Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Mini Movie Mreviews: Godzilla lives on

at 7:52 PM
Welcome to Mini Movie Mreviews, a feature where I take you through the movies I've watched in the last week or two. These reviews are geared toward those who HAVEN'T seen the film and just want to know if they should watch. I give my condensed recommendation in italics at the end of each review.

At the rate I'm moving through the Godzilla series, I think the MMM format is most appropriate. At this point I've seen eight of the movies, seven in the past two months....

If you're confused by any of the terminology in this post - and actually care - here's a Godzilla Cheat Sheet

Godzilla vs. Hedorah (1971) [English dub]
Freaky. At the height of Godzilla becoming a kids' series, vs. Hedorah throws us a foreboding psychedelic curve-ball twisting together nuclear holocaust, a living landfill, bad acid trips, and Godzilla himself drowning in sludge. The anti-pollution message is so heavy-handed that it wraps around to be oppressively horrifying - Hedorah is pollution incarnate, a mass of slime and sludge that rips from smokestacks like a bong and exhales gas so poisonous it burns the flesh from human bones. This movie doesn't pull any punches when it comes to human casualties; we see men and women - even an actual character - stripped to the bone by Hedorah's acidic fumes, and news reports actually give us a running death toll. Tens of thousands fall to Hedorah - to pollution - to industry - to the hubris of the human race. Hedorah is the folly of industry come back to haunt us, just as Godzilla was originally the folly of nuclear war incarnate. This time Hero-zilla takes on the role of the spirit of nature, first shown vainly trying to clean up Earth's desecrated oceans (though hilariously, Godzilla is valiantly burning the trash - what the hell man, are you trying to make things worse?). His adoring young fan Ken (our human protagonist) seems to be less an association of Godzilla with humanity and more of a call for the younger generation to abandon the old ways of polluting the environment to stand (with Godzilla) against industry.

What really sets vs. Hedorah apart is the trippy, frantic audio/visual style, inter-cutting soul music, funk, folk, acid rock, and eerie silence with scenes of carnage, dance clubs, blighted seas, hippy bonfires, monster battles, and even some freaky Ralph Bakshi-esque animations.

Like most Godzilla films I've enjoyed, this is unfortunately a great 60-minute movie in a 90-minute package, with too much pseudo-scientific exposition (I don't think Hedorah needed to originate in space) and a painfully drawn-out series of fake-out endings. The humans' electro-generator thing in particular could've been cut almost entirely; it was boring as shit to watch and took like fifteen minutes to setup.

Not particularly representative of the series, but a terrific and unique movie. A must-watch for fans of the G-man, psychedelia, or '70s eco-horror.

Godzilla (1984) [Japanese, subtitled]
So I've decided to watch the entire Heisei series, and right here is where it starts: the 1984 revival of the property from a decade-long hiatus. Godzilla '84 picks up right where Godzilla '54 left off, conveniently ignoring all the monster battles, smog monster battles, and illegitimate children that happened in between.

It's appropriate that this movie is so blandly titled, as it's perhaps the blandest series entry I've yet seen. It is boring as fucking fuck. If you happen to have seen any of the later Heisei movies and are expecting the same from this, you'll be sorely disappointed (as was I). This is essentially Showa-quality special effects and action with a slightly darker presentation surrounded by a bunch of half-plots about characters who get cursory 10-minute arcs before being discarded as the over-arching narrative sees fit.

I realize this series isn't really about the human characters and I've never expected much on that front - perhaps what bugs me about Godzilla ('84) is that it seems to think I will care about the various one-dimensional faces it introduces, from the boring reporter to the boring prime minister to the terrifyingly out-of-place comic relief drunk. They each get some time onscreen to have some kind of personal dilemma and theoretically a conflict, none of them are developed to any depth or resolved in any meaningful way - in fact they just eat up screen time without developing the plot or themes (lol) of the movie at all. If you only give me a few minutes with a character, I'm just not going to be able to get involved in their story, and I'm certainly not going to be able to unceremoniously switch gears five times over the course of the movie.

Yeah don't watch this one, it is tedious, boring, and redundant. Also, Godzilla gets killed by a bird-machine and that is just stupid.

Godzilla vs. Biollante (1989) [Japanese, subtitled]
Almost certainly my favorite Godzilla film thus far, vs. Biollante tells the story of one man's boundless dream to resurrect his daughter by empowering a psychic rose with the DNA of Godzilla and... then... something. Dr. Shinagami's daughter died near a rose plant. He saved that rose. He worked under contract for the government so he could get access to Godzilla cells. On a (literally) dark and stormy night, he merged a Godzilla cell with a rose cell (by injecting one into the other - science, lol!) to create a super-rose. This unleashed a gigantic horrific Godzilla-Rose-Monster, Biollante. You could say things didn't go according to plan, but what was the plan? Create a non-gigantic horrific rose monster? Reincarnate his daughter as a radioactive psychic rose - "like she always wanted"? Better not to ask. It's not like Dr. Frankenstein had a plan, right?!

This movie starts the unfortunate (or fortunate, depending on your opinion and the particular movie) tradition of the Heisei series riffing on popular 'contemporary' Western movies. Here it's an cop/spy action subplot where two of our heroes have to play keep-away with a maguffin against a vaguely Middle-Eastern, suspiciously Prince-looking agent. In case this is too vague to key any tropes for you, the subplot also involves a pair of American agents, one white and one black, who literally speak the line, "we are a lethal weapon!"
The fight with Biollante is undoubtedly my favorite kaiju battle so far
Vs. Biollante has some of the most intense and brutal monster battles you'll see in a Godzilla movie (these are almost on par with Heisei Gamera) on top of fantastic creature design. The film manages to make Biollante both beautiful and horrifying - as the saying goes, "you can't have a genetically modified super-rose without its mile-long tendril swarms and acidic secretions".

