Thursday, May 15, 2014

GodzillaMania #15: Godzilla Against MechaGodzilla/Tokyo S.O.S./Final Wars

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 Against MechaGodzilla: 64/B

It’s a little surprising, given how financially underwhelming Godzilla vs. Megaguirus was, that director Masaaki Tezuka was asked back to helm another entry. Yet Toho gave Tezuka another chance with Godzilla Against MechaGodzilla in 2002, with much more fruitful results. True, part of the film’s success likely had to do with the presence of fan favorite MechaGodzilla as anything else, but that shouldn’t diminish the minor pleasures the film yields.

In yet another series retcon, the film shows a new Godzilla after the defeat of the first in 1954. After all military efforts prove unsuccessful, a group of scientists come up with a new idea to build MechaGodzilla, using the skeleton of the first Godzilla as a frame. A number of pilots are recruited to help operate the machine, including Lt. Akane Yashiro. But Akane, who was unable to kill Godzilla years earlier, is held in resentment by one of the pilots, who blames her failure to act for the death of his brother. Meanwhile, the presence of Godzilla seems to trigger certain memories in the Godzilla skeleton, which leads the MechaGodzilla suit to start acting on its own accord.

Tezuka is an awkward director of actors, and the film shares Megaguirus’s slowly paced human scenes, particularly whenever the film takes time on Akane’s friendship with the daughter of one of the scientists. But there’s a freshness to putting a female protagonist in a Top Gun-type setting, particularly whenever Akane is forced to prove herself. It still shouldn’t be confused with the best pulp films, but Godzilla Against MechaGodzilla is more invested in Akane’s shift from frightened woman to savior of Japan than most Godzilla films are in their human stories.

Here’s the real boon, though: at 88 minutes long, the film is the shortest in the series since 1975’s Terror of MechaGodzilla, which is as it should be, given how few of the films are strong with human drama. This instead gives Tezuka the excuse to expend just enough energy on that part while focusing more attention on making the reest of the film come alive. He’s a stylish director, one with an excellent sense of pacing outside of the dialogue scenes and a knack for playing with deliberately melodramatic devices (snap-zoom meets dramatic music!) to keep the energy up. As an added bonus, he shows in one of the early scenes how to borrow from a modern blockbuster like Jurassic Park without outright ripping it off (*cough* Emmerich *cough*), turning military members into more active (but equally helpless) victims to the King of the Monsters in a smart restaging of the T-Rex jeep attack.

Godzilla: Tokyo SOS: 42/C

Godzilla Against MechaGodzilla was successful enough to merit a direct sequel, again directed by Tezuka. Godzilla: Tokyo S.O.S. isn’t a terrible film by any means, but there’s very little to say about it because the film doesn’t do anythigng with Godzilla, MechaGodzilla or Mothra that wasn’t done before, and better, in earlier films. Too much of the film shows stock characters responding to situations way too similar to those in previous Toho films, be they old (Mothra potentially declaring war on humanity for a past wrong, a la Mothra) or new (the lingering soul of the old Godzilla in MechaGodzilla, from the previous film). Add this to shoddier production (a poor recording of Mothra’s song and some of the worst lighting of the series), and you’ve got a pretty underwhelming entry.

Godzilla: Final Wars: 63/B-

When Godzilla: Tokyo S.O.S. underperformed in theaters, Toho chose to end the third (and, up to this point, most recent) Godzilla series with a Destroy All Monsters-style blowout. The studio grabbed damn near every monster that ever appeared in the series, from fan favorites Ghidorah and Rodan to the little-loved Ebirah (the giant lobster) and Hedorah (the smog monster) and gave them to Ryuhei Kitamura, the director behind the insane zombie/martial arts/comedy mashup Versus. The final product probably wasn’t what anyone had in mind, but it sure was memorable.

In 2004, the Earth Defense Force, made up of both humans and mutants with special powers, trapped Godzilla in the ice. Forty years later, they discover an ancient space monster, and are informed by Mothra’s tiny guardians, the Shobijin, that it is the cyborg Gigan, and that a battle between good and evil will soon take place. Soon, all of the kaiju from Godzilla lore start attacking all over the globe, only to be taken away by aliens (the Xiliens) who claim to be friendly and persuade the earth to disband the UN in order to form the Space Nations.

