Tuesday, January 14, 2014

The anime hits the fan: 2002's Godzilla x Mechagodzilla

at 6:30 PM
Maybe it's not the post you deserve, but it's the one this city needs right now. And that I had on standby.

Godzilla here again to bring you an update: the seal has been broken on the Millennium era. In and of itself, Godzilla x Mechagodzilla isn't worth breaking out into its own review, so, you know, sorry for doing this. I ain't the one makin' you read it. It's a derivative, cheap-looking, contrived piece of fluff whose only saving grace is an initially interesting concept and decent action pacing. Like most Godzillae, there is the seed of a good idea here, an intriguing enough concept to get you excited and ready for interesting developments which sadly makes the movie feel like an absolute sham when it fails to deliver on any of that promise after the build-up. I've said before that the only universal criterion I ask of any film is that it deliver on its own terms - fulfill its own promises. Godzilla x Mechagodzilla is a perfect example of a movie that fails in that regard. The initial concept, Cyborg Mechagodzilla, is a neat proposition. A neat proposition introduced but never explored in this movie, which chose instead to be a stupid boring anime about another stupid tough-as-nails sorta-teen hero with a chip on her shoulder.


I should clarify (and refer to the Godzilla Cheat Sheet for further clarity) that GxM is actually the fourth Millennium movie chronologically (and the fourth Mechagodzilla movie overall, not that that means anything - remember, no continuity), but I chose to start here for a few reasons: 
1.) it's a fan-favorite 
2.) it introduces fan-favorite Gundam-I-mean-kaiju Kiryu, the third incarnation of Mechagodzilla 
3.) no one likes the first two Millennium movies and the premise of the third is so goddamn weird (magic) that I couldn't bring myself to start there and 
4.) I jumped around in the Heisei and Showa eras as well and it was never a problem

Right to the heart of the artichoke. I don't know who's to blame for this film's plot, but yeah, it has a Bad Problem. The second act pulls such a ridiculous switcheroo that I don't even know how to evaluate it from beginning to end. Seems like it could've been the product of weird writing/filming/directing circumstances, where something was rescripted late-game. I don't want to believe the movie I saw was the product of artistic vision. Anyway, the nutshell:

Godzilla shows up again, for the "first time" (lol) since the original movie. Some military officer, Akane, accidentally gets a bunch of other military dudes killed while vainly trying to fight him off, but luckily Godzilla decides to go away anyway (I think that's what happens? he kinda just vanishes). Cue scientist. Scientist is working on cyborg trilobites, which is awfully convenient, because he can use the same technology and CGI Godzilla bones (which are on file at The Military) to make a cyborg Godzilla. Three years pass and Cyborg-Mechagodzilla (Kiryu) is born just in time for Godzilla to return. The fight begins, but FUCK! When Godzilla roars, the organic underpinnings of Kiryu respond! They're in looOOve! No, I'm not sure the world is ready for THAT movie. Hearing the roar reminds Kiryu of his Godzilla-instincts and sets him on an uncontrollable rampage of his own. Kiryu's batteries eventually die and the world is left to ask... what do we do? Our only weapon that can fight Godzilla can be turned against us and do even more damage than the monster. Do we stick with the Mechagodzillainitiative or abandon hope?

Minor nitpick as a series fan - Godzilla has never had less personality or presence than in GxM. The movie should've been called Mechagodzilla: also featuring Sleeping Grass
I'm on board up to that point. In fact, that's a decent plot and a pretty good second act crisis (the acting and action are another story, but I was at least wanting to know what would happen). We've got a super-weapon, but the super-weapon is inherently flawed in that humanity can't use it without having it turned against us. That's not just a nuclear weapons metaphor, it works as a metaphor for war as a whole. We get a few dialogue scenes with the underutilized Prime Minister and Philosophical Young Girl with Grass Friend characters, providing lip service (with all the subtlety one would expect from a movie using a giant cyborg to tackle the subject) to heady themes like the conflict between nature, nurture, birth, and purpose; the weighty decisions involved in taking risks to defend a people; the question of who is responsible for making those decisions.

