Thursday, January 1, 2015

Kaiju Blender: Godzilla: Final Wars

With the reduced revenues from Godzilla Against Mechagodzilla and Tokyo SOS, Toho decided it was once again to retire the franchise. But they would celebrate Godzilla's fiftieth birthday with a big bang, a more expensive Godzilla film than they had ever before produced, directed by maverick film maker Ryûhei Kitamura. The approach had worked with the excellent and well-regarded Godzilla, Mothra, King Ghidorah, Giant Monsters All-Out Attack. But it should be pointed out that director Shûsuke Kaneko had directed three well-received Gamera films before being asked to work on Godzilla. Kitamura had no such experience.

You really want to do this?

The first sequence is Godzilla being attacked by a flying submarine of the Atragon style. Godzilla falls into a crack in the Antarctic ice, freezing him, in a nod to Godzilla Raids Again. The gunner screams as he unleashes missiles to bring tons of ice down on Godzilla and in that moment, I knew exactly what kind of movie this is going to be.

The Original Gotengo

In the narrative flashback, the audience is shown Varan, the squid from Space Amoeba, Titanosaurus, Gaira, Baragon, and Megaguirus. These kaiju do not appear in anything but stock footage, but it sets the tone. We are going to see a lot of monsters in this film.

Guest appearance by Varan

We are also introduced to the mutants that protect us from the kaiju. A new race of superman and women have emerged from humanity, better, stronger, faster, and more psychically powerful. They, along with superb purely human specimens such as Captain Gordon, form the Earth Defence Force. After the title sequence, one of the supersubs defeats Manda. Gordon is emblemic of the film itself, big, physically powerful, and only speaking English, while everyone around hinm speaks Japanese, but somehow they understand each other anyway. As with Atragon, the sub fires its Absolute Zero gun, freezing and then destroying Manda. This introductory sequence lets us know how the Earth Defence Forces work.

But not us. We've got guns but we're totally not a threat.

The Earth Defence Force higher-ups, for reasons that will become clear, have rather Nazi-esque unforms; a grey overcoat with a belt with a black arm band. The Mutants, a scientist tells us, share a certain biological link with the kaiju. The best way to defeat monsters, it seems, is to use them against themselves. The Shobijin, Mothra's fairy communicators show up, and give us a bit of back story. They also tell out Mutant protagonist that he has some kaiju in him (now confirmed by science and mysticism), but that he has a choice, which is very Matrix: Revolutions, and badly presented in that film, as well.

Yeah, so not a Nazi

Kaiju begin to wreck cities across the globe, with a similarity to the Kilaak invasion Destroy All Monsters. Anguirus, Rodan, King Caesar, Kamacuras, Kumonga, and even American Godzilla stomp on cities. Zilla, American Godzilla, is a weird sort of nod to the much-reviled 1998 film. Creature designer Patrick Tautopolis was gratified to be included in the Toho Godzilla canon, even though his creation was treated with a certain amount of contempt. Kitamura was determined to embrace as many films in the Toho library as possible, leaving out only Megalon, Destroyah, and King Kong.

OK, a lower-grade Zilla

Kitamura goes so far as to have an obnoxious, chocolate-mouthed American child call his turtle toy (which looks suspiciously like a Tirtouga Pokemon) a loser, attempting to compare itself favorably to the Gamera franchise. We've seen this behavior before: in 1999 Yonggary, Kraa the Sea Monster, and Gamera, Super-Monster. All these films have the same thing in common: they aren't particularly good, and they only demonstrate their own insecurity by calling other films and franchises names.

Really? You didn't have enough time for longer kaiju fights, but you had time to leave this in?

The M-Squad is deployed to take down Ebirah, the giant lobster we haven't seen since stock footage in the 1969 All Monsters Attack. Six mutants are deployed with shoulder weapons. There are a lot of pointless explosions, when the team are running, or standing still, or firing theit weapons. It's like each one is a John McClain, and their passing just causes things to explode in their wake. There's a lot of wirework which is well integrated into the miniature work, but it just feels like the director is trying too hard to be exciting, confusing motion with progress. There's a lot going on on-screen, but it doesn't engage me. A cinematic fight should be a story in itself, with a beginning, a middle, and an end. There is no progression here, nothing learned. Just weapons deployed, running, firing, and then it's all over except for the quip.

Explosions! Running!

The monsters, it turns out, are being controlled by aliens, the Xilians from Invasion of Astro-Monster to be precise. They tried to be subtle, in the Japanese alien invasion thing, trying to be friendly, returning the UN secretary to humans. When he doesn't recognize his own dog, the jig is up. Subcommander X shoots the mission commander, promoting himself. The aliens, he announces, are there to make humanity their supply of mitochondria.

Alien commander on the left, future alien commander on the right.

X is best described as a tantrum-throwing child, who will literally spazz out every time one of his monsters is defeated. He's an angry, drama-addicted, short attention-span sort of guy, exactly the sort to blow all his advantages and screw up an invasion.

Mission Commander has a spaz fit.

The remains of humanity's defense rests with Captain Gordon and the Gotengo. Gordon decided the situation is desperate enough that he's going to unleash Godzilla, giving the TV Trope of the Godzilla Threshold its name. Godzilla then spends the last half of the film having very brief fights with all the world's monsters. Which is a pity. The technology was available to make these much more engaging and interesting fights, but because Godzilla had to get through so many opponents, each one is truncated.

Godzilla, walking through explosions

Only the final fight has any sort of length. Godzilla, having knocked down six different kaiju, now comes up against Monster X. Monster X is an odd creature we haven't seen before, humanoid, with a head beam that also comes out of its shoulders. Now where have we seen a kaiju that has three breath weapons before? After he initial clash, each gets reinforcements, and Mothra faces down an upgraded Gigan.

Monster X

Mothra and Gigan face off

Meanwhile, X monologues about Keisers, a mutation that happens to one in a million mutants, making them the most powerful creatures like ever. X is one, and so is our mutant protagonist. What a coincidence! Once awakened, he finds his inner Neo, stopping yellow bolts of light, burning with power, and declaiming about choice.

OK, a lower-grade Zilla

He defeats X, and this causes the alien ship to self-destruct. Monster X grows two new heads, and is revealed to be Keiser Ghidorah, with some very delicate blue among the golden scales. For the first time since the first Rebirth of Mothra Ghidorah has four feet. It no longer has any of the previous Ghidorah cries, and instead, some sort of strangled scream similar to Destroyah's. Other than that, the creature design is likely the best in the film.

New Keiser Ghidorah

That's going to leave a mark

It is immensely powerful, stronger than its last form, and Godzilla isn't doing so well until out mutant buddy focusses his psychic energy through the Gotengo, Godzilla receiving it through his spines. With the extra power, Godzilla smashes Ghidorah. He is not a grateful victor, however, and immediately uses his atomic ray on Gotengo. The upcoming massacre is forestalled by Minilla's arrival. Only children can stop the cycle of violence. Godzilla walks away through the devastation that was Tokyo, his offspring following.

Well that was a thing that happened

The military is treated very differently from other Godzilla films. They are not incompetent, or lionized, but actually working against humanity. The Mutants who make up the Defence Force are actively working against mankind, and only those who choose to do so, mavericks and rogues, stand with humanity. The flying sub commanders who stabnd against the alien invasion are outlandish types, with dreadlocks, long blonde hair, or Captain Gordon.

Eschewing the traditional orchestral soundtrack, the rock sondtrack feels out of place and occasionally intrusive. It does not do the film any favors.

The experience of Godzilla Final Wars is something akin to watching Destroy All Monsters while watching The Matrix on the same screen. Gone is the traditional mystery story structure, in which the humans investigate and uncover and eventually solve the plot problem (in this case, an alien invasion). Instead, we have a group of superhumans who defend the Earth against the kaiju fighting. Drawing from a lot of anime, Kitamura manages to jam a lot of anime cliches into a number of overblown kaiju cliches and nods to previous films. The result feels like he jammed a bunch of movies in a blender, then reassembled it from whatever pieces he could salvage.

A good look at King Caesar

Next up, Peter Jackson's take on the Big Ape. All two hundred minutes of it.

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