Saturday, May 3, 2014

GodzillaMania #10: The Return of Godzilla/Godzilla 1985/Godzilla vs. Biollante

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.

The Return of Godzilla: 66/B

It took nearly a decade to bring Godzilla back to life. After twenty years of declining ticket sales and highly variable quality (not to mention economic woes in Japan), Toho Studios chose to give the King of the Monsters a much-needed rest after 1975’s Terror of MechaGodzilla. After a few aborted attempts to bring the series back in the early 80s, including an unsuccessful wooing of original director Ishirō Honda to helm the project, Toho released 1984’s The Return of Godzilla. A darker film that ignored the continuity of the earlier sequels, it was a return to the Godzilla of old, a thoughtful, thrilling monster movie with a beating heart.

When a vessel is attacked by a mysterious creature in the ocean, a reporter (Ken Tanaka) finds a lone survivor (Yasuko Sawaguchi) in the wreckage, along with a gigantic sea louse that the two have to fend off. The Japanese government determines that the louse was attached to another creature: a new Godzilla. The government tries to keep things under wraps, but after a Russian sub is attacked, the USSR and USA come to Japan to try to convince the country to allow them to use nuclear weapons. Meanwhile, a scientist (Yosuke Natsuki) who lost his parents in the first Godzilla attack tries to find a more permanent way to deal with the monster – luring and trapping him into an active volcano – as the beast makes its way to Tokyo.

The Return of Godzilla works with a noticeably larger budget than the earlier iterations: scenes on submarines and boats don’t look like shaky sets, the weapon devised to counterattack Godzilla, the Super-X (yes, I know it sounds like it was named by a 10-year-old), is a fairly impressive aircraft design, and seeing Godzilla walk through a very well crafted, more modern Tokyo is a delight. The biggest update is the new Godzilla suit, which is perhaps too bulky but is also a more convincing, more menacing iteration of the monster, an effective return to the force of nature that he was in Honda’s original film.

The Return of Godzilla was directed by Koji Hashimoto, and while he doesn’t quite have Honda’s formal chops, he does have a gift for building tension, especially early on when Tanaka’s reporter discovers the boat. There’s a gradual build as he peers around corners, finds bodies that seem to have been stripped of their flesh, and finally finds the haunted survivor…just as another creature edges its way into the frame (though when they show the louse full-on it’s a pretty silly looking rubber puppet). The first reveal of Godzilla is even better, as the camera takes his POV, emerging from the fog as the ground splits beneath his feet and he approaches a nuclear power plant. There’s also a great scene late in the film when a Russian boat, having been attacked by Godzilla, starts an automatic countdown to shoot a missile over Tokyo, and one injured crew member heroically has to work his way through a damaged ship to try to stop it from launching.

The nuclear technology theme is foregrounded in The Return of Godzilla more than any film in the series since the original. The scientist lost his parents to Godzilla, but he acknowledges that he’s an awe-inspiring creature, and that he’s ultimately man’s creation, a living nuclear weapon that feeds off of the technology sent to destroy it. The film came at the height of the Cold War, when the threat of nuclear annihilation seemed very real, and there’s a very palpable Japanese fear that the two major nuclear powers might destroy the world in the name of self-preservation. There’s an acknowledgement that the use of nuclear weapons by either side could be using this as a test of their nuclear weapons before nuclear war breaks out, and that refusal to let them use weapons over Tokyo could mean diplomatic isolation. It gets a bit didactic at certain points, but there’s an immediacy to the détentes that helps it go down more easily.

The Return of Godzilla isn’t quite as strong as it could be. There’s a constant problem with the Godzilla movies that the human stories aren’t as interesting as the monsters on display, but Return has an odd problem of acting like it’s developed its characters and depending more on them than previous outings. There’s a love subplot between the reporter and the lone survivor’s sister, and the reporter exploits their reunion to help get a scoop. It’s an interesting scene, but there’s no real follow-up – he more or less joins her as the scientist’s assistant and a bland romantic interest after that. There’s also some pacing issues, with the film pushing  the destruction scenes to the point of being repetitive, and some odd comic relief bits that don’t fit with the overall tone of the film. Still, it’s a strong start to the series, and the finale is superb, as Godzilla turns into a pitiable figure, a byproduct of man’s inhumanity now given an unceremonious ending.

