Monday, February 3, 2014

GodzillaMania #2: Godzilla Raids Again

Plenty of cinephiles started their movie love with Star Wars, Indiana Jones or Disney. As a film-loving kid, these were all part of my steady diet. But before anything else, I loved Godzilla. To me, the King of the Monsters was the end-all, be-all of movie creations, and programs like TNT’s MonsterVision with their Godzilla marathons (and awesome promos) had four-year-old me hooked. With the new Godzilla coming in May (fingers crossed it doesn’t suck), it’s time to run through 60 years of one of cinema’s greatest monsters with the (SPOILER-heavy, sorry) GodzillaMania.

Grade: 40/C

Stop me if this sounds familiar: studio greenlights a ridiculously expensive high concept movie. High concept movie turns into a massive hit. Studio then rushes to make a sequel to capitalize off of the original’s success, only to come up with a pale imitation of the original. That’s a pretty common model for franchises, and that’s what happened with the Godzilla series in 1955. Toho would make entertaining Godzilla sequels in the future, but Godzilla Raids Again is about as unexceptional as it gets, a tossed off programmer that’s never half as engaging as its predecessor.

Two pilots, Shoichi Tsukioka (Hiroshi Koizumi) and Kōji Kobayashi (Minoru Chiaka), are hunting for tuna in Osaka when one of their planes malfunctions and they are forced to land on an uninhabited island. There, they see two giant monsters fighting: Godzilla and Anguirus, a giant irradiated Anklyosaurus, a dinosaur species that had an intense rivalry with Godzilla’s species millions of years ago. Dr. Yamane (Takashi Shimura, reprising his original role in a cameo) theorizes that they were created by a hydrogen bomb like the original Godzilla. As Dr. Serizawa took the knowledge of the Oxygen Destroyer that killed the original monster to his grave, Japan now has nothing to fight back with, and the monsters are getting closer to Osaka.

Let’s accept the answer that the hydrogen bomb could have created more monsters. It’s not the most exciting retcon (“there’s another”), but it can work well enough. The problem is that there’ s an exasperating lack of urgency to the film. The original Godzilla moved swiftly, establishing the presence of the monster and what likely created it quickly while also showing the growing danger in Tokyo. Here, the film wastes time in the opening to establish the monsters, then takes a loooong time to establish what created these things, why they can’t do what worked last time, and hey, why not show some footage from the original film to pad out the runtime and remind us why this thing is dangerous. The amount of time spent on exposition with very little else going on immediately shows how much less time was invested on a storytelling level in the sequel.

It doesn’t improve: too much of the military coming up with a plan (and a bad one – they’re going to use a light bomb to lure Godzilla and Anguirus away) and Tsukioka talking to his sweetheart feels like it’s killing time to get to the good stuff. What’s more, the reason behind the light bomb failing (rather than it just being a weak plan) is contrived: at the same time, a group of prisoners, whom we have not met before, escapes from a police car and starts a fire, which shines brighter than the light bomb and lures the monsters back. It’s a dubious plot point no matter what, but it’s made worse by the lack of interest in the prisoners except as a way to get Godzilla to smash mode.

Not that that’s particularly exciting, either. Godzilla Raids Again was made for $800,000 rather than the original’s $1 million, but it feels cheaper than that. The sets are less convincing,  the effects shots aren’t terribly impressive (this is the only film where Godzilla’s spine doesn’t light up when he spits radioactive flames), and htere's a shot of Godzilla trapped in ice that looks like a kid made it with his toys and a Super 8 camera. Director Motoyoshi Oda was known as a prolific studio director for Toho, and his touch feels rather inelegant and plain compared to Ishirō Honda’s Kurosawa-influenced style in the original.

Even the monster fight between Godzilla and Anguirus is weak. Part of this is because the filmmakers are clearly trying to figure out how to photograph monsters fighting: Eiji Tsuburaya, the effects director for the first six Godzilla films, originally planned to overcrank the camera to shoot the scenes in slow-motion, but accidentally undercranked it and made them fight in a slightly faster motion than usual. He liked the effect, but it doesn’t really work, as it makes it feel more like a couple of guys in monster suits fighting awkwardly rather than a carefully choreographed action scene (though Oda’s workmanlike direction doesn’t help things).

But a bigger problem is that there aren’t any real stakes to the fight: we know that Godzilla will defeat Anguirus, and furthermore, that it wouldn’t really matter who won, as it would just mean that the military would have to fight a different monster. What’s more, none of the people on screen are nearly as interesting the personalities of the original, with the love story and Kobayashi’s eventual sacrifice feeling more like mechanized plot points rather than an essential part of a story. The key to the original was that we cared what happened to the people on screen, and it was more than an entertaining monster movie (although it certainly was that). Godzilla Raids Again didn’t need to repeat the nuclear terror themes of the original, but it needed to do more than settle on being just another B-movie.

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