Clearly none of these people have ever seen a Godzilla film before, or otherwise are fuzzy on whatever alien/human relations have been in this universe, because the Xiliens are, of course, planning to take over the world. They soon take over all of the mutants except one, the heroic Ozaki, and start to disperse the kaiju all over the world to start their attacks again. Ozaki and his human friends soon come up with a last-ditch effort to save the day: unfreeze Godzilla and set him loose on the rest of the kaiju.

Some messiah-ish material involving Ozaki aside, Godzilla: Final Wars is mostly an excuse to revisit all of the monsters of the series and throw them into a familiar but sturdy earth vs. aliens narrative. The film is one long tribute to everything Godzilla, including in-jokes and references that range from subtle (the use of the Godzilla vs. MechaGodzilla theme in the background of one scene) to overt (Minilla’s general uselessness). The big highlight: the appearance of the despised 1998 Godzilla, referred to as “Zilla,” only for it to be promptly destroyed by the true Godzilla in less than a minute. It’s the poetic justice that fans had craved for so long.

Yet Godzilla: Final Wars split fans, with many hating the film outright for its absurdity. Their complaints aren’t completely without merit: Kitamura doesn’t really know the meaning of the word restraint, and some of his instincts aren’t great. The destruction of New York by Rodan is preceded by painful comic relief between a white cop and a stereotypical black pimp, which is typical for Kitamura’s sense of humor, and the soundtrack is consistently awful (Sum 41, anyone?). Kitamura’s excessive style, meanwhile, can be wearying. It’s all good fun to see the camera race around like a madman, the human characters get into ridiculous fistfights (including one on motorcycles), and the frame fill with enough explosions to make Michael Bay feel inadequate, but it starts to wear after 125 minutes. Hell, most Godzilla films feel a bit overgenerous if they extend past the 90 minute mark, and by the time the film reaches its climax, it’s hard not to grow impatient with the fistfights and laser battles and just want to see Godzilla and Ghidorah duke it out.

Yet as overlong and silly as it is, the film mostly won me over. Fan service or not, it’s a blast to see Godzilla take on both the best (Anguirus, Ghidorah) and the worst (Kumonga the spider, King Caesar) of his rogues gallery, often all at once. The CGI is frequently poor, but the film is using it to do such giddy things (Anguirus being used as a damn volleyball!) that it’s hard to complain too much. And while Kitamura’s style does get exhausting, it’s a thrill to see a director trying something truly new and exciting with the series, even if it’s totally nuts. We don’t need another Godzilla film like Final Wars anytime soon, but as a temporary sendoff, it’s a blast.

And that’s the end of GodzillaMania, just in time for the new film. Thanks for reading. Here’s my ranking of the series.

1. Godzilla (95/A)
2. Mothra vs. Godzilla (82/A-)
3. Godzilla, Mothra and King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack (70/B)
4.Terror of MechaGodzilla (70/B)
5. Invasion of Astro-Monster (69/B)
6. Godzilla vs. Destoroyah (68/B)
7. Destroy All Monsters (68/B)
8. Godzilla vs. MechaGodzilla (67/B)
9. The Return of Godzilla (66/B)
10. Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah (65/B)
11. Godzilla vs. Biollante (65/B)
12. King Kong vs. Godzilla (65/B)
13. Godzilla vs. MechaGodzilla II (64/B)
14. Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster (64/B)
15. Godzilla Against MechaGodzilla (64/B)
16. Godzilla: Final Wars (63/B-)
17. Godzilla vs. Hedorah (56/B-)
18. Godzilla, King of the Monsters! (56/B-)
19. Godzilla vs. Megaguirus (43/C)
20. Godzilla: Tokyo S.O.S. (42/C)
21. Godzilla vs. Mothra (42/C)
22. Godzilla vs. Gigan (41/C)
23. Godzilla Raids Again (40/C)
24. Godzilla vs. SpaceGodzilla (39/C)
25. Son of Godzilla (37/C)
26. Godzilla 2000 (31/C-)
27. Godzilla vs. Megalon (19/D+)
28. Godzilla 1985 (16/D)
29. Ebirah, Horror of the Deep (13/D)
30. Godzilla 1998 (5/D-)
31. All Monsters Attack (0/F)

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