Now rolls in the Problem Train: at this moment of upheaval about halfway through, the movie about Cyborg Mechagodzilla ENDS. All of that dramatic and thematic material is neatly resolved, summarily terminated and replaced with a different movie. I don't even feel like I'm spoiling it for you to reveal that, when presented with the dilemma that Kiryu, the ultimate Godzilla-fighting weapon, cannot fight Godzilla because they are kin, the scientist says, "oh, then we'll just swap Kiryu's Godzilla-DNA with some other DNA and then he definitely won't revolt because he won't be Godzilla-like anymore". Which, of course, works perfectly. At which point it's impossible not to groan and ask to what fucking extent Kiryu is a cyborg if his DNA can just be "swapped", and, more importantly, why the fuck they bothered to use Godzilla-DNA in the first place. Oh, right - because the movie needed a second act crisis. This completely undercuts the Prime Minister's 'big moment' when he must decide whether to deploy Kiryu a second time to deal with Godzilla's return - of fucking course he will, they identified and fixed the problem 100%. This also totally undercuts the PYG w/ GF's sympathy for Kiryu's 'doubt' because apparently it was just a machine all along and didn't actually have any purpose but to kill Godzilla - the whole rebellion thing was just a glitch!

So since the primary conflict of the movie up to that point has now been resolved before the one hour mark, all we're left with is the story of Akane, the military girl pilot. She had some arc that I extremely didn't care about, like she had to learn to believe in herself or something (including a training montage), but that was stupid as shit. Yup, I watch Godzilla movies so I can see a bunch of unearned watered-down emotions C-plots with terrible acting. In the end it became a Die Hard situation where she just needed to do the most hardass thing in every situation possible and she was completely correct and invincible and action hero-y at every moment possible. She was Sylvester Stallone or Jet Li - or the Japanese equivalent, an unassuming 21-year-old girl. No more drama, no more high concept, and no interesting character to replace it. It worked OK from an action perspective, but let's not pretend that there was any possible climax to this movie that didn't have Godzilla fighting Kiryu, so whatever.

With two female main characters, gotta give props to the movie for passing the Bechdel test. That's not common for giant robot monster-fighting lazer movies. Let's see Pacific Rim do as much for feminism in 90 minutes.
An abundance of daytime shooting doesn't do anything for the effects, but it does give the film a more memorable look
The acting was pretty, uh, whatever. I thoroughly enjoyed Shin Takuma as the foppish romantic scientist and really wish he had gotten more screen time, as he was just about the only intentionally funny aspect of the movie that kept me entertained. Sadly, he was inextricably tied to that first-half cyborg plot that got dropped mid-act-two, so we lost the character and the performance entirely. Having a little kid main character is always a big risk, especially when you pair her with grass for a sidekick. Like in Godzilla vs. Hedorah, it makes a lot of scenes hard to take seriously. It's hard to criticize a little girl's acting - seems wiser just to ignore it - meaning I kinda wish the kids were just kept off-screen. "Good for her age" doesn't really equate to "makes me enjoy the movie".

Of all the aspects of Millenniumization, the special effects surprised me the most. In that they disappointed me the most. The miniatures in this movie are really miniature-looking. Greg L. mentioned that the look reminded him of (1989's) Robot Jox (reminder: GxM was made circa 2002). Mechagodzilla's rigid stance, sleek surfaces, and mechanical movements are naturally going to be harder to enliven than oraganic monsters, as even if the machine was huge, it would still look like an action figure. Still, he's got a great look and a lot of cool weaponry, and once the sun sets, the suit looks a lot better. But there's no excuse for Godzilla to be so stodgy - he's standing completely still in a number of scenes! The reluctance to animate Godzilla creates the impression that he's like... asleep for half of the movie. Or frozen. Or, you know, a model. And while we're on effects, god, did they really need to give us a Special Edition treatment of Godzilla's death from the original movie? That would've been Sny Snoodles embarrassing if the rest of the movie wasn't equally laughable. I mention the effects only because I came in expecting an upgrade from Heisei and found a movie that looks significantly worse than Godzilla vs. Destoroyah or even the far older Godzilla vs. Biollante.

Godzilla x Mechagodzilla is watchable, and if you're an avid fan of mobile suits and giant monsters, you'll probably find something to like about it. But it certainly won't make any converts. The story is a complete letdown and the action has only a few brief highlights. I don't see myself watching it again and I hope to see some of these concepts properly explored in greater depth in the series' future. Maybe the direct sequel, Tokyo S.O.S. (also featuring Akane and Kiryu) will be a bit better. I'm not optimistic. If Godzilla '14 takes off at the box office, it probably won't be long before the new run takes on Mecha-G. Here's hoping. 

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