants, who make up the bulk of the EDF. Saving the human race is left up to our hero (who for some reason is not susceptible to the alien mind control), to his “model-wannabe biologist” (his words, not mine) girlfriend and her television-reporter sister, and an American(?) captain of one of those airplane/mole/submarine things who has been imprisoned for striking his (Japanese) superior. Interestingly, the American, who actually looks more Russian, speaks only in English, yet has no trouble understanding the exclamations of his Japanese crew. And likewise, they can tell what he is saying just fine. He also carries a samurai sword and he’s not afraid to use it. Our motley crew’s plan is to dig up Godzilla and using him to fight the monsters and the aliens. Our big green hero was shown being imprisoned at the South Pole during a flashback prologue at the beginning of the movie. (In this flashback, the younger version of the American captain inexplicably is shown as a Japanese youth.) Ol’ Gojira ain’t really up for that, especially after having been buried by the humans for all those years, but he doesn’t really have a choice, since the other monsters get all up into his face immediately after he is freed from his icy prison.
So from there, it’s all fight scenes – monsters vs monsters, humans vs aliens, mutants vs humans, motorcycles vs mutants, etc. It’s basically a free-for-all. Mothra enters the fray on Godzilla’s side, prompted as usual by his two tiny fairy mistresses on Mothra Isle, who have cut their hair into a functional but attractive bob for this installment. The effects, including a lot of CGI, and costumes are pretty much state-of-the-art, but no matter how much you dress it up, at the end of the day it’s still a bunch of guys in rubber suits duking it out with each other while trampling not-so-elaborately detailed miniature buildings.
One particularly amusing monster is a hairy long-necked bipedal thing with huge floppy dog-like ears. I felt sorry for him when he was dispatched by Godzilla. But the most amusing monster was a doppelganger of the lizard-like star of the wretched 1998 American Devlin/Emmerich Godzilla movie from 2000 (starring Matthew Broderick). Like the one from that movie and opposed to the other creatures in this one, he’s a totally-CGI creation instead of a guy in a suit. And the real Godzilla unleashes a holy smackdown on this pretender, destroying the Sydney Opera House in the process. (This creature is also referenced in one of the other Godzilla movies from this series – I don’t remember which one – as something that was mistaken for the real Godzilla when the mock one rampaged through New York in the year 1998.)
Another creature making a long-awaited return is the cute lil’ old Son of Godzilla, who appears in a somewhat comical subplot that really goes nowhere. His appearance and relevance is left unexplained, although he does tie into the ending. This is definitely the Kitchen Sink approach to Godzilla movie-making. Which I suppose is only right for the “last” movie.
The title of this post is a reference to the fact that the movie’s soundtrack was surprisingly composed by prog rock keyboard whiz Keith Emerson (aka KÃ®su EmÃ¢son) of Emerson, Lake and Palmer fame. It’s a synthesized, rather than orchestral, score. In a typical Hollywood movie, it would feel really wrong. At times it almost sounds like Emerson did not have a print of the movie when he composed the score, as there will be intrusive, loud, tense music playing during what is supposed to be a quiet moment in the movie, for example. But it doesn’t sound all that different from a hundred other such scores I’ve heard in Asian science fiction and marital arts movies lately. So Keith does know his intended audience.
This was all a bit long-winded, but the point I wanted to make was that this movie took me back to a time when I was that 8-year old kid sitting in a darkened non-stadium seating theater on a Saturday afternoon having my mind blown by a spectacle like nothing I had ever seen before. Since so much of my life seems to be geared around recapturing those (imagined?) glories of childhood, I’d have to declare this remake a success. It restored my 8-year old sense of wonder, if only for a scant 125 minutes.
Bye-bye Gojira! We’ll miss you! At least until Peter Jackson remakes the first Godzilla movie.