If you love giant monsters, THIS is the movie for you. If you love corny '80s movies, that'll just be a bonus. If you only want to watch one Godzilla, this is definitely the #1 latter-day candidate. 

Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah (1991) [Japanese, subtitled]
This movie is terrible. There are funny parts, but it's so overwhelmingly terrible that after a certain point I had a hard time enjoying the ridiculous camp. See, the problem is that it's built around a terrible core. Most of the Godzilla series, despite its middling execution, is built from really cool ideas. Or at least, ideas that appeal to me. See the above vs. Hedorah and vs. Biollante. Vs. King Ghidorah is just really, really fucking stupid. It is a movie written by idiots (or written in an extremely insane way) that has no goal in mind beyond imitating great works that are far, far beyond its reach. I think I would not be alone in worrying that time travel is too high-concept for the Godzilla franchise. Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah makes this clearer than it ever needed to be: time travel is too high-concept for the Godzilla franchise.

I have never watched a movie with more plot holes, and that is not an exaggeration. Everything in the movie feels so distinctly conceived-by-a-five-year-old that my head almost exploded. The entire point of time travel is that things happen synchronously in different time periods. Kill Godzilla before he's born, and he should cease to exist forever. That's not how it works here. In GvKG, if you jump in a time machine on 11/4/1991, travel to 11/4/1945 and kill the dinosaur that will become Godzilla, then return to 11/4/1991... Godzilla drops dead on 11/4/1991. What the hell does that even mean?! I spent at least a half hour of the movie just thinking about that. Why not just have a device that kills Godzilla? The time travel served ABSOLUTELY NO PURPOSE! IT DIDN'T CHANGE THE PAST! There's also the fucking ridiculous convolution that the movie is set in 1991, but the time travelers are from 2204, but Godzilla was born around 1945, so the time travelers come back to 1991 to tell the people in 1991 "Hi, we're here to tell you that we're here to travel back in time to 1945 to kill Godzilla, okay?" Obviously the reason is that it was too expensive to set the entire movie in 2204, but it's hilariously nonsensical that the time-travelers essentially 'stop by' the movie to tell us about their plans (and inevitably foil their own sinister plot).

Gotta give credit where it's due: I never cease to be amused by anti-European racism in foreign movies. Three people show up from the future, two white, one Japanese. Guess which two turn out to be evil? The conniving, interloping European stereotype cracks me up every time.

This time the parody subplot (are they parodies though?) seems to be based on Terminator, as the future people utilize a powerful but emotionless android soldier whose skin at one point gets torn off to reveal he looks like a mechanical skeleton. At some point, in a scene accidentally edited in from T2, he gets reprogrammed and becomes good, and also runs like The Six-Million Dollar Man. There are also scenes shot-for-shot taken from Star Wars, and Back to the Future, so... I don't even know what to say about that. It doesn't seem like a joke. It's just fucking weird and gives the whole thing a not-a-real-movie feel. Doesn't help that the future costumes are insanely cheap and look like something Devo would wear.

I dunno. All of the pieces add up to a movie that should be a riot of unintentional comedy, but I was totally annoyed and disgusted the entire way through. I say skip it - there are plenty of other funny Godzillas that won't make your head hurt.

Godzilla vs. Destroyah (1995) [English dub]

While you may be asking why I jumped ahead three movies, skipping Godzilla vs. Mothra, Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla 2, and Godzilla vs. Spacegodzilla, you actually ought to be asking why I started the Heisei series here at vs. Destoroyah before jumping back to the beginning. It's because whatever. Anyway.


Destroyah is pretty neat plotwise, in that it takes a lot of arbitrary concepts and doesn't overcomplicate them. GvKG tried to play way out of its league with scifi high concepts and got smoked - this time around, fictional leaps are used to facilitate new and cool monsters, so I can happily suspend my disbelief. Destoroyah is a pre-Cambrian life-form that is hyper-evolving because of the modern climate? Well, that's not what "evolution" means, but sure, whatever. It means I get to see four (technically five) different forms of the monster over the course of the movie, so I'm cool with it. It even makes Destoroyah one of the most interesting threats since Ghidorah in that it gives him not just a limitless power level, but pairs each power-up with a completely new look and style of fighting. He goes from battling soldiers indoors to soaring over skyscrapers to towering over Godzilla - in some sense, Destoroyah alone is sort of a throwback to a number of other kaiju, which makes him a great final opponent for the Heisei Godzilla.

Of course, again there was a Western movie reference/parody thing (it actually felt like an homage this time around). Destoroyah's first form is a collective of 4-meter-tall insectoids that attack a squad of marines in an industrial complex. It's a shot-for-shot remake of the first action sequence of Aliens. Oh well.

You could say the movie was a little bloated, but considering that it was bloated with an entertaining variety of monster battles including a new Thermal Godzilla, Junior Godzilla, four forms of Destoroyah, and the triumphant return of the Super X, it didn't bother me. There was a lot going on, but I'll take that over vs. Hedorah's excruciating fascination with one boring character/gimmick.

Solid is the word that comes to mind. Exemplary for a Godzilla movie - if you want to know what the series is all about, it definitely won't hurt to start here. Have crackers ready for a hearty helping of cheese and enjoy the action.

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There you have it. Five more Godzillas down. Five to go. Then another fifteen after that. Just for fun, here's an approximate current ranking from best to worst:

Godzilla vs. Biollante
Godzilla vs. The Thing (aka Mothra vs. Godzilla)
Godzilla vs. Hedorah
Godzilla vs. Destoroyah
Ghidorah: The Three-headed Monster
Godzilla ('54)
Godzilla ('84)
Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah

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