Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Wow, Mothra vs. Godzilla is amazing

at 7:08 PM
When a typhoon dumps a giant easter egg at Japan's doorstep, Japanese David Byrne and Hitler try to exploit it for commercial gains to the chagrin of its owners: primitive, atomically irradiated island tribesmen. Tiny singing Minimoth Girls teleport around town to plead for the egg's return, just in time for Drunk-zilla to appear at a construction site to put everyone in danger. When Godzilla withstands a giant moth and the army, the tiny girls must sing at the egg until it hatches into twin larvae who know the beast's only weakness: String Shot. Like, 30 fucking minutes worth of String Shot.

And I was worried it was gonna be boring! I've seen the original Godzilla (1954 - the Serious one), but am otherwise naive to kaiju films, so I didn't know what to expect here. The prospect of equally crappy action with even worse plot/acting/budget never enticed me. Little did I realize how gonzo shit had already become by 1964 - in this case, the "worse" story is far more entertaining than a real one. Each unexpected twist is quickly one-upped by the next: oh no, giant egg! And um, tiny one-foot-tall fairy girls naturally follow from that? Oh, and they sing? And they're actually representatives of a primitive island tribal society (whose chanting can somehow be heard from the mainland)? And the tribe worships a giant moth? It gets sillier and sillier, but the movie isn't laughing. There's some trite attempt at commentary when the Japanese go to the islanders to plea for Mothra's help, the tribal chieftain turning his back and responding "nope you ruined the earth and you ruined our land with your nuclear testing, serves you right", which becomes the silliest moment of all when our protagonist melts his icy heart with the most patronizing, two-faced speech ever. He says, "look. We screwed up with the nuclear testing. We destroyed your land, and that's totally our bad. Then when you wanted your egg back, we ignored you. Again, dick move by us. But listen, for the good of the world, we all need to work together, and that's something you guys could really stand to learn. If you learn to help us, you can finally overcome the mutual problem that we keep completely fucking you over!" And that actually works!

God and I didn't even mention that the dastardly plan of the villains is to turn the egg into a tourist attraction. With all the dubious profiteering that could be going on, these guys are playing it pretty fucking safe here. Sell tickets! O...kay, but that hardly addresses that it's the scientific discovery of a lifetime and that, you know, it's probably going to hatch into something gigantic and impossible to control. You'd think these guys had never seen a Godzilla movie.

So the great strength of the movie is that it constantly introduces weird shit. By comparison, Godzilla himself feels mundane and boring, his introduction perfunctory at best. There's a really weak attempt at build-up when a reporter discovers (what I assume is supposed to be) one of his scales (which in fact looks like an unidentifiable piece of plastic... exactly what it is) and someone says "we've gotta shut down construction, boss!" or some shit like that. Pretty much Godzilla just bursts out of the earth somewhere in the middle of the movie and no one asks why. What makes this even more hilarious is the big lizard's initial rampage, which has him literally falling over himself.

I can't even begin to fathom the thought process that went into these introductory scenes. Godzilla stumbles around like he's wasted, even tripping over his own tail! What the fuck? The series was not comedy at this point. Godzilla is supposed to be an unstoppable antagonistic force, yet he gets tangled up in an electrical tower? Why doesn't the army just dig a giant ditch and put a trip-wire in front of it? Seems a lot smarter than their convoluted (and, shockingly!, unsuccessful) plan to drop electrical nets on him from a helicopter. This comic ineptitude of course works in the movie's favor: instead of a terrifying apocalyptic beast, we get a Godzilla who's kinda just a nuisance because he doesn't know what he's doing. He's like an innocent toddler stumbling around, trying to get his bearings. 

One of the nice things about the movie is that it doesn't look as bad as you probably think it does. While the monsters themselves are utterly bogus - Godzilla walks like Big Bird and sports scales that look more like fleece, and Mothra doesn't look or move even remotely like a living thing - the rest of the special effects and compositing mostly work. Primarily with regards to the miniatures - as stupid as the monsters look, I still believed they were giant thanks to the excellent mini-sets. And, on the flipside, I never found myself distracted by the tiny size of the Minimoth Girls. It helps that there are plenty of practical explosions and tidal waves to support the shoddy creature effects. The only time the quality becomes a matter of comedy is a scene in which Godzilla melts a battalion of tanks with his atomic breath; I'm afraid I don't believe that real tanks would begin to liquidate and drip plastic. 
Those ships look real to me!
Here's a learning fact about this movie's history: the original direction of the franchise would have pit Godzilla against classic movie monsters. The preceding series entry is King Kong vs. Godzilla (1962), which was to be followed by Frankenstein vs. Godzilla. When Toho didn't like the script of FvG, they opted instead to fold in one of their own existing monsters for the fourth movie: Mothra (who debuted in 1961's semi-appropriately titled Mothra). With Mothra vs. Godzilla's smashing success, the producers dropped the classic monster idea, settling on in-company crossovers with other kaiju. The Giant Frankenstein concept did eventually take shape as its own film, Frankenstein vs. Baragon (Frankenstein Conquers the World in the US). And then I think Baragon later showed up in the 'Zilla franchise.

Fun fact 2: Almost all (if not all) Godzilla movies were released under different titles in the US. The American title of this one is Godzilla vs. The Thing. While that'd certainly be an interesting prospect post-1982, it's an asinine title. The title change is carried into the dub, where characters frequently call Mothra "the Thing", an element not present in the Japanese script. So... why? "Mothra" is a silly name, but "the Thing" is much worse, and in particular makes no sense in the dialogue - everyone knows the creature's name as soon as it's introduced AND they call Godzilla by name, so why would they make up a nickname for Mothra? Well, I've got the answer right here in this envelope: the American production company decided on an advertising tactic before titling or dubbing the film. The idea was to withhold images of Mothra and play up the mystery of "the Thing", this new match for Godzilla, forcing audiences to buy tickets if they wanted a look at the monster. I don't know how well this worked as advertising (seems retarded, but I know nothing about popular film-going culture in 1964), but it left a lot of really weird dialogue for posterity. There is no mystery in the movie over Mothra's identity. It shows up like twenty minutes in, completely out of nowhere, and the audience and characters all get a clear look and are told its name, origins, and motives! So the entire "the Thing" idea is just an advertising lie - it has no connection to the actual film.

So if you're ever curious about the God-Z franchise, don't be overwhelmed by the selection of 20+ movies - Mothra vs. Godzilla is a great place to start, enjoyable for fans and newcomers alike. Also, don't mistake it for 1992's Godzilla vs. Mothra. Totally different movie. 

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