Godzilla 1985: 16/D

Not long after Godzilla’s successful return to the big screen, former Roger Corman company New World Pictures bought the U.S. rights to The Return of Godzilla and decided that they, too, would follow in the spirit of the original…American version. Like Godzilla, King of the Monsters!, the U.S. film Godzilla 1985 cut several minutes of footage and added in new American footage, with the added bonus (if you’d like to call it that) of bringing back Raymond Burr as his character from the first dubbed version (now simply called “Mr. Martin,” given the popularity of the real Steve Martin outside of the film).

But Godzilla 1985 is a far worse desecration than King of the Monsters, featuring worse dubbing, rushed pacing, blatant product placement (hi, Dr. Pepper machine!), cheaply shot American scenes with bad framing and worse actors, and laughably portentous dialogue for Burr’s character, who has less reason for being around here than he did for the first film (he’s brought to U.S. military headquarters because they want someone who’s seen Godzilla before, but he doesn’t do anything). Where the earlier film had the unnecessary distraction of an American protagonist in a Japan-centric story, Godzilla 1985 makes the film much more overtly Western-centric, as if the destruction of Tokyo is a secondary concern compared to what havoc Godzilla might wreak if he comes to the States.

But what’s most risible about the film is that the carefully considered plea for nuclear responsibility is turned into an anti-Soviet screed, with none of the deliberation or intelligence of the earlier film. The Soviets here are boogeymen, seen as worse in the détentes and treated as untrustworthy compared to the Americans. Unlike the Japanese characters, the Russians aren’t atrociously dubbed, but are rather still subtitled in order to be othered. In the most loathsome change, the heroic Russian crew member who tries to stop a nuclear missile from being launched over Tokyo gets new subtitles, “I’ve GOT to launch that missile,” and an insert of him pushing the launch button rather than tragically failing to stop its launch. Godzilla 1985 bombed, and was the last Japanese Godzilla film released Stateside until Godzilla 2000. Thank God.

Godzilla vs. Biollante: 65/B

It took five years after the success of The Return of Godzilla in Japan for Toho to complete a follow-up, but audiences were repaid for their patience with an ambitious (if uneven) sequel that chose not to rehash plots and monsters of old. Instead, writer-director Kasuki Ōmori continued in the style of the previous film, telling a story of international arms races and scientific irresponsibility leading to greater disaster. Godzilla vs. Biollante wasn’t one of the more financially successful films in the series, but it’s certainly among the most underrated.

Five years after the events of the previous film, Godzilla is still trapped in a volcano, but his cells have become valuable. A western genetic engineering company, Bio-Major, wants to use his cells for weaponry purposes, while a terrorist with connections to a Middle-Eastern oil company wants it for himself. Meanwhile, a scientist who lost his daughter in a terrorist bombing is tasked to mix plant cells with Godzilla’s cells to breed an Anti-Nuclear Energy Bacteria that can destroy Godzilla if he returns. He does so, but also mixes in cells of his dead daughter (don’t ask), in order to see if a psychic girl (don’t ask) can communicate with her spirit (“What kind of science is this,” one character asks. MAD SCIENCE!). The plan creates the rose/Godzilla hybrid, Biollante, but the organism remains beyond their control, and when Bio-Major’s people release Godzilla from his slumber, it isn’t clear as to whether or not Biollante will be able to keep the King of the Monsters at bay.

That’s a lot of balls that the film’s trying to keep up in the air, and it can’t develop all of its storylines satisfactorily (the psychic storyline fizzles out) or keep them clear at all times – the espionage plot with Bio-Major and the terrorist gets a bit confusing, especially when some of the actors try to speak English, poorly. But the film largely works anyway, thanks to a firm handle on the theme of scientific and national responsibility. With Biollante, the Japanese government and scientists develop a new Godzilla, a new creature beyond their control in the interest of self-defense. Again, the film gets a bit didactic at points (the scientist, after realizing all of the terrible weapons created over the past decades: “I guess it’s time for my generation to step down”), but the film’s concern with how technology is used, for good reasons or selfish ones, comes through quite nicely.

Biollante has a certain ethereal quality when it’s first seen full-on, but in an earlier scene, the Bio-Major agents and the terrorist get into a shootout and are attacked by the creature in a moment that seems to take influence from the vine scene in The Evil Dead (albeit without that film’s uncomfortable vine-rape scene). When the time comes for Godzilla and Biollante to fight, there’s a limit to what the latter can do, given how stationary it is, but there’s also moments of pure visual poetry, like a rose in a fire, or of Biollante’s spores rising through the air after it dies.  It might not be the most viscerally exciting monster fight in the series, but it’s among the most imaginative and haunting.

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