Wednesday, May 14, 2014

GodzillaMania #14: Godzilla 2000/Megaguirus/Giant Monster All-Out Attack

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 2000: 31/C-

In a sign of good faith, Toho temporarily retired the King of the Monsters in 1995 in order to make way for TriStar’s upcoming American remake. Roland Emmerich’s Godzilla was a disaster, however, so it didn’t take long for Toho to start their series up again. 1999’s Godzilla 2000 saw another series retcon, with the film using the original as a jumping-off point and otherwise ignoring the previous films. There was reason for promise: the film had the stink to make it look better, and director Takao Okawara had directed three films in the series, including the strong Godzilla vs. Destoroyah. Yet Godzilla 2000 is largely a bore, a film that doesn’t really find an identity beyond “not as bad as the American one.”

In 2000, the Godzilla Prediction Network studies the monster to try to predict where he’ll turn up and minimize the damage. They’re not the only ones watching: a UFO, found in the Japan Trench after being buried for 60 million years, rises and uses genetic information from Godzilla to regenerate the aliens’ bodies (apparently this is a power Godzilla has now) and start an invasion of earth. The aliens soon transform into the kaiju Orga and attack the city, but Godzilla arrives to do battle with the creature.

There are a few intriguing elements in Godzilla 2000, but they’re mostly handled poorly. The Godzilla Prediction Network could be a great opportunity to show how fascination with Godzilla could lead people to learn more about it, but it strains credibility by making one of the central figures the precocious daughter of the guy who started it. The idea of a monster feeding off of Godzilla’s genetics to create a new monster is interesting, but Orga doesn’t appear until the final 20 minutes and there’s nothing interesting about the new aliens. The film shoehorns in bad comic relief with people being caught in the middle of Godzilla’s destructive path and emerging unscathed (ha?) or a man getting hit in the head lightly with a stick over and over again (yuk yuk). The poor handling of good ideas and painful comedy come together with the generic alien invaders storyline for one of the most slackly paced movies in the Godzilla series (that’s saying a lot).

Even the monster material here is lame: Godzilla’s introduction is poorly lit and feels nondescript, and his fights with Orga, the UFO and the military aren’t particularly memorable. Godzilla also has a hideous new design that’s way too busy, particularly on his spine. What really undoes the film’s money scenes, however, is the terrible use of early CGI and the sound effects that give the impression of being recorded in someone’s basement. There are some Godzilla fans who claim that the American reedit of the film is actually stronger, cutting out unnecessary material, redoing the sound design and taking on a more mocking tone. I couldn’t get ahold of the film in time, but it’s hard to imagine they could make a film this dull much better.

Godzilla vs. Megaguirus: 43/C

Still, Godzilla 2000 was a success, and it got the series rolling again. The next entry, Godzilla vs. Megaguirus, saw a new director, Masaaki Tezuka, taking the film into a newer, pulpier direction. Tezuka’s take certainly jives better with the monster-battle focus that the third Godzilla series (or Millennium Series) took than Godzilla 2000, which made occasional awkward stabs at relevance by wondering if Godzilla was literally against technology (seriously). But Godzilla vs. Megaguirus is still unsatisfying even if it is a step in the right direction.

Again retconning all of the Godzilla films other than the original, Megaguirus takes place in an alternate universe with advanced technology, where clean plasma energy has replaced nuclear technology but hasn’t stopped Godzilla from attacking. A Godzilla-battling group called the G-Graspers has created an experimental black hole-creating weapon that accidentally brings a prehistoric dragonfly, the Meganula, into Japan. The creature deposits an egg (really a mass of eggs in one) that splits up and starts growing when exposed to water, causing a giant swarm to wreak havoc. A handful end up draining energy from Godzilla, eventually creating a queen of the Meganula, the Megaguirus.

Godzilla vs. Megaguirus gets off to a roaring start by zooming through a brief history of Godzilla’s attacks from 1954 onward. This culminates in a battle between Godzilla and the G-Graspers that goes about as well as you’d expect for a bunch of men and women fighting a giant monster (even when they’re equipped with bazookas). Throughout the rest of the film, Tezuka deals with some of the same problems as Godzilla 2000 (namely that hideous Godzilla suit and some dodgy CGI), but he makes up for it with endless enthusiasm and energetic pacing, and his set-pieces in the first half of the film are still pretty entertaining, especially a scene where the swarm of Meganula attack Godzilla and feed off of him like a parasite.

