Thursday, April 24, 2014

GodzillaMania #9: Godzilla vs. MechaGodzilla/Terror of MechaGodzilla

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.

Godzilla vs. MechaGodzilla: 67/B

Given Jun Fukuda’s terrible track record with the Godzilla series, it’s hard to expect much from his final entry, 1974’s Godzilla vs. MechaGodzilla. Fukuda had never shown much competence with the camera, and his tendency towards broad comedy and kid-friendly goofiness negated most of what was interesting about the series in the first place. Yet with MechaGodzilla, Fukuda made the most entertaining Godzilla film since 1967’s Destroy All Monsters and introduced one of the big green guy’s greatest nemeses.

The film is set in Okinawa, where an Azumi priestess predicts the destruction of a city by a giant monster.  Shortly thereafter, a group of scientists unearth both an artifact that bears likeness to the legendary monster King Caesar and a strange metal foreign to earth. Soon thereafter, a mysterious thief tries to steal the statue, and Godzilla emerges from Mount Fuji and begins a destructive rampage. But another Godzilla appears, and the destructive one is revealed to be MechaGodzilla, a giant robot modeled after the King of the Monsters and controlled by a group of aliens (of course) who plan to conquer the world.

The “aliens vs. humanity” plot is well-trod territory in the series, but Fukuda and company manage to make it seem fresh by focusing on the aliens’ attempts to steal the King Caesar statue, as the monster could stand in the way of their domination if awakened. Fukuda somehow became a more competent director between Godzilla vs. Megalon in this installment, and he choreographs the human fight scenes with an effectively down-and-dirty handheld aesthetic. Even better is a scene in which the thief sneaks into the room while one of the heroes is sleeping in order to steal the statue. Fukuda uses silence very effectively to mine tension before the thief is forced to run from one of the heroes in a pretty solid foot chase.

The same scene reveals the true form of the aliens, and it’s a good deal more interesting than the lame giant cockroach effects from Godzilla vs. Gigan. It turns out that when shot or seriously injured, the aliens revert to their human-ape form in an effect that’s reminiscent of The Wolf Man. The actual costumes are pretty cheesy – they essentially just stuck gorilla suit heads on them – but the transformation effect and the weird, echoing sound design helps sell the moment.

Godzilla vs. MechaGodzilla has a bigger budget than the past several Godzilla films, and it shows. The quality of the special effects and film is markedly improved, and it’s the first film since Destroy All Monsters to not use stock footage from previous entries. But the real ace in the hole is MechaGodzilla, one of the coolest villains in the series. When MechaGodzilla loses its Godzilla skin, Fukuda introduces him in a series of close-ups that show off the terrific work they’ve put into it: it’s a monster with rocket fingers, a nasty-looking glare and metal jaw, and the appearance of a leaner, meaner version of our hero. And it’s hard not to have one’s inner 5-year-old take over when watching the thing fly, shoot lasers out of its eyes or mouth, or turn its head around in order to shoot backwards and forewards (with its rocket fingers) simultaneously.

What might be more impressive, though, is how Fukuda introduces the villain first as Godzilla gone mad. It’s important to remember that at this point, Godzilla had been a protector of humanity for the better part of ten years, give or take a brainwashing by aliens (this is a silly series). There’s a sense that something’s not quite right early on, as MechaGodzilla’s roar is much higher-pitched and his fire is the wrong color. When things really seem off is when he fights longtime Godzilla ally Anguirus (a friend in everything other than Godzilla Raids Again at this point). The monster recognizes something is wrong with his old pal and attacks, revealing a hint of the metallic skeleton before MechaGodzilla gives a beatdown complete with a King Kong-referencing tear of Anguirus’s jaw. It’s brutal stuff, far removed from what’s expected from Fukuda.

That isn’t to say that Fukuda has suddenly turned into a great filmmaker. Some of his worse instincts are still present, including a decent but distractingly jaunty score that’s completely at odds with the rest of the film. Fukuda and his three (!) co-screenwriters also waste way too much time on a dull prophecy involving King Caesar (a boring lion-like monster) and Godzilla teaming up to save the world, which reaches its low point when the priestess has to awaken him by singing a song that plays like a lamer version of the Mothra theme and goes on forever. And the dialogue ranges from goofy to insultingly overexpository. Examples include:

“This is space titanium.”
“Space titanium!” You mean this metal is from space?!”

(after it is very clearly demonstrated that MechaGodzilla is not the real Godzilla)
“Now I understand! It was a cyborg!”

“We are the spacemen from the third planet of the black hole in outer space.”
“Then you really are aliens.”
“I admire your deductive reasoning.”
(OK, this one might be intentionally funny)

All is forgiven when the film reaches its killer finale, however. Saving perhaps for the fight in the otherwise lame Gigan, Godzilla never got this bloody, and watching him turn himself into a magnet (he was struck by lightning earlier in the movie, just roll with it) to pull MechaGodzilla toward him and pull its head off is the thing of spectacularly silly beauty. Even the human climax near the end, in which the humans sabotage the alien control base, is pretty exciting. It makes for a fitting return to form for Toho’s greatest kaiju, and it would lead to one more strong outing before a long break.

Terror of MechaGodzilla: 70/B

This direct sequel to MechaGodzilla sees the remaining aliens from the third planet of the black hole (god I love typing that) grabbing the remains of MechaGodzilla to rebuild it.  In addition, the aliens have teamed with Dr. Mafune, a mad scientist whose bizarre experiments with sea life disgraced him and caused the near-death of his daughter, Katsura. When the aliens intervened and saved Katsura by giving her a bionic heart, Mafune, already furious with the rest of humanity, agrees to use his sea monster, Titanosaurus, to help them conquer the world. Things are complicated, however, when Katsura falls in love with an Interpol agent, and Godzilla arrives to save the day.

The fights in Terror of MechaGodzilla aren’t terribly different from the fights in the previous installment, less bloody but more rough-and-tumble. Titanosaurus is a decent addition to the Godzilla rogue gallery, and there is a new challenge when Godzilla finds that this updated MechaGodzilla won’t be stopped by having its head pulled off. More impressive are the monster introductions: Titanosaurus in an imposing low angle, MechaGodzilla in a crane shot that shows the scale of the work done, and Godzilla in an expressive cloud of smoke. If it feels like there’s a greater sense of artistry on board, it’s because original director Ishirō Honda has returned, and he’s used the bigger budget and success of the previous film as an excuse to get more ambitious.

Terror of MechaGodzilla is the rare installment in the series where the human story is actually more interesting than the monster material, which often feels like it’s moving too slowly. Mafune makes for a pretty compelling mad scientist, a man who slowly has a sense that his choices are leading to terrible places, but who nonetheless feels indebted to the beings who saved his daughter. There’s a sense of long-brewing anger and grief (over his wife’s death and his daughter’s predicament) that’s only accentuated by a number of extreme eye close-ups that seem to be Honda’s answer to Sergio Leone.

Honda also gets into darker territory with Katsura, played by Tomoko Ai in a tortured performance as a woman filled with self-hatred. She too is indebted to the aliens, but as she falls in love with a man, she’s taunted by them: “Your heart is made of wires and gears. Who could ever love that?” She’s made less human as the film goes on, as another injury forces the aliens to replace most of her organs with mechanical parts. She’s the most human character in the past several Godzilla films, and yet she’s dehumanized, and her confusion and shame over her identity leads to tragedy. It’s a remarkably melancholy moment to end the franchise on, even as Godzilla triumphantly strides into the ocean after defeating his foes. The film would be the least successful in the series, and as the world oil crisis took over and the budgets for these films got bigger, Toho chose to give the series a long break.  

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