Monday, May 5, 2014

GodzillaMania #11: Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah/Mothra/MechaGodzilla II

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. King Ghidorah: 65/B

Toho tried briefly to take Godzilla into new territory with the second series, known as the Versus series in Japan and the Heisei series in America (after the Japanese emperor). Godzilla vs. Biollante giving him a new foe and the series a greater emphasis on scientific responsibility. Unfortunately, the film was a relative financial disappointment compared to The Return of Godzilla, so Toho decided to go back to what worked in the past. 1991’s Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah is a bit familiar because of it, but it also contains a strange meta-commentary on the history of Godzilla that makes it worth seeking out.

An author of books on psychics believes he’s found the true origin of Godzilla after finding multiple reports of men who claimed they were saved from American force by a dinosaur during World War II, including Shindo, a businessman responsible for rebuilding much of the Japanese economy. Meanwhile, a UFO lands, on Mount Fuji, but the visitors are group of Western-looking people from the future rather than outer space.

The time travelers claim to be on a mission to save Japan from destruction by preventing Godzilla’s creation. They travel through time with a number of present-day Japanese characters to keep the dinosaur from being present for the atom bomb explosion, but they have other motives, and they release a trio of creatures that combine to form King Ghidorah. It turns out that the time travelers were sent not to save Japan, but to keep it from becoming the superpower it would turn into in later centuries. Now, King Ghidorah is under their control, and the Japanese have to find a way to bring Godzilla back without destroying their country in the process.

Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah has an extremely convoluted plot that doesn’t hold up under scrutiny. How and why exactly Godzilla is still created after he’s moved is handled with a shrug, the motives behind the one Japanese time traveler (who winds up switching to help the heroes) don’t make sense, and the use of Western villains feel a bit overblown (context: Japan was turning into an economic challenger to the U.S. at the time). The last bit isn’t helped by the weakness of the American actors in the film, both as the primary villains and as the American soldiers in the time travel bits (though it does lead to this line: “You can tell your son when he’s born, Major Spielberg!”).

The fights between Godzilla and Ghidorah also seem awfully familiar, even with the improved special effects. At this point, Godzilla had fought Ghidorah a whopping four times already, so bringing it back didn’t really lead to new or exciting battles. Still, there’s fun to be had with Godzilla blowing off one of Ghidorah’s heads, and the one good time traveler going back to the future to resurrect Ghidorah (Mecha-Ghidorah now) as a savior for humanity rather than as a monster.

The real pleasure of the film, however, is in how it plays with Godzilla’s history. In the scene where a pre-mutated Godzilla saves the Japanese soldiers, he’s presented as a pretty clunky T-Rex suit, but there’s a certain amount to charm to it. There’s real gratitude in how the soldiers treat Godzilla for fighting the American soldiers and saving their lives. Shindo doesn’t forget that, and insists that when Ghidorah arrives that “Once again, it will fight to save us all.” That’s as much for the audiences who grew up watching Godzilla as a protector for humanity as it is about Shindo’s own experience. But this is not the Godzilla of old. It is a creature of unbridled fury, an act of nature, and Shindo’s sentimentality towards it costs him dearly in a moment where Godzilla seems to recognize him, softens for a moment…and then treats him as if he were any other creature in his way. It’s a series highlight in an uneven but rewarding film.

Godzilla vs. Mothra: 42/C

The term “series highlight” applied to Mothra vs. Godzilla, probably the strongest in the series after the original film, but it doesn’t apply to the tired retread Godzilla vs. Mothra. After the massive success of Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah in Japan, Toho was motivated to bring out more of its old creations. But there’s not much of a chance to switch the roles of Godzilla and Mothra the way the previous film did with Godzilla and Ghidorah, so this mostly feels like a lesser, slicker version of what came before.

Trouble starts early on when we’re introduced to the main human character, a half-assed Japanese Indiana Jones, and are taken on a plodding adventure to discover a giant Mothra egg. The film moves very slowly, and it repeats most of the beats from Mothra vs. Godzilla: the Shobijin (now called the Cosmos), or the tiny twin fairies that act as Mothra’s guardian and sing a song to summon him (the same song, in a lesser, more heavily produced version); the themes of environmental concern; the callous businessmen trying to exploit the egg and the twins; the battles between Godzilla and Mothra in both larvae and flying form.

Attempts to update the film by throwing in a third monster, a nastier version of Mothra called Battra, don’t really switch things up enough. The film isn’t without its evocative moments – Mothra being attacked by the military when they can’t tell that it’s on their side, Mothra creative a cocoon against the sunset – but it mostly feels too familiar.

Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla II: 64/B

Still, Godzilla vs. Mothra was a major success, so the series continued on with yet another update on an old foe. The next entry was Godzilla vs. MechaGodzilla, called Godzilla vs. MechaGodzilla II in the States in order to avoid confusion, even though it’s not a sequel to the earlier MechaGodzilla films (confusion not avoided). Thankfully, the film follows more in the style of King Ghidorah than Mothra, reimagining characters and moments from earlier films rather than simply restaging them.

Instead of going down another tired aliens vs. humans plot, MechaGodzilla is a machine created by humanity in order to fight Godzilla whenever he returns. Meanwhile, a Japanese team comes across an egg they assume belongs to Rodan, the giant pteranodon made by nuclear waste, only to find that it contains a baby Godzilla. A young psychic woman develops a friendship with the baby, and is appalled to learn that it will be used to bait Godzilla.

Godzilla vs. MechaGodzilla II has a few similar problems as the two preceding entries, namely familiar fights and poky pacing (an issue with most of the Versus series, really), but it makes up for it with a more original storyline and a baby Godzilla storyline that’s charming rather than intensely annoying (see: Son of Godzilla/All Monsters Attack). The film also features a handful of ideas that Guillermo Del Toro seems to have borrowed specific images and moments for his delightful monster film Pacific Rim, including the kung fu training for the MechaGodzilla pilots (which he expands upon) and the idea that giant monsters need more than one brain to control their movement. It’s another minor but entertaining entry in the series, one that showed that it had some imagination in it yet.

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1 comment:

  1. They are legendary giants of Toho Pictures he is the reptilian hero & king of the monsters named Godzilla introduced in 1954 by Tomoyuki Tanaka film producer & director creator of the giant fire breathing monster from Monster Island for 6 decades/61 years & the saga continues. Thanks for the information. From :Wayne