Unfortunately, Tezuka doesn’t really know how to make the human parts move as well, which makes the film come to a screeching half whenever it has to come to an awkwardly staged human interaction. True, that’s a feature of many Godzilla films, but the gulf is more pronounced here, with most scenes feeling like they could end at least thirty seconds before they do. And while the early monster scenes help make up for it, Megaguirus herself isn’t a very interesting foe, mostly just feeling like another Mothra retread a la Battra from 1992’s Godzilla vs. Mothra. As soon as the parasitic elements become less of a factor, it’s just another flying enemy we’re waiting to see blown away.

Godzilla, Mothra and King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack: 70/B

Tezuka would become the de facto director for the Millennium Series, shooting three of the six films, but Toho decided to go in a different direction with the third film, Godzilla, Mothra and King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack. Shūsuke Kaneko made a name for himself in the 90s rebooting the Godzilla knock-off Gamera. Kaneko was praised for taking the campy series into a darker, more vibrant direction, so it was only natural to bring him aboard for the King of the Monsters. The result was not only the best Godzilla film in ages, but one of the best in the series, period.

The film retcons the series again. The Japan Self-Defense Forces have prepared for the return of Godzilla after his attack on Tokyo in 1954, and are led by Admiral Tachibana, who lost his family in that attack. But Godzilla isn’t the only monster on the loose. Baragon, the four-legged giant dinosaur from Frankenstein Conquers the World, attacks a biker gang, while Mothra appeared at lake Kaneda and Ghidorah has been found frozen in the ground. Tachibana’s daughter, reporter Yuri, learns from mysterious scientist Isayama that Mothra, Baragon and Ghidorah are the Guardian Monsters, and that they must be awakened in order to protect Japan from Godzilla.

Kaneko immediately signals that he’s playing with Godzilla’s history in the opening scene, in which two members of the JSDF speak of an attack in New York in 1998 that wasn’t the real Godzilla (“suck it, Emmerich” isn’t one of the lines, but it might as well be). The film does away with that dud, but it also takes away any sign of Godzilla as a hero or even an antihero, returning him to the destructive force that he was in the original film. He’s given a newer, crueler design to fit this interpretation (complete with empty, sheet-white eyes), and his attacks on the other monsters is nastier, from his stomping on Baragon’s face (Godzilla curb-stomp?) to biting one of Ghidorah’s heads to the point of drawing blood. Even his breath seems more destructive, to the point where he eventually disintegrates all of his monster foes.

The film plays with the histories of the other monsters as well. While Mothra was usually seen as a guardian of the earth already, Baragon was a destructive dinosaur in the style of Godzilla, while Ghidorah was the ultimate villain in the original Showa series. Yet the repurposing of the two as heroes doesn’t feel odd: Baragon is an obscure enough creature for the transition to a less malevolent dinosaur to work, while Ghidorah was patterned after Japanese dragons (with a bit of the Hydra thrown in), which are often seen as deities in legend rather than monsters. Together, the three act as a sort of ancient protective force from a monster created by man’s errors.

Not all story elements work – the human elements move better than they did in the past, but the relationship between the father and daughter is never as compelling as it ought be, and a thread involving Godzilla as the embodiments of lost souls from World War II feels needless. But there’s a real sense of peril in the film that, while not on the level of the original, certainly hits the highs of Godzilla vs. Destroyah or The Return of Godzilla. And Kaneko manages to include some comic relief that’s funny without dispelling the tension of the rest of the film, including a scene where a bunch of tourists try to take a quick picture of Baragon approaching, only to see they’ve made a huge mistake as Godzilla’s head peeks over the hill right above them,  in a throwback to his first appearance in the original film.

As for the rest of the film, Kaneko directs with greater flair than most of his immediate predecessors, showing a better understanding of how to draw tension out of low angles or deliberate teases of the monsters (Godzilla is first scene in the shadows of submarine wreckage). He shows a real grasp for atmospheric lighting in Ghidorah’s discovery, and, most importantly, he constantly tries to undermine expectations within a scene, whether he’s making Godzilla crueler (a woman in a hospital who seems to escape certain death, all for naught) or weaker (an nasty injury that causes Godzilla’s atomic breath to backfire). GMKG is a series highlight, a film that makes Godzilla brutal without taking away the